Lifelong and Lifewide Adult Learning

The 2016 National Education Technology Plan (NETP16) challenges us to “reimagine the role of technology in education” including how we can help adults make the most of all their learning opportunities and environments. Our work in the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) has long aligned with and supported the vision of learning that is lifelong and lifewide laid out in NETP16. As adults, learning occurs in nearly every situation and environment in which we find ourselves: working, parenting, hobbying, shopping, studying, volunteering, worshipping, reading for pleasure, taking care of our health, gaming, and so on. The image below, included in NETP16, reminds adult educators that formal learning environments with adults are precious and rare.

This graphic represents the contexts in which learning occurs during waking hours over the lifespan, showing that even through grades 1–12, learners are only in formal education environments for less than 20% of the their waking hours. The percentages of time spent by adults in formal learning environments after postsecondary education are less than 5%. This image by the LIFE Center is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US license.

Realizing the potential of using technology to transform adult learning requires us to reboot our efforts to make sure adult learners are connected, have the skills to be active users of technology, and that the content-producing marketplace understands this market segment.

Busy adult learners are not able to attend formal classes at nearly the required number of hours to achieve mastery. Yet we also know from longitudinal data that adults create their own patterns of attendance and self-study that fit into their lives as workers and caregivers, and that it is the cumulative gains made in those learning journeys that translate to literacy gains, economic impacts, and goals achieved.

We know from the National Survey of Adult Skills that adults are gaining digital skills in formal and informal environments that can sustain their self-study. In the U.S., fewer than 2% of adults who participated in adult education and training (formal and informal) in the past year reported that they had no computer experience compared to 13% who had not participated; and 40% of recent adult education and training participants performed at Level 2 or 3 on the 3-level assessment of problem solving in a technology-rich environment compared with 17% of those who had not.

In response to the 2010 NETP, OCTAE funded two response papers, Connected Teaching and Personalized Learning: Implications of the National Educational Technology Plan (NETP) for Adult Education and The Potential and Value of Using Digital Badges for Adult Learners. These papers, and the public discussions that followed, opened new conversations in the adult education field about the potential of technology to address some of the long-recognized barriers to adult participation: time, transportation, childcare, relevance, lost wages, and pace of instruction. Programs and teachers are also talking about more effective uses of technology for professional development, instructional management, and formative assessment. These papers remain as relevant today as in 2010.

More recently, OCTAE released the Making Skills Everyone’s Business report in February 2015, which lays out seven strategies for establishing convenient, effective, high-quality learning opportunities in every community:

  1. Act collectively to raise awareness and take joint ownership of solutions
  2. Transform opportunities for youth and adults to assess, improve, and use foundation skills
  3. Make career pathways available and accessible in every community
  4. Ensure that all students have access to highly effective teachers, leaders, and programs
  5. Create a “no wrong door” approach for youth and adult services
  6. Engage employers to support upskilling more front-line workers
  7. Commit to closing the equity gap for vulnerable subpopulations

Across the strategies, the expansion of Internet access and personal device ownership among the eligible adult education population was cited as providing significant potential to put learning within their reach.

Professional development that is tech-enabled and innovative allows practitioners to experience the power of new models and work together to gain confidence in applying them in instruction.

Changing teaching and programming requires support and training for practitioners, a reality acknowledged in the Making Skills Everyone’s Business report. Teacher User Groups, for example, in which teachers work together virtually to advance their skills or create new open education resources, are highlighted in the NETP as one promising new model of PD that has worked well in adult education.

To help educate and incentivize the marketplace of content-developers about the adult learning segment, the Adult Literacy XPrize competition stands to be an enormous a boost. With the investment of $7 million by the Barbara Bush Foundation and the Dollar General Foundation, the XPrize team is already working with over 100 teams competing to create smartphone-based solutions that will “overcome key barriers to literacy learning by improving access, while increasing retention, and scaling to meet demand.”

Participation in all kinds of education, even briefly and informally, is getting adults more familiar with digital learning. This is great news as we adjust our programming models to acknowledge adults’ punctuated patterns of participation in formal learning environments and empower them to be lifelong learners.

Heidi Silver-Pacuilla is team leader of the Applied Innovations and Improvement Team in the Division of Adult Education and Literacy of the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education.