Can Digital Learning Technologies Help Address the Needs of Low-Skilled Adults?


It is widely known that the U.S. is facing a shortage of skilled labor. According to a report released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, more than 36 million adults in the U.S. do not have the basic literacy and math skills needed for entry-level jobs – that’s about 1 in 6 adults. Many of these adults may have graduated from high school, but their basic skills are at the fourth- to ninth-grade level, leaving them prone to chronic unemployment or underemployment.

Federal- and state-funded adult basic education (ABE) programs seek to help these adults improve their basic skills and job prospects; however, ABE programs are currently only able to serve 3-4 million. One potential solution for increasing the capacity of ABE programs to serve more adult students is through leveraging digital learning technologies.

In 2014, The Joyce Foundation engaged SRI Education’s Center for Technology in Learning (CTL) to test whether current and future digital learning technologies can improve the quality of instruction and services provided by ABE programs, as well as increase capacity for reaching a greater number of students. We’ve recently released a research report based on the research findings.

Over the span of three years, researchers from SRI Education studied five products focused on improving basic literacy and math skills as they were used in 13 research sites across 14 different ABE programs. We sought to understand how the products were being used, their role in ABE curricula, whether the products were being used off campus and outside of classroom time, what supports were necessary for both students and instructors, and what impacts the products made on student learning.

Until now, there has been limited rigorous research on educational technology in adult learning—nowhere near the extent of research on the impact of digital learning technologies in K-12 and higher education settings.

The goal of SRI’s research project was to build a base of reliable, independent evidence and information on the key practices and supports associated with effective use of the technologies in ABE programs, and to identify ongoing challenges and potential areas of future research and development for ABE product developers.

Overall, most instructors reported having positive experiences with the products used in the study. Instructors found that the products helped them differentiate instruction for students with varying math and literacy skills in ways that were not possible without the products. In some cases, it was possible to use digital learning technologies as the primary means for instructing and delivering content, with instructors acting as facilitators and providing motivational and individualized support as needed. The most common way instructors used the digital technology was as part of a blended or hybrid model, where use of the online products was integrated into the core ABE curriculum and combined with direct whole-class instruction. For most ABE program sites, particularly those serving students with the lowest skill levels, a blended or hybrid model is likely going to be the most effective use of online products like those included in this research.

Most ABE students reported favorably on the digital learning technologies they used in the study. A majority of students, but not all, reported that they enjoyed using the products, that the products helped them improve their math and reading skills and gave them confidence they could use online resources to learn on their own without the direct involvement of an instructor. A majority of students also reported that they used the products for learning outside the regularly scheduled instructional time.

Estimated impacts of product use on skills were mixed, some positive and some negative, and varied by product and program site. The impacts were slightly larger for math outcomes compared to reading. It is worth noting that for many of these sites, integrating the technology as a significant part of the program’s curriculum was something they had not done before. As the research community continues to build the base of evidence associated with ABE programs, it will be critical to conduct more rigorous research around impacts on outcomes for products and programs that are more mature in adoption.

Given the findings and challenges that the research surfaced, the study includes several implications for ABE program administrators, instructors, and product developers. For example, ABE program administrators and instructors should:

  • Commit to using the products as a regular, mandatory part of core instruction to ensure that students spend sufficient time on the products and make adequate progress.
  • Support product use outside scheduled time for all students by making sure they know where to obtain devices and connectivity on and off campus, and provide incentives for off-hour use.
  • Provide adequate time for training, planning and piloting to ensure instructors’ commitment and better integration of the product into the curriculum and instructors’ practices.
  • Offer students who are struggling with the transition to online learning with additional monitoring and support.

This research represents an initial step in exploring how digital learning technologies can increase the capacity of ABE programs to better serve the adult learning needs in their communities. Given the wide variety of adult students’ skills and ABE program goals and resources, more rigorous research is needed to understand which products are the most feasible to implement and the most effective for different kinds of ABE programs, instructors, and students. Digital learning technologies like those in this study, while perhaps not be the solution for every ABE program, can be an important support for programs and instructors in their work to improve outcomes for low-skilled adults.

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