Is This the Future of Adult Learning?

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Is This the Future of Adult Learning?

How the MIT Media Lab develops adult learning tools

By Taylor Bennett     Jan 15, 2015

Is This the Future of Adult Learning?

This article is part of the guide: Adult Learning: Building Paths to a Better Future.

How does the MIT Media Lab develop its adult learning tools? By envisioning them as scaffolding constructed to support learning, according to Juliana Nazare, Masters student at MIT and research assistant for the projects.

In May of 2014, under the auspices of the Joyce Foundation, a group of researchers, entrepreneurs and adult learning experts convened at the MIT Media Lab to discuss visions for the role of technology in the future of adult education. Several themes emerged around improving literacy and earning power for two groups of adult learners: those learning English for the first time, and those who have grown up speaking English, but may still struggle with literacy skills.

The primary themes focused on 1) the need to reframe adult learning from a perspective of learner autonomy and creativity, 2) the need to create alternative education pathways for adults that address constraints such as time, concern for family, and differences in motivation between child students and adult learners, and 3) the need for human support and mentorship.

With these guiding principles in mind and with a mission to make the information adult learners consume more intuitive and accessible --as opposed to addressing the curriculum itself-- researchers began strategizing ways to circumvent current barriers such as language and time, and putting learners in charge of their own education.

Three of roughly twenty-five initial ideas came to the forefront: Read Out Loud, Express Me, and Citizen Tutoring.

Families Learning Together

Read Out Loud, the most developed project to-date, was born out of conversations with adult learners about their motivations for improving literacy. In addition to improving employment and earning power, the majority felt a strong desire to actively engage in the education of their children, most of whom attend schools taught in English. Read Out Loud is a tool originally designed to take the simple educational activity of reading children’s books aloud and turn it into an opportunity for parents and children to learn together.

An interactive application, Read Out Loud allows the user to scan any book and view the text in English and any other language side by side, creating a sort of “cheat-sheet” that they can refer to while reading to their kids. Parents are able to engage in this important part of their children’s education and play the role of teacher, while engaging in learning themselves. The simple sentence structure and vocabulary typical of children’s books is excellent for improving literacy among children and does the same thing for parents.

Perhaps most importantly, Read Out Loud tackles one of the primary themes identified by experts: empowering learners to have agency and creativity in their own education. Since its inception this technology has evolved enough to tackle any sort of reading material, giving adult learners even more options for use of this tool. Users focus on relevant material, by choosing the stories they want to read to their children and selecting information integral to employment opportunities. Learners have autonomy over improving general skills as well as increasing earning potential. The next iteration of Read Out Loud may include the ability to scroll over words to see a definition or add words to a vocabulary list to refer to later.

Learning While Commuting

Still early in the development process, Express Me addresses another one of the major themes for adult education by creating an alternative educational pathway through mobile learning apps that capitalize on the only free time many adult learners have: their commute. Creating bite sized learning modules with content reinforcing skills for professional certification, Express Me will turn any bus, train, or carpool into a classroom that learners can use to improve skills and credentials.

A key feature of this app employs interactive visual input to circumvent the need for lengthy text. One problem with similar tools is the tendency to be text heavy, making them prohibitive for adults who are learning English as a second language or who struggle with literacy. Using interactive visual input to teach learners how to measure volume, for example, rather than presenting a paragraph of text, provides learners of many literacy levels access to pertinent information. Express Me will also include a component enabling learners working on the same certifications or courses in the same geographic area to connect with each other.

Senior Citizen Tutors

Though Citizen Tutoring is the least developed of these ideas, it still possesses incredible potential. Envisioned as a way to connect adult learners with senior citizen tutors via the Internet, this idea aims to provide learners with much needed tutoring and mentorship, and seniors with an opportunity to capitalize on their wealth of knowledge and gain valuable tech skills, all while giving back to their communities. Still in its very early stages, the future of Citizen Tutoring is imagined as a means through which existing online tools can support senior tutors as they provide valuable mentoring and skill building to both groups of adult learners, supporting those transitioning to life in the United States and those who have struggled with the traditional education system. Researchers continue to conceptualize new ways to incorporate the use of public spaces such as libraries and organizing learners and tutors into geographically local groups into this project.

Much of the success of these projects will be their scalability for use by a wide range of adult learners. Whether they will be available via popular sites such as the App store or iTunes is still up for debate, Nazare says. Read Out Loud is currently in the user testing phase and will need to undergo beta testing and a private release before it can be made publicly available.

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