Learner Web: looking back and moving forward

After a decade of serving thousands of adult learners across the U.S., the Learner Web project at Portland State winds down.

Learner Web

Behind the scenes at Portland State University are scores of projects, programs, and organizations dedicated to providing services that improve lives in our local, regional, and global communities. Learner Web and the unit and people behind it, the Literacy, Language, and Technology Research (LLTR) group in the Department of Applied Linguistics, are among those fulfilling the University's motto: "Let Knowledge Serve."

Learner Web is an online learning support system designed to meet adults’ needs with specific learning goals such as improving basic skills, increasing digital and information literacy, and navigating increasingly digitized healthcare delivery. For over a decade, Learner Web has offered nearly 75,000 learners a platform to engage in self-paced instruction via Learning Plans accessible anywhere with an internet connection.

After many years serving adult learners, Learner Web is closing down operations.

Learner Web exemplifies the translation of research into services and practice capable of changing lives for the better. The project arose out of research findings from the Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning, led by Stephen Reder, former Chair of the Department of Applied Linguistics at Portland State. Over nine years, from 1998 to 2007, that project followed adults who did not complete high school, addressing essential questions about literacy development, learning, and life experiences over time. The study found that adult learners faced many challenges and obstacles to achieving educational goals, such as finding programs they could participate in at their own pace at locations that accommodated their needs.

"Research from the Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning uncovered a need for a learning support system that focuses on the learner," said Kathy Harris, Director of the Literacy, Language, and Technology group. "That need was met by Learner Web and its partners across the country."

Learner Web's partnerships with Literacy Minnesota, South Texas College, and Literacyworks, among others, delivered educational opportunities to adult learners at 172 sites across the country. In all, the program collaborated with 42 licensing partners that supported Learner Web with nearly $750k in licensing fees over the project's tenure.

"Learner Web is an excellent example of how PSU projects can impact the lives of thousands of people with no direct connection to the University," said Joseph Janda, Assistant Vice President for Research, who oversees Propel PSU, the entrepreneurship and technology commercialization unit with Research & Graduate Studies. "The credit for Learner Web's impact on so many people's lives belongs to the students, staff, and faculty members in the Literacy, Language, and Technology Research group. We were glad we could help facilitate the great work they did through a vibrant non-exclusive licensing program that supported their efforts. It's a project we're all very proud of."

In its early years, Learner Web received funding from organizations such as the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Educause, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. These organizations' support led to developing Learning Plans that supported library-based adult literacy programs, college readiness, English language educators, and education opportunities for incarcerated adults. Under Harris' leadership, and Jill Castek before her, Learner Web expanded its offerings to include increasing broadband use among low-income, low-literate, and other vulnerable populations, accessing online health portals and digital healthcare literacy, tutor-training programs, and improving digital literacy skills for residents of low-income housing.

"These were a very successful series of projects," Harris said. "Participants acquired digital literacy skills that helped them navigate digital healthcare settings, find jobs and enroll in services to become more economically self-sufficient as well as help their kids in school. All skills that have become increasingly important since the pandemic began."

According to Harris, Learner Web and the work the Literacy, Language, and Technology Research group has done, and continues to do, has contributed valuable insights into the importance of digital literacies and how people acquire those skills. It's work the group and its partners across the nation will continue to do even now that the Learner Web project has wound down.

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