4 Big Ideas from the 2019 NCTN Conference

May 25th, 2020 | Blogs


One question that drives our work is, “Can we make adult education accessible, affordable, and open doors to opportunities?” The answer comes in many forms from many different voices. After three days at the 2019 National College Transition Network Conference, one thing is clear: enabling adult learners with college and career readiness requires all hands on deck. 

NCTN’s 2019 convening of administrators and teachers, coaches and advisors, and anyone invested in adult learner pathways, offered space to consider how to best serve adult learners across the many challenges they may face. Leveraging the combined expertise of the National College Transition Network  and the EdTech Center @ World Education, the conference showcased innovative, tech-enabled approaches to preparing adult learners for the digital world. In case you weren’t able to join us, here are some of the big ideas from the 2019 gathering.

Understand your students.

It’s no secret: Transitions cause stress. But transitions look different for everyone–whether it’s moving cities, not getting the promotion you expected, or having a child. Speaker Jim Peacock, Peak Careers Consulting, addressed transitions using Schlossberg’s Transition Theory, and encouraged conference-goers to identify some of the barriers that students face.

Common barriers included lack of confidence, family, access to transportation, and homelessness, but there are many more. To understand the ways in which a student might feel stuck, Peacock recommends asking critical questions that illuminate the major factors at work in the student’s life that foster or impede their progress in life. In short: What do you have now, and what do you need to get to where you want to go? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?

Working through this process with students, or empowering them to do so on their own, will help them feel equipped to deal with the stress of transitions.

Student speaker Afet Genderovskiy opened up about her own learning journey with one of her teachers, Mina Reddy. She reminds us that above all else, students wish to be understood:

“The most important thing is being patient. My English is not that advanced. Sometimes I make mistakes. We’re looking for support and understanding that English is not our first language.”

Empower lifelong learning.

Essential interpersonal, intrapersonal, and cognitive problem-solving skills enable us to be resilient, agile, and lifelong learners at work, home, and in our communities in an increasingly complex and ever-changing world. 

Michelle Weise, Senior VP of Workforce Strategies at the Strada Institute for the Future of Work, stressed that it’s insufficient to think of hard and soft skills (human skills) as a simple dichotomy because both are important to keep us secure in the future of work. But deliberate attention and continued practice of human skills is critical, because although they are human, they are not innage. These skills will begin to close the gap between employers and job-seeking students.

The good news is that adults can continue to learn, improve, and enhance human skills. As Heather McGowan, Future-of-work Strategist, suggests, we need to think about learning as an investment in the future to close the skills gap.

NCTN is developing a Personal and Workplace Success Skills library to feature resources to support the development and application of critical thinking, collaboration, self-awareness, communication, resilience, digital fluency, and more. 

Partnerships are essential.

With a gathering of leaders from across the adult education space, it becomes clear that individuals and institutions must work together across sectors. Policy is one of many areas for partnership and innovation in adult education, as evidenced by strong advocacy efforts and federal attention to supporting and developing policy to support the education and career advancement of adult learners. 

Such is the case for Ability to Benefit (ATB), the federal provision that enables adult learners without a high school diploma to qualify for federal financial aid begin postsecondary education in federally approved career pathways programs while completing a high school equivalency  credential.The policy works as a dual enrollment mechanism for adult college students to be able to pull down federal financial aid to fund their education. In her session, Judy Mortrude described NCTN’s technical assistance to state systems to scale and sustain ATB.

First why, then how.

Surrounded by edtech researchers and professionals, the paths you can take to digitally empower adult learners seem endless. World Education’s Jen Vanek urges us to first consider why we need edtech, and then consider how its implementation will lead to success.

In the case of blended learning, teachers can facilitate learning circles to bridge technology and face to face instruction. World Education, Inc. developed English Now! Learning Circles to be free, open to ESOL students of all levels, and encourage learners to lead. In this spirit, students are encouraged to engage with one another as they build their skills in English language and digital literacy.

Speaker Jamie Harris emphasized the need for digital literacy skills in bridging the gap for students in transition, whether it’s into postsecondary education or a career. Digital skills are necessary for seeking, applying for, and getting a job, but also for educational, civic, and health care advances.

It’s nearly impossible to teach a group of learners without room for differentiation, and this approach provides an opportunity to differentiate instruction. This approach also allows for students to have some control of the time, place, and pace of their own learning.

In short, a user-centered, blended approach that can adapt to students’ own unique challenges will help them get the most of their education. 

In approaching the interconnected challenges that face adult learners, we must have a hand on levers across disciplines and sectors. 

From tutors to teachers, state administrators to practitioners, conference-goers at NCTN are working together to understand students’ needs, and using combined efforts to build 21st century skills and create ladders of opportunity for adult learners.

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