Sunday, March 17, 2013

Crowdfunding Innovation in Adult Education

I don't know how I'd missed out on Brenda Dann-Messier's keynote speeches at so many of the conferences that I've attended in recent years. But I made it to this year's Virginia Literacy Leadership Conference this year, and I'm so glad I did. conference brings together community based literacy organizations (CBLOs) from across the state of Virginia, and here I was exhibiting for a product called GED Academy and another called Computer Essentials. Most people just walk on by because CBLOs typically handle literacy-level and ABE learners and refer GED learners to their local adult ed programs.  But, there's always room for innovation.  The new GED calls for a stronger foundation of basic skills and pretty wide range of computer skills, and these things are going to affect CBLOs.
Dann-Messier speaking in Virginia

Making Technology Transformative 

Dann-Messier talked about her work with Dorcas Place in Providence, Rhode Island.  Early in her talk she mentioned that her organization made great strides helping people learn well beyond the GED, and they were able to do this by embracing innovation at every turn.  Whoa. Most adult educators are struggling with the idea that very many of their GED students are interested in studying for a goal beyond their high school equivalency credential.  But how about embracing innovation at the same time?  Bigger gains and more ambitious goals can be an outgrowth of innovation... that is, if the innovation prioritizes the needs of adult learners and rewards motivation.  But that's not been the experience of most adult educators.  And there are more pessimistic views on this, of course.

Many of the attendees who'd come past my table explained that their programs lack the computers and computer-savvy clients to make use of innovative tools.  Before I could wonder how Dann-Messier's message was going over with the audience, I immediately thought of Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education, Dann-Messier's boss.  Duncan recently made headlines saying that "over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete."  He goes on to suggest that immersive learning environments are the answer.   I definitely like the sound of that, being a salesman of an immersive learning program.  But what would Duncan say to ABE-focused CBLOs?

Instead of Just Doing More with Less...

...just do more. Bigger. Better. In new directions.  Seth Godin said in a recent blog, "It's possible that your next frontier isn't to get more efficient, it's to get more brave."  Godin is always pushing his readers to question tradition and the presumed constraints that dictate business as usual. So how can we embrace innovation bravely, and where will the money come from?

An ATM for the CBLO 

Here's an idea:
  • Pick out your computers and your computer-based instructional tools
  • Make a list of their costs and their benefits
  • Include resources to promote your new services
  • What else do you need to make your expansion a reality?
  • How much will it cost?
  • Post that list in a campaign on Kickstarter (or some other crowdfunding site) with requests for donations to support your ambitious new plan.* 

Make your pitch for :
"We're adding digital literacy as a core skill for all of our clients.  Everybody in the Greater Richmond area should be able to fill out an online job application, use the internet to find important services, and take part in the online communities that enrich our society. Fluency with technology has become a requirement in modern workplaces and daily life, and we are going to assist the people of our region by expanding our own technological capacity with upgraded hardware and innovative instructional software.  Your donation will..." 

The Bridge Already Exists in People's Minds

What you don't see in this prescription is the resonance that will fuel the spirit of giving, but it's there in spaces.  Asking people online - using social media networks - to support bringing less fortunate people across the digital divide - activates a frame that already exists in your potential donors' minds.  Of course this needs to happen. Yes, I want to give.  I've got an extra computer.  Can I volunteer as a computer tutor?

The field of adult education doesn't have to languish in obscurity, operating in the margins of society. With the right promotion and by asking the right people for help, the evolving mission of adult ed could go viral.       

* I couldn't find many adult ed Kickstarter projects to reference here (another reason why your organization should do one), but here's a link to a Kickstarter for a nifty adult ed book that I hope to review soon. 

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