What did this year’s SXSWedu conference have to say about adult learning? Turns out, more than you might think.

SXSWedu is one of the country’s largest educational technology conferences and, as most of these conferences go, has tended to focus more on the K-12 segment than on adults who are in need of foundational skills to help them advance in the workforce. But with tracks like equity, employability, and ESL/ELL, there was plenty at the 2017 conference to consider and apply to low-skilled adult learners.

First, equity was a major theme. Dr. Christopher Emdin set the tone with his opening keynote, “We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service.” He challenged attendees not to “tech away” the problems of disenfranchised students, but instead to find ways to work in communities and use their strengths and uniquenesses to find effective ways to help students learn. Other sessions looked at funding inequities in schools and inequities in STEM opportunities, and sought to apply design thinking methodologies to problems of inequity.

If you think about it, these issues are challenges in the adult space as well. Nowhere is funding more challenging than in adult education; nowhere do you see the lack of STEM skills as clearly as in our low-skilled learners; and nowhere is it more important to find ways to use the unique experiences of learners than with urban adults to help them achieve more economic stability in their lives.

Second, there were several sessions about the skills gap and ways to address that gap. Salesforce and LinkedIn/Lynda.com talked about how their learning platforms help adults learn skills via personalized pathways. Other sessions focused on credentialing and competencies as alternative pathways to skill development.

However, the focus was more on how to build middle skills rather than on building foundational skills. Learning platforms, focusing on skill competencies and earning micro-credentials for skills mastered, are models that can be easily adaptable to low-skilled adult learners — and should be.

Lastly, it was great to see Cell-Ed as one of the 10 finalists in the Launch startup competition. Cell-Ed is an excellent technology-based program for adult learners and is working to solve a very clear user need: the need for quality instruction anytime, anywhere. As the judges of the lightning round asked questions, however, it was clear they were trying to apply what they knew about the K-12 market to this segment, which isn’t a fair comparison. They asked, for example, if Cell-Ed was having success selling to states or to other system-level customers. The short answer was yes, sometimes. Some states have centralized adult education programs and others don’t. There is virtually no equivalent of a “district” that handles purchasing and procurement for adult education programs in a region.

As we outline in our latest report, the adult learning ed-tech market is complex and evolving. Cell-Ed is an early mover in this space, forging paths and building bridges where they are needed – including at ed-tech pitch competitions.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that so many of the issues facing our K-12 students and classrooms also apply to adult learners – especially with respect to technology. I look forward to many of us bringing the perspective of the low-skilled adult learner to discussions of equity, the skills gap, and career pathways at SXSWedu 2018!


About Patti Constantakis

Patti is the Director of Adult Learning Initiatives at Digital Promise. You can follow her on Twitter at @patticonstan.

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