According to a national report from Tyton Partners on the state of adult education and technology, 86 percent of administrators want technology for their students and are willing to use their resources to get the best products possible. Yet there’s a bit of a dilemma when looking deeper into how adult education sites purchase digital learning tools. Adult learners need technology that is both powerful and simple to use, which requires good design and development. However, this can lead to a cost that is beyond the reach of many programs. For a chronically under-funded education sector, getting the right technology into the hands of under-skilled learners can seem insurmountable.
And yet, agencies in the Adult Education field are getting around those challenges by directly collaborating with new, smaller education technology product developers to create customized solutions. The result: better-designed products that are often more cost effective than “off-the-rack” solutions.
Know Your Learners, Not Technology
When asked what developers need most for effective collaboration with adult education programs, Jamie Hollier, Co-CEO from Anneal, said, “Educators need to come to the table knowing what their goals for the app are. I can build out the features, but it all starts with the educational goal.” Hollier is currently leading a team on a re-design of Digital Learn, an app that teaches digital literacy, for the Chicago Public Library (CPL).
After surveying the existing market for products that help under-skilled students gain basic digital literacy, CPL realized that Digital Learn was close, but not perfect. For one, the product had more features than CPL’s adult learners needed, which could be confusing and off-putting for unconfident learners. Even more importantly, Digital Learn was originally designed for independent self-paced learning; CPL needed a program that offered both independent and teacher led modules. CPL also needed a product to have a minimal registration process, so they could get a sense of who their students were and where they were from.
Instead of simply purchasing what they could find, CPL reached out to Digital Learn and offered to pay for a customized solution. “Because CPL knew their learners so well, the process has been great. A lot of times, agencies come in asking for this and that feature, and then when we give them what they asked for, they realize that they do not need those features,” Hollier said.
Collaboration Leads to Better Programs, Too
The resulting collaboration between CPL and Digital Learn led to an improved product and sharper insights about their students’ needs to improve CPL’s digital literacy classes. “We went to our end-users and asked what the need was,” said Mark Andersen, the Director of Learning and Economic Advancement at CPL. Andersen has been working with Hollier from the beginning, and is optimistic about both the product and the process of working closely with a developer. “It’s not what a lot of org[anization]s do, I know,” Andersen said, “but working with Digital Learn has forced us to look deeply at who we work for: our adult learners, and that alone has real value.”
Creative Economics: Offer What You Have
CPL’s example illustrates why collaboration between developers and adult education providers benefits both the design of apps and the education process; however, some might argue that this kind of partnership would be impossible to replicate for smaller organizations with little to no budget. Enter Orleans/Niagara Board of Collaborative Educational Services (ONBOCES), which teaches over 1,800 students a year in two impoverished counties in western New York.
“In the past, we have usually gone with major publishers to purchase our digital tools,” said Chuck Diemert, ONBOCES’ Literacy Zone Coordinator. “These products were fine, but we wanted better.” Then ONBOCES came across Ron Ayotte and i4Class — a math product that was made with lower-skilled students in mind.
Ayotte was open to working directly with ONBOCES to make adjustments to his product, but at first glance, the cost was more than Diemert and his team thought they could spend. Instead of giving up, ONBOCES traded on their agency network. In exchange for access to the app and for some customization, ONBOCES has introduced Ayotte to other adult education agencies in the state. Now, Ayotte has access to more than just ONBOCES; he has the potential of accessing adult education students across the state of New York.
“The best relationship between developers and educators is when both parties understand each other,” Ayotte said. “They were clear about their budget and what they could offer, and I saw a way to make it work. In the end, developers need to be flexible,” Ayotte added.
A Win-Win for Students
Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of getting the right product into the hands of under-served adult learners. But both CPL and ONBOCES were able to get the digital tool they needed because they were proactive and creative. Both agencies saw themselves as customers that deserved the best because their students deserved nothing less.
“If you truly are going to build something good for these learners, something they can use, it needs to be simple, but simple comes from a lot of thinking and a lot of time and effort,” Hollier said. “It’s not easy. But it’s worth it. Adult education agencies know their students are worth the effort. They just don’t always see their options as consumers.”