Networks can help solve problems

The problems of over-crowding and waiting lists in Adult Education could be ameliorated if Networks between the Formal programs and the Non-Formal could be created and if there were more use of technology in classes.

Using a Distance Learning course as an example, if needed, students could supplement their face-to-face sessions at a community center or library near where they live as part of a City College program.

Smart phones provide a method for students to ask questions, and are very popular.

Networking is valuable for many reasons, not the least of which is that funding would be more readily available through some foundations.

I am very interested to know peoples’ reactions and ideas. Please join the conversation and join the NonFormal Group.


Hi Paul,

As you know, I believe that nonformal adult basic skills (including ESL/ESOL/biliteracy) programs are very important. I am not sure I understand, however, why you believe that networks or collaborations can reduce or eliminate waiting lists (that are almost all for immigrants who want to learn English). Could you explain that please? 

I also believe in the importance of integrating technology in adult basic education (including ESL/ESOL) programs, and I believe that integrating technology can enable students in blended learning programs to make faster progress. Are you saying that when students progress more quickly through a program there will be more openings at beginning levels? I have thought that might be a possibility, but I don't have any evidence that this is the case. Do you? Does anyone? Are there any programs that have experienced shrinking waiting lists because students use blended models and, as a result, openings occur more quickly for students on waiting lists?

I also wonder, Paul, if you -- or anyone -- has actual evidence that foundations are making more funding available to adult basic skills (including ESL/ESOL) programs that form networks, collaborations or partnerships. While there is evidence in some states, for example in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, that programs sometimes must collaborate to offer the range of services that state public funders require, I know of no research that shows that charitable or corporate foundations have increased their funding to adult basic skills programs that network or collaborate.  Do you? Does anyone? I am also concerned that with a few important exceptions, charitable and corporate foundations do not stick with funding adult basic skills over time, that after a few years they move on to other interests and priorities. Then what? Classes and programs that were funded end. The problem was ameliorated for a short period of time but not really addressed for the long-term.

Another source of funding for adult basic skills is company support for employees of some medium-sized businesses and corporations. With the upturn in the economy, more businesses are again turning to workplace basic skills programs as a benefit to retain their low-wage employees who, with a better economy, could leave for higher-paying jobs. Companies want to reduce expensive employee turnover costs and, to some extent, to have employees whose better English language and other basic skills may improve customer service. It's a business decision that makes bottom line sense in times of high employment, but when the economy plunges, so do employee benefits like free or company-subsidized workplace basic skills. I have seen the economic rollercoaster affect companies' workplace basic skills funding patterns many times over the years. There are a few companies that in good times and bad support their employees' loyalty by continuing to fund their workplace basic skills programs, but very few.

There may be some potential for blended learning programs, and perhaps some highly interactive distance learning programs that may be less expensive than face-to-face classes., and Cell-ed are models that come to mind, as does the World Education and Peer to Peer University English Now pilot blended learning program for adults on waiting lists for ESL classes. Perhaps there are other distance and blended learning models that may have good potential as well. Does anyone else have low-cost, high impact distance or blended learning English language learning models to suggest that we look at?

Stable funding for adult basic skills, as I see it, is public funding whose continuity is only guaranteed over time by a voting public that believes that adult basic skills is as important as elementary and secondary public education. Stable funding requires voting constituents who let their legislators know that adult basic skills funding is a priority. I don't think private funding can solve the problem, although public/private partnerships could be effective as long as both the public and private funding are in place for the long haul.

David J. Rosen

David, I think the best way to approach answering your questions is to first examine how Literacy Coalitions work. There are models in Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia, to name a few. A few weeks ago you posted a list of literacy coalitions, which we could look at.

Last year I attended a conference sponsored by the Philadelphia Literacy Alliance (now Office for Adult Education, OAE) and made a presentation on the use of Smart Phones. Actually the keynote speaker was a representative from X Prize who also talked about using Smart phones in adult education.

What impressed me about the OAE was the organization. In a nutshell the Mayor’s office acted as a liaison to about 100 organizations, most of which were Non-Formal.

Potential students would register at the Mayor’s office, be evaluated and then assigned a class near where they lived.

This method saved everyone a lot of time and money.

It would be worthwhile to find out more about how students were assigned, especially in the event of overcrowding.

So I doubt that anyone would find a better model to meet the needs of adults needing various classes. But if there are doubts, then I urge people to tell us their solutions.

As for technology – how could it not speed up the learning process? The best model to follow here is a Distance Learning program based on a Drop-In Center approach, in my opinion.

I believe that the most important question is – do adult educators have any stake and interest in reforming the system so that genuine collaboration can be set in motion to begin the process of providing classes to the 90% of the adults who now languish in this system.

Well, I have presented my ideas and position as well as I can at this point– now I look forward to reading others’.



David – I think that community based fund-raising needs to be included to offset deficiencies in the current methods of acquiring funds.

First, there is a serious defect in the current methods of funding.

Government funding is static, more or less.  A billion dollars or so are allocated every year to Formal programs to serve X numbers of students, and I would not be surprised if that amount were to be cut.

No measures are taken if there are too many applicants but not enough seats.

It reminds me of taking the train the day after Christmas, annually one of the busiest days for train users.

People were standing in the aisle. I could not help but wonder why on earth an additional car could not have been added.

Out of the X number of dollars less than 10 % of eligible adults are served, leaving 90% “under-served.”

So – even if the budget could be increased, it would require at least an increment of two or three times its current size to make any sense – or more!

The irony of funding is that, in general, government or Formal programs are not eligible for foundation grants and Non-Formal programs are not usually eligible for Government funding.

What is the solution? In my opinion, community-based fund raising is necessary. If programs actually serve the community and are supported by the community, then members of a coalition could organize any one of a number of events and ongoing projects, just like most non-profits.

At the same time this kind of fund-raising should interest foundations much more than usual.

I once jokingly said to someone that I thought that it was possible to get Jennifer Lopez to stage a concert to raise funds for a literacy project. People laughed at me. Well I am not going to give up!!

I believe in Bake sales and yard sales, anything to create a continuity of support.

If you have good community support in this way, then it becomes easier to get grants, I assume. In other words – “Build it and they will come.”




I started a little experiment 3 weeks ago and share the experience here to solicit thoughts. I hear and understand the desire for funding, but I would like to introduce the question of how might a community education program be built without the elusive spare change that rarely seems to be available for such important work. Keep this thought in mind as you read the following.

Working with the local librarian, we started advertising on the library Facebook page that we would be opening up a free public tutoring session from 9am to 11am every Saturday. We shared that any academic topics would be supported as well as any digital literacy needs. We pointed out that this is to be a community of learning support time and would not be individual tutoring. All services were offered free. 

Our first week we had two adults show up. One is a college student trying to brush up on math skills and the other learner is working on learning to read after almost 6 decades of only verbal literacy. During that first session, I would bounce from person to person to coach them to learning resources, practice opportunities, or to engage in discussions aimed to promote discovery learning. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly the two learners started collaborating, especially during the discussion times. In full disclosure, these two were adult ed students I had worked with for some time, and were showing up for "extra" help because I had recently left that adult ed program. 

In week two I did not experience any new learners stopping in, but there were many residents who stopped to ask what I was doing. There were many incredulous reactions and I must have heard, "...and this is free?" over a dozen times. One person stopping buy suggested I have a Tips jar at least and the librarian and I are discussing that option. 

This last week, things started to pick up. I had my normal two learners, but we were joined by a hispanic college student that wished some help with some college biology. support was requested with the technology simulation that was required to be used and in the English composition of the learner's responses to her explorations. It was so interesting to see how spelling and phonetic support for my early reader learner blended so well into the ESL struggles the hispanic student had experienced. Much insight was shared and that brought in the math student, who had always spoken English. The math student was currently working on learning Japanese on her own and was able to jump right into the conversation. All of this helped the learner trying to learn how to read. He realized that every one at the table was struggling to learn a language (I am working on Spanish myself) and he felt much better trying to sound out the spelling and phonetics he was working on. Later, the math and biology learners, both attending the same college, got acquainted and mutually supported each other. Our focus started shifting to the needs the Biology student had, Through discussion and exploration, all four of us learned so much about osmosis at the cellular level. One particular exploration got all of us deeply engaged in learning. "When grilling a steak, is it better to salt the steak before grilling or after in terms of cellular osmosis?" Immediately we learned of individual cooking experiences, advice from professional cooks from the Internet, and of course from the Biology student as she tried to connect her simulation experiences to this question. In case you were wondering, salt pulls moisture from cells. It turns out that if you cook the meat right after you salt it, there will be no ill effects. After 3-4 minutes, the salt will pull water out of the meat's cells making a much dryer steak. Interestingly, after 40 minutes or so after salting the meat, the moisture in the cells reaches equilibrium again and is ready for good grilling. So, cook it immediately or after 40 minutes of sweating for best effect :)

Each of us offered perspectives and experiences that were quite unique and added more to our mutual learning. Not only were the learners blending their learning experiences based on the needs of each individual, they were building a community of trust and respect that helped each of them quickly share questions and thoughts without fear of judgement. 

We eventually had another learner join us. This new learner wanted some help with technology and had a number of items she wished to tackle. Although the other three learners were not actively engaging in this technology work (they were packing up to leave as the new student came in), they were jumping in on the discussion with, "Oh, wow! I did not know there were so many free alternatives for word processing..." and, " ...I have used that program before and it works great!" The technology student had a hard time with the fact that these services were offered free and wished to offer some financial support and the request to come back again next week to have us check on her progress (homework she called it) and to ask more questions. 

One of my regular learners raises many types of fowl at home. Apparently, egg production has kicked into over drive and the family wished to share free eggs with everyone participating in the community events on Saturday (I also do community table top gaming after the tutoring) . In all, five families went home each with at least two dozen eggs! The financial tip that was donated by the technology learner was used to provide snacks for the community table top gaming families later that afternoon. 

I left the library Saturday feeling a bit shocked and humbled. I hear all the discussions about funding and organizations and all of the justifiably important issues around expanding learning opportunities for our communities. The discussions seem to all come down to "...need more financial support to ..." At the same time, I am experiencing quite a contrast in my limited experiments in supporting the construction of a community of learning in a way that does not require money at all. The currency that is driving the learning is the people working together to support each other in the community. Sure, I may be a catalyst right now and I may spend a couple hours a week beating a drum to help community members become aware of these efforts and the successes so far. After just three weeks, I know there is building a small cohort of community learners that wish to support each other in their learning and offer perspectives with each other in a safe environment. 

Again, I offer these experiences as food for thought in our conversations. I know that three weeks hardly makes an established program, but there were four adult learners this weekend that found our two hours of community learning invaluable, and I feel that will spread over the next months. 

Am I missing something? Are there warning signs or things that need to be in place for such a grass roots community building program to work? The librarian, the learners and I are all feeling very positive and happy with the growth and effectiveness in such a short time. I may be too close to the situation to have an objective perspective so I welcome the thoughts and others. Can such an idealistic experiment be successful without all the financial support that seems imperative in other ventures?


Hi Ed,

Your volunteer tutoring program is inspiring! It sounds like your Saturdays are quite full now between the tabletop games project and the new tutoring project. I think you have tapped into an important human reservoir of good will and caring: your own, of course; and the librarian's; and your neighbors', both those who have lived in the community for generations and the linguistic minority newcomers.

Grassroots community building has been the heart of some community-based, faith-based, and volunteer programs for a long time. It brings out the best in Americans, and it is a proud tradition. Often not much financial support is needed for a small volunteer project or program, and that can be met with small grants from charitable or corporate foundations, donations and -- as Paul Rogers points out -- even bake sales. These programs often have very positive results, especially in bringing neighbors together to learn about common interests and values,  and support each other. They are an essential part of adult basic skills and lifelong and lifewide learning solutions, and this is an especially good time for even more Americans to engage in such very worthwhile community efforts.

However, we also need an adequately funded professional adult basic education system, and that funding needs to come primarily from local and state public funds. A professional adult basic education system needs stable and adequate funding, trained, supported teachers who receive fair pay, some full-time teachers with fair pay and benefits, good physical space for learning, up-to-date and reliable technology, and solid, ongoing professional development. Such an adult basic skills system, adequately funded and well run, can take on the inevitable challenges of helping adults who have learning disabilities, including specific reading disabilities, helping adults meet their short term learning objectives, and their longer-term goals of getting on a solid career path that leads to good jobs with family-sustaining wages, and other needs and goals that may be beyond what small volunteer programs can provide.

Paul Rogers has often mentioned the importance of nonformal (often volunteer) programs partnering or forming coalitions with formal programs (supported by public funds and accountable for meeting outcomes in order to continue to be funded.) Sometimes this doesn't work because coalitions and partnerships are more work for program staff, and the programs aren't sure what the benefits are to their students or their staff. Sometimes, however, it does work, and the partnerships lead to a better or stronger range of services for adult learners.

What you might be missing, Ed, is what happens when an adult learner shows up to your free Saturday tutoring session with a need that you are stumped by, that you have not had training to address, that requires resources that as a volunteer project you do not have, or that requires several hours a week of systematic learning and practice to address, not just coming to a once a week tutoring session. It would be a good idea for you -- with the help of the librarian who probably has already thought about this, to have a good network of education, and counseling and support services, to refer the person to. In some communities, of course, the choices are very limited; in others, however, they are -- or have been -- more robust.


I, too, would like to hear others' reactions to the ideas that Paul, you and I have put forward. Observations from your own community? Questions? Doubts? Need for more information? Something else?

David J. Rosen



Thank you for sharing your thoughts and perspectives David! You brought up a few concerns that got me thinking a bit more. When I stated that I offer free tutoring on Saturday mornings, I am thinking that may be a misnomer. My role there is to hear learning needs and help individuals find resources that can answer those needs. Meanwhile I accompany the individual along that discovery path touching base with status updates, clarifying questions and little reflections of progress thus far. The role is quite student centric and my role is one that I would have a very difficult time fulfilling in a regular day school system or even a typical adult education classroom. 

As you mention, there is the very likely situation in which someone asks me questions that are way over my area of expertise. I can share a perfect example of this from last August. I had a young woman approach me asking if I could tutor her in College physics so she could pass her PHD exams to get certified as a Ophthalmologist or some similar field. I immediately shared that I was very unequipped in terms of content, but I could help her work through the questions she had and offer educational navigation. This intrigued her and we dove in head first into a world that was quite a challenge. She had taken all of the physics classes the local university offered and felt that she learned little and in her words, "I showed up, took some easy tests and poof I was on to their next class just as clueless." As we looked over her study questions, we dove so much further into vocabulary, context, test taking strategies and when those skills were not sufficient, I taught her about the power of social media and good online digital exploration. Between my extensive social network, we were able to find some people with much more knowledge of Physics than I that were able to offer suggestions that helped us get back on the right track with some problems. With other problems, she began to learn new ways of doing online searches that helped her find what she was looking for much more efficiently. All together, we worked for 15 hours (3 hr/week for 5 weeks) and she reported that she now felt confident that she could prepare for the exam and find success. 

Before the days of the Internet and Social Media connections, teachers were the purveyors of knowledge with only encyclopedias or other teachers to challenge or confirm any information. With so many resources now available, our role can shift to educational navigator in a way that helps to create much more independent learners. The learners still need guidance and training on so many of the educational "soft skills" we naturally tend to do when we need to learn something, but in almost all cases, any lecture we might give in a standard type classroom has been posted a couple dozen times already online by others. 

I hear your concerns about the time it takes to navigate like this. In my experience in other adult educational experiences, after 15-30 hours of focus on learning practices rather than acquisition of specialized knowledge, the learners are quite confident and competent in learning what they need to find success. At that point, I become just another part of their social network when questions or challenges pop up. These results are typical of most of my adult learners but there are always those students have face such severe challenges that other supports definitely need to be available in the community and I can navigate the learner to those appropriate places. 

You offered a paragraph defending "need for an adequately funded professional adult basic education system" I can agree that the need is there, but as I look around Maine in the couple dozen adult education programs I have worked with, there are many funding challenges and the part time nature of so many of the staff brings the word "professional" under the microscope. I have met some wonderful people in adult education programs that may lack much experience with pedagogy needed to find success with many learners. In contrast I have found some wonderful teachers steeped in great educational practice that felt constrained to only the knowledge he or she has experienced in life and did not allow for many other sources of exploration or points of view. I guess I am feeling that as we continue to beat the drum nationwide that education is important at all levels and we wait for our society to catch up with most of the world in terms of supporting education appropriately, we may be able to develop some community educational opportunities that are grossly underutilized? 

I still work in the funded, professional venues and I find great satisfaction in the work I do and the people I am able to help. I am finding the study of how that work feels compared and contrasted to how the volunteer work feels and what the results are, to be a fascinating study personally. Things are still early on in the volunteer thing, I have only been at it for a year compared to the professional 25+ years. I wish to continue to reflect and study the similarities, and differences of what a community based educational support system might look like when run parallel to the more funded professional services. 

How about other thoughts on funding, educational structures, organizations, communities and how those all may fit or not fit together? I would love to hear the thoughts and experiences of others!

Thanks for the clarification Ed. I completely agree that we need community education navigators -- like you -- and I think libraries are a good place to host them. I don't know if there are librarians reading these nonformal education posts, but if so, I would like to hear their thoughts. Ed is a volunteer, so there isn't any addition expense for the library, just providing space, and perhaps an occasional meeting with a volunteer coordinator or librarian. Such a service will bring a wide range of people, those needing English and basic skills and those needing tutoring in the Ph.D. programs, and everyone else in between.

Ed, as you continue with this service in your local public library (what do you call it? Free education navigation? Free education advising? Something else?) please update us on how it's going. Along with your fabulous tabletop games program at the library, you are building excellent ideas and models for how libraries can serve their communities.

Are there other people reading this who would describe themselves as volunteer education navigators? If so, tell us about what you do.

David J. Rosen

I want to share one example of the type of volunteer-based, navigation program, run through a public library system.  Reach4Success is a non-profit that started in the D.C. Public Library system, where students and families were able to find assistance with post-secondary training and education, financial aid, career counseling and tutoring services.  In 1996, the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area established the Greater Washington College Info Center (CIC).  The CIC was designed to serve everyone from middle and high school students, undergraduates and graduate students, and adult learners alike. 

As a graduate student in adult education, I interned with the CIC, which provided me a sound understanding of adult education theories by working with a broad spectrum of adult learners.  Reach4Success emerged from the services offered by the (CIC).  The CIC is located in downtown Washington, D.C., in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library.  Check out their Volunteer Advisor position to get a sense of how the center is supported by volunteers like you.


Mike Cruse