"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Triangle of Digital Literacy and Diversity

As a recent grad from the M.Ed in Adult Learning Literacy track, Susan asked me to contribute to the blog.  I thought I’d try to add to Kristin’s treatment of issues surrounding computer-based GED testing in an article she wrote for the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center’s Progress newsletter last year.  I see three diverse, and distinctly disjointed digital literacies in adult education with regard to learners, teachers and trainers/academics on a daily basis.  While I have never been enrolled as a student in an ESL or GED program (which would surely give me an improved vantage point), I have spent more than ten years as both an instructor and a trainer in the field.   Honestly working through the mundane logistics of making digital literacy work for everyone may help us cultivate a more democratic approach to adult education that takes into account all three perspectives.  It just so happens that the man who steered me to my very first adult teaching job, Jason Guard, has written about the same topic today on the Distance Education Skill Share blog.
Our learners’ show us all the time their positive attitudes towards technology, though generally they don’t demonstrate much of a grasp of word processing, saving documents, etc.  But even, or sometimes especially, students at the lowest levels of academic literacy (unschooled to third grade equivalent) show the greatest enthusiasm for assistive software that helps them with phonics and pronunciation, reading, writing and basic math.  Fifty year old men who can’t read and have never operated a computer before often pick up the use of a mouse and some commands like “enter,” “shift” and “backspace” within days of beginning school.  Soon they’re working independently for short periods in multi-level classes when the instructor has to address higher functioning students.  Nineteen year olds happily watch Khan Academy videos about equivalent fractions on laptops.  ESL learners willingly struggle to write up autobiographical Language Experience Approach (LEA) paragraphs with the help of a typing-to-speech program.  Adult education teachers sometimes underestimate these learners just because their incoming digital literacy hovers at low levels, overlooking their openness to, and enthusiasm for technology.
While instructors’ own levels of digital literacy are somewhat higher than those of their students, the scenarios just described are still not easy to realize.  They exhaust the most resourceful and energetic adult literacy practitioners.  The phonics program was likely borrowed from an Exceptional Education teacher, but a local school IT person needed to be physically present to load and authorize running the executable files that make it interactive.  The Khan Academy videos had to be downloaded by the teacher at home since any site with streaming content is blocked by the school or municipal system’s filters.  School and government organizations’ Flash Player and Java often run several iterations behind even when content’s not blocked, rendering sites like Teacher Tube and aggregator like United Streaming non-viewable.  Older urban and isolated rural regions lack the infrastructure for the required bandwidth too, making synchronous or simultaneous classroom eLearning difficult.   The older desktops couldn’t play mp4s, so they could only be watched on the single newer laptop.  When looking up LEA lessons before class, the teacher encountered numerous firewalls against sites with online storage (such as Google docs) or those that contain the flagged words “blog” or “lyrics.” Messages popped up warning that the requested sites violated the Internet acceptable usage policy of the school system or county government.  A large number of adult education programs in Virginia are located institutionally, physically, and in terms of funding within K12 school systems and correctional facilities that present all these obstacles to digital literacy.  So who wouldn’t give teachers a pass on integrating technology?  It would be so much easier simply to run off more copies like they’ve always done. 
With all that in mind, imagine instructors’ responses when the latest scholarly articles circulated by professional development organizations and presented at annual conferences recommend using Facebook, YouTube, Skype and Twitter in the adult literacy classroom to enhance language acquisition or numeracy.  While this cutting edge discourse fascinates and inspires graduate students like us, it also fosters cynicism in the field.  Trainers keep us up to date on ‘what works’ for adult learners under optimum conditions, yet they must resist presenting technology integration as an easy fix.  To the contrary, practitioners’ efforts at successful implementation open a Pandora’s Box of daily institutional and emotional barriers.  Technological best-case advice from the perceived ivory tower jaundices whatever’s left of practitioners’ will to implement computer-facilitated learning.  The field is looking for clear-eyed, setting specific, realistic guidance.  When they don’t get it, a loop is inadvertently created whereby teachers dismiss technology-related professional development, while trainers become increasingly frustrated with what they perceive as instructors’ recalcitrance towards new ideas.
So promoting digital literacy in the obtuse triangular paradigm of the academy, the field and literacy learners is not actually easier, but it is our professional duty.  We demonstrate our efficacy to our students and likely improve retention when we stay abreast of educational technology.  We model persistence and problem solving when we overcome challenges associated with ensuring digital literacy in real time, in the presences of our learners.  In the spirit of King, on this MLK day, consider that true participatory democracy now necessitates this new kind of literacy, and that facilitating it is one way that we, as adult educators, can show that our moral development actively strives to catch up to our “technological abundance.”


  1. Excellent post, Adam. And a great caution for those of us involved in de-contextulized professional development programs. I'd like to use this post (and probably a lot of other posts in this blog) as a text for professional development. And, in addition, you've got me thinking about professional journals and outlets and who the real experts are. Thank you.

  2. Adam, what you wrote rings true with me. On one hand, I am a humble ESoL teacher, bombarded with great ideas and feeling pressured to integrate technology at every turn. On the other hand, I am a grad student sitting in the "ivory tower" glimpsing an ideal world void of real issues such as lack of resources and paid professional development. Alas, your words "we demonstrate our efficacy to our students and likely improve retention when we stay abreast of educational technology" remind me that we can't give up. If for no other reason than my own pride, I try to keep up with technology.

    This may sound a little self-serving, as I am one of the blog creators, but do you (any of you) think this blog format gives us the opportunity to use use/practice a technology while also helping each other work through issues? Do you think this online format could serve the purpose of networking and learning from each other?

    Thanks, Susan

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Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.