Online Workplace Learning Model

The Alliance of Sector Councils notes that Canada’s reliance on internationally trained workers is increasing; it is predicted that 100% of net labour force growth by the end of this decade will be sourced by immigrants. We need to improve our ability to retain them. Current estimates indicate that Canada loses approximately 30% of its new and highly skilled immigrants because they are unable to integrate into the economy and in communities. For many immigrants with documented credentials and experience in their country of origin, one of the barriers to retention and promotion is their “soft skills” i.e. their professional communication skills, their ability to work effectively with others and their ability to learn continuously. In a Canadian workplace context, an immigrant may find the communication skills and workplace behaviors familiar to them do not produce the results they intend in Canada. Without understanding underlying cultural values that inform communication and behavior, immigrants may not be able to identify how and why their actions in a team are unsuccessful. They are also less likely to be asked to lead teams and gain the experience in a Canadian context that supports upward mobility within a company.

This project researched and implemented a model that provides immigrant professionals with an opportunity to develop and apply professional language proficiencies within their current work environment, opening the way to greater integration in the workplace and leadership roles within their field. This project provides an evidence-based model to engage internationally educated professionals with continuous learning opportunities while they work

Lessons learned

Learner Support in Online Course

  • It is important to have clear communication on the learner role and required skills to learn online (problem-solving, time management, computer literacy). Using the learner role and communication skills as part of the course instruction helped to reinforce required learner skills to learn online.
  • Begin an online course with a short questionnaire related to learner motivation and goal setting.  Learner engagement or the lack of it is perhaps more strongly linked to their goals and motivation to take an online course than in a face-to-face classroom environment.  Assessing learner goals at the beginning of the course enables the instructor to more effectively link learning activities to learner goals.
  • Ensure learners understand expectations of self-agency/autonomy in learning online. Each individual learner should be responsible for checking updates on assignments, keeping track of when virtual class sessions occur and for inquiring in a timely manner about technical challenges accessing course materials. In addition, learners should be reminded that reading the course outline and the course objectives as well as module learning outcomes and content often will answer any questions they have about assessment, content or expectations. It is critical for workplace success that learners attend to their learning as if it were a job. For this reason, a group discussion either online or in a face-to-face setting to discuss roles and responsibilities is critical. In this project, the online course was approached as a third culture space, ie a place to talk about patterns of behavior, communication and expectations as a meta-cognitive component of the learning outcomes.
  • Consider a multi-tiered learner support system. The first tier should include the instructor and/or the instructor’s direct supervisor. The second tier should include tech support for learners. This tech support should include an email system and a guaranteed 24-hour response time to technical issues with the course during the business week. This tiered system should be explained in a pre-course meeting to the instructor, supervisor and the tech support team by a leader in the organization.
  • Encourage inter-learner support. Use a learning management system tool like the discussion board or announcement tool to create a space for learners to ask each other questions and trouble shoot potential solutions.
  • Ensure that each learner receives a document clearly outlining online etiquette for course participation.
  • Ensure that learners have the opportunity in written and spoken form to assess the course and give feedback on its efficacy. Wherever possible, learners might be asked to consider referencing their own learning goals from the outset of the course to evaluate their learning and course impact.

Impact on Learners

Online Conversation Management clearly had a positive impact on the majority of the learners who took the course and saw it through to completion. In our follow-up focus group sessions we gathered learner responses to the experience in the course:

  • The way I communicate changed. I normally say things very directly, not the way “normal” Canadians do. Now before I ask, I include some small talk. In e-mail always send back within 30 minutes. Sometimes I would send back the next day.

  • I did change. Before I didn’t use softeners. Usually I just jump in and now I should use some soft skills. Use some indirect ways. For example, I learned polite way to communicate, to interrupt, and to ask a question. I remember [the instructor] taught us how to deal with different situations.

  • Interesting experience learning to differentiate between different cultures. I learned a lot about Canadian culture. I have been here for 12 years but learned a lot. My first thought was that this was only a conversation course with no assignments. It was tough because lots of assignments like a college course. IT was hard at first because I didn’t expect that and I was very busy.

  • It definitely gave me a different perspective about communication – I stop to think, analyze before I answer.  Looking back, I realize I was very rude, it’s not intentional, but it’s cultural and how you’ve lived all these years.  Class gave me an impression about how people communicate in a better way, to get a better response from others.   

  • After this course I connect differently with everyone. People didn’t tell me my behavior changed. I learned how to achieve my goals better. 

Role of Instructor in Facilitating Learner Success

The following practices were deemed successful by the instructor(s) of Online Conversation Management:

  • Facilitate a face-to-face orientation session to introduce learning management system, complete pre-assessments, articulate course objectives and expectations of learners, and to answer any learner questions.
  • Be patient. It took an average of 4 modules for learners to gain fluency with the learning management system and to complete all assignments and activities on time.
  • Use the tools in the online virtual classroom to ensure learner engagement. The instructor for this course found it critical to use the emoticon, hand-raising and chat functions on the Elluminate screen to ensure learner engagement. This involved reminding learners to use emoticons, “Let me know that you are following me by clicking on your smiley face,” or “For the next 3 minutes, I’d like you all to use the chat box as I discuss this concept to agree, disagree, share ideas or simply to say “yes” or “no”. This way we can all be connected to the content.
  • Use incidental instruction, “teachable moments” to create short assignments. As with any course, there was an abundance of teachable moments about culture or language use. In one instance a learner was explaining in an Elluminate session the challenges she was having in getting her boss to give her the details she needed to complete a report. She had asked a number of times but her boss had not replied. The instructor then assigned each learner to write an email to a fictitious boss asking for these important details. The class responded within one hour of the end of the Elluminate session. The instructor then gave individualized feedback on the email responses. This case study analysis of learner experiences continued for the duration of the course.
  • Wherever possible, be interactive. Over the four pilots, the instructor employed increasingly more interactive engagement in course materials and additional opportunities to practice communication content covered in the course in a variety of scenarios. Be careful not to overextend as an instructor, however. It is possible to commit so much time to feedback and increased opportunities for practice that other areas of the course may suffer.
  • Monitor student participation. There is a tool in many learning management systems that will allow student activity tracking. If learners are not participating as per the course requirements, it is critical that the instructor or department representative be in contact with the learner to encourage participation. Once learners get more than a week behind the cohort, attrition is likely to occur.

Other project information
Project time frame April 2011 - March 2013
Project team
  • Erin Waugh
  • Cheryl Whitelaw
  • Sarah Apedaile
  • Yuji Abe
  • Todd Odgers
  • Darcy MacDonald
Project sponsor Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Alberta Human Services
Key project activities
  • Development of a course map and technology framework to adapt a course to an online format using Blackboard Learning Management System and Blackboard Collaborate (Elluminate Live) virtual class system.
  • Adaptation of an existing course, Conversation Management using the course map and technology framework. Revisions to the course occurred following pilot 2 and feedback from two expert reviewers.
  • Development of a research and evaluation framework to address two research questions:
    • Can intercultural sensitivity outcomes be achieved through online learning using a developmental approach?
    • Can pragmatic competence be improved in an online course delivery targeting native speakers’ norms for appropriate language use?
  • Offering of four pilot courses. Each pilot was offered over 10 weeks with 30 hours of course work. Participants completed two to four hours of self-study each week and attended a one hour synchronous virtual class session each week. 98 participants from both workplace and pre-employment preparation contexts registered for the pilot courses. 67 participants completed 75% or more of course requirements.
  • Dissemination of project results to Alberta Teachers of English as a Second Language conference November 2012, Teaching English as a Second Language Conference October 2012 and through the Key Contributors to Immigrant Integration and Workplace Productivity knowledge networking events (Edmonton and Calgary).
Target audience English as a Second Language instructors, internationally educated professionals, HR and workplace managers of multicultural teams.
Number of people involved in project

228 people including:

  • 6 Project team members
  • 3 Participants in development of resources
  • 2 Course reviewers
  • 1 ESL expert reviewer of pragmatics rubric
  • 7 Panel of assessors
  • 98 Participants in online pilots
  • 20 Work place coaches
  • 91 Participants in dissemination activities