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.

Computer illiterate online learners can certainly be a drain on your online facilitators or whomever handles troubleshooting and hand-holding via email, chat and phone.  The more dependent and high-maintenance your learners are while studying online, the fewer learners their teachers can afford to support with their allotted hours.  In my old program, online mentors carried a load of 15 learners with their 10 hours of budgeted "teaching" time (facilitating is more accurate).  And those were screened learners, who were referred by an adult ed program because they already used email and were accustomed to the surfing the web, and then screened again for appropriateness by me upon entry. Now, I believe there are ways to serve at least twice as many distance learners with the same limited number of mentors in the same amount of time - even without requiring that the learner have fluency with email or very much experience navigating the web.    

The Chicken IS the Egg
It makes sense that I'm the one to promote our new Computer Essentials Online program. I've been advocating for adult learners' increased access to web-based tools for over a decade.  Of course, I want to help more people cross the digital divide and really take part in the empowering potential of a technology-enhanced lifelong learning experience.  Our new digital literacy program will help people make the most of the opportunities presented by computer-based instruction to prepare for the GED. It'll help teachers strengthen their aptitude with technology.  It will hopefully play a part in ushering in a new era in adult education when digital literacy is mandatory for everyone on the giving or receiving end of our services (sorry for the advertizing, but it's for the sake of argument, and I'm practicing for COABE).  But, it's not a pre-requisite for computer-based GED instruction.  Could be, and it'd probably be a good one, but not completely necessary in every case. 

When I went to work for Essential Education, it was their years of experience helping people all over the country to study for the GED test over the internet that impressed me most. Unlike my rudimentary intake process, they really did have it down to a science, but screening learners wasn't a part of their approach. In fact, the student homeroom that welcomes every GED Academy learner is so intuitive and supportive, the navigation supports novice computer users in addition to taking a lot of the weight of facilitation off of the instructor/mentor.  So, with the right teaching tool, the computer enables learning instead of preventing it.  What was a foreboding barrier, becomes an enjoyable jungle-gym, to engage the learner and strengthen their computer skills during the learning process.  

I assumed that in my new job I'd primarily be helping schools provide distance ed services.  But, as it turns out, most adult ed programs use GED Academy (and SkillsTutor/MHC/ALEKS/Aztek/iPathways/etc) as a classroom or computer lab supplement. They're keeping the learners close, so they can provide support/oversight.  The question of screening becomes moot. If distance learning is the goal, then a substantial orientation is often in place to make sure the learner can fly once they're pushed out of the nest. So, computer based instruction and computer literacy lessons are interwoven.  They support and feed into one another.  It's not a chicken and egg proposition.

I don't have a conclusion.  There are too many variables within a program design, but there are likewise a great many possibilities. There's so much upside from branching out into online learning, that we have to take off the emergency brake and go for it, and that means opening the flood-gates, with fewer obstacles to participation  This topic is full of interconnected questions that cut deep into the foundation of adult education. One of our most basic practices is assessment for placement in the appropriate level class with the appropriate focus.  Why not assess for the appropriateness of online "classes" then?  I think it comes down to the decision of whether we're going to play gate-keeper, refusing entry to motivated people, or crossing guards who guide learners' safe passage across the digital divide. 

Please jump in with your perspective.

*Even more common than screening out potential distance learners is the knee-jerk reaction that adult education's target audience doesn't have access to computers, doesn't have the capacity to learn to use technology for their own education, and because our teachers can't figure out how to administer online learning effectively, there learners' expectation that they should be allowed to study online is seen as unrealistic. 

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