Expanding Access to Adult Literacy with Online Distance Education

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In the U.S. economy, education and training are keys to economic survival. Estimates of the number of adults who need educational services to secure a decent-paying job vary considerably, but it is widely claimed that existing classroom programs for adults reach only 3% to 5% of those in need. Although increasing the capacity of classroom programs might help, this will not meet the needs of many adults who are unable to attend classes because of constraints in their lives, such as their work schedule, transportation, and child care. Distance education is one way to meet their needs. Indeed, television is a distance technology that has been used for many years in adult education. For example, since 1989, Kentucky Educational Television’s GED on TV has been broadcast throughout the country. But broadcast television is limited in two ways. It is a one-way medium: A teacher “talks at” learners who are expected to absorb the information. Also, it is virtually impossible to find broadcast times that will match the schedule of all learners.

A form of distance education built on the Internet may be more promising. It could provide an interactive experience as well as “anytime, anyplace” learning. Although online distance education (ODE) is not a new idea, it has not been used much with adult basic education (ABE), adult secondary education/general educational development (ASE/GED), or English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) learners. The emergence and rapid evolution of the Internet and World Wide Web as vehicles to deliver education at a distance has opened up new possibilities that make it more suitable for learners needing to improve basic skills than previously thought.

This monograph examines the potential of ODE to meet the educational needs of adult learners. It examines the feasibility of using ODE with adult learners and the factors that must be taken into account if ODE is to become widely used in adult education. The present chapter defines terms and reviews the use of ODE in other sectors. It also describes current efforts by states to experiment with distance education for adult learners. Chapter 2 examines the experience of the LiteracyLink project that developed Workplace Essential Skills (WES), one of the first ODE courses for adult learners. Although the national field test of WES examined usage in classroom programs, the research offers many lessons regarding the readiness of adult educators and adult basic learners to embrace online education. Chapter 3 describes the experience of a state that is trying to use ODE extensively for adult education. In the year 2000, Pennsylvania began to experiment systematically with delivering WES at a distance. Adult educators are learning what is entailed to identify and support distance learners, and these lessons are summarized in that chapter. Chapter 4 looks beyond the United States, to Australia, for additional lessons. For many years, distance education has been an essential tool for the delivery of educational programs in this vast, sparsely populated country. The Australian experience provides useful insights for the United States. Chapter 5 identifies a number of issues central to making distance education succeed in adult education. If online education is going to grow as a delivery mechanism, there is work to be done at all levels: from developing and delivering the appropriate professional development opportunities for practitioners, to changing policies at the state and national level to make room for this approach.

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