These photos were taken at the event "Designing a Better Future for Adult Learners: A Cross-Country Collaboration." About the event: Digital Promise, in close cooperation with the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE and MIT Media Labs, is inviting ed tech entrepreneurs, adult education providers, and researchers to participate in our nation-wide Design Day focused on under-skilled, under-served adults.

The Need

Perhaps you’ve seen the statistics — more than 30 million adults in the U.S. are unable read, write, and solve basic math equations. But our adult basic education programs can only serve roughly four million of those adults. This gap between the need and available educational services has prompted calls for innovative ways to improve access to quality educational resources.

We at Designers for Learning responded to this call by inviting instructional designers, developers, and adult educators to join a crowdsourcing effort to develop free open educational resources (OER) for adults with low math and literacy skills.

We conceived of this crowdsourced design project as part of a massive open online course (MOOC) on Canvas Network and sought out an all volunteer team of designers, facilitators, and subject matter experts to help us.

Much to our surprise, over 1,500 people from around the world registered for the course — and, to date, are actively engaged in creating free, open resources for adult learners.

While participants indicated that they joined the course to get instructional design experience, the majority said that they also joined because of the social cause and need it was supporting.

Most of us are well aware of the needs in our local K-12 schools; rarely does a light shine on the adults in our communities who haven’t completed high school and are now left with few opportunities to improve their skills. It is heartening to have so many designers join us in our effort to support adult learners.

Success Factors

Why has this crowdsourcing design project been successful? The four key factors:

  • Use a real-world instructional design challenge. First, the authentic design opportunity to develop instructional materials for adult learners motivated many to participate in the MOOC. Most designers were new to creating materials for low-skilled, adult learners and welcomed the chance to work on the real-world challenge. Knowing that their materials were open to all and could possibly be used by real instructors made the work all the more real.
  • Create a clear design guide. We developed a Design Guide for students to follow. The designers created comprehensive lessons plans with presentation, learner practice, and assessment materials that followed that guide, as well as the College and Career Readiness Standards from the U.S. Department of Education that establish learning achievement goals for math and literacy.
  • Introduce open licensing. The designers now understand how to release their work under a Creative Commons copyright license that gives those with limited funds the ability to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute the resources for free. Open resources are key to getting these materials into the hands of adult education instructors and programs.
  • Create an understanding of the learner. Our lessons and projects were designed to help designers create materials that were relevant to the lives of their target learner. Unlike kids, adults have a wealth of real-world personal and job experiences to draw the learner into the lesson, and adults are quickly turned off when presented with materials designed for children. For example, designers created:
    • An English language arts and literacy lesson focusing on speaking and listening is framed in the context of a job interview, a familiar situation to adult learners.
    • A math lesson offering learners the opportunity to practice working with positive and negative integers is placed within the context of temperatures and money.
    • A reading lesson including a social studies theme asks adult learners to consider the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the context of their rights to privacy when conducting personal Internet searches.

The Impact

This MOOC was both a professional development opportunity for those interested in instructional design, and a platform to design solutions to support the forgotten millions in our country in need of educational support. In the end, MOOC participants offered their service contributions to a grossly underserved educational segment of adult learners, and left the experience with an appreciation of who these adult learners are as people versus statistics.

It will be exciting to see what these designers do next. We’d love to match some of these designers with entrepreneurs who are interested in creating technology products for adult learners. Their understanding of what it means to create quality learning experiences would make them a great addition to an entrepreneurial team.

For more information about organizations like Designers for Learning, sign up for our monthly adult learning newsletter, The Spotlight.


About Jennifer Maddrell

Jennifer is the Founder of Designers for Learning.

One Comment

  • Jennifer and others,

    Once developed, where will these OER lessons and other resources be housed? OER Commons (it has an adult education category)? Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE) Adult Educators Resources Pages? Someplace else?

    How will you let adult basic skills educators know that these resources exist? Announcements on the Literacy Information and Communications System (LINCS)? National adult Basic Skills organizations (e.g. ProLiteracy, COABE, TESOL) e-newsletters?

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