When Adult Learners Won't Simply 'Level Up'

When Adult Learners Won't Simply 'Level Up'

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8x + 2 – 3x + 4 = 14

The math problem was one of three – and the most complex – on the board that greeted students Monday morning at the Literacy Action Center, a non-profit organization based in Salt Lake City, Utah that provides math and literacy instruction for English-speaking adults with limited reading, writing and/or math skills. Most learners enter the program performing at less than a 5th grade level, though many in today’s class began instruction at the Kindergarten level.

Today’s algebra was too complex for many students, who ranged in age from 18 to early 70s, while others viewed it as a familiar adversary and slogged through the process to find the answer and write it in their notebooks. The vast range of skill and experience within the classroom is just one of the challenges that face adult education today.

Students can retest their skills every 50 hours, which for some amounts to retesting every couple weeks. It’s not uncommon for a learner to jump one or more reading level during that time period, however there are those that have been at the center for years fighting for each small gain.

According to Literacy Action Center’s website, there are more than 60,000 adults who qualify for services in Salt Lake County alone. These are adults who didn’t graduate high school for a variety of social, emotional and physical blockers including family responsibilities, illness and undiagnosed learning disabilities. Their cognitive skills run the gamut, as do their life goals and personal expectations, yet they are all here today with a shared vision of academic growth.

“You can do it.”

The Literacy Action Center began in 1984 as a program centered on one-on-one tutoring at local libraries and has evolved to include a group instruction environment where learners can meet daily as their schedule permits.

In the group setting, participants are able to share frustrations and collaborate on problems. They patiently wait while a peer asks questions and applaud when he correctly solves the problem. They encourage those who are hesitant to take a turn at the board with a “You can do it!” Often they trade phone numbers to meet up for social activities. The class serves more than its instructional purpose; it’s a salve to the isolation many adult learners experience.

One learner, Elisha, dropped out of ninth grade in frustration. She’s returned years later as a single mom with five kids and an intention of going to college to study business. Elisha freely admits she doesn’t know how she made it as far as she did in school. Even though she just started two weeks ago, she’s already feeling more confident in her math abilities and potential. “It’s kind of crazy for me to want to go to school. I couldn’t wait for the weekend to be over,” she says. Her comment is met with murmurs of agreement from others in the room.

Kuku, who towers above all the other students and is known as the class’s “word collector,” hopes to one day be a lawyer. His upbringing in an Egyptian refugee camp created not only educational but language barriers, yet he’s a ready volunteer at the board and says, “I will stay here no matter how long it will take me.”

Executive Director Deborah Young says that every student is motivated differently, and it’s her job to find out what it is. Some just want to be able to read the obituaries, others want to be able to sort their own mail, write emails to their children or attend college. “If I can find their motivation, I can keep them coming,” says Young. “If I can’t, I can lose them.” Young earned her Ed.D. in learning, literacy, and technology from the University of Michigan and has been with the Literacy Action Center since 1996.

Tech Support

The Literacy Action Center is located in the basement of Salt Lake County’s Housing Authority, several miles south of downtown. The cinderblock walls obstruct all wireless access and the hulking desktop computers are no longer connected to the Internet due to a lack of funds. Young says the center was recently awarded a grant to purchase six tablet computers, doubling the number of computers in the classroom and creating greater access to students in wheelchairs.

In 2010, 15,048 people participated in Utah’s Adult Basic Education (ABE), which refers to students who are academically below the 9th grade reading and math skills. In addition to nonprofits like the Literacy Action Center and Provo, Utah-based Project Read www.project-read.com, local school districts also offer ABE classes.

Integrating technology, researching new teaching methods and helping with career planning require much more than just passionate teachers and dedicated learners.

“It always comes down to money,” says Marty Kelly, the state alternative and adult education coordinator in the Utah State Office of Education. Utah’s funding for adult education programs is dependent on outcomes such as skill gains, GEDs and high school diplomas. “If we don’t’ have the outcomes, then we don’t get the money. It’s cyclical,” says Kelly.

“I wish I had a magic wand, I think we all do when it comes to education,” she says. The value of adult education is always underrated, even though its learners will directly benefit today’s workforce. “It’s a group of people who need to be productive and who want to be productive,” she says.

The final math problem of the morning comes on the heels of a discussion about Web access: How many students have access to the Internet via their cell phones? After some reducing, long division and a quick lesson on finding percentages, the group determined that 43% of them do not have mobile access to the Internet.

So one challenge for the EdTech industry is: How can technology meet the needs of these adult learners while fostering a sense of community and knowledge sharing? And moreover, how can technology help when students have limited access to it?

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