Four years ago Stefan Podgrabinski volunteered to create a database for a literacy program in Alberta. After many hours of intensive design and programming, Stefan and the Prospects Literacy Association applied for and received a grant from the National Literacy Secretariat, in partnership with Alberta Advanced Education and Career Development, to complete the project and make the program available to all literacy programs in Alberta. Lit-Link has been in use in the province for some time now, but Stefan, with the help of Catherine Sanders and Alan Baxter, has continued to modify and add to the program until it has finally reached the stage where the second version (v.1.1) is now ready for release.During its continued stages of development, Stefan and several other education and software professionals formed an organization called the OM Corporation, with the intention of making its information, software and services available free or at minimal cost to eligible and interested groups, especially not-for-profit groups. All of the members are professionals who consistently perform volunteer work in the community. According to Stefan, who is executive director of OM, "The collective members of a corporation must operate from a place of vision and due concern for its community and the environment." Other members of OM became involved with the software development, and LitLink has gone from its original "People" module to a comprehensive set of integrative management tools which cover everything from matching tutors with students to maintaining accounts or keeping track of books in a library.
The following is a report from Maureen Sanders Executive Director of Prospects Literacy Association. This group is Using Version 1.0 of Lit-Link.
We contracted Stefan to "finish" the database after he had worked on it for a year or more as a volunteer. We received an NLS grant to develop the People module and to make it available for all literacy programs in Alberta. Of course Stefan, being the creative person he is, ended up developing 21 inter-connecting databases which took much longer than the original plan might have. In the end I decided that we had to bring closure to the project and distribute the modules that were complete, and this happened almost a year ago. I know that he is now close to completing the rest of the modules and we look forward to getting an update. (Editor's note: this update is complete and ready for distribution.)
Prospects runs a large volunteer tutor program (up to 200 pairs in any year), as well as a wide range of family literacy programs (have served almost 4,000 participants in the past 4-5 years, most in the last three). Six years ago we had no database at all. In fact, our method of doing address labels was to keep a master list on which we would WHITE OUT names and type in new ones as people entered and left the program. Very very primitive!
Although we started out wanting something simple in Lit-Link, over the course of development we began to ask for the database to have the capacity to do more and more things. (Another reason why development took three times as long as we had initially planned) With the result that we can now, for example, do automatic tutor/ student matches through the computer if we wish. We can also draw up a whole variety of customized lists including lists of matched pairs, do quick and easy address labels, make greetings cards and customized business cards, do customized mailout campaigns, and do our year-end participation summaries for government funders at the press of a button (it used to take a week's work by several staff members when we had to handle the files manually), and much much more.
We use Lit-Link a lot -every day - and it has really enabled our organization to join the 1990's and become much more professional in the way we manage information. We have almost 5,000 records in it now and with the variety of ways of being able to customize lists, etc; we have been able to use it for all kinds of events, mailouts and so on. We also have it on an in-house network of seven Mac computers and it has worked well on the network despite the many changes we have made in the network itself over the last year—adding new machines, Internet access, etc.
We use mainly the People module although we use the others from time to time and will use the almost finished ones as they are completed. We have also just had Stefan make some modifications to the library module because we're doing a major re-vamping of our in-house library. We plan to implement a modified dewey decimal system because our fairly large library is getting out of hand and the old check-out system no longer works. And it will be relatively easy to do this because the capacity is there in Lit-Link. So the software has not only addressed all of our original needs, but has also opened new doors and opportunities for us to improve the services we offer. I guess that was the benefit of having a broad thinker doing this job; at every turn he included things that-"may" be useful down the road. Infuriating while the development was going on, but we are grateful for it now!
Probably our main difficulty in using Lit-Link has been the "PEBCAK" issue (Problem Exists Between Chair and Keyboard) i.e. the inconsistency in data entry. Over the course of development, a variety of people entered different records so that we were not always able to get out all the correct information we needed (the garbage in, garbage out principle).
For example if someone forgot to check the newsletter box when an individual's name was entered, they would not show up on the newsletter mailing list. Or if they didn't note that someone was a donor they wouldn't show up when we wanted to send out begging letters!
Right now we are putting some time into updating some of the back records in order to correct the problem. Once this is done, we will make sure we have precise instructions for anyone entering data to ensure that it is done appropriately for our organization.
We will also restrict initial data entry to just two or three people. Anyway these are all things we've learned as we've gone along and that need to be emphasized for anyone just starting to use it Another challenge is that, because it is quite complex (although still fairly simple to use) it is scary for people who are not highly computer literate and so I think it is not being as well used generally in the province here as it might be.
In hindsight I think we should have taken a much more individualized and hands-on approach to promoting Lit- Link than we did. Stefan did a fair number of conference presentations but this was not enough. In instances where he went out to programs and helped them to install the program and learn how to use it a little, people have been much more willing to use it and more successful in continuing to use it. So we should have done more of this, and maybe we still should do it if we can access further funding. It's more a matter of being too busy doing other major projects right now than lack of desire to do it.
It was in some ways a difficult project for me because I was too unaware about databases when I launched into the whole thing (although I know a lot more now!). So I had to take my lead entirely from Stefan and it did just seem to grow and grow and take over my life for a while. So once we had distributed it in the province I had to step back from it for a while instead of promoting it a bit more aggressively. But I think Lit-Link is a powerful tool for literacy programs and for volunteer programs generally. Given the huge amount of work that has gone into the development of this software, I believe it deserves to get more far more exposure and use.
For more information, contact: Maureen Sanders, Executive Director, Prospects Literacy Association, 9913-108 Avenue, Edmonton, AB T5H lA5, Tel. (403) 421-READ fax (403) 421-7324.
Prospects Literacy Association is a Community based volunteer organization committed to advocating and providing literacy development opportunities for adults and families.
Editor's note: Lit-Link 1.1 features a highly effective tutorial for the program and for specific tasks. Any staff member with basic computer skills should be able to use the program to enter and retrieve data. Lit-Link can be customized for specific programs or provincial information. The developer offers on-site training, as well as ongoing support through email, fax and their Web site.
* This review was written in Sept. 1998. Please contact the company for information about the most recent version of the software.
|CONNECT, Canada’s Resource Publication on Technology and Adult Literacy||Volume 2, Issue 5|