Monday, December 31, 2012

2013: The Year of the Blended Learner

If a clear division still exists between the traditional classroom and online distance learning, then a hybrid model like blended instruction seeks to muddy those waters.  Another grey area to explore and master may not sound like an appealing prospect for the new year, but those two low-tech vs. high-tech scenarios are polarizing over-simplifications that I believe hold us back as educators.  That's one of many reasons why blended learning is such an exciting prospect for 2013.  It's about giving teachers and learners more options to meet our challenges and more opportunities to speed up or slow down the pace of instruction.

My prediction for the field of adult education in 2013 is the widespread adoption of blended learning.  We will get over the fad diet of 'flipping the classroom' (sorry, Khan), and we'll get serious about immersing our learners in technology-rich learning experiences inside and outside the classroom.  We will go further than simply 'integrating technology' in our classroom instruction, and we'll make computer-based instruction a standard component of every learners' ABE/GED/ESOL experience.

I'm not exaggerating or being sensational about this. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Two Most Important Weeks In Distance Ed

It's December 21st and most adult education programs are closed for Christmas, through the middle of next week, or for a longer winter break until after New Years.  Classes ended a week ago or longer.  Classes won't start until the second week in January. This is the most important two weeks the adult education calendar.

There will be a big spike in GED class enrollments in early January. New Year's resolutions, presumably.  The focus of services shifts to intake, assessment, placement, and orientation.  The momentum of last year's progress has collected some dust.  Higher level or self-directed learners encounter the irony of 'hurry up and wait.'  Think highway miles on your car versus start and stop city miles.  Adults' relationship with continuing education is already intermittent, and then you factor in the wear and tear of starting and stopping in accordance with class terms and schedules.  

Learning is 365
Despite the cyclical nature of public programs and traditional classroom services, the needs of adult learners can be served every day of the year.  We're not going to put a dent in the 40 million people needing GEDs without removing barriers to participation, like summer break and winter break. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

All I want for Xmas are Ed-tech Books

What can you get for Christmas that would most help you with facilitating distance/blended learning?  How about some books about educational technology?  There is some great reading to be done about the wave of innovation that is shaking up instruction.  Here are a few that I'm hoping to tear into soon. Have you read them?   If not, let me know if you picked one up based on seeing it here. Care to add a book to this reading list?

I've been following this Will Richardson guy on twitter, admire his prolific blog, and speeches at various conferences.  And now we have a book, an ebook, rather.  His book on personal learning networks looks good too.  

The business of education is a powerful thing with federal government-backed initiatives, giant publishing companies, and long-standing traditions firmly in place.  Once the machinery gets going, it's hard to stop and turn it in any direction.  Nonetheless, innovative change comes out of left field, usually from the sector with the most important needs and the least power in the whole equation: the learners.  Solutions to adult education's problems may not mesh with the agendas of any of those larger entities.  We may not even recognize them as relevant and viable until we're woefully behind, because our orientation is fixed on the things we see as static and/or top-priority.  Disruptive forces can be harnessed to meet your needs if you reorient to integrate them. This is very much the story of my company, GED Academy's, development parallel to the field of adult education (and now intersecting with it).  I'm hoping this book will help me understand the phenomenon that I'm very much a part of.   

What can be said about Khan Academy that hasn't been said before?  As an adult educator, my imagination was captured by Khan's infrastructure of the flipped classroom.  But, integrating his tools into adult ed requires more time and effort than many teachers or learners can afford.  I'm curious to see how this book relates to adult education.  Anybody read it yet and care to comment? 
The title of this book says it all.  Look for my book report on the topic coming soon.  And yes, it will come with game recommendations. 

Have you asked for education-focused books for Xmas? What's on your reading list? Have you read any of these? Drop a comment and let's grow this list. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How to Accelerate Learning

Emerson raises a cup of hot chocolate to his lips and immediately spits it out thinking that it's too hot. Then the sharp and earthy dark chocolate hits his taste buds and he decides to go back in for another sip.  He'd never had a hot drink before (this one was just above warm) and he'd never had chocolate milk made with Belgian dark chocolate.  Taken separately, he probably wouldn't have gone for either: drinking warm milk or barely sweet chocolate.  But together, the combination gave him pause.  It was soothing, stimulating, contemplative.  Even a two-year old can register some deep thoughts when a good beverage brings the thunder to your core.

"This beverage has transformed my consciousness."

We didn't hear from him for several minutes (except some discussion he seemed to be having with the cup in his hands).This was an accelerated learning moment in Emerson's development. Warm complex flavors on a cool autumn day. One factor acted as a catalyst for making my son receptive to another and opened the flood-gates to new information and better understanding. Combining concepts isn't about overwhelming the learner, it's about raising expectations, about the sum being greater than their parts, about enriching the content with layers of considerations.  Like drinking from a fire-hydrant, you're not going to take it all in, just come back for more. And, like a food and wine pairing, the pieces make more sense when taken together.

Accelerating the Adult Education Process

If there is one thing that prevents people from taking on a new skill, training for a trade, or going back to school, it's TIME. Who's got the patience much less the space in their schedule to dedicate to scholastic endeavors?  In adult ed, the approaching 2014 GED test is creating an imperative: ACCELERATE LEARNING NOW.

But, how do you expedite the learning process as an instructor?  I'm mostly interested in techniques for online learning, but identifying the appropriate media is an important consideration.

  1. Identify higher level learners: Some call it creaming.  People who've got the aptitude and the attitude to take action tend to yield higher success rates. So, where do we find them? No, not screening or intake counseling. That's step two. The people you're looking for may not be those who're already responding to your promotional efforts. Step one is targeted marketing toward the audience with the needs and competencies you can most easily work with.  Specifically, micro-targeting, if you don't mind borrowing a lesson from Barack Obama's impressive campaign strategy.   
  2. Shift gears quickly: Be ready to try different tools to serve different learning styles, abilities and preferences.  Go from worksheets, to videos to books and back to keep the learner from getting bored or too passive to retain new skills. GED Academy does this seamlessly, all in one learning ecosystem. 
  3. Deliver condensed/targeted materials: In Virginia, back in 2005's Race to GED, we used KET's Fast Track books and videos.  We tried Steck-Vaughn's GEDi (21st Century) for OPT style drill and practice (though the program was hamstrung with plug-in issues). And we trained loads of teachers in the most frequently missed problems on the GED test, based on the GED Testing Service's publicly available Powerpoint slides.   
  4. Computer-adaptive programs: One way that you shift gears is to assess, diagnose, and refer to appropriate materials.  The more you assess, the quicker you can shift gears. That's why computer-adaptive instruction (yes, like GED Academy) is always assessing the learner while they work and adjusting its recommendations of lessons accordingly.   The result is targeted instruction without the dependence on a teacher doing the customization.
  5. Study between classes: Blended or hybrid learning keeps the momentum going between classes.  However, it also provides teachers an opportunity to 'flip the classroom' or otherwise divide the labor appropriately between class-time and time outside of class. If learners can put in gobs of work independently (the software needs to be designed to support this), then the teacher can focus on the learners trouble areas during class time. 
  6. Light a FIRE under them! As discussed exhaustively here in three parts, MOTIVATION is the key element to acceleration.  There are so many ways to accomplish it, but without self-determination accelerated learning can result in increased dependency.  If we have to push our learners across the GED finish line, where will they go when they're under their own power?  
  7. Combine concepts: Educators are nervous about this, but the new GED test is going to require multiple reasoning skills in a single problem. Instruction will need to do the same. Computer-based instruction is often nearly one dimensional. We need to find ways to layer our content with multiple concepts so that the learner won't just get one lesson, they'll get several, in a single teaching exercise.  That lesson can even intersect with multiple educational goals: GED, college transitioning, career pathways, technology fluency.  
This is my idea of accelerated learning.  How do YOU put a rush order on student achievement?    
Swish... swish... "Aerate the liquid to reveal more layers of flavor.  Mmmm..."


Monday, October 8, 2012

Motivating eLearners, Pt. 3: An Inspiring Experience

Selecting computer-based teaching tools can be paralyzing for educators. Is it aligned to my pre and post assessment and my endpoint credential?  Is it approved on my state's list of reportable curricula?  Clock time model? Auto log-off?  Who else is using it? Where are the effectiveness studies?  Does it work on tablets? Who has time to evaluate all the products and all the variables?  

Unfortunately, the criteria that we turn to usually reflects our own priorities as educators, administrators, and bureaucrats.  What about our learners? More important that whether a program aligns to your assessments is whether it aligns to your learners.  Is it compelling, helpful, supportive and does it motivate?  The most important aspect of any distance education program are the activities, or online learning programs, that you're asking learners to spend their time using.  Better learning outcomes are possible once we get away from K-12 content repackaged for the adult ed market. 

In the past two installments on motivating eLearners, we looked at the teacher's role as facilitator and the organization's approach to administering services. Now, let's talk about how adult learner focused computer-based instruction can motivate eLearners.  

7) Curating your learning gallery: When facilitating online learning, certain roles that we play become more important than traditional teaching (like advising on study habits, as previously discussed).  Another is curating a gallery of instructional tools and learning opportunities that will hold our learners' attention and facilitate their progress.  I can't keep my inner partisan sales-man in check, because the learning platform matters. This is where I'm going to talk about some of the unique features of GED Academy, but as always, I'd love my readers input on this.  What features of your online learning programs are motivating learners?  To get the ball rolling, I'll go first.   

8) Real-time feedback: After a problem or a lesson is completed, there should be feedback on the spot, while the topic is fresh, whether you got it right or wrong.  It's ideal to go over an item in detail, which is the primary function of GED Academy's virtual teacher, Leonard Williams. But you also need to see where your performance fits into the larger picture of your goal. So,  qualitative and quantitative feedback should be offered. 

9) Visual progress indicators: Also known as progress meters... this kind of feedback loop is powerful and satisfying a it responds to the learners' input.  It not only register incremental movement as each lesson is completed, it shows the learner their proximity to the finish line, and that's where the big-time motivation comes in: the goal of completing.   You don't have to ask them to visualize their goal, it's right there. You don't have to constantly field the question about when they're going to be ready to test, the answer is always right in front of them.

10) An organized toolbox:  Too often, the teacher is the keeper of the tools. We give them out to learners as needed, as we deem it necessary or appropriate.  But the gatekeeper role must be slowly phased out if your learner is going to be self-directed and and eventually self-sufficient in their continuing education.  The image above shows some of the GED Academy's HomeRoom tabs, which give learners multiple ways to study, to connect to other learners, to find their testing center, and to get their concerns addressed through open questioning or searching archives.

11) An invisible guiding hand: The experience of studying online should not be cold and impersonal as you work through a generic prescription of lessons.  It's not enough to start off with a prescriptive pretest, the program should act like a personal tutor and customize its recommendations between lessons.  The program should be constantly assessing the learner and redirecting them appropriately.  Practice tests or post-test assessments should be offered only after the learner has earned the need to have a new learning plan prescribed (or their readiness to test certified).  This kind of computer-adaptive approach is crucial to making the process of learning feel relevant and important to a self-directed learner.  

12) Change the setting, virtually: When an online learning program puts all of these motivational techniques into play and surrounds the learner with mechanisms that direct and support, we call that a 'learning ecosystem.'  When the US Secretary of Education called for the phasing out of textbooks, he called for more "immersive, online learning experiences that engage students in a way a textbook never could." The learner becomes part of it as it responds to their needs.  You identify with the process.  It's not separate, something that can be discarded and left-behind as we see with so many adult learners.  A learning ecosystem takes adult students out of the frame of mind where they don't believe they can succeed.  

I didn't even broach the topic of the learning activities themselves, which should be relatable to adults with a range of learning styles and content-rich to reward multiple run-throughs, and with enough nuance and personality to really draw the learner in.  Besides the teacher's counseling and special tools for organizing time, I think time management is also addressed by the learning program itself actually holding their attention, rewarding their success and keeping them busy with resources. GED Academy (also often used for ABE/Pre-GED/ESOL) is an accelerated learning program, so the learners see the progress they're making right before their eyes.  That's motivating.  

Take a peek at this 2 minute intro to the GED Academy program and you'll see how it individualizes instruction and provides some of the one-on-one support that many learners crave.  If you have questions, please feel free to contact me at jason (at) passged (dot) com. 

If you've got examples you'd like to share, please contribute a comment.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Teaching Tools for the Trashcan, Pt. 1

Periodically, I'm going to walk down memory lane on this blog. Last time, I talked about my first job in adult ed because I think those origins-stories say a lot about our field (won't you add your story?).  Similarly, I think the kinds of technology tools adult ed winds up with are indicative of some of our biggest challenges.  And, in both cases, we learn from those experiences by turning the page and putting them behind us.

In this entry I want to focus on the less than inspiring technology tools that I've encountered in the field, so we can talk about why we need to demand better. I asked on Twitter, "what doesn't work?"  We're always hearing the saying "using what works," but you don't often hear about technology as part of "what works" in adult ed, so let's be clear about the improvements we need to see to really get results from integrating technology in adult ed (link takes you to an awesome David Rosen blog post about that). 

Specifically, I’d like to talk about the techniques and tactics used in adult ed's computer-based instruction (CBI) options.  CBI is going to play a major role for anyone preparing for the 2014 GED test.  There’s no way around it with a more rigorous computer-based test. And there's no way that the old tools are going to get the job done for this new challenge. 

So, let’s look back over some of the FIRST GENERATION technology tools we’ve tried with our learners, and let’s talk about what worked and what didn’t. What our learners really need and which instructional tools we need to leave behind.

  • Text-heavy websites and lessons: The content may be high quality, researched and thoughtful and righteous and may not get read by your target audience.  It may be riveting stuff for a voracious reader, but that's not who adult ed typically serves. For online learning, especially at a distance, we lose learners like sand through a sieve when our instructional resources are full of paragraphs of text. And, often the text isn't even appropriate for the reading levels we're working with.  When they aren't engaged, learners scan the screen for buttons, scrolling through text, trying to move forward to the end - or they're shifting their attention to something else all together (Facebook, shopping, job-hunt?).

How would you improve this lesson?

  • This isn't to say that there isn't an appropriate application for requiring a learner to read long passages online. There are plenty.  Language arts passages - both fiction and work/life oriented, practice editing essays, definitions of vocabulary words, and obviously practice tests - if they're going to have to demonstrate the skill in a test center then give them a chance to do so in on practice test.  But, if the experience around the reading assignment is going to facilitate learning, and reading the passage is required, then technology has got to provide additional options and come at the material from another angle besides 'here read these pages.' If a learner can get around reading and speed through, he will. If they can get a little help, like narration, or back and forth dialog about the passage during the reading, then they will take their time with the material. Look at technology interventions that break up reading like speed bumps. They help learners pace themselves and take in the educational experience all around them. 

Are your students going to learn square roots from this?

From Forbes recent Myths of Online Learning:
Those institutions with restricted budgets may use formats that are little more than text-heavy electronic correspondence courses.  However, on the other end of the spectrum are courses that rival a Hollywood production in their use of color, graphics, animation and simulations.
The idea that learners need to practice reading if they're going to get good at it does more for the teacher than the learner. Education doesn't need to be drudgery. Tough love is one thing, but we can't absolve ourselves of the teaching role.  Meeting the learner where they're at is a big part of an adult educator's job. Technology tools should help by making the same accommodations for adult learners.  They don't need to be Hollywood productions, but it's time the potential of instructional technology was experienced by ABE/GED learners.

What should be the next teaching tool relegated to the trashcan? I've got a list, but your suggestions are welcome. 

    Tuesday, September 4, 2012

    Motivating eLearners, Pt. 2: Approach Matters

    In the previous installment of this blog on motivating elearners, we talked about the teachers' role (1. encouragement, 2. a schedule, 3. setting expectations), but I think the fire is lit long before that.

    First of all, if we expect online learning to be a priority for adult learners, then that requires adult educators to make it their priority as well.  Our organizational culture sets the tone. We're aiming high instead of reducing our outlook on what is possible in adult ed to the lowest common denominator. Easier said than done, I know. Especially after days on end of the seeing the same level learners with the same set of challenges, it's easy to get stuck in a role with an established outlook.  It starts by marketing a concept and getting everyone on staff on board. 

    4) It's not you, it's them: Or, maybe I've got that reversed.  We can't gauge the effectiveness of our approach to distance ed by the results we have (or haven't) gotten by inviting our traditional classroom learners to study online. If they didn't come in to sign up for online learning, they won't likely be motivated to put in the time and make it work. Blended learning is awesome, but it's rarely a gateway experience to independent study. One way to address this issue is through targeted marketing toward technologically savvy learners. Does your local Social Services Department have a button advertising your GED program and its online learning options? Why not? We can't wait for the demand for distance ed to walk through the door. It's already out there (probably buying phoney credentials online). Go get them!

    5) Reframe the notion of going 'back to school': We have to change our messaging and promote ourselves as innovative providers of multi-media learning. Adult ed offers flexible  services to meet anyone's needs, regardless of busy schedules. On demand testing is coming with the computer-based GED test. On demand everything else will need to follow. And for those who don't quite qualify in terms of digital literacy or basic skills, we need to provide instruction that transitions them onto the learning highway and into the fast-lane of self-direction in a hurry.  It will alleviate teachers' workloads and grow your organization's impact. If that means tackling digital literacy as a basic skill along with reading, writing and 'rithmetic, let's do it.  In ABE/GED classes and during initial orientation periods, we must provide computer literacy instruction to enable learners to participate in the opportunity that computer-based instruction holds. 

    6) A support network of internet access: Distance learning usually means that the learning takes place on the learners' terms, as in time and place. But, there's a tendency to assert control and manage variables.  What the heck is a "distance learning center" anyways?  Seems a little contradictory to me.  Online learning should be decentralized.  But for many learners, anyplace closer to home saves time and gas money and removes barriers to participation.  Every computer lab and community partner can play a role in your distance ed plans if they're willing to host your learners who don't have internet access at home. Libraries are key.  One-stops.  Friends and relatives' houses too. If internet access is still inconsistent, then blended learning may be their best bet for the time being.

    I think we're getting closer to identifying the essential ingredients for elearner motivation.  Some aspects are innate or intrinsic; the learner already possesses the aptitude and attitude to be successful. We just have to meet their needs. Other motivational techniques involve an educator's persuasive input.  Either way, opportunities to grow adult education in the web-based environment are at our disposal.  In my opinion, the third and last installment of motivating learners is the most important. And, it's the area that adult educators have the most trouble with.  I'll give you a hint: If I had a hammer...(commence whistling and stay tuned for part 3)

    HeyHere's part 3: An Inspiring Experience

    Tuesday, August 28, 2012

    My First Job in Adult Education

    How each of us came to the field of adult education says something about our personal mission and approach as instructors/administrators, but I have a hunch that the stories have an even greater significance as a view into the inner workings of our ABE/GED/ESOL system.  Let's be honest.  It takes a special person to choose the red-headed stepchild of education for their career, where only a small percentage of jobs are full-time, and very few political decision-makers are convinced of our effectiveness, much less the necessity of our services.  And what sane person would seek out adult ed in order to be on the cutting edge of instructional technology?  

    Since I started this blog in the hopes of trading stories and perspectives with a larger public (that's you!), I think it's time for me to ante up with the story of my first job in adult education.  Besides, I've been feeling reflective since leaving the public sector and taking up a new angle on this education game.  Maybe, if we put the pieces of our respective pasts together, we'll gain some insights about the way forward (road signs, maybe?).

    Integrating Technology in Adult Ed, One New Hire at a Time
    When I asked Richmond's adult ed program manager for a job, he asked back, "Are you good with computers?" That question meant something different in the year 2000 than it does today. "Pretty good," I responded hopefully.  "Great. Clean out that closet and try to put together some computers from all of the parts you find in there." In this case, I was able to demonstrate my computer prowess by matching color-coded cords from keyboards to CPUs to monitors and mice and speakers.  Pretty advanced stuff (snark), but an unmet need at the time, and I was grateful for the opportunity.

    After half of a summer spent dusting off old textbooks and playing IT guy, there were just a couple weeks before the first day of class.  That's when it was decided that I would teach GED classes for 16 and 17 year olds (right up my alley, still feeling like a rebellious youth myself).  I was ready to play big-brother and play an authoritative role, but I couldn't find any clear direction about a standard curricula or text that I should teach from, nor how to address a vague 'career and technical ed' requirement. But, I had a classroom and students and the promise of a paycheck at an hourly rate that I'd never reached before.    

    Just prior to this job, I'd been a substitute teacher, a role that really helped me get to know Richmond better, as the schools are often microcosms of the surrounding communities.  At this point, I'd been filling in for a sick teacher who wound up not coming back at all during the remainder of the year.  So I was used to hastily preparing lesson plans, as my substitute teaching job wasn't certain from one day to the next. Really wanting to be successful in this new job, I was hoping to assemble a concrete plan for GED instruction.  And because I knew with teenagers the teacher needs to be ready to shift gears, I wanted a pile of resources for my teaching toolbox. After hounding teachers and support staff and getting nowhere, I was informed of the existence of a statewide adult ed teacher support organization, the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center (VALRC), and it was less than a mile away. 

    The Second First Coming of Blended Learning
    Before classes began, I was invited to the VALRC for an impromptu training in KET's Workplace Essential Skills (and later, their GED Connection program).  The blended learning approach of KET's multimedia content immediately became my blueprint for instruction: watch videos, discuss and instruct, work online or in a workbook, give feedback and instruct and repeat.  The system gave rhythm to my work, and made me thirst for more instructional tools.  I even wound up giving a workshop on blended instruction at the VAACE conference in 2001.  I was a little insecure about my lack of a statewide or national context for adult ed and GED services (still working on that, actually), but I wound up training hundreds of teachers in those KET products in years to come. 

    My enthusiasm for technology enhanced instruction helped me get invited back to the VALRC, at first to answer the statewide GED Helpline and later as a full time employee offering professional development trainings for teachers all over the state - mostly focused on blended learning and integrating free online teaching tools, but also test-taking strategies as Virginia had launched a fast-track program for near-passers.  Advocating for blended learning for over a decade has been a real roller-coaster - one I need to explore on this blog further. Whether on the phone, email, or through workshops with teachers, there has been a common thread in my practice: putting the tools in learners' hands to help them be successful, but also to encourage them as self-directed learners.

    Learner Directed Learning
    I'm still trying to piece together how my start in adult ed has affected my current direction. Embracing change and entering into unknown territory have always been my biggest learning opportunities (not that I've done so fearlessly at every turn - after all, I did become a public sector bureaucrat, after all).  There is definitely a theme here though: looking to instructional tools as my guide. Not because they replace teachers. They don't. Computer-based instruction (CBI) makes opportunities for teachers, setting up more efficient targeted instruction and one-on-one tutoring.  But most importantly, because good CBI helps learners reach their potential. Unlike with K-12, adult learners need to become self-sufficient, to continue their own education.   Not simply to stay on the straight and narrow, but to read and interpret the road signs all around them.  Looking for that kind of supportive CBI experience has lead me to Essential Education and GED Academy, but what do the road signs say for the direction of adult education?

    And what about your story? (contribute a comment please)

    Monday, August 13, 2012

    Motivating eLearners, Pt. 1: Time Management

    One of the problems commonly cited by distance learning practitioners is getting learners to follow through on their commitment to work.  So, we're basically talking about adult ed's Achilles heal: retention.  Computers are not a magic bullet that will cure all of adult ed's ills, and we can't expect that every application of technology will motivate every learner.  Despite flexibility and accessibility, attrition is still an issue with online learning. So let's look closer at where the process breaks down and how we can see better results as our learners push through their challenges. 

    A June post on the LINCS professional development list zeroed in on a particular challenge: time management. Roger Downey, of Brooklyn, Michigan writes:     
    One of the main problems is finding a length of time to work at home without interruptions.  They might be able to do ten or fifteen minutes at a time, but find that they have to go over things when they do leave and come back.  The family at home, especially for single parents, is very difficult to get away from.  When the adult comes to school, they can find someone, usually, to watch the ‘home’ while they are away, but to find someone to watch the ‘home’ when they are home is a difficult situation.
    I think I've heard every reason why online learning is a non-starter, won't work, isn't applicable, or doesn't fit adult ed over my 12 years promoting distance ed. I can't refute them all, but maybe adult learners themselves can make a case.  Time management seems like a good place to start, as it gets at the core issue of retention: learner motivation. Our learners are the solution to their own problems, and it's their leadership that will shape the future of adult ed services. No offense to Downey (I responded to his post and we spoke on the phone as well), or anyone who's come up short trying to get results with web-based instruction, but we can't exempt the populations we serve from the option of online distance learning.  We're just letting ourselves off the hook from branching out and growing in new directions as educators. I have advice on program design, in which time management is just one facet. 

    Time is on Their Side I don't think adult ed will have to leave the traditional classroom behind, but computer-based instruction that results in  self-directed learners is much closer at hand - and much easier to implement - than many seem to think.  Here are a few suggestions to address some of the barriers of time-on-task:

    1) So, you wanna be a cheerleader? Say yes.  The facilitator of online learning shifts the bulk of their attention from teaching academic content to counseling on goal-setting and encouraging good study skills (and tutoring to fill in gaps).  Along the way, you will be called on to root for your learners' steady progress, helping them restart when they get off track, and helping them structure their commitments to make time for their studies, switching subjects or learning platforms to boost morale. Whatever it takes to keep motivation high enough to sustain self-directed learning.

    2) You can lead a learner to water: Ironically, finding time to study on a 24/7 time-frame is just as hard as getting to class for many learners, even for those who've requested distance education.  Fortunately, without the time and place requirement, there are more opportunities to drop back in.  This is where educators can mentor learners to make good on their intentions. That usually means helping them organize their time or developing a schedule. However, when the drive to learn and achieve is there, they find the time. Most industrious online learners wind up burning the midnight oil, working between 10pm-2am, after the kids are asleep.

    3) Let's make a deal: Consider establishing an expectation for participation, below which, their account closes until they recommit. I think five hours per week is a good guarantee that the learner will build a foundation of skills, establish forward momentum, and they'll be rewarded by witnessing their own progress.  While your program's requirement of five hours may motivate your learners to put in more time, three hours per week is pretty good too.  It's like haggling. Ask for five, settle for three.  At least it's not zero.  Set high expectations and use what they give you and encourage it.

    The next few recommendations will discuss the basic approach and structural elements of providing distance education and the role they play in motivating eLearners. Be sure to tune back in, but in the meantime, please leave a comment.

    (part two concerns the larger programmatic approach to distance ed, see it right here)

    Wednesday, June 20, 2012

    The Ticking GED Timebomb

    I used one of those pre-fab widgets to create a countdown to the new GED test over on the sidebar (I know it doesn't quite fit right). Maybe I'm just so anxious that I have to spread that feeling to everyone else, but this new test is the elephant in the room for so many adult educators. We've been though so much with the old test. It's gonna be hard to say goodbye to those five tests (that were really just one big reading and critical thinking test). So, we need to talk about it, plan for it, workshop it, unpack it, and generally reorient our whole system of ABE/GED instruction because of it. That last bit is more than I want to talk about in this post, but let's see where the conversation goes (that means, I really want you to comment. But first please click play on this blog's soundtrack).

    Recently, I was thinking about the nifty feature on a student's GED Academy "homeroom"  where they set their GED testing goal on a calendar, and it starts a countdown.  It serves as a gentle reminder. It helps them organize their short-term goals and prompts them to look for benchmarking opportunities. And, it adds a little pressure to do the work to be prepared when the time comes.  How does our system of adult education measure up in that regard? Are we making preparations for computer-based testing? What does that look like where you are?  How about the  digital literacy to actually be successful using computer-based instruction? (talking both learners AND teachers here) Where does distance education fit in? Still just for the select few, or will blended learning be the new managed enrollment? Aren't you going to miss those obligatory five-paragraph essays? (I'm not) And most urgent of all, how are we going to accelerate our learners' progress to pass the 2002 series GED test in the meantime?  We've got to do it in a way that simultaneously prepares our system for the 2014 test.

    Readers, I look forward to your contributions and to responding with more of my own ideas.

    Tuesday, June 5, 2012

    Down with Waiting Lists and Summer Break

    Schooooool's out. For. Summer!  Schooooooool's out. For. Ever! 

    That first line is the refrain in adult education this time of year (the latter sentence, unfortunately, may be our learners' response).  Many adult ed programs operate on the K12 schedule, closing up shop for the summer.  It's not uncommon to turn clients away. Our programs are small and underfunded, often we're basically guests in a school building owned by more robust educational institutions.  When our classes are full, we put people on waiting lists or tell them to come back at a later date. Our primary tool is the classroom, and when that tool is all locked up til fall, our learners are out of luck.  Have you noticed this?  Got a solution to share?

    He's no Alice Cooper, but this little guy runs straight into the woods when you cut him loose.

    It's time that we addressed the summer down-time and at-capacity classes as an opportunity to promote self-directed learning. The learners who step up will really set themselves apart, and the same goes for the teachers. Back when I answered the GED Helpline for the state of Virginia, I gave out telephone numbers for adult ed programs that I knew were closed.  How frustrating, especially considering that Virginia is hardly the only state where this is the case.  To try and salvage those missed opportunities, I spread the word to learners about the GED Connection TV show and various free study sites.  And in more recent years, I paired eLearn Virginia's online mentors with summer studiers and those seeking opportunities to study online.  

    That run into the woods ended up with a personal escort for the second half.

    What is preventing adult ed from providing services during the summer and winter breaks?

    Closed facilities: If the public school building is locked for the break, have the learners study at home. If that's not an option, help them make arrangements to use community computer labs (libraries, etc), relatives' houses, etc.  Removing barriers to participation is the goal here, and our learners' motivation often goes up when they see us making efforts to accommodate them. 

    Staff on break: An online mentor or facilitator of online learning can oversee dozens of learners' work in just a 5-10 hours per week. So, keep a part-time teacher on the payroll for supporting online learners.  Email and telephone is sufficient follow-up and support for many learners if their learning platform and study skills are a good match.  If the issue is a desire for control over the learning process, then try adjusting to a new relationship with your learners. The summer and winter breaks and the period of time learners spend on waiting lists, all of these are opportunities to approach adult education from another angle. Experiment. Put the ball in the learner's court and see what comes back to you. As seen in the picture above, the result may be deeper engagement, increased affinity, and a great bonding experience.

    Need proctored assessments: Even though most online learning platforms begin with prescriptive pretests, online learners still need to come in for an assessment in order to be reportable.  That's no excuse for denying services. Don't let the process stop anyone from making progress.  Although I'm for letting learners start ahead of assessment (I think the TABE needs to be administered within the first 6 hours - freeze their account then until they come in, if you like), there are tons of non-reportable activities that you can give learners during an interim period. How about contributing some here with a comment?  Or, how about just working with them as non-NRS-reportable learners and identifying short and long-term goals that you can count: GED, CRC, NEDP, obtain employment. Serve enough people that way and you'll make a bigger impact in the community, elevate your organization's profile, and have more proof of effective services for your grant proposals.

    Wednesday, May 16, 2012

    A Little Light Reading

    There is so much to talk about right now in adult education.  As one of my last duties with the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center, I contributed content toward the GED-focused issue of their Progress newsletter. It's a great issue, if I do say so myself.

    • David Rosen tackles GED Testing Service's big transition. 
    • Integrating technology into instruction is given a fresh look.
    • Helping people finish up the 2002 series GED test compiles regional approaches (I wrote it!).
    • An extensive interview with GED Testing Service spokesperson, C.T. Turner

    Get "a round TUIT"... get it?
    Although the above newsletter is out of Virginia, most of the content is relevant to adult ed nationally.  I'd love to get some discussion going around the articles in this issue.

    Monday, April 23, 2012

    Q & A: The Computer Based 2014 GED Test

    Today, the LINCs Assessment list is hosting a panel of GED Testing Service representatives as they field questions about the new test they've been describing with their Assessment Guide.  There's a lot of anxiety about the new test, and I'm hoping that both sides work things out with these sorts of public discussions. In the meantime, I also want to see adult education embrace innovation and meet the growing need for online learning.  So, I'm pulling a few of the questions out, as they come in, so we can debate the topics that are most relevant to computer-based instruction and distance education: 

    I certainly understand, and endorse, the need for the computer based test, raising performance standards, and the need for transitioning, but my overriding concern is for the students who lack computer skills.  It seems that by mandating a computer only test based policy, we are placing a large segment of the GED and Adult Education student population at a distinct disadvantage as they prepare to take the test.  In my opinion, a computer version only option for taking the GED test is potentially unfair to this segment of the adult population.  Such a policy could potentially be labeled as discriminatory and could possibly face a legal challenge.(David in Mississippi) 

    This is a common concern, so my response is not directed at David.  In fact, I'm glad he described the situation so clearly.  There is a sizable segment of the population that we serve in adult education that either isn't interested in using computers, or we just can't conceive of them becoming proficient enough to be successful as a computer-based tester.  However, I don't know if we can claim that requiring computer skills is unfair. The GED test certifies skills equivalent to those required to graduate from high school. To graduate from high school today, you need to use computers.  Trying to exempt our learners from these skills that are so foreign to them is akin to asking for a time-machine accommodation so they can go back in time to take the GED during the era when they left school.  And even then, they'd need to learn how to work the controls on the time machine (I'm hoping it's part Delorean). 

    Okay, that's a cheap joke. But, I'm being silly, because I think that it's puzzling that educators point to learners "lacking skills" as a permanent barrier. And, of course, not every person who is held back by computer illiteracy is generations removed from being a digital native or a millennial, etc. 

    Tuesday, April 17, 2012

    COABE Attendees: Care to Share?

    I love the COABE conference, and I always desperately need to debrief with my fellow attendees after returning back home.  Each year that I've gotten to attend as a GED Specialist from Virginia, I've left feeling inspired by the workshops, keynotes, and publisher offerings.  This year, I spent the entire conference on my feet in the vendor area at the Essential Education booth.  Although my favorite way to spend a workday is attending short sessions and professional development workshops, I had to miss out on that this year.  So, maybe you'd be willing to share your highlights with a comment. Of course, I've still got a few epiphanies to contribute, so I'll get to that right now. 

    I've never really seen myself as a sales person, but I am positively evangelical about the potential of online tools to empower adult learners and to help adult education programs grow in new directions.  So, working the vendor area wasn't too much of a stretch for me.  Interacting with as many adult educators as I did this year was especially gratifying. There was lots of enthusiasm passed back and forth, and although I did hear about some unique circumstances and needs, for the most part, there are a few really big obstacles that are confronting adult educators.  Digital literacy. Workforce and career transitioning.  And budget cuts.  I'm looking forward to following up with my new contacts to chip away at those challenges.

    From the vendor room vantage point, I was able to soak up a few things:

    Sunday, April 8, 2012

    I Screen. You Screen. Why Screen?

    Is computer literacy required to participate in online learning?  On first glance at the question, most would say yes, by definition, it is. In adult education, the common practice of screening potential online learners for their computer literacy would also indicate that it's a foregone conclusion.*  I screened wannabe elearners daily for years while managing Virginia's distance learning program and felt like I had the telephone intake process down to a science (though I often let people give it a go, even when I saw red flags).  And I still recommend some approaches to screening in the distance education implementation guide that I'm working on, but I'm feeling increasingly conflicted about it. 

    COABE is in a couple days, and I'm giving a presentation about my company's new digital literacy course, Computer Essentials Online (due out in June).  It's a computer literacy curricula that's delivered on the web.  See where my conflict is coming from?  It makes perfect sense, in a way. Who better to teach you to use computers than a computer?  It's like when you were in high school: kissing your hand probably wasn't the best way to practice getting to first base. But, then there's that catch 22. You need the skill to learn the skill. Wrong. You need motivation and support, maybe an orientation period, and someone to check in on you and give feedback. Talking about online learning now, not kissing, by the way.  But we'll get back to those details

    What's Good for the Goose
    If we're going to screen people out of publicly provided learning opportunities, maybe we should screen teachers out of teaching opportunities too. (ouch! doesn't feel good, does it?) Computer illiteracy hasn't stopped many adult education instructors from holding teaching positions, so why should learners who see what they want on the internet (learning that's flexible in terms of time/place) be prevented from going and getting it through a reliable provider?  That teacher bit sounds like a low blow, but let's be real. If you want your job bad enough, you find a way to prove your worth and retain your position, despite your limitations. We've all got deficiencies of one kind or another.  Just as the computer illiterate teacher may not be maximizing their effectiveness, the new computer user studying online can function at least on a basic level and hopefully make gains.  And, if the online curricula has benefited from intuitive instructional design, maybe they'll be successful self-directed learners. So, the teaching tools are also a detail that can make a big difference.

    Thursday, March 15, 2012

    GED Classes on the Moon

    This is a kick in the pants for adult education.  Whether you think we need it or not, please listen up.  This post should provoke some questions that require a larger discussion, and that will hopefully start with your comments.  
    • Is the new GED test going to force us to innovate our instruction and delivery of services?
    • Shouldn't we be innovating anyway? 
    • What are the economic incentives for embracing technology? New markets, new funding streams, and an updating of the adult education brand?
    • With our objections, are we protecting our learners' interests, or are we afraid of the responsibility that comes with uprooting our routines and ushering in a renaissance? 
    In this 2 minute YouTube clip, we see a dichotomy: two very different attitudes towards technology and innovation, not unlike the ongoing push/pull adult education experiences around the same topic.  Have a listen to Maher vs. Tyson, as well as my take on the matter, and weigh in with your perspective. 


    Since the clip has been removed from YouTube, the astrophysicist said of the 60s:
    [the space program] transformed the culture in the USA in that decade to be one of innovation and discovery. And when you have that as part of your culture, you innovate. And when you innovate, you are responsible for birthing entire new economies that drive your nation's wealth.
    Doesn't that sound good to you? Entire new economies that drive adult education's future? 

    Wednesday, March 7, 2012

    What's Your Problem?

    ...and what do you need to solve it? Actually there are probably several problems when it comes to online learning, distance education, and computer based instruction in adult ed.  And all of the things we need that could be potential solutions must be dizzying for adult educators. Paralyzing, even.  Let's talk our way out of this situation. 

    I need you to contribute here: 
    • What problems are you facing in adult education?
    • What do you need to solve them? 
    Let me help with a few things I hear often:
    • We don't have computers in the classroom. 
    • Our learners don't have internet access. 
    • Students (and teachers) lack the computer skills to make online learning effective. 
    • We can't afford the software licenses.
    • The new GED test is going to exclude many of our learners. 
    • We need online ESOL instruction.
    • Distance learners aren't reportable without a proctored assessment.
    Please add your problem to the list with a comment. Or, comment on one of these.  Offer a solution, or a clarification.*  I'll do the same once I see some input from you. (don't make me beg)

    *a great way to get topics on my radar for future blogs/podcasts

    Monday, March 5, 2012

    Introduction, Take One, Two, and Three

    Voice Recorder >>

    This is a test podcast. Actually, more like a trial run at an introduction.  A dress-rehearsal in three parts.  There are a lot of kinks to work out in my delivery, but I want to get this started now. There are so many people that I want to start connecting with about distance education: past, present, and future colleagues, clients, mentors and acquaintances.

    I'm torn between trying to build this site as a depository for everything I want to share with the adult ed service providers I work with and building a vital community of practice. One is shooting for the moon, the other, the stars.  By throwing my hat in the ring, I hope to encourage others to do the same, right here on this site.

    Some things missing in this opening intro: Maybe some visuals. More details on how and why the world of adult education needs to change. That explanation is coming in future posts.  A real microphone. Fewer "ums." And, lastly, ENERGY.  But, for a first recording (first take, actually), it's good enough to get the ball rolling. I hope to make these and more adjustments and improvements  in Take Two.

    Let's try this again. Only this time, with video.

    Okay. So, yes.  I work from home, and I sit right by a window with a lot of sun.  The camera makes me a little uncomfortable.  Any further comments by me would probably come across as vanity.  If you were blocked from viewing this by a public school firewall, comment saying so, and let's figure out a work-around.  Now, let's try narrating a slideshow.
    Well, if these aren't humble beginnings, I don't know what. I'm still learning Audacity and and how they come together to make slide-casting possible. And then there was a glitch in Google Docs (sacrilege!) that made some text invisible.  But, I don't want us to get distracted by the details of the technology tools.  Either they facilitate communication or they inhibit it.

    Which of these three introductions gets your vote? I asked an education professor at VCU which tool I should use for my podcasts and he said "all of them." I don't think he meant, all in the first blog post. But, I'm all for experimentation and using a diversity of tactics.   The slide-cast was much more labor intensive than the other two takes.  Even though there were some hiccups that didn't quite get worked out before posting, it seems like it's got potential. And not just for educator professional development, but for adult education instruction, wouldn't you say? One person on twitter already asked for info-graphics. Who's got some provocative stats regarding online learning?

    More to come, I promise. Subscribe to this blog, would ya?