October 11, 2013 in Blog Posts, Career Pathways, Education by United Front

New Technologies: Preparing Adult Learners

By Jenifer Baker Vanek

adult learnersThose in our society who effectively use the Internet can successfully make use of online banking, social media, information-sharing and even fantastic learning opportunities in Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) where they can access knowledge previously available only to students at elite institutions. In contrast, though not adequately prepared to do so, low-skilled adults are often required to use Internet to accomplish important tasks, like applying for social services, immigration status documents, or for jobs.

More and more tasks require technology skills for full civic participation, and this technology is continually evolving. We need to ensure low-skilled adults do not get left behind. Indeed preparing them for the digital world will better prepare them to address barriers that have prevented them from reaching academic and career goals in the past and help them gain skills that will make use of future technology to reach those goals in the future. As representatives of organizations that can engage in this work, we must not fail to do so. Ignoring the imperative will ensure that technology is a tool reserved for the privileged, exacerbating the threat the rapid pace of technological change will remain as a barrier instead of the bridge it could be.

Who are low-skilled adult learners?
Across the country Adult Basic Education (ABE) programs enrolled 2,012,1635 learners during program year 2010–11 (U.S. Department of Education: Annual report). The MN Department of Education serves about 73,000 ABE students each year. These adults often come to this country as refugees or immigrants, and/or are living in generational poverty, and lack sufficient basic academic skills to earn a diploma or GED. Many of them face barriers of unemployment and poverty or are incarcerated. They engage in ABE programming to reach academic and career goals; however, ABE programs serve only a fraction of the total population who do not yet have a GED or high school diploma. In Minnesota, it is estimated that program serves 10% of those eligible.

Why is technology an issue?
The digital divide is no longer a concept reserved to describe access to the Internet. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce reports that residential use of broadband (high-speed) Internet is rapidly rising. Results from a 2012 survey show broadband adoption to be increasing for minorities and low-income households. Additionally, residential Internet access for non-African American, non-Hispanic minorities exceeds adoption for the U.S. population average (73% versus 70%). Even within the categories of low-income and Hispanic Americans there is significant in home access to computers and Internet (43% and 59%, respectively) (Connected Nation, 2012). Despite this access, there is a huge divide between those who know how to use the Internet to access information and those who do not. Between low and high socio-economic classes the difference in use of the Internet for accessing information has never been greater (Wei & Hindman, 2011).

Why is this a problem?

  • 70% of all jobs in the U.S. will require some computer literacy by 2016
  • Nearly 75% Minnesota State College and University System faculty report having an online component to their classes
  • Starting in 2014, GED exams will only be offered via computers
  • New technologies have redefined literacy to include digital and information literacies
  • Reading done via the Internet is “Web-literacy”, a non-linear approach to literacy combining both reading and Internet navigation skills, requiring higher-order thinking than reading paper-based, linear texts.

What can we do?

  • Follow the recommendations of the Obama administration’s 2010 National Education Technology Plan, which calls on educators to embrace innovation and empower students to take control of their own learning by leveraging technology to connect learners to resources beyond the classroom and a wider set of “educators,” including teachers, parents, experts, and mentors.
  • Train teachers to integrate technology into daily classroom instruction. Research shows that any learner, no matter how low their literacy level, can benefit from technology integration provided that adequate support is available to scaffold technology and literacy demands of learning.
  • Continue to support innovation in the use of educational technology in adult literacy programs. Examples: The Gates Foundation’s English Innovations project; The Learner Web; The Northstar Digital Literacy Assessment project

There is much to lose if we do not engage with this work of broadening capacity of adult learners to use technology: further disparity in incomes, lost opportunity, and the failure to prepare a trained workforce for 21st Century work. Sound examples of how to do this work are evident in Minnesota and across the country. The trick is to remember that we are not preparing learners for current technology demands, but for those that are coming.

“If people cannot undertake this knowledge-enrichment process they are disadvantaged and the education system has failed to give them adequate literacy skills” (Sutherland-Smith, 2002, p. 662)

Jen VanekJenifer Baker Vanek, Contributor
Doctoral Student
University of MN, College of Education and Human Development

Download PDF of sources informing this work.