Imagine trying to find a job when you don’t have a high school diploma. You go to a local community center and ask about GED classes, but you are too late – the next opening isn’t for months.
Most people don’t get much further than this. Life intervenes, and they drift away. Even for the persistent, there’s no guarantee they will find the services they need.
In Philadelphia, the Office of Adult Education (OAE) tackled this lack of access head on, in a city where half of the adults lack basic skills and two-thirds of the OAE’s students read, write, and do math below an eighth-grade level. The OAE shows that often the best way to solve these big problems isn’t by using the most cutting-edge technology; it’s using the technology that best fills the need.
When Judith Rényi took the helm as OAE Executive Director, she noticed adult learners kept returning to her office looking for referrals. Though the staff knew where the strongest programs in the city were, no system tracked whether the individual had followed up, and there was no way of knowing the availability of class seats.
“Basically, we were sending people out into a black hole,” Rényi said.
As a result, she and her staff created myPLACE, an online system to match students’ needs with available courses, almost like a city-wide college registrar.
Now, when adult learners ask about classes, staff make an appointment at a myPLACE Campus, a one-stop registration and assessment center. Once a learner is assessed, staff can immediately enroll them in their first class. Because all of OAE’s partner agencies maintain their class schedules and available seats in the database, students are registered without concern about whether they will lose their spot.
The myPLACE database is unique within adult education, especially at this scale and in an urban area like Philadelphia.
The OAE builds more than just student and class enrollment tracking into myPLACE. They also build in supports for successful completion of students’ learning goals. In addition to assessing and assigning the student, myPLACE staff lead students through an “Introduction to Adult Learning and Careers” course.
“Learners are learning not only basic academic skills; they are learning how to be online,” said Diane Inverso, the OAE’s Senior Director. “They are also learning how to be students.”
This course includes digital and adult study skills assessment and tutorials. Notably, it also offers career exploration and the creation of a career pathway/learning plan portfolio, which includes an online resume the student creates.
At a myPLACE Campus, Latanya was discovering an interest in the medical field she didn’t know she had. “I knew I wanted to help people, but I didn’t know what I could do with that,” she said.
She then went on to share her academic plan, showing all the steps she would have to take after she earned her GED: the kinds of courses, how long that course of study would be, and where she could take these courses.
Pennsylvania does not have a centralized system of adult education. Instead, adult ed is primarily offered through community-based organizations (CBOs).
Because these organizations are often underfunded, they have to offer multi-level GED classes, which means a student working at an eighth-grade level is sitting next to someone who can only read at a fourth-grade level.
“We send students to GED classes as a default position, and then they fail,” Rényi said.
She understood that somewhere along the line, a set of pre-GED classes had to be set up, but the answer had to be scalable and affordable.
Starting in spring 2014, the OAE rolled out four pre-GED online courses, for learners who need more support before taking a GED class. The curriculum is contextualized – prompts are offered focused on different industries, such as manufacturing, healthcare, or transportation.
Learners choose which version to complete, thereby earning industry-specific skills as they build their basic academic knowledge. Once the students complete these courses, they can move to GED classes, and from what the early data is showing, partner sites are seeing students succeed more often than they were before the program began.
These online courses not only help reach students and keep them within the adult education system, they help other agencies do their work better. “We don’t want to compete with these other agencies for funding,” Rényi said.
“Now, our partners can level their classes,” Inverso said. “Partner agencies now focus on one level at a time because our online courses help them help students who aren’t ready for a GED class.”
Rényi agreed. “Yes. Tech has accelerated college and K-12 students,” she said. “We can do the same with low-skilled adults.”