Since March 2020, the education field has been ideating and innovating in order to address the myriad challenges that arose out of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent closures of schools nationwide. Adult learners, particularly those learning English or working toward a high school diploma, were not exempt from these challenges. In fact, adult-serving agencies may have been even more ill-equipped to make a transition to remote learning than their K-12 and higher education counterparts.
As the Instructional Technologist at an adult-serving charter school system in Sacramento, CA with over 4,000 students, I have been on the frontline of our efforts to continue offering high-quality learning opportunities for our students. Over the past 12+ months, I have been able to identify problems that relate directly to educational technology within our agency but are not unique to us. In some cases, we have been able to address these problems with just-in-time solutions. Conducting a review of current literature (key points in the sections below), I aimed to identify others in our field doing similar work and take a closer look at it through the lens of educational technology. Through this experience, I hope to offer some thought on where adult-serving agencies can make substantive organizational changes that will create an accessible and significant learning environment for all students.
There is great anticipation among all of us to get back to normal. But when it comes to education, knowing what we know now, do we want to go back to what we were doing before? If not, how does the law of diffusion of innovation play into this and how do we capture the attention of the late adopters and laggards? Are there novel solutions and innovative practices that will carry us into the "new normal?" All signs, in my opinion, point to "yes."
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the shutdown of schools across the United States that followed, adult-serving agencies nationwide were already working toward 21st-century skill-building in the classroom and other digital learning initiatives. For example, with increased access to the internet and more affordable digital devices, more adult learners were able to realize their educational goals through emerging distance learning programs. However, these advantages did not come without difficulties of their own; adult learners’ individual characteristics created unique challenges for them, which affect the way they were able to advance their education or engage in online distance educational processes (Kara et al., 2019).
Because of the shutdown of physical operations, most in-person teaching or facilitated learning activities had to be canceled, which led to a decline in face-to-face engagement, both during classes and for learning communities generally (Käpplinger & Lichte, 2020). Disadvantaged learners were often recognized as being even more strongly impacted and it was assumed that the reason for this was likely a lack of access to the Internet and/or Internet-ready devices, and to a supportive social environment (Käpplinger & Lichte, 2020). This initial survey from a long-term study echoed the findings of pre-COVID-19 research very closely.
The reported impacts from agencies around the world were similar in nature to what was being reported by individual experts; adult-serving agencies from various countries were very concerned with the continuity of educational programs and the inequitable access to digital learning—commonly referred to as the “digital divide.” For example, in Cameroon, educational authorities identified four main challenges: (1) continuity of education, (2) how to minimize the increase of current educational inequalities; (3) which tools to choose to ensure continuity; and (4) how to facilitate student advancement (Béché, 2020). In Cyprus, teachers and principals were charged with addressing the Ministry of Education’s directive to transition to online learning with almost no training and preparation; students were expected to continue learning on their own devices, provided they owned one, which also presented challenges (Kafa & Pashiardis, 2020).
In Käpplinger & Lichte’s (2020) Delphi study, adult education experts overwhelmingly agreed that “with regard to the future, the most frequent assumption seems to be that the COVID-19 crisis is a juncture, introducing major changes or accelerating a general shift towards digital learning” (p. 786). Further, “while many experts expect that distance learning via digital means will be of increased importance, also in the future, astonishingly, almost no respondent expected a significant renaissance for physical encounters for learning after the crisis” (p. 789). Similarly, Afshan & Ahmed (2020) note that “distance learning has highlighted the value of telecommunication and online education and it is highly likely that it will become more integrated into routine education and be considered essential in the new normal world” (p. 488).
However, as previously noted, there are still challenges related to the digital divide. Boeren et al. (2020) note that “[a]s many services close and social distancing practices continue, difficult-to-reach and underserved populations face further obstacles to adult education” and those learners “with lower levels of education, lower paying jobs, and lack of or insufficient employment are least likely to participate in adult learning” (p. 201). It is abundantly clear that the sudden transition to distance learning has highlighted and intensified existing disparities in education (Stanistreet et al., 2020).
Through the literature review process, two main themes emerged: continuity of education and digital inequality. One important aspect of transitioning to remote learning as a response to the school shutdowns to note is the widespread lack of knowledge or training for teachers. Students have also experienced a learning curve when it comes to online platforms, learning management systems, student email accounts, etc. While a lack of experience designing online learning environments is not unexpected, the shift to remote learning has revealed gaps in both students’ and teachers’ digital literacy and skills. All the while, the digital divide is still impacting learners even as access continues to improve.
- Afshan, G., & Ahmed, A. (2020). Distance learning is here to stay: Shall we reorganize ourselves for the post-covid-19 world? Anaesthesia, Pain & Intensive Care, 24(5). https://doi.org/10.35975/apic.v24i5.1353
- Béché, E. (2020). Cameroonian responses to COVID-19 in the education sector: Exposing an inadequate education system. International Review of Education, 66(5-6), 755–775. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11159-020-09870-x
- Boeren, E., Roumell, E. A., & Roessger, K. M. (2020). COVID-19 and the future of adult education: An editorial. Adult Education Quarterly, 70(3), 201–204. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741713620925029
- Kafa, A., & Pashiardis, P. (2020). Coping with the global pandemic COVID-19 through the lenses of the Cyprus education system. International Studies in Educational Administration (Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration & Management (CCEAM)), 48(2), 2020.
- Käpplinger, B., & Lichte, N. (2020). “The lockdown of physical co-operation touches the heart of adult education”: A Delphi study on immediate and expected effects of COVID-19. International Review of Education, 66(5-6), 777–795. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11159-020-09871-w
- Kara, M., Erdoğdu, F., Kokoç, M., & Cagiltay, K. (2019). Challenges faced by adult learners in online distance education: A literature review. Open Praxis, 11(1), 5. https://doi.org/10.5944/openpraxis.11.1.929
- Stanistreet, P., Elfert, M., & Atchoarena, D. (2020). Education in the age of COVID-19: Understanding the consequences. International Review of Education, 66(5-6), 627–633. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11159-020-09880-9
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