Getting to Know You: StFX Adult Education Graduate Studies

This article, published in the Fall 2020 edition of The Beacon, was written by StFXAUT Communications Officer Philip Girvan.

A self-directed approach to learning has a long tradition in this region and is strongly rooted in what eventually came to be known as The Antigonish Movement. The Antigonish Movement was a reaction to the dire situation faced by Northern and Eastern Nova Scotians in the years following Confederation. Centralization of political power had diminished the region’s political influence. Economic power had moved away from the region. People had moved away. Between 1867, the year of Canadian Confederation, and 1890 approximately 100,000 Nova Scotians had left the province. Antigonish County was particularly hard struck. It has been noted that from 1881 to 1931, Antigonish County had a larger percentage decline in population than any other Canadian county going from 18,000 to 10,000 people, and that the rural population within the Diocese of Antigonish decreased by at least 30,000 during that period.

Economic power moved westward. The Bank of Nova Scotia, established in Halifax in 1832, moved headquarters to Toronto in 1901; the Royal Bank, established as the Merchants Bank in Halifax in 1869, moved headquarters to Montreal in 1906. Accessing capital became increasingly difficult. Industries tended to be foreign-owned and under-capitalized. High freight rates made it costly to get Nova Scotian goods to markets in Eastern and Central Canada; tariffs made them uncompetitive to American markets. The truck system made producers, notably fishers, heavily dependent on local merchants. These typically offered goods on credit rather than cash. A bad harvest or a bad season often placed sellers in debt. A scarcity of cash and a dependence on a limited number of buyers resulted in low prices for producers. The check-off system meant that bosses deducted rent for company housing, union dues, and donations to church and hospitals from a miner’s gross income.

Feelings of constraint, helplessness, and desperation were common among those who stayed. Prompted by a desire for spiritual, social, and economic improvement, and taking inspiration from Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of the Working Classes), StFX staff, many of whom were Roman Catholic priests, began organizing mass meetings and convening study clubs. The Coady International Institute website describes the study clubs:

Study clubs fostered a process whereby ordinary people, with the guidance of fieldworkers or others, read and studied on their own;they then brought back their ideas for debate and elaboration. The clubs studied various subjects -credit unions, cooperative methods, home economics, and farming and fishing techniques; the people decided what they wanted to learn about. As study and discussion proceeded, leaders would emerge who helped to initiate practical cooperative projects. These projects often succeeded because they were adapted to local circumstances and needs; furthermore, they had the support of the community.

The study clubs were “devoted to specific local problems that would be considered at study sessions held weekly, usually in members’ homes. The basic approach was to gather together between ten and twenty neighbours who would define a problem, or perhaps several problems, and then begin a systematic study to see how the problem or problems could be alleviated”.

The people decided what they wanted to learn about

Fieldworkers included the clergy, government officials such as agricultural agents and inspectors, professionals, and leading laypeople for the purpose of utilizing their training and energies in extension work.

The People’s School in January 1921 was the first of the study clubs held on StFX campus. Fifty-one students came to the University to be taught subjects from economics to agriculture. By the fall of 1921, the People’s School had 150 registrants. By 1938, 1100 study groups involving more than 10,000 people had been organized.

Adult Education, in the context of The Antigonish Movement, has been described as “a combination of study and research aimed at building up the entrepreneurial capacity to foster economic action and the required expertise to administer the institutions that were created”.

The producers who composed the study clubs are not representative of students presently enrolled in StFX University’s Master of Adult Education (M.Ad.Ed.) program. Enrollees come to the program from sectors such as health, government, university, NGOs, police departments, women’s centres, and literacy organizations. What they tend to share, according to Dr. Maureen Coady, Associate Professor with the Department of Adult Education and herself a M.Ad.Ed. graduate, is that they are “thinking critically about the circumstances they’re in and what constrains them from acting against that”.

Another aspect of the program, consistent with principles of The Antigonish Movement, is the firm belief that education should not just be reserved for youth in schools, but opened up and directed to masses of adults.

St. Francis Xavier University’s Department of Adult Education is often cited as an outcome of The Antigonish Movement. In July of 1970, Dr. Teresa MacNeil began her duties as Chair of the newly developed graduate program. Faculty and students were recruited in very short order, and the first cohort of learners, eight in total, began studies that September. It quickly became clear that the curriculum that MacNeil and the instructors had inherited, which consisted of five courses and a thesis dissertation, needed some adjustment.

“What we were doing was exactly what you can’t do as an adult learning practitioner. You’ve got to start where the learner is,” MacNeil recalled. For the program to be meaningful, teaching practice needed to reflect principles of Adult Education. MacNeil continued, “We tried to model the program on adult learning. So that when the student came in and you were interested in becoming a nurse educator we had to see what’s your background and where are you going. Each student had to design his or her own curriculum. It was geared to be what we want the adult education practitioner to do with his or her learner, and that’s how that program was developed”.

As noted on the program website, the M.Ad.Ed. program offers two unique streams: Reflective Practice and Community Development, in addition to a special stream for Women’s Leadership and Community Development. Regardless of the stream selected, the first phase of the M.Ad.Ed. consists of the Foundations Institute. A cohort of learners meets on campus to begin an intense, three-week period of studying and sharing. Learners are encouraged to live together in the campus dormitories; such proximity often leads to the formation of a learner support group.

You’ve got to start where the learner is

By the completion of The Foundations Institute, the learner has been introduced to the adult education literature, identified a research topic, created an annotated bibliography, and developed a learning plan based on their own research interests, and named the area and aspect of study they have chosen to pursue. Completion of the three-week intensive process and the objectives laid out at the beginning of The Foundations Institute earns the student a six-credit course (AE505).

The distance education components begin once learners have left campus. The program phases include:

  • AE510: A critical literature review and a professional portfolio;
  • AE520: A research study project;
  • AE530: A learning program evaluation; and,
  • AE600 or AE601: A thesis or a synthesizing oral examination.

Though the learners are separated physically, learning does not take place in isolation. The connection students form during The Foundations Institute strengthens as they move through the program. Paul Boyd (M.Ad.Ed., 2015) described the significance of the relationships and how the initial bond is reinforced over time:

We maintained contact, and as I progressed through the courses, I connected with people from earlier cohorts. We used social media to bounce ideas or questions off others; it was a very cooperative atmosphere. I have had the opportunity to talk to several of the groups that have started the program since I finished. There is a bond that links graduates and current students in the program.

The uniqueness of the M.Ad.Ed. has been acknowledged both within and outside the University. Sustaining the Academic Priorities of St. Francis Xavier University 2013-2018 described the M.Ad.Ed. as

relatively unique nationally, and evidence demonstrates steady external demand with waiting lists capped by contractual realities. The program has above-average quality inputs with an award-winning curriculum (Curriculum Innovation Award 2011 from Commission of Professors of Adult Education), a large component of reading and writing activities, and a commitment to curriculum review.

Dr. Carole Roy, Professor and former Chair of the Department of Adult Education, told The Beacon that “what I like about it is the fact that it really honours people’s practice and professional experience, and that it supports students in their learning from their own experience rather than imposing our own sense of what we know. We walk along with them, but we allow them to focus on their own interests”.

Dr. Joram Tarusarira (M.Ad.Ed., 2012) emphasized the crucial relationship between learner and instructor. Dr. Tarusarira began doctoral studies while enrolled in the M.Ad.Ed. program, based on earlier degrees and credentials. With all the assignments, he considered dropping the M.Ad.Ed. in order to focus on the PhD work. However, Dr. Roy encouraged him to stay with the program. He recalled receiving “notes, stories, cards, [and] paintings” from Dr. Roy that kept the M.Ad.Ed. work in mind.

The uniqueness of the StFX Master of Adult Education Program has been acknowledged both within and outside the University.

When asked how the M.Ad.Ed. complemented his PhD work, Dr. Tarusarira contrasted the skills honed during M.Ad.Ed. studies, such as “engaging, motivating, identifying needs” with the more theoretical nature of his doctoral studies. Other graduates named a keener appreciation of adult education principles as benefiting them professionally. Annie Chau (M.Ad.Ed., 2018) brought a health and communications background to her position with the Antigonish Women’s Resource and Sexual Services Centre. Chau noted that she “got into feminist and women’s work and I really enjoyed, but never took any women’s and gender studies courses. I really felt like I had non-profit professional work experience in the field [but I] never had the theory to back that up”. Laurie Cook (M.Ad.Ed., 2013) noted the influence of the program on her practice:

I think that I understood the logic of the techniques of Adult Education. I didn’t necessarily understand the real power of the group in adult learning. I didn’t really understand my own philosophy of Adult Education in the way that I do now. I think that I have [a] much deeper appreciation of the power of the group: people learning from each other as adults. I’m really just a facilitator. I’m not there to impart a lot of knowledge; I’m there to facilitate a process where others can learn from each other.

Despite the accolades, the program is not without its challenges. An individualized program costs a great deal of funding to sustain. Also, it can be difficult for learners to find peer support in a distance education program. In response to these concerns, Faculty have worked to develop a shorter program for students and to build more peer support. The current 3-year model is more structured and works to ensure that students stay connected to their cohort and their advisor over the course of the program. As well, Faculty have developed specialized program streams for women in development and a separate M.Ed. in Health and Adult Education. All changes have been made while still retaining the character of a research-based, part-time distance program.

Dr. Coady sums it up by saying, “This M.Ad.Ed. is a difficult sell in a commodified world, but if you talk to anybody who did this degree, ask them what their experience was”.

Works Cited:

  1. Dodaro, S. & Pluta, L. (2012). The Big Picture: The Antigonish Movement of Eastern Nova Scotia. McGill-Queen’s University Press.
  2. Laidlaw, A. (1946). THE ANTIGONISH MOVEMENT. Blackfriars, 27(314), 173-179. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from
  3. MacPherson, I. (1975). Patterns in The Maritime Co-operative Movement 1900 -1945. Acadiensis, 5(1), 67-83. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from
  4. Remes, J. (2010). In Search of “Saner Minds”: Bishop James Morrison and the Origins of the Antigonish Movement. Acadiensis, 39(1), 58-82. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from
  5. StFX University Extension Department. “The Extension Department Takes Off (1930–1939). last accessed December 14, 2020.