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The Learner Web: Extending Educational Opportunities to Adult Learners
The Learner Web: Extending Educational Opportunities to Adult Learners


“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts,” Winston Churchill said at the height of the Second World War. The words were a call to his fellow countrymen to persevere despite the challenges they faced. The words have echoed through time in part because of the man who uttered them, and because they speak to anyone facing a challenge or working to achieve a goal. One such challenge, faced by a small but growing percentage of the adult population in the U.S., is overcoming educational inequity. Adults without high school diplomas, GEDs and adults with limited English language or technical skills are more likely to live in poverty, to develop health issues and to lack the tools necessary to advance in the workplace. While many of these adults have educational goals, there are certain disconnects between educational programs and services that may impede their abilities to achieve those goals. The Learner Web is an educational tool designed to overcome those disconnects and help those adults achieve their educational goals. 

Dr. Steve Reder, Professor of Applied Linguistics at Portland State University, has spent years researching issues concerning adult education. He has studied the effects of technological literacy and English language skills in the workplace. He has received funding from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute for Literacy to conduct the Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning (LSAL), an extensive, multi-year study of nearly a thousand adults between the ages of 18-44 who did not have a high school diploma or a GED, the findings of which advanced the understanding of literacy development during adulthood. While Dr. Reder’s research projects have undoubtedly added to the wealth of knowledge in the fields of education and linguistics, the Learner Web is an important practical application of his research. 

Developed at Portland State University to address issues Dr. Reder became aware of during the LSAL, the Learner Web is a web-based software learning support system for adults who have specific learning goals, such as improving English language skills, transitioning to higher education, earning a GED, or improving digital literacy.

“There were two observations that came out of the Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning that led to the development of the Learner Web,” Dr. Reder recently said. “One was we found that people without a high school diploma or a GED had educational and career goals, but they often lacked realistic plans to follow to help them achieve their goals. The other thing we saw was in following people through their life over time, we found that they were getting help from a lot of services, programs and individuals, but in an isolated fashion. One program didn’t know what the other was doing. If there was going to be a network of support, it was up to the learner to build it.

“This is how the Learner Web came into being as an idea: we would create visible plans people could follow step by step, and connect the learners with different resources in their local community and online.”

When an adult learner with a specific educational goal begins to use the Learner Web to achieve those goals, he or she creates a user profile that helps them make an assessment of their skills and then the learner chooses an educational goal from a library of content. When a goal has been chosen, the Learner Web software matches a Learning Plan to the learner based on the learner’s profile and information about educational resources. The learner can then work independently or with a teacher while following the path to their educational goal.

“This is different,” Dr. Reder said, “than distance education programs. Think of it as a learning support system. So it’s not supporting an isolated learner, it’s supporting somebody who is in the context of a collaborative of organizations that they may turn to for programmatic support as well as other kinds of support. So it is different in that way from something like Desire2Learn or Blackboard, which tend to be very much of an online class format. Our content is learner-centered as opposed to being centered in a class or on a teacher.”

When asked for a specific example of how a learner might use the Learner Web, Dr. Reder replied: “We have Learning Plans that support GED preparation, for example. Some of the plans introduce learners to what they’ll need to know to take the GED, how to prepare for it, and what happens after a learner has taken the test. We also have learning plans for non-native speakers—plans that can help a learner pick up English language skills for the workplace. We have other plans for digital literacy for learners who need to develop computer or internet skills. We have a whole range of plans.”

The Learning Plans are developed by Learner Web’s content development partners, who include Portland State University, the Minnesota Literacy Council, and ProLiteracy, among others. The Learner Web is available to learners in what are called partner ‘Regions’: distinct Learner Web portals customized to serve either part of a state, a whole state, a group of states, or the entire country. The office of Innovation & Intellectual Property (IIP) at Portland State University oversees the licensing process by which new partner regions and content development partners are added to the ranks. To date 26 organizations have licensed the use of the Learner Web, leading to 40 signed licenses since the Learner Web went online in 2008. Today the Learner Web has regions in California, Washington D.C., Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin, and the English Language Learner University (ELL-U) is in partnership with the Learner Web to extend the National Adult English Language Learning Professional Development Network across multiple states. According to Dr. Reder, the Learner Web now has roughly 25,000 users.

With regards to IIP’s involvement with the Learner Web, Joe Janda, Director of IIP, said, “We are very pleased to provide licensing support to the Learner Web project. The Learner Web is a prime example of how licensing of copyright material can facilitate increasing the impact of an important innovation.”

And perhaps the most innovative aspect of the Learner Web is its plasticity. The Learner Web is a constantly growing, constantly evolving learning support system that adapts to the needs of its users and will continue to do so as more regional and content partnerships are forged.

“It’s wonderful, the software our engineers have developed,” Dr. Reder said. “I think our network of partners is our greatest asset, and the content they’ve developed is fantastic. We have a shared mission, a shared commitment to using technology to promote educational equity and social justice, not just here at PSU, but nationwide.”=

To learn more about the Learner Web visit their website at

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted September 26, 2012