Can technology reshape adult education?

National survey of adult educators shows opportunity for instructional technology to dramatically improve and expand adult basic education.

adult-educationA national survey of stakeholders from across the adult education ecosystem finds enthusiasm and desire for instructional technologies among those serving the nation’s underprepared adult learners.

An overwhelming majority of surveyed adult education administrators and practitioners – 86 percent – believe technology solutions can effectively support instruction.

“Learning for Life: The Opportunity for Technology to Transform Adult Education” is the first of two papers exploring the effective use of advanced learning technologies in adult education and presents findings from the national survey. Published by Tyton Partners with support from the Joyce Foundation and in partnership with the Commission on Adult Basic Education, the paper is available for free download here.

“Ed-tech funding was at a record high in 2014 as investors and businesses chase the promise for technology to make a transformative impact on student learning and achievement in preK-12, postsecondary and corporate and professional learning environments,” said Adam Newman, co-founder and managing partner at Tyton Partners in Boston and co-author of the new research report. “We need the same level of zeal, creativity, and resources applied to solutions supporting the significant number of underprepared adults.”

(Next page: Top findings from the survey)

“Although not a panacea, advanced learning technologies have shown enormous potential in K-12 and university settings, and arguably offer even greater value for busy adults trying to build essential skills to improve their lives,” said Matt Muench, program officer at the Joyce Foundation.

“If there is any area of the education market that would seem most to cry out for new thinking and new tools, it would be this enormous slice of American learners. Yet few entrepreneurs are engaged with the challenges, venture capital dollars ignore the problem and when we go to the education innovation events around the country, there is almost no discussion about this problem and how technology and new thinking might solve it,” continued Muench.

The intelligent use of new learning tools, from freely available content to the latest generation of adaptive learning software that can provide personalized learning experiences to each learner, has great potential to improve learning gains for students, yet is too rare in the classrooms where adults go to build their basic skills.

Moreover, an upward trend in smartphone ownership across demographics and age groups suggests a growing opportunity for mobile solutions and applications to benefit student engagement, classroom instruction and learning outside of the classroom. Given the perceived lack of students’ computer access outside the classroom, smartphones represent a practical – and achievable – solution for capitalizing on this opportunity, and point to an initial pathway for addressing the technology access challenge more broadly, says the report.

In addition to the receptivity of adult education professionals to instructional technology opportunities, there are several other key findings emerged among those surveyed:

• Most adult education program instructors report they are comfortable using technology in their work; fewer than one in five adult ed professionals believe technology is challenging or difficult.
• Technology infrastructure is strong across the adult education system; more than 80 percent of respondents reported consistent access to the internet and on-site computers.
• Investing in technology is a budget priority for most program administrators, even as funding constraints limit their ability to pursue more robust technology investments.
• Almost 90 percent of adult education programs take advantage of the free, open educational resources that currently are available to support instruction; these technology solutions are valued because of their availability even if they aren’t necessarily a great fit for the educational use case.
• More than 50 percent of respondents believe smartphones can benefit student engagement, classroom instruction, or learning opportunities outside the classroom. But, only 27 percent of survey respondents say they use mobile apps and games to support adult education instruction.

“The resourcefulness exhibited by adult education professionals seeking to introduce more innovative technology-based instructional resources and strategies is exciting,” said Newman. “In addition to more creativity from technology innovators and entrepreneurs, the hope is that policymakers respond with even the modest steps that could augment programs’ resources and infrastructure and support efforts to bring advanced technologies to struggling adult learners.”

(Next page: Where to go from here)

The paper offers a set of actions and initiatives for consideration by adult education champions to spur innovation, including:

• Policy makers should conduct regular technology audits of adult education programs and establish incentives for program improvement;
• Program administrators and practitioners must clearly define their programmatic vision and the role and opportunity for technology;
• Foundations and private-sector funders should raise awareness of the need for new technology and can act as catalysts for policies and programs that support experimentation and collaboration in adult education;
• Suppliers and entrepreneur should seek to adapt existing K-12 and postsecondary solutions for adult market and explore channels for supplemental, mobile-first, out-of-the-classroom solutions.

Conducted in November 2014, the survey collected data from more than 1,000 program administrators and practitioners across the adult education system. The data provide insight into the opportunity for technological innovations to take root more broadly in the U.S. adult education field. A second complementary report, focused on the current ecosystem of adult education suppliers, will be available later this spring. “Learning for Life: The Opportunity for Technology to Transform Adult Education” is available for free download now here.

Tyton Partners (formerly Education Growth Advisors) is a provider of investment banking and strategy consulting services to the global knowledge sector.

The Joyce Foundation invests in solutions to pressing economic and social challenges that affect the quality of our lives, the well-being of our communities and the fairness of our society.

Material from a press release was used in this report.

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