Evaluating Digital Learning for Adult Basic Literacy and Numeracy


I want to call your attention a quasi-experimental design research report released today by SRI Education/SRI Internatiional that was based on a multi year study of five adult basic skills education online or blended learning products for reading or math, and was funded by the Joyce Foundation. Evaluating Digital Learning for Adult Basic Literacy and Numeracy

The products, studied at 13 sites and in 14 different ABE programs (one site piloted a different product in two ABE progams) included:

• Reading Horizons Elevate (Reading Horizons)
• My Foundations Lab (MFL) (Pearson Education)
• Core Skills Mastery (CSM) (CSMLearn)
• ALEKS (McGraw-Hill Education)
• GED Academy (Essential Education)
Take a look at the report, and perhaps also this short blog article describing the study by principal investigator Dr. Robert Murphy, Can Digital Learning Technologies Help Address the Needs of Low-Skilled Adults?
  • What are your takeways?
  • What did you learn about the use of the four emerging models: online learning, blended learning; hybrid learning; and supplemental learning?
  • what did you learn about program practices in implementing reading and/or math online instruction programs?
  • How does this fit with your experience using these products or products like them?
  • Other thoughts?

David J. Rosen, Moderator

Integrating Technology CoP





Hello David and all, Thanks for posting about this research, David. Finding ways to expand learning beyond the classroom is important, and technology has great potential for making this possible. Teachers and adult learners were mostly positive about the digital tools examined in this study, which is good news.

As the authors note, the mixed results of the study point to the need for more research. If I understood the methods used here, adult education sites were not already familiar with the digital tools explored in the study. The results showed that in about half the cases, usage (i.e., the number of hours learners engaged with the particular tool) did not comply with the expectations set forth by the researchers. I wonder if the limited engagement may have been influenced by lack of buy in by some of the teachers. I think buy in from teachers is a pretty important factor when implementing an instructional strategy, so I can't help but wonder about that. I didn't read the entire 139-page report, so I'm not sure what kind of training was provided and how the researchers worked with programs to support the implementation.

While I strongly believe blended or hybrid learning has great potential--which was confirmed to some degree here-- the study showed that access to technology is still a major issue. We have a ways to go on that front.

I'm eager to hear from teachers who are using blended or hybrid models successfully. Please tell us what factors have been important to your successful outcomes.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP

Hello colleagues, Here's a link to a brief video featuring Lee Rainie from the Pew Research Ctr. and article by Andrea Caumont reporting on the digital divide. The data comes from 2013, so I wonder if the factors have changed much since then? Thoughts?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP

Thank you for sharing the article, Susan. I do think things have changed since 2013 and access to technology, especially through smart phones, has been on a rapid increase.

Still, if we look at the 2013 data, I find it quite interesting. My perception has been that there is a good chunk of the population that just does not have access to technology, but this research seems to indicate otherwise. Depending on the demographic you look at, there is still about 70% of the population that has access to technology which was higher than I thought it might be and I suspect is quite a bit higher today. Even more promising was the listed reasons people did not have access. The majority just did not see the value in their lives for engaging with the technology. It was a choice for the most part. Sure there were some that did not have money or local availability, but those percentages were so much smaller than I expected. This helped me to understand the corporate rational that internet providers really don't need to be expanded in remote regions because there just are not the numbers to support that kind of investment. From a company profit margin, it makes total sense now. From a equality for all to access a resource, well, it still stinks. 

So it seems that many have access to technology, but if we look at results from the international studies about how well people can use technology to perform modern tasks, the picture becomes more disappointing. Our country may have one of the best access to technology in the world and yet we are one of the most incompetent with it (PST-RE Background)

Perhaps part of the fault lies with archaic tests, developed multiple decades ago that are still used as part of funding formulas? Perhaps the ignorance is partially to blame on curriculum materials that seem to constantly recycle old materials with shiny new covers and a few updated pictures and still offer ridiculous application questions (at least in math)? Additionally, I suspect some of the problem is that much of our educational staff has never been trained to process technology in the real life settings much because so much of the educational institution they work in is still using technologies that were hitting their prime in the 80s and 90s (over 30 years old now)? Perhaps we are now reaching the point where the slow academic rate of change is now becoming almost irrelevant to today's modern life? Mathematically, this has to happen at some point with the rates of change so different within education vs within our "real lives". 

The article you shared helped inform me that most people can now get technology access if they want to, but it raised concerns I have had for some time that the ignorance of how to use the technologies available is creating the worlds depicted in the movies Wall-e, The Matrix, and the book 1984. Has technology become the perfect tool to numb people into ignorance and apathy or is there evidence that people are becoming more empowered as a society because of technology access? 


David, Susan, and Ed, thanks for dialoguing over this issue. Re the content shared, it's always good to have evidence to clarify why there is a digital divide and to explain why technology is not used more extensively among adults, when digital resources provide such treasures when it comes to adult learning, especially relating to academic (reading, writing, math) development!

I doubt that anyone would question the potential usefulness of digital instruction in accelerating instruction among adults. The Joyce Foundation report, in my view, simply supports what we already know:

  1. Learners coming into Adult Ed programs think they want a face-to-face experience even though, in most cases, that f-2-f experience is precisely what failed them in school.
  2. Learners need a whole lot of assistance and support in order to transition into new ways of learning. Adult Ed programs cannot fund that type of 1-2-1 help.
  3. The reading level used by developers of a lot of digital instructional content is higher than the 5th-6th grade reading level of most students entering programs.
  4. Most Adult Ed programs are underfunded and can't support the high-speed connectivity and advanced computer technology required for students to experience a seamless progression through learning activities. I have watched students become very frustrated, as noted in the report, as they struggle with technical issues: constant Windows upgrading, freezes, inability to access some sites because of senseless firewalls, and more, and more.

We know those truths to be true. In my view, programs would do well to take baby steps in order to start successfully taking advantage of the riches offered in digital technology. Instead of acquiring all of these big programs offered by publishers, take a handful of learners and committed instructors, and have students complete short, exciting, easy segments that have them produce something digitally that they can share. Build on that. Notice the challenges and address them right away. Among our adult learners, the best promotion of any concept or practice occurs through word of mouth. Instead of the top-down approaches we use, let's help learners become successful and build a bottoms-up movement.

What do others think? Leecy


Thank you for sharing, David. As I was looking it over, I was drawn to the last portion at the bottom. "Product Features that Help Learners". Many of the products out there end up costing educators money and I wondered if the financial investment in any one given product limits learning options. Most any product has limits in at least some of the key features mentioned in the pamphlet.  Since finances are always important to many adult ed programs, any investment in product(s) puts pressure on staff to focus on those products a good deal. 

I guess that is why I explore free stuff so much. It is reaffirming that the product features shared are all things I have valued a great deal when looking. It has also helped explain some of the frustration I have had when using some of the paid products with staff and observing the mono-focus staff had on that one product. In fact, even offering free alternatives to supplement the paid options they invested in created negative reactions. "We bought this we need to make the best of this so that (insert decision maker(s)) see we are not wasting money." 

I share these thoughts and reflections to see if anyone else has experienced some sort of mono focus to a product that limits learning options in their system?

How about the alternative, are you seeing a focus on just free things limiting learning options open to learners?

Are people finding a great mix that hits all of the suggested Features? 

Hi Ed,

I think you are referring to these five kinds of product features mentioned in the Digital Promise Infographic, that can help adult learners:

  • Mastery learning
  • Adaptive content
  • Feedback on progress
  • Multiple instructional modes
  • Supportive learning environments

These all seem like good courseware design features to me, especially in the context of a blended learning environment in which the teachers understand the software products' features, how they can be used most effectively, and what the opportunities and drawbacks might be for each courseware product they use. Carpenters agree that well-made saws are good tools, in the hands of trained carpenters, and for the right tasks. The same, for now at least, is usually true for online courseware, and for other online learning tools and resources, that they are good instructional tools in the hands of trained teachers who have had sufficient opportunity to practice using them, and to properly introduce them to their students, who will use them for the right tasks. It was an acknowledged problem in this study that many of the teachers did not have enough training in using the products. This may be one of the study's most important findings.

David J. Rosen


Thanks for emphasizing the need to adequately train teachers, David. I agree that lack of training and support --as well as possibly limited buy in from teachers as a result of the lack of training and support-- are important findings of the study.

It would be great to hear from teachers who are effectively implementing effective blended learning. Please let us know what is working well.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP