The Hub Q&A with Dr. Aga Palalas

Q&A with Dr. Aga Palalas

Athabasca University professor Dr. Aga Palalas is a co-investigator with the Literacy Uplift project, which has been awarded funds from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Partnership Development Grant Program. We sat down with her to learn more about her work.

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How long have you been with AU?

I like this question as it gives me a chance to demonstrate my loyalty and gratitude to AU. I have worked as an Assistant Professor for almost two years but have been at AU in a number of “progressive” roles since 2000. I completed my AGDDE(T) diploma, M.Ed. and then Ed.D. programs at the Centre for Distance Education, and subsequently taught there as an adjunct faculty before I successfully applied for the Assistant Professor position. 

Dr. Aga Palalas

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When were you awarded the funds for your research? And how much did you receive?

The Literacy Uplift project was awarded almost $150,000 CAD back in March 2016. Although slightly less than we originally applied for, this generous amount has kept the project going strong and will take us to its completion in March 2019.

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What did the funding go towards?

The funds have been distributed between the key partners with the largest portion of the funding committed to salaries of the Uplift App design and development team, which is comprised of four GBC students and our irreplaceable Research Assistant, Norine Wark, from the EDDE program at AU.

We also sub-contracted subject matter experts to help us develop educational content. The funding made it possible to disseminate the findings of the project at national and international conferences—including registration, travel, per-diem, and accommodation—as well as provide workshops and incentives for research participants and community engagement events. Lastly, mobile devices with a data plan were purchased to accommodate test participants who did not have mobile devices.

Dr. Aga Palalas

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Can you describe your project in layman’s terms?

To address low adult literacy levels amongst Canadians and around the world. This multi-institutional project is aimed to develop a mobile learning app for use within blended learning contexts. This mobile app and its web-based companion were designed to equip adult learners with the language and digital literacy skills needed to thrive in social and workplace communities. The outcomes of the study will also include a set of pedagogical and technological design principles that can be adapted to a variety of unique learning contexts, locally and internationally. The literacy app was designed with adult literacy learners in mind, tested by these learners and their teachers, and refined based on their feedback. The app is being refined before its final round of testing in January 2019.

Dr. Aga Palalas

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How will the project and its intended results impact those at AU? The province, country, or world? 

When completed, the app will be available freely through Google Play and iTunes to all literacy learners and teachers in Canada. It will provide an adaptable mobile learning support for adult literacy learners—an accessible literacy resource that can be used in formal and informal learning contexts. No mobile apps were available for this under served target population before we embarked on the project. We’ve been working very closely with adult literacy organizations in Ontario and are now hoping to involve Albertan stakeholders as well.

We plan to continue developing the Literacy Uplift solution to serve the adult literacy community locally, nationally, and globally. The AU research team, our RA and I, have learned a great deal from adult literacy learners and what their needs are.

We also built strong partnerships across disciplines and organizations that should be leveraged in the future to provide personalized learning to as many literacy learners as possible.

Dr. Aga Palalas

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Have you been working on this subject for a long time? Or is this a new project for you?

This is my first project working with adult literacy learners. I have worked in the related field of Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) for two decades and researched Mobile-Assisted Language Learning (MALL) since 2008.

I participated in numerous MALL projects and developed a couple mobile apps for adult language learners, as well. But I must stress that, as much as my experience in CALL and MALL was helpful, I had originally underestimated how diverse the adult literacy learners are, and how unique their needs and circumstances are. I have learned a lot!

I have gained tremendous insight into the needs of the adult literacy learner population as well as into the organization required, issues within, and challenges faced for literacy programs.

Dr. Aga Palalas

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Why are you interested in studying this subject?

Professionally, my research interests have always included second and foreign language acquisition as well as using digital technologies for language learning. On a personal note, I’m an immigrant and an ESL speaker myself and it is my personal goal to assist other language learners to acquire communication and socio-cultural skills that allow them to fully participate in their communities and fulfill their potential.

Similarly, literacy can offer individuals and families new opportunities and often help them end the cycle of poverty. It’s where I can contribute my knowledge to transform people’s lives. As an expert in the area of CALL and MALL, I was invited to consult on a project participating in The Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE global competition. Eventually, I joined a team that entered that competition with a goal of transforming the lives of low-literate adults, globally. Informed by that experience, two of my colleagues and I decided to apply for a SSHRC grant so that we could turn our dream of helping the adult literacy learner into reality. We were awarded the funding and I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity.

Dr. Aga Palalas

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Were any subjects of your study, or fellow researchers in this program, AU students?

Yes, as mentioned earlier, our Research Assistant was an AU doctoral student, Norine Wark. We are lucky to have Norine on our team.

Dr. Aga Palalas

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Where are you at with your research project? How many more months, years, to go? Or are you finished?

The study will be completed by March 30, 2019.

Dr. Aga Palalas

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Are the results you’ve gotten so far surprising, or proving what you thought before?

This is a design-based research study, so it involves iterative rounds of design, development, evaluation, and data collection (i.e., literature reviews, focus groups, interviews, surveys from mobile learning and literacy experts, as well as adult literacy learners). The purpose of each round is to perpetually refine the list of design principles, improve the literacy app prototype, and inform the academic community on our progress.

Our learning never ends, and new findings emerge with each step of the project. Some of our initial assumptions, based on the informed exploration phase (literature review and expert interviews), needed to be revisited and as a result parts of the mobile app are being redesigned as we speak. 

Dr. Aga Palalas

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Are you working with others on the project?

There are at least 10 people working on this project at any given time, with mobile design and development students changing every semester.

This is a partnership project with George Brown College (GBC) and Alpha Plus in Toronto, as well as Development Made Simple and Literacy Nipissing in Northern Bay, Ont. 

Dr. Aga Palalas

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What does an average week look like for you?

A project of this size, with this many stakeholders and participants involved, requires rigorous project management efforts. It would not succeed without a well-crafted schedule that includes regular communication, meetings, updates, and most importantly, ongoing data collection and analysis activities. On average, and when possible, I dedicate one day a week to the project, which includes research findings dissemination activities, as well. It is not easy to fit it in with my already busy teaching, research, community service schedule. All team members are extremely busy with their teaching (or studying) schedule and other commitments, hence coordinating the team efforts can be challenging at times, but doable. 

Dr. Aga Palalas

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What’s next for you and/or this project?

I realize that we would need more time to implement all the ideas that have emerged from the study into a larger cross-platform learning solution. We have developed a set of innovative design principles and guidelines for a mobile learning literacy solution, but only the must-have ones have been incorporated into the current app prototype.

It is my goal, and the team’s wish, to secure more funding to take the Literacy Uplift solution to the next level. I’ve been approaching potential new partners. Fingers crossed. 

Dr. Aga Palalas

Published:
  • April 25, 2019