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