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)