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Educational Technology: Can It Improve Job Prospects for Adults Who Need Stronger Math and English Skills?


By Sameer Gadkaree, Senior Program Officer, Employment & Joint Fund

Across our country, over 30 million adults do not have basic English skills, and more than 60 million adults lack basic math skills. This low level of skills limits the potential of those adults to get good jobs.

The growing ubiquity of technology in our lives promises to transform the way education is delivered.  Consequently, the Joyce Foundation sought to learn more about how tech might be harnessed to improve the lives of these adults, especially  the 1.5 million who are in federally-supported adult education classes. We turned to the nonprofit research center SRI International's Center for Technology in Learning to find out more about how education technology is being used in the adult sphere and if it has been found to improve learning.  These tools are largely different from education technology that seeks to modify the very nature of classroom interaction between student and teacher.

A bit of context:

 Some studies have looked at how online or online hybrid classes, taught by community college instructors, help adults learn. For example, the Community College Research Center at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, studied the efficacy of online vs. hybrid vs. face-to-face classes in community colleges.

Much has been written, too, about Massively Online Open Courses (MOOCs), like Coursera, EdX, and Udacity.  To date, however, much of the research on MOOCs suggests  that lower-skilled adults are less likely to benefit from these open resources. One study found that about 80 percent of MOOC users have a bachelor’s degree and over 40 percent have advanced degrees.    

Thus, past studies have not tackled a key question: how can technology help adults who lack the skills for college work?  An ancillary, but crucial question, is whether technology can help the tens of millions of adults who are unable to enroll in classes because of work, family, or geographic challenges. And this is where the SRI study focused.

SRI worked with five products tested at 13 organizations across the country to seek  answers to these other questions intended to advance the field’s understanding of how particular technology tools can be used to boost classroom instruction. SRI was also able to use these settings to test whether the products might be used outside the classroom.

The findings of the recently published SRI report, which you can read about HERE, are mixed.

The technology products did not individually or collectively increase math and literacy skills.  Nor has education technology yet advanced to the level of sophistication it will need to fulfill its promise for all low skilled adults. Nevertheless, a few findings in the study serve as a springboard for future work on how technology can help the more than 60 million adults who need to build their skills.

  • First, technology could serve as a useful way to augment the time adults spend building their skills, expanding time spent learning. Nearly 60 percent of students reported that the products increased their confidence in being able to learn independently, and nearly two-thirds reported using products at home.  Anecdotally, many programs worry that students will not be able to use technology at home because of limited internet access, but the study finds that is not an issue for over 90 percent of students. Overall, this suggests that most adult basic skills programs will be able to use technology to augment classroom instruction and that adults are open to using tools independently.*
  • Further, instructors perceive the tools as useful in the classroom.  Over 80 percent would recommend the tools to a colleague, and nearly 90 percent found the tools useful in identifying struggling students and differentiating instruction. This suggests a broad openness to experimenting with technology in the classroom.

As the field moves forward in understanding how technology can help low skilled adults, it will be important for policymakers and philanthropists to consider the following approaches:

  • Support quality adult education programs and teachers.  Technology is neither a panacea nor a substitute for good classroom instruction, but instead is a tool we can use to make good programs better.
  • Support  thoughtful integration of technology into the curricula and course objectives of classrooms.  SRI’s study found markedly divergent implementation of the tools. Without a thoughtful connection to classroom content, past studies and SRI’s work suggest that the efficacy will be limited. 
  • Support the development and efficacy of technology for adult education.  This study, and others, suggest that we have not achieved the point where technology can offer a wholesale solution for adult basic skills problems, but we are hopeful to see how future innovations might help.  In this regard, we are particularly excited to see the results of the Barbara Bush Foundation’s Adult Literacy XPrize, sponsored by the Dollar General Foundation.

To carry this work forward, the Joyce Foundation will continue to foster the development of effective technology to help adults develop basic skills.  We are working with Grand Victoria Foundation to support adult education digital learning in Illinois.  And we look forward to announcing further efforts, in the coming weeks, to strengthen the field of adult education technology. 

*This result will not hold for every geography or every population.  But the sites tested here included community based organizations and community colleges; it is enough of a cross-section to suggest that access may be more widespread than we initially suspected.