Adult Learners Need Their Own EdTech Tools, Ed Department Report Finds

To help adult learners, edtech tools should be designed for their needs and goals, support them in virtually communicating with instructors and classmates and offer them a smooth mobile experience, according to a new report published on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education.

Called “Changing the Equation: Empowering Adult Learners with Edtech,” it’s the culmination of three years of research commissioned by the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education through its Power in Numbers initiative.

The goal of the project has been to better equip instructors with techniques, tools and open educational resources that will help them teach adults the advanced math skills needed for modern jobs, says Christina Ward, engagement manager at Luminary Labs, a consulting firm the government hired to oversee Power in Numbers.

“People tend to have ‘math trauma,’” Ward says. “It’s a sticking point for a lot of adult learners that we elevate in the reports.”

Luminary Labs hosted summits, interviewed educators and reviewed more than 100 educational resources to inform its four reports, handouts and a video series about making adult learning opportunities more effective and appealing.

Edtech developers have focused more on building tools for children than adults, according to the Power in Numbers research. While grown-ups may be able to adapt children’s resources, these may not adequately address adult circumstances, like the competing time demands of education, job duties and family obligations.

Many online classes and tools suffer from low student retention. The research suggests that participation is improved when digital education systems integrate communication tools that help learners collaborate and get feedback from their instructors. The extent to which learning tools “contextualize” instruction with real-world and job-focused applications matters too.

Case Studies

The Power in Numbers final report highlights studies of two institutions that have used edtech interventions to improve outcomes for students—the University System of Georgia and Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina. Although the studies didn’t focus on adult learners or math education in particular, Luminary Labs researchers believe the results should be relevant to that population and subject.

The universities in Georgia have seen improved grades since the widespread adoption of open education resources, while Wake Technical saw better online course completion rates among minority students whose instructors communicated with them via text message and virtual meetings software.

The University System of Georgia has made textbook affordability a priority with its Affordable Learning Georgia initiative, which provides grants and training to help professors adopt open education resources for in-person and online classes and requires registration materials to flag which courses have low- or no-cost texts.

Not only has OER adoption saved the system’s students money (an estimated combined $55 million since 2014), a study published in the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education found that students, especially non-white and part-time students, who got free course materials at the beginning of a class performed better academically than those who didn’t.

“We’re not just looking to make costs go down in the USG. We’re looking at ways to increase equity in the classroom,” wrote Jeff Gallant, program manager of Affordable Learning Georgia, in the report. “This is very important as time goes on and vendors start coming up with solutions to reduce costs. Ask yourself, are these solutions in the best interest of all of your students?”

One lesson learned in Georgia is the importance of preserving academic freedom by encouraging instructors to select and adopt their own materials. For example, biology professor Peggy Brickman worked with OpenStax, a nonprofit OER publisher, to create a “UGA Concepts of Biology” textbook. Professors in the program also drew on the copyright and research expertise of librarians, which leaders say has been helpful in gaining widespread participation..

Wake Technical Community College used a Department of Education’s First in the World Grant to run a pilot program intended to help students of color improve their academic performance and completion rates in online classes.

The courses were designed to be both “high-tech and high-touch,” in that they didn’t sacrifice interpersonal communication, despite the physical barriers inherent in remote education. For instance, instructors recorded high-quality videos designed to convey their facial cues to underline key material. They also made themselves available to converse with students via text messaging and virtual meetings software, and they participated in trainings to learn more about the needs of minority students.

Results from a randomized controlled trial of two popular classes, introduction to psychology and introduction to business, showed that the use of these strategies improved minority student course completion by 11 percent. The community college is now developing training and a professional development program to teach the model to more of its online instructors.

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