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The Learner Web: Democratizing Adult Education
The Learner Web: Democratizing Adult Education


In a speech at the University of Virginia a few years ago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan stated, “I believe that education is the civil right issue of our generationi. ”

Education influences health, social mobility, and access to safety and justice. Adults without high school diplomas or GEDs, and adults with limited English language or technical skills, are more likely to live in poverty, develop health problems, and lack the skills to advance in the workplace. For many of these adults, education is a way to improve well-being and overall quality of life.

Learner Web (LW) is a self-access, web-based platform that allows shared, customized Learning Plans to be used in computer labs operated by an array of institutions (e.g., public libraries, K-12 schools, community colleges, four-year colleges, public housing agencies, workforce centers, community adult education and literacy programs, workforce centers, and other community based organizations). The use of LW varies widely as organizations implement this tool based around their students’ goals. It is designed to give learners a self-directed learning experience that program staff and volunteers can coordinate and support in person as well as with roles in the system for monitoring student work and providing feedback. The LW can serve as a community-driven learning support system for adults who want to accomplish specific objectives like earning a GED, improving digital literacy, preparing for college, learning English, earning U.S. citizenship and many others. It can also support education providers with professional development experiences.

LW is an outgrowth of the ten-year Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning (LSAL) carried out by Drs. Stephen Reder and Clare Strawn, which followed a random sample of about 1,000 Portland-area high school dropouts. Findings indicated that individuals often have education or occupational goals, but lack realistic plans to reach them. In addition, adult education, social services, and occupational preparation are often poorly coordinated and are not wrapped around the individual. LW was developed in response to these identified needs. Implementation has often involved the creation of a “blended” learning environment that offers support to individuals using both face-to-face and online resources in order to plan and structure a path leading to identified goals.

The LW is maintained and supported by the Literacy, Language, & Technology Research Group (LLTR) in the Department of Applied Linguistics. Working with Innovation & Intellectual Property, LLTR has connected twenty-six partnering organizations nationwide through a non-exclusive licensing program. In the six years since the LW came online, tens of thousands of adult learners have used this technology to acquire new skills, achieve their education and career goals, and improve their lives.

Educational content for the LW is developed by organizations like the Minnesota Literacy Council, Goodling Institute, Literacyworks, the National College Transition Network, PSU, and others. Called Learning Plans, the content is customizable to meet the needs of users and is shared amongst all partnering members of the LW community.

According to Dr. Kathryn Harris, LLTR faculty member, the customizable Learning Plans are in part what makes the LW appealing as a support system for learners seeking to achieve specific goals. For example, with a few changes, a Learning Plan designed to help learners use online mapping and public transit tools in California can be adapted to provide locally relevant instruction and examples nearly anywhere.

“Studies have shown that adult learning is most successful when the content is relevant and timely,” said Harris. “But what is timely and relevant in one region may not be in another. For our partners, customizing Learning Plans allows them to provide learners the best possible content.”

As Dr. Jill Castek, Research Assistant Professor, LLTR lead faculty, noted, Learning Plan customization and visual low-text ESL versions of the digital literacy plans are new features partners are excited about.

“The Learner Web is not just a tool for learners,” said Castek. “It is also a community of practice. We work with partners to hone in on improvements to the system and move the Learner Web forward. The participation of our partners provides us the opportunity to identify development priorities and meet the needs of partner organization and the learners they serve.”

Recent research expanding and informing the uses of the LW include a U.S. Department of Commerce sponsored “Broadband Technology Program.” In this multi-state study over 13,000 adults used Learning Plans to acquire a variety of digital skills. Amongst other ongoing studies, the LLTR Group is currently working on an Institute of Museum and Library Services funded study examining tutor-facilitated digital literacy acquisition in hard-to-serve populations and a project in collaboration with Literacy Information and Communication Systems (LINCS) to use the LW to help tutors improve their skills and better serve learners.

“What we find in our research,” Harris said, “is that the Learner Web is a useful tool in ways we never imagined. There’s almost no limit to how its applications can support adult learning.”

According to Castek, partners in states like Minnesota are spinning out their own partnerships with other local organizations. In Louisiana, the Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy at Loyola University partners with the Orleans Parish Prison reentry program to provide soon to be released inmates with the digital literacy skills they will need to find employment when they rejoin society.

In 24 sites in New York, the LW is used to support adult learners transitioning into postsecondary education or training. And across the nation the LINCS English Language Learner University in partnership with Literacyworks is leveraging the resources of the LW to improve the knowledge and skills of educators working with adult English language learners.

One might ask why it is that education is one of the major civil rights issues facing society today. As the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in a statement, “Education is a major driving force for human development. It opens doors to the job market, combats inequality, improves maternal health, reduced child morality, fosters solidarity, and promotes environmental stewardshipii. ”

Education enables the building of a better world for all. But all too often education is viewed through the lens of Pre-K to post-secondary schools, colleges, and universities when in fact there are adult learners, many of them underrepresented and underserved, outside of these institutions in need of educational support. The LW is an innovative platform that helps those adult learners achieve their educational and career goals. They in turn contribute more to society at large. By supporting thousands of learners across the country, the LW is broadening the field of those who have access to equity, well-being and a higher quality of life.




Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted April 15, 2014