App-to-Speed Learning Circles in Public Libraries

September 20, 2018

By David J. Rosen, Ed.D

A learning circle is a staff- or volunteer-led group whose members all share an interest in learning about the same subject or topic. It’s a non-formal, organized study circle that includes an online course or other online learning resources. Learning circles typically meet once a week, face-to-face, for 90 minutes to two hours, and participants also do online learning. They meet for a set number of weeks, typically ranging from four to 12. The main, but not only, host of learning circles in communities in the U.S. is public libraries. This article is about how, through offering learning circles, libraries can help low-literate and immigrant community members quickly and effectively learn to use free or low-cost apps to improve their basic skills or, for immigrants, to improve their English language skills. At the end is a list of links to articles about learning circles in libraries, and to a study of library learning circles.

In the U.S. we now have a large number of free or inexpensive online learning applications (apps) designed for smartphones. Many of these have been part of an international competition known as the Adult Literacy XPRIZE sponsored by the Barbara Bush Foundation and with funding from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation. The goal of the Adult Literacy XPRIZE has been to incentivize developers to build effective learning apps for immigrant English language adult learners and for low-literate native English-speaking adults. There are now five finalist apps, and an upcoming national “communities competition” designed to get the word out about the winning app(s); there are also three more apps that were semi-finalists — a list of which is included later in this article — and dozens more apps that were completed as part of the competition. Most low-literate and immigrant adults who regularly use smartphones do not know these apps exist, how to use them effectively for their learning, or how to get support for using them. Public libraries that offer App-to-Speed Learning Circles can meet those needs. The goal is to help low-literate adults, or immigrants who need to learn English, feel comfortable and competent in using an adult basic skills app to improve their English reading and writing skills. They may need more than a particular app has to offer, but the app can help, and the learning circle may also help them to become aware of local literacy or English language learning programs in the community, or offered directly or in partnership by the public library.

Preparing to offer an App-to-Speed learning circle in your public library

There are two key roles in setting up and offering this kind of learning circle: 1) the library director or volunteer coordinator, and 2) the learning circle facilitator. Here’s a description of these roles:

The role of the library director or volunteer coordinator:

  • Learn about learning circles. P2PU, a not-for-profit organization, and the major sponsor of learning circles in the U.S. and in other countries can help with that. Its website, has many materials describing what learning circles are, how they are being used, as well as links to short YouTube learning circle videos. Most learning circles are held in public libraries, but some are also in adult English language programs located in community-based organizations or public schools.
  • Market the App to Speed learning circle to be held at the library, and recruit low-literate or immigrant adults for it.  Reach out to community basic skills programs that serve adults who need to improve their English language or basic reading and writing skills. Offer these adult basic skills learners an opportunity to learn how to use their smartphone while they wait to enroll in a class or, once enrolled, to supplement their classroom learning.

The National Literacy Directory of adult basic skills organizations in communities across the U.S., a searchable database of over 7,000 local adult basic skills and English language programs, high school equivalency preparation programs and exam testing centers, can help public libraries find adult basic skills learners to recruit for an App to Speed learning circle. Some of these adult learners, especially immigrants, may be on waiting lists for English language classes or tutors and might use an app on their smartphone to improve their skills while they wait; some may already be enrolled in classes, or working with a literacy tutor, and want to supplement that with learning on their smartphone.

Many adult learners enrolled in English or adult basic skills classes already have smartphones but don’t know they can use – or know how to use – them for learning. A public library could offer a short-term learning circle to help them download free or low-cost learning apps, learn how to use them well and, equally important, help them build an online or face-to-face support group with others in their community who are also using the same app(s). Few of these programs offer a short-term learning experience on how to use smartphones apps for adult basic skills learning.

Of course, libraries can also promote an App to Speed learning circle in other ways: they can post flyers in the library and, through social media and emails, send digital flyers to key community organizations. For example, a library could reach out to its network of organizations that serve immigrants in the community: social services, religious organizations, or law firms serving immigrants. Flyers might be in learners’ first languages that some immigrants can read, as well as in English. They might be posted on bulletin boards in religious organizations, laundromats, hair salons and barber shops, food markets, social service agencies, and in other organizations that immigrants and low-literate native English language speakers typically visit.

  • Choose an app. Toward the end of this article is an annotated list of the Adult Literacy XPRIZE eight semi-finalist apps. Those with an * are finalists. There are many more apps, of course, that can be found on Google Play, or in the Apple App Store, or through an Internet search. However, it is important to take into account which operating system(s) your learning circle participants will use. All the XPRIZE adult literacy apps will operate on android phones, but only a few will operate on iPhones, so it might be best to choose an app that will work on Android phones.
  • Become familiar with how to use the Learning Management System of the app so, if you wish, you can look at participant progress. This is also useful for the learning circle facilitator (see this role below) to know how each person is doing, to offer help, encourage usage, or acknowledge participants’ learning with certificates.
  • Recruit and train a (volunteer) learning circle facilitator. This person is not necessarily a literacy or English language teacher, but must be comfortable and competent in using smartphones, particularly android phones since most learners will have this kind, and because most apps are designed to run on android phones. Although a facilitator could be a library staff member, especially in the first learning circles offered, it could be a Friends of the Library volunteer, or a volunteer from a community computing center, a nearby college or university, or from elsewhere. Training would involve helping the facilitator understand what a learning circle is, what the goals for this particular learning circle are, downloading and going through lessons from the chosen basic skills or English for immigrants app, and learning how to help learners, who will all be using the same app, to support each other in the weekly face-to-face meeting, and possibly online using a free app such as WhatsApp.
  • Set a time frame, schedule the day and time of the learning circle and length of the learning circle meetings. Although learning circles are usually four to 12 weeks in length, there is no prescribed number of weeks. Perhaps your first app-to-speed learning circle might be six weeks, and subsequent ones could be longer if needed. Typically a weekly meeting is 90 minutes to two hours including some group activities, some use of the learning app, feedback on how the app learning is going, and probably peers and facilitator sharing tips for using the app. Goals of the learning circle might be: to help learners feel comfortable and competent in using the app on their mobile phone; to feel comfortable with each other as peers interested in improving their literacy, numeracy or English language skills; and to feel comfortable in using a social media app so they can stay in touch between meetings. Once they are comfortable and confident in using the app, and the learning circle has formally ended, learning circle members may wish to continue to meet in the library regularly or from time to time on their own.

The Role of learning circle facilitator (possibly also with the library director or volunteer coordinator)

  • Participate in training to learn about how to facilitate a learning circle and, in this case, also learn how to download the app, how the app lessons are organized and delivered and, if there is one, how the app’s learning management system works.
  • Interview potential learning circle participants. The purposes of the interview are: 1) to make sure potential participants understand what a learning circle is and how it differs from a class; 2) to make sure participants have regular daily access to a smartphone and understand that they are expected to come to a weekly, face-to-face meeting with others who will be using the same smartphone literacy or English language app; 3) to be sure participants understand when and where the meetings occur; and 4) to collect information about the make and model of each person’s smartphone, or at least determine that it is an Android phone since many of the apps will only run on that operating system, not on Apple’s IOS. Collecting their smartphone make and model information will also help facilitators encourage learners who use the same kind of smartphone to help each other with technical issues. This is a good example of the importance of building among learning circle members a community that offers peer support.
  • Onboard learners to the app. In a blog article about the app, Learning Upgrade, onboarding is described this way: “ …each learner took out her smartphone, downloaded the app, received her username and password, and signed in for the first time. The center had a good Wi-Fi router to facilitate downloading the app and playing the lessons. The goal was to move each learner through the first few lessons in person to build confidence. Each learner was enrolled in the first math course and English course….As usage away from the center took off among learners, the time at the center became an informal learning circle. Women speaking both in English and in their native languages were talking about what lesson they had reached, the songs and games, how far they were from a certificate, and their ultimate goals for the future.”
  • Offer the learning circle, and each week keep a log of opportunities, challenges, and questions. In the first meeting, as part of the onboarding, the facilitator may try to determine if all or most participants use a social media app such as WhatsApp or Facebook. If so, the facilitator could help them to set up a private online group where they can easily get in touch, and share challenges and opportunities in using the app. The facilitator might also ask if they use text messaging and, if so, ask each one for their cell phone number. Using an app such as Remind, the facilitator could send them a weekly text message reminder of the meeting. (Gathering this phone number might, instead, be part of the interview.) If the learning circle is set up through P2PU, there is an online log on their dashboard that facilitators can use.
  • Provide Individual or group support for adult learners in the face-to-face meeting who may need a significant amount of support before they are up to app speed.
  • Offer learning circle completers a certificate or micro-credential Adult learners often want recognition for their learning efforts. A learning circle attendance certificate that could be framed and displayed at home is often appreciated. Some apps also offer micro-credentials and/or certificates within the app.

This article is a broad-stroke picture of what might be involved in creating an app-to-speed learning circle in your public library. For further information about learning circles, go to If you offer, or plan to offer, an app-to-speed learning circle, or if you want to discuss them, please let me know.

David J. Rosen, Ed.D is the President of Newsome Associates in Boston, Massachusetts. He is the moderator of Integrating Technology, a LINCS adult basic skills educators community of practice sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. He is a co-founder and Steering Committee member of the Open Door Collective and a member of its Public Libraries and Adult Basic Skills, and Digital Inclusion issues groups.

Adult Literacy XPRIZE Semifinalist Apps (Note: the five apps with an * are finalists.)

Alphabet Literacy

“allows users to explore multimedia content for improving their literacy skills. Users can interact with articles, songs, videos, and more within the app.”

Alphabet Website.

On Google Play at

* AmritaCREATE  “personalized learning app along with engaging, culturally appropriate e-content linked to life skills.”

On Google Play at

* AutoCognita  “applies the constructivist learning approach to engage learners through action.  Low-literacy adults effectively acquire basic literacy, numeracy and life skills through a comprehensive curriculum and sound pedagogy.”

AutoCognita Website

On Google Play at


* Cell-Ed “A messaging app uniquely designed for no- to low literate learners is available on any mobile device – no internet, teacher, or classroom required. Text messaging micro-lessons are complemented by audio/video/picture lessons and a live coach. Learners earn certificates and more. Originally designed for basic literacy learners, Cell-Ed offers English language learning, bridge and workforce programs for adult learners.”

Cell-Ed website

Cell-Ed YouTube Video

On Google Play at

And in the App Store (Apple).


*Learning Upgrade “With the Learning Upgrade app, adults can make reading breakthroughs on their own phones. The engaging lessons filled with songs, video, and games move adults step-by-step from the fundamentals to advanced comprehension.  Learning happens everywhere: on the bus, during breaks at work, or while waiting for a child at school. Adults earn five certificates as they progress through 300 sequenced lessons.  The program prepares adults for success at work, earning a diploma, or taking more advanced classes.”


Website                                                                                        On Google Play at               

and in the App Store (Apple).


Lyriko “a music game designed to build language skills while exploring song lyrics.”

Lyriko website .

App on Google Play at  and  possibly in the App store.


* PeopleFOR WORDS Codex: Lost Words of Atlantis  “a mobile adventure game for Android devices, helps low-literate adults improve their English reading skills. Based on an archeological adventure storyline, the initial gameplay revolves around crafting phonemes, onset-rime patterns, and sight words to “decode” a mysterious language from a lost civilization.”

People For Words Website

App on Google Play at

Xenos Isle “an evidence-based mobile learning game that combines a virtual world, scaffolded missions, and single and multiplayer gameplay to rapidly increase adult learners’ English language and literacy skills for increased civic engagement and enhancing career pathways. Xenos Isle is platform and operating system agnostic, making it available on phones and tablets as well as on computers. Mobile delivery and 24/7 access on any device make it easier for learners to use—at work, at home, and even during their commute. Being digital, Xenos is cost-effective and scalable, and can readily be customized for industry-specific content.“

Learning Games Studios Website

On Google Play at  May also be available at the Apple App store.


Articles and Studies about Learning Circles in Public Libraries

Thanks for the list below to Gwenn Weaver, Chair of the Open Door Collective Digital Inclusion Issues Group, and to her and other Open Door Collective members for a review of an early draft: Peter Waite, Drew Pizzolato, Jean Demas, and Kristin Lahurd.

Blog Posts

Web Junction blog 1

Web Junction blog 2

IMLS grant-funded projects

Kansas City PL

KC prelim proposal narrative

Kansas City PL National Leadership Grant from IMLS

Providence PL IMLS grant

Public library learning circle activities

Cambridge, MA PL

Chicago, IL PL (LJ article)

City of Wichita, KS PL

Cleveland Heights, OH

Learning Circles in Detroit, MI

Providence, RI PL

San Jose, CA PL

Topeka &n Shawnee County Public Library Learning Together,” January 30, 2018. Retrieved July 2, 2018 from

Other info on learning circles in libraries

“Online Learning: Why Libraries Could Be the Key to MOOCs’ Success,”April 25 2016. Retrieved 7.2.2018 from

“The Learning Circle experience: Findings from the P2PU participant survey”. January 2018 TASCHA Retrieved 7.2.2018 from


After Career Preparation Mastery, Getting through the Digital Gauntlet to a Job Interview

January 7, 2018

Competency-based adult education and backward (curriculum) design approaches are effective ways to create curriculum content that adult learners need to prepare for careers.

Competency-based adult education is an instruction system in which intended learning outcomes and performance measures are defined and made clear in advance to students who then are given the time they need to learn and to demonstrate that they have mastered the competencies. Increasingly, some industries, post-secondary education institutions, and some adult basic skills program are moving toward competency-based education systems.

Backward design is an approach to creating curriculum that begins with what the designers want learners to know and be able to do when they have completed their curriculum, that is, when the learners have mastered the learning objectives, or have attained the learning outcomes. Curriculum designers then “work backwards,” identifying the instructional activities and resources that will enable learners to master the objectives and attain those outcomes. Developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, this is now a widely embraced and effective approach to curriculum design. However, do competency-based approaches and backward design curricula go far enough if the learner’s goal is to get on a career pathway leading to a family sustaining salary? Is well-designed instruction, with excellent teachers managing it, and students’ commitment to mastering the content all that learners need to get hired for jobs in their chosen career pathway?

If the adult learner has identified a career pathway to pursue, an important if, then it’s not enough to just prepare by completing a well-designed occupational training course and/or a higher education certificate or degree program. Here’s why. The way in which employers, especially large corporations, choose candidates has changed, and this is not a new phenomenon; it’s been moving in this direction for at least a decade. You may have noticed that these jobs all require submitting online applications. A major reason is that they include an applicant tracking system (ATS) a human resources database that sifts large numbers of applications for a job and organizes them into categories, ranking them by keywords (e.g. skills, competencies, titles of positions held, found, degrees, etc.) Typically this takes the software seconds at most to sort each application. Accomplished adult learners may have mastered the intended outcomes of an education or training program, but may be rejected as a candidate for a position by the Applicant Tracking System because they haven’t described themselves using words or phrases that the software understands.

To be asked to a job interview for the position, applicants need to be taught how to look at a position description and identify the key words that the ATS is likely to recognize. This implies that the applicant has access to a computer or portable digital device and the Internet, and the ability to:

  • Use an online job board such as Monster or Indeed to find the right jobs to apply for and to upload a carefully prepared resume
  • Accurately research what a position requires both from the position advertisement and also from O*NET descriptions of what position descriptions that have this or similar titles usually require
  • Select key words to include in the online application for the position
  • If possible, review the online application without completing it to understand the questions, take notes on them, and record verbatim questions not understood which may require further research
  • Accurately complete the application

These are new competencies for finding good jobs that require good research and problem solving skills as well as computer and Internet comfort and competence. These competencies include not only the required knowledge and skills for the position but also the digital literacy skills to get through the ATS digital gauntlet to a job interview in which they can demonstrate that they have the required knowledge and skills for the position.

For more information, see: What do Corporate Recruiters Want? and Applicant Tracking System Definition

Formative Assessment Practices of a Teacher of Occupation-related Basic Math in an Integrated Education Program

December 22, 2017

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Teaching, Learning and Assessment for Adults Improving Foundational Skills, by David J. Rosen and Inge De Meyer, case studies in formative assessment in adult basic skills education in Belgium, published by OECD.[1] It is a description of an adult basic skills math teacher who teaches in a math lab, and who focuses on occupation-related math skills, using formative assessment and a learner-centered, blended learning model that incorporates some online instruction.

Formative assessment practices

The most important player in this case study is the mathematics teacher from the center for adult basic education who is out-stationed in the public employment service (VDAB). She uses several formative assessment practices to address the specific educational needs of each of her students and to help them acquire the skills they lack for their future job. Furthermore she keeps every party involved in this project informed about the participant’s progress and problems. Without such a dynamic, communicative math teacher with experience in teaching adults with basic skill needs, the program wouldn’t be as successful.

Formative assessment practices the teacher uses include:

  • Formative assessment. For each learner, the teacher assesses which of the skills needed to follow their chosen vocational training they lack, and she works with each individually towards acquiring those skills. During this process she doesn’t use the general summative approach used in basic mathematics courses. Instead, learning and assessment are carried out through individual tasks, which she discusses with the learners. This personal, informal feedback helps the learners to clarify their knowledge and proficiency level without formal testing.
  • Dialogue with the learners (individual conversations during which the individual learner’s problems are discussed). During these individual conversations she sometimes refers to other learners in the group to encourage the person she’s working with (“He/she also learned to do this. Was it very difficult to learn?”).
  • Peer learning. When learners in the math class are following the same (or a similar) vocational course and have similar mathematical needs the teacher gives them tasks they can work on together.
  • Teacher “log” – for each learner the teacher notes the learner’s progress and his/her further needs so she can adapt the tasks in the next class to each learner’s actual numeracy level.
  • Learner progress communication – in writing  – with the learner, vocational teacher (VDAB instructor) and VDAB counselor. This way everybody involved in the program can take the problems and progress for each learner into account in the activities within the individual trajectories for which they are responsible.


When we observed experienced, out-stationed mathematics teacher Heidi D’Haene working with learners at the VDAB, there were two brightly-lit rooms, one with tables where learners worked independently, and a small computer lab. On one of the tables were neatly arranged binders and resource materials for the afternoon’s learning. The binders included, for example, math for builders, metal workers, plumbers and electricians, and vocationally-specific math assessments. The materials included an original copy of each competency-based instructional module or exercise, copies that the learner could write on and keep, and an answer sheet that the learner could use to correct her or his work.

Learners in the vocational courses at the VDAB found their way to the open mathematics lab in different ways. Their vocational teachers referred some to improve specific math skills that needed to be strengthened. Some were referred after having taken a math diagnostic test as part of their seeking a vocational course, for example as plumbers, electricians, builders, or metal workers. Others found on their own that they needed to strengthen certain math skills or, placed on a job, found a work task that required better facility with certain math skills.

Typically learners come to the math lab once a week, for two hours in the afternoon, for as many weeks as they need to accomplish their goals. Most learners finish their trajectory in around three months, after approximately 30 hours of instruction. On the day we observed there were six learners, all men aged 18-25.

In our interview with Heidi we learned that her primary interest is to help learners think in math and process it – not just learn the math facts and algorithms. She said that over time she has learners in the lab who have a very wide range of abilities, and her challenge is to be able to quickly and effectively adapt to that range, to their individual needs and goals. She explained that when possible she groups learners with the same goals who are at the same level, or she uses peer-learning methods. However, since this is not always possible, she always has materials for individually-paced learning related to each learner’s goals. Furthermore she doesn’t always know in advance who will be in the open lab for a given session, and she may have only one or two learners one day, and up to 15 on another. This makes adapting to learners’ needs challenging.

When learners begin in the open lab they often plan to attend up to 10-12 times, but they have the option of attending up to 30 hours before they are placed in a job. Occasionally a learner who is placed on a job comes back to work on a particular math task. A new learner may take (the relevant parts of) a mathematics diagnostic assessment, although sometimes there isn’t time for this. Heidi also experienced that several learners find taking a test difficult; they fear that it’s “like school.” Many of the learners, she said, rely on formulas and “tricks” to do math and have no real understanding of how to think mathematically. So she relies on direct, systematic observation of their learning as they try specific math tasks. For example, she hands a learner a worksheet and says, “Try this out. It may be too easy or too difficult. We’ll see.” Afterwards she closely observes how they are doing and adjusts the kind and level of instruction accordingly.

Using computers is integrated into the instruction, usually for 15 minutes at a time. Learners use educational software from a CD-ROM or from a web page. Heidi observes what they are doing, and together she and the learner assess whether they are ready to go on. She does not use learning management tools such as those that might be found in large integrated learning system software. She prefers direct talking with learners and poses questions such as “What do you want to learn here in the lab?” “Have you seen this (module, computer instruction program, etc.) before?” “Does it look like something you can do?” “Does this look like what you need to learn in order to…?”. She considers dialogue an important part of the formative assessment process; “it captures their motivation”.

Heidi tries to incorporate project-based learning whenever possible. This way the mathematics skills are grounded in situations that the learners find vocationally relevant. One of the projects Heidi described is making a plan of a garden house. This can be done as a team or as an independent project. It involves linear and area measurement, reading the instructions for and mixing cement, planning a budget and other numeracy or mathematics, reading and writing skills.

When there are only a few learners this method of working is not difficult. However, when there are more learners, she must move quickly through the lab, and back and forth between the two rooms to stay in touch with how each learner is doing and assign new work – a model sometimes referred to as “teaching on roller skates.” It requires a high degree of expertise in mathematics knowledge, teaching strategies, and the ability to mentally keep track of how each learner is doing.

Immediately after each session Heidi takes careful notes on what each learner has accomplished and what the learner needs to do next time. She discusses her notes with the learner at the beginning of the following open math lab session. She also sends a copy of the progress notes, immediately after the session, to the VDAB instructor who teaches the vocational course the learner attends and to the learner’s counselor at the VDAB. This communication accomplishes several things. First, it keeps the VDAB instructor and counselor informed of the learner’s progress. Second, it builds and maintains good relationships between the job skills training, VDAB counseling and basic skills staff.

Heidi also sometimes suggests ways in which, in the vocational classes, the numeracy skills could be reinforced. Collaboration with the professional VDAB training instructors is also practiced as new assessments are developed. Heidi works one-on-one with the vocational instructor to assess the numeracy skills and knowledge needed for training and for the job. In some cases this includes understanding math theory as, for example, understanding the binary system is important for certain kinds of electrical work. Heidi also works with the VDAB vocational instructors to tailor the curriculum to the needs of the vocational training, and the needs of the learners. For example, often a curriculum needs to have more levels added to address a wider range of learner needs.

This case is an excellent example of a multiple-partner, work-based, formative assessment model where all the elements are in place for participant success: a strong education and training skills agency partnership, an experienced and effective teacher, a well-developed competency-based curriculum that is related to participants’ goals, a well-developed formative assessment process, and basic skills learning embedded or contextualized in the highly-motivating training context.

[1] Rosen, D.J. and I. De Meyer (2008), “Case Study: Belgium (Flemish Community)”, in Teaching, Learning and Assessment for Adults: Improving Foundation Skills, OECD Publishing. 2008 Last downloaded December 22, 2017.


What can we learn about Career Preparation from Janesville Wisconsin?

November 2, 2017

Washington Post social policy journalist Amy Goldstein’s Janesville, an American Story is a book about a once prosperous Wisconsin town with a General Motors plant as its long-time major employer. In the middle of the recent great recession, without much notice, GM announced it was closing the plant. This is a readable, if often painful, narrative of how that decision affected GM workers, Janesville families and the community at large. It is also about how a town that took pride in its unity across economic class and political parties, under these difficult circumstances became politically divided and unable to meet the needs of middle class residents who, suddenly unemployed, descended into poverty. It is also about local leaders and elected officials at state and federal levels, including U.S. Congressman, and now Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.

Goldstein describes a range of responses to the plant closing by laid-off workers and their families. She follows laid-off worker strategies such as: accepting GM jobs in other states and moving families there; becoming “GM Gypsies” in nearby states and returning home only for weekends and vacations; searching for jobs of any kind in Janesville; and enrolling in the Blackhawk community college retraining program for dislocated workers. The narrative follows the choices of several laid-off individuals and how their decisions turned out for them and their families. In the appendix, research data is provided on how one of those strategies worked out, enrolling in community college retraining.

Goldstein begins Appendix 2 this way: “Even among people who disagree about everything else about the economy, the common wisdom is that workers who lose a job, without much likelihood of finding another in the same field, should go back to school to train for a different one. The federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year for the retraining of such dislocated workers. However, research into whether this policy is useful is not extensive.” To study this question in the context of the laid-off GM workers in Janesville, Goldstein collaborated with Kevin Hollenbeck, a senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and labor economist, Laura Dresser, Associate Director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Here are some of their findings:

  • Overall, one third of the laid-off workers who went to Blackhawk Community College completed their program of study within the expected time, only a little longer than other students on their campus.
  • Laid-off workers who went back to school were less likely to have a job after they retrained than those who had not gone to the community college retraining program. “Retraining did not translate into greater success at finding a job…. Worse still, more of those who retrained were not earning any money at all.”
  • The laid-off workers who retrained earned less afterward than those who did not. Before the recession the two groups’ incomes had been about the same.
  • The dislocated workers who found steady employment after retraining had wages a little higher than those of others who retrained, but much lower than those of steady workers who had not gone to school.
  • The laid-off workers who graduated from the community college retraining program earned more money than those who didn’t finish but, because they had had higher incomes beforehand, the completers had a bigger drop in pay than the non-completers.

What are we to make of these findings? Is this an indictment of federal spending on employment and training? I don’t think so. After all, this is only one study and doesn’t necessarily indicate a pattern for training or retraining programs. Also, these are dislocated workers in an industry that did not necessarily require post-secondary education or, in some cases, even completion of high school, at least for line workers. These were people who had felt secure in their jobs with relatively good wages and benefits because of the collective bargaining of their union. Many may not have had sufficient basic skills for a retraining program in a different field. Perhaps laid-off hospital workers who had had some post-secondary training, and additional on-the-job training, might fare better in a dislocated workers retraining program. Perhaps some employers in Janesville, or surrounding towns, were reluctant to hire the laid-off GM workers assuming, as had been true in the past, that the plant would re-open, and that the retrained workers might want to return to their former work. Perhaps the community college was overwhelmed with the sudden increase in applicants for retraining, a 54% surge in the number of students, and it was not prepared to deliver high quality training to this group. It’s hard to say.

However, what happened in Janesville could happen in other cities and towns, and very likely already has. One implication for adult basic skills educators, particularly for those who are preparing adult learners for career pathways, is how to prepare them well not only for work and a career, but also for loss of work and for changing careers should that be necessary. This implies teaching not only basic and occupational skills, but also work-related resourcefulness, and good problem-solving strategies, especially for work environments that now require a range of digital literacy skills. It also implies that students and workers need to know what community and government resources can help them, and how to access these services if they are laid off. The services, for example, include unemployment insurance, and food stamps. It implies that they need to know how to shop economically; how to re-negotiate a mortgage; and how to save, especially in good times, for lay-offs and other periods of employment difficulty. Financial literacy that addresses how to save, and how to build assets, is especially important in an economy where a career with steady work with good salaries and benefits may not be secure. It is also important to be psychologically prepared for these employment upheavals.

Building a Community of Learning Navigators in a Public Library

February 20, 2017

Building a Community of Learning Navigators in a Public Library

A guest blog article by Ed Latham

In the past I offered fee-based digital literacy classes in a local public library as part of an adult education organization. The classes were well received by the community but, due to a number of issues, the adult education organization I was working with has not been offering any digital literacy services in that library for almost a year. The local librarian, Amanda, shared with me that many members of the community are asking for help in learning about their computers, with their college courses, and for someone to just share questions that have been bugging them around home like, “How do I fix …?”

The Milbridge Public Library, like many public libraries, aims to support the community in as many ways as possible. Amanda has shared that she wants the library to become more of a community center so that “unserved” or “underserved” community residents come in and see all the wonderful resources and activities available to them. She proposed that I offer public tutoring in the library right before another community event I offer every Saturday in the library, now called “Milbridge Tabletop Gamers” (link to MTG blog article).

Many of my former students have told me that I was able to teach them how to learn and be more self sufficient in their learning. They may struggle to recall forgotten information or ideas from the academic topics they have studied, but the ability to take charge of their learning has stuck with them. As I thought about the new library learning project, I knew I wanted to build a community learning experience through which participants could trust each other, were able to communicate or advocate for their learning needs, and were able to collaboratively learn about any topic. If such a learning community were well-established, I thought, there would eventually be little need for a leader to catalyze learning.

Learners who asked for these support sessions, now known as the “Learners as Navigators” (LAN) project, were very eager to have someone to talk to about their studies. For example, two college students shared that although the college offers tutoring services, the help does not build independence or the student’s confidence in his or her ability to learn. Some said that tutors just showed them the finished work or simply derived the answers for them. Others said that the tutors’ judgemental language, or negative reactions to questions, discouraged them from fully sharing their learning needs. Those who came to the LAN sessions wanted a safe group that would allow for discussion, understanding, and a positive focus.

Amanda advertised the program using the title, “Ask Ed”, in posters on the library’s Facebook page. She called community members who had previously requested help to tell them the dates and times of our new learning sessions. We held our first one on January 14th, 2017 and had two learners. The second one, a week later, had the same two learners, but more community members stopped to ask questions about what we were doing, and inquired about how to get involved. By the third week we had four people working together on their learning.

Two participants are currently enrolled in college. Another, in his 50s, is enjoying being able to read and write for the first time. Another, now retired, wishes to become more competent with her computer. Although each person had specific individual questions and needs, they all found they had something to contribute to meeting the needs of others! When a learner was exploring the challenges of spelling some English sounds, others were able to offer personal experiences that helped. A Hispanic learner shared the difficulties of going from Spanish to English, and another learner shared similar experiences as she is trying to teach herself the Japanese language. Tips and challenges were shared. I could feel the trust building quickly!

The Learners as Navigators community learning service is offered free to anyone. I volunteer my services, and the library offers the space, heat, electric, bathrooms and access to Internet-capable computers, as needed, when learners don’t have their own devices. We have not yet needed materials and equipment like paper, writing supplies, hardware, software, or textbooks. The human capital at the table has been able to meet all of our needs so far. A member of the Friends of the Library learned about our efforts, and there is discussion about possibly creating a fund to support needs that might come up. However, I do not feel that funding is necessary for the project to be successful. Although I donate two hours a week of my time to build this community project, if the groundwork is properly laid for a strong community, members will support each other in time. One of our learners raises fowl, and it is egg-laying time. Her family brought in over ten dozen eggs to share with our learners. The family knew the value of paying it forward and had a resource in excess to share with others. Little episodes like this bolster my belief that people investing time in other people will reap rewards; financial support is not always needed.

One person cannot realistically meet every learner’s needs. I share that with everyone who comes to our sessions. Although the program does not charge fees, I do ask that all participants be open to helping others learn in our community. We all have experiences and skills to offer others. Our group constantly helps individuals identify those skills and experiences, and fosters the habits needed to share those skills with others. For example, I have shared with learners my advanced Google search skills to explore content that none of us were familiar with. Another example: a biology student needed to know more about the process of cellular respiration. The other learners, who were curious, joined us in our explorations. One of the college students who is studying biology got all of us exploring difficult science content. We were all discovering how we can learn this difficult vocabulary and put it in context, but this turned out to be difficult and we needed help. I called upon my social network get more clarity on the biological process of making and storing fat in the body. After a brief digital connection with a registered nurse in my social network, we were all saying, “Oh, that is all that technical stuff means? I now see what that term is referring to and what that process is doing …” Those who attend these sessions are learning the power of navigating and networking to meet their learning needs, drawing upon our own resources and sometimes the professionals and skilled tradespeople we know.

Our community of learning has started off strong, and appears to have potential to grow. I have been excited by how eager students are to share their needs and be involved in discussions that meet the needs of others. We are learning that we are all more alike than we thought, and that we all struggle to learn at times. More importantly, we all can figure out solutions to the our learning challenges when we meet in our weekly community library learning navigator community.

Ed Latham is a passionate educator with a masters degree in education and experience in K-12, community college, and adult education instruction. In addition to working as a technology support person in the local schools, he assists the state adult education team with College and Career Readiness Standards implementation, and works as a contractor to educationally support migrant families in his community. For a decade, he has been offering professional development to support teachers with technology integration and has mentored teachers to help expand learning options for all learners. Ed constantly brainstorms and discusses ways to offer positive, individualized learning experiences to all people in our communities.  His email is and he loves to communicate with others who wish to share ideas.

Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Adult Education Needed ASAP!

May 2, 2016

This guest blog by researcher and international adult education consultant, Dr. Thomas Sticht,, was posted on the AAACE-NLA Discussion List on April 30, 2016. It has been lightly edited and reprinted here with the permission of the author.

May 1st is International Workers Day, also known as May Day, a day for celebrating the working men and women of the world as they labor for personal, family, and community development. Mayday is the international distress call for help.

Today the distress call goes out from adults in the United States of America who are facing barriers to their personal and economic development. One of the most difficult barriers with which many adults must cope is limitations in knowledge and skill, indicated by low scores on any of a number of important standardized tests. For instance, a 2013 report, from Mission:Readiness, a national security organization of more than 600 retired generals, admirals and other senior retired military leaders advocating for educational improvements of children, reported that: “among young adults who do finish high school, 23 percent who seek to enlist in the Army cannot score highly enough on the military exams for math, literacy and problem-solving to be allowed to serve.” The organization then goes on to argue for more investments in early childhood education to prevent future under-educated adults.

In a recent report from Educational Testing Service (Kirsch, et. al., 2016), the authors acknowledge the importance of early childhood education and then go on to say: “Although improving early childhood development is an important investment both for the children who are targeted and for the social and economic health of the country, children’s circumstances mirror those of their parents. They, too, need broader opportunities in order to improve their prospects for work, their ability to earn a decent wage, and to live in healthy communities with the kinds of strong social networks and institutions that will support them and, in turn, expand the opportunities they are able to pass along to their children. To ignore these adults not only condemns them to a highly uncertain future but also has potentially serious consequences for the children they are raising.”

The importance of adult education for improving children’s educational achievement was recognized in a recent report from ReadyNation, a national nonpartisan group advocating for the improvement of children’s education. In this report ReadyNation called upon businesses to support parents’ engagement in early childhood. They argued: “When children don’t get off to the right start, it’s hard for them to catch up and become the productive adults we need. Society and businesses suffer when we let kids slip through the cracks. What do the most effective efforts to help young children succeed have in common? They work with parents.” Also see Sticht (2011) for a review of research supporting the call for adult parenthood education to improve the knowledge and skills of both adults and their children.

Some 35 years ago I discussed the need to support the educational development of workers with low literacy and numeracy skills as a means of both raising the employability and productive abilities of the workforce while also improving the ability of workers who are parents in raising the educational achievement of their children (Sticht, 1983). In this report I presented findings from military R & D that had helped the armed services train and utilize under-educated, low-literate young men similar to those addressed by Mission:Readiness. I also discussed how this could be instrumental in increasing parents’ engagement in educational activities with their children, as discussed by ReadyNation.

Given the importance of improved adult education for meeting national security needs, as argued by Mission:Readiness, and the signal importance of the education of adults in improving children’s  educability and success in school as argued by ReadyNation, it is distressing to find that inflation-adjusted funding for adult literacy education at the federal level has declined across the last decade. A truly national disaster for under-served and under-educated parents and their children.

In the words of Tom Nash, President of the Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE), speaking of the 36 million or so adults with poorly developed literacy, numeracy, and problem solving abilities in the United States: “It’s bewildering that our nation doesn’t rally behind and insist on helping these adults. For every dollar invested in adult education, communities reap some $60 back in increased payroll and property taxes, reduced demand for social services and even savings on criminal justice and healthcare.” He could have easily added that millions of children could benefit from their parents’ newly developed knowledge and skills, too, thereby raising the return on investment in adult literacy education even higher.

Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Send in the adult educators ASAP!




Kirsch, I., et al. (2016). Changing Our Future: A Story of Opportunity in America. Learn more (Available online using Google search)

Mission:Readiness (2013). California Report:  A Commitment to Pre-Kindergarten IS a Commitment to National Security. (Available online using Google search)

Nash, T. (2016, April 26).  Close the Illiteracy Blind Spot With Adult Education. The Hill. (Available online using Google search).

ReadyNation. (n.d.). Harnessing the Power of Parents to Support Our Youngest Learners. (Available online using Google search).

Sticht, T. (1983). Literacy and Human Resources Development at Work: Investing in the Education of Adults to Improve the Educability of Children. ERIC Number ED262201 (Available online using Google search)

Sticht, T. (2011). Getting It Right From the Start: The Case for Early Parenthood Education. (Available online using Google search).




MOOCs for Adult Basic Skills Learners and their Teachers

April 29, 2016

By David J. Rosen and Jenifer Vanek *

At the heart of sustainable change is developing and helping people to build up an “inner resilience” that guards them from experiencing every change that comes their way as disruptive. Instead, this resilience ensures that they learn to cope with these changes … recognizing patterns in one situation and making sense of them and applying them in another. [i]

A MOOC, you may already know, is a Massive Open Online Course on a specific topic taken by hundreds or thousands of learners at the same time. They are generally free and, though often sponsored by post-secondary institutions, are not offered for credit, although for some MOOCs there are now ways of earning post-secondary or graduate level credit for a fee. Until recently, the primary audience for MOOCs has been well-educated adults who often take them for professional growth. These early adopters are building the “inner resilience” that Kop describes above, using new technologies to learn, and in doing so, preparing for the next wave of technological developments. Until now, most adult basic skills learners, who are in great need of opportunities for building such resilience, have yet to engage with MOOCs.

Why should adult basic skills (including English language) learners use MOOCs?

There is a huge divide in the United States between those who know how to use the Internet for learning or to access information and those who do not.[ii] Although some adults in the U.S. have high-level skills in using technology, the United States’ overall performance on the recent PIAAC international Survey of Adult Skills shows the U.S. to have the lowest problem solving using technology skills performance of all our peer countries.[iii] Between low and high socio-economic classes the difference in use of the Internet for accessing information has never been greater [iv], yet seventy percent of all jobs in the U.S. have been predicted to require some Information Communication Technology literacy.[v] To remain relevant, adult basic skills programs and teachers need to address this issue, finding ways to engage learners with the ever-changing technologies required to fully engage in economic and civic life. In other words, to help them build resilience to ward against alienation caused by ever increasing change.

Could MOOCs be useful to adult learners for basic or secondary level, college prep, or English language skills? Are there MOOCs for educators who want to improve their skills in teaching or tutoring adults?

Whether or not use of MOOCs can help the development of such resilience in adult basic skills learners depends on how you define a MOOC. Loosely defined, MOOCs could include any open-access information sharing and learning network. Under such a definition, some might describe Khan Academy as a MOOC, and it does offer free online basic math and science courses. Perhaps USA Learns could be described as a MOOC for English language learners. It’s free, and it has a massive number of participants although, unlike structured MOOCs, the participants are not considered part of one big cohort.

There is some evidence of a trend that MOOCS will be designed or found useful for students at the pre-college or developmental skills levels. In 2012 the Gates Foundation funded the development of several MOOCs for college introductory and remedial education classes. They could be models for similar learning environments that could serve lower-literacy users. One example is the Gates Foundation-funded Crafting an Effective Writer: Tools of the Trade, developed by Mt. San Jacinto College for Coursera that can be found on the Mooc List.

In a December 28, 2015 EdSurge article: MOOCS in 2015, Breaking Down the Numbers, Dhawal Shah points out that “there are more courses and students now than ever before,” and suggests that an important new MOOC audience is high school students. Judging by the top-rated course so far, the audience of intended learners is also moving from primarily highly technical and professional to a more general audience. The top-rated course worldwide is A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment, which “draws content from a variety of fields, including psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral decision theory to offer a tested and practical recipe for leading a life of happiness and fulfillment.”

A recent example of the use of MOOCS by adults who have not completed high school is Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) Learning Circles, now in 20 branches of the Chicago Public Library. They offer free MOOCS and other online courses facilitated by branch librarians in a blended learning model that includes face-to-face study circles that meet once a week. The audience for these is neighborhood adults who may never have heard of MOOCS, and often don’t know that there are free online courses. This library-based blended learning model has an impressive course completion rate, over 50%, compared with less than 15% completion for most MOOCs. Even for those who did not complete a course, nearly all of the participants said they wanted to take another course this way. P2PU’s Learning Circles are new; in the coming months P2PU hopes to offer more online courses designed for adult basic skills, secondary level skills and English language learning for immigrants.

While there may not yet be many traditional MOOCs developed for adult basic skills learners, programs can begin to integrate new online learning technologies by tapping into a wealth of open-access information sharing and learning networks. One example of innovative online “courses” designed for adult basic skills students is The Learner Web. It uses a blended learning model that offers Learning Plans (courses) for adult basic skills learners as well as professional development for adult literacy and basic skills teachers and tutors. This online tool is a framework for exploring the World Wide Web – where learners are directed to relevant, level-appropriate websites and provided with instructional guidance about how to use them. Learners are encouraged to expand their knowledge by navigating to these carefully selected web-based learning resources, and then returning to the online course management system for instruction and assessment.

Where to Find MOOCS or Other Open Access Resources for Adult Learners or for Teachers or Tutors of Adult Learners

Resources for Adult Learners

  • South-Western City School District Career Tech, in Grove City, Ohio offers these MOOCS for adult learners: GED Learning Support (free), Conversational ESL Class ($50 per each 4 to 6 week course), and Personal Academic and Career Advancement ($50 per 4 to 6 week course)

The free online courses below may not call themselves MOOCs, and in some cases, for example Khan Academy and USA Learns, they are online instructional systems, but they have some of the same characteristics as MOOCs, such as being massive, open, and online, and used independently as well as in blended learning with face-to-face classes or study groups, They have all been used by adult basic skills learners.

  • Alison offers free online courses including: Diploma Courses; Digital Literacy and IT Skills; Personal Development and Soft Skills; Languages; Schools Curriculum; Health, Safety and Compliance; Health Literacy; and Financial and Economic Literacy
  • provides access to free, short (6-22 minute) online video-based instruction in English and Spanish on this Public Library Association and Institute of Museum and Library Services-sponsored website including: Technology (Getting Started on the Computer, Using a PC (Windows 7), Using a Mac (OS X), Basic Search, Navigating a Website, Intro to Email (two parts), Intro to Microsoft Word, and Cloud Storage); Work-readiness (Creating Resumes, and Online Job Searching); as well as An Intro to Facebook, Buying a Plane Ticket, and an Intro to Skype.
  • GCF Learn Free provides free online courses and other free learning resources. Currently available classes as of early 2016 include: Microsoft Word, Excel, Excel Formulas, PowerPoint, Access. Other learning resource categories include: Technology (including Technology basics such as: Computers, Email basics, Internet Basics, Mac OS Windows, Online Safety and others), Reading, Math, Everyday Life, Work and Career, and Mobile Apps, among others.
  • USA Learns offers a free video and print-based English language learning curriculum. It can be used by independent learners on their own or by teachers who can enroll classes of students, from desktop or laptop computers, and has been recently been optimized for smartphones and other portable digital devices.

MOOCs for Teacher and Tutor Professional Development

  • The MOOC List, offers an Open2Study course in teaching adult learners that has four modules, and explores the idea of engaged learning: Instructional Tactics, Facilitated Skills, Engaging students through Technology, and Instructional Design
  • Designers for Learning, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, offers a free MOOC to help educators develop Open Education Resources for adult basic education. Course participants examine the needs, goals, and constraints of their teaching context, including the intended learners and the instructional context.  They describe their instructional solution, and then develop a prototype for formative evaluation. As the final assignment, they submit a complete unit of instruction.
  • The Tutor Ready Learning Plan on the Learner Web, developed by a partnership of LINCS, and the California Libraries is a free, just-in-time professional development system for adult basic literacy tutors. It addresses authentic tutor questions in the major reading areas: Phonemic Awareness; Decoding; Fluency; Vocabulary; and Comprehension; as well as questions that come up in the first tutor-learner meeting.

* David J. Rosen is President of Newsome Associates in Boston. He is Moderator of the LINCS Technology and Learning, and Program Management Communities of Practice, and President of the Media Library of Teaching Skills.

 * Jenifer Vanek is Interim Director of Project IDEAL, in the Ed Tech Center at World Education. She is also currently a doctoral student in Curriculum & Instruction/Second Languages & Cultures at the University of Minnesota. Her recent work centers on creating online content for Adult Basic Education (ABE) learners and supporting the professional development of ESL and ABE teachers in the area of digital literacy, distance learning, and adult career pathways.


[i] Kop, R., Fournier, H., & Mak, J. S. F. (2011). A pedagogy of abundance or a pedagogy to support human beings? Participant support on massive open online courses. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(7). p. 76. Retrieved from

[ii] Wei, L., & Hindman, D. B. (2011). Does the digital divide matter more? Comparing the effects of new media and old media use on the education-based knowledge gap. Mass Communication and Society, 14(2), 216–235. Retrieved from

[iii] OECD. (2013). Time for the U.S. to Reskill? OECD Publishing. doi:10.1787/9789264204904-en

[iv] Wei, L., & Hindman, D. B. (2011). Does the digital divide matter more? Comparing the effects of new media and old media use on the education-based knowledge gap. Mass Communication and Society, 14(2), 216–235. Retrieved from

[v] McCain, M. (2009). The power of technology: expanding access to adult education & workforce skills through distance learning. New York. Retrieved from


What is Competency-Based Education?

October 31, 2015


Image result for competency based

Recently in higher education, k-12 education, and perhaps now in adult basic education, there has been new interest in an approach to curriculum, assessment and instruction known as competency-based education. Dr. Robert Mendenhall, President of Western Governors University, a leader in competency-based Higher Education (CBHE), has defined it this way:

“The most important characteristic of competency-based education is that it measures learning rather than time. Students progress by demonstrating their competence, which means they prove that they have mastered the knowledge and skills (called competencies) required for a particular course, regardless of how long it takes.”[i]

In competency-based education, holding learning standards constant means developing a set of clear and measurable or observable student learning objectives, intended learning outcomes, or competencies that all students enrolled in a course or other learning experience are expected to master. Mastery of the competencies is held constant for all students. It is expected that some students will take less time than in a normal cycle, term or semester, and some learners may take more time. Requiring students to master competencies (criterion-referenced assessment) instead of grading them on a curve (norm-referenced assessment) is not new; mastery learning was first proposed in the late 1960’s by University of Chicago Professor, Benjamin Bloom, who believed that it would reduce the achievement gaps between varying groups of students. It was a theory then; now, competency-based education has become a practical reality in many education environments, for example in language learning, teacher education, in some professional education such as medicine and dentistry, in career and technical education and increasingly in k-12 education.

Other important features of competency-based education include:


  • The curriculum (the set of competencies to be mastered, i.e. the learning objectives or intended learning outcomes), and the learning resources or activities intended to help learners achieve them, may be derived from academic content and skills standards, or from industry work-related content and skills standards, or both.
  • Students are introduced to the curriculum in a thorough way early on in the course or other learning experience so that they can aim their learning with these competencies in mind, and easily and unambiguously recognize when they have (and haven’t) mastered them. This is a key feature for achieving effectiveness and efficiency in learning.


  • Assessments of competencies use primarily direct measures. These include, for example, observations of performance or demonstration of skills or knowledge, but not indirect measures such as most multiple choice tests. The assessments, like the competencies, are presented to students early on, which can also help students to aim their learning. Typically the assessments, or in some cases the competency statements themselves, specify the conditions under which the knowledge or skills must be demonstrated. They also typically include the standard or level of performance expected to master each competency. The measures, and often the competencies, are so clearly described that instructors, students, employers, assessors[ii] or others have no uncertainty about what the competencies mean and whether or not students have satisfactorily demonstrated their mastery.
  • Students take a pre-assessment at the beginning of the course or other learning experience to determine what competencies they need to focus on and what competencies they may have already mastered through other formal, nonformal or informal learning experiences. From this pre-assessment students can develop an individual (“personalized”) learning plan to focus on the competencies they need to work on. The pre-assessment and learning plan can help students to develop an efficient path to course or certificate completion.

Learning Resources

  • Students take advantage of a range of learning resources to master competencies, such as:
    • Lectures, presentations or demonstrations, sometime available in an online or blended learning environment through video or audio files
    • Hard copy or online texts such as articles or books
    • Student discussions in person or in online threaded discussions
    • Face-to-face or online simulations or serious education games
    • Real or virtual field trips and/or
    • Supervised practice of skills.


  • Because the competencies do not necessarily originate only from academic disciplines, but also from defined industry sector or local business needs, competency-based learning can be especially relevant to the workplace, workforce development, or career and technical education.
  • Student transcripts, certificates and credentials are based not on credits or grades, but on reviewed and sometimes certified demonstration of skills and knowledge, and learned to a predefined standard of acceptability.


[i] Retrieved 12.21.14

[ii] In some competency-based programs, for example in the National External Diploma Program, or in some local competency-based adult diploma programs, to assure objective evaluation of student competency, the assessor role is not performed by the instructor.

Conducting a Library Literacy Needs Analysis

October 24, 2015

Note: the article below has two target audiences: librarians, and those interested in conducting needs assessments or needs analyses. I wrote it to be included in a set of tools for libraries conducting adult literacy needs assessments, and then thought there might be a larger audience interested in how to conduct a community literacy needs analysis. It is based on a process developed many years ago by professors at the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Richard Coffing and Thomas Hutchison. Hutchison was my mentor, and the chairman of my doctoral dissertation committee. As far as I know, their needs analysis methodology has not until now been adapted specifically for use by libraries.  I welcome comments and questions about its use.

How to Conduct a Community Literacy Needs Analysis:

Using the Coffing-Hutchison Needs Analysis Methodology[1]

in a library-sponsored community literacy needs assessment

David J. Rosen, Ed.D, President

Newsome Associates

October 24, 2015


The purpose of a needs analysis, in this context, is assumed to be: to develop a high quality list of needs, in order of priority, of adults in the community with low literacy or low basic skills that might be addressed by a library or a partnership of organizations led by a library.


Before the needs analysis begins it is important for the needs analyst (technical assistance provider, consultant, trained librarian etc.) and the client — the individual, group, partnership or coalition of community groups interested in having the needs analysis completed, and who are interested in using the results — to have an unambiguous understanding of:

  • The purpose for which the needs analysis is being conducted. Before beginning the process, the needs analyst should be clear about why the client wants the needs analysis results, and what the client hopes to do with them. The needs analyst should be satisfied that the client has a serious intention to address the needs discovered through the process, and that the client has, or is committed to finding, the resources to address the needs discovered. [2]
  • The resources (e.g. human, financial, programmatic, space) available to conduct the needs analysis. For example, the client may need resources to pay the needs analyst to work with the client, design the data gathering instruments, collect the data (e.g. through a survey, focus group, and/or face-to-face or telephone interview), and to provide a report to the client on the needs, and the differences in perceptions of needs of groups interviewed.
  • The resources (human, financial, programmatic, space) that will be available to address the needs once they are known
  • The steps of the Needs Analysis Process that are described below.

Needs Analysis Steps

The needs analysis begins with a deceptively simple question: Who needs what according to whom. The process (methodology, as used by Coffing and Hutchison) assumes having a client who plans to use the data to address the needs, and whom the needs analyst can work with to design and complete the needs analysis. In this methodology, Who, What, and According to whom are three separate and important steps of the needs analysis process.

Step 1: Defining the Who

In this needs analysis process, Who refers to those whose needs the client is interested in learning about; for example, in this context, it could be people who lack adult basic skills. The needs analyst might work with the client to refine this, for example, to identify the Who as adults 16 and older, who lack the reading and writing skills now expected of a high school graduate. This could be further broken down into those for whom English is a first language and/or those for whom English is a second or other language. It could be further refined to include levels of skills such as “zero reading and writing skills in English,” “basic” (up through third grade level reading and writing), “intermediate” (up to eighth grade) and advanced (through tenth grade level). Other ways to refine the Who are also possible depending on the client’s perceptions of the people they are trying to reach. The client might define the Who in a very different way for example, (also) deciding that the Who is community organizations or agencies that serve people with the need for literacy skills but that do not directly address that need, such as the staff of fair housing organizations, agencies that provide emergency services, health care providers, career centers, or agricultural extension programs. The client might instead decide that the Who is the library staff, and the needs what, for example, is staff members’ need to know about adult literacy needs in the community and literacy needs of current or potential library patrons, including the literacy needs of adults served by partner community organizations.

If the same process is being used in libraries in several different communities it may be interesting to compare how each site defines the Who, and the definitions could be shared with each site as a Check for Completeness. A Check for Completeness is a strategy used throughout this, and also in other Hutchison methodologies to challenge the client to consider other items to include. For example, the needs analyst might ask if any of these considerations are important in defining the Who: age, gender, income level, employment status, first language, or reading and writing skills level. After participating in a check for completeness, the client may or may not decide to refine the definition of the Who.

Prioritization is another strategy used throughout this and other Hutchison methodologies. In this example, suppose the defined Who is an impossibly long list of categories of those in need. It is important for the client and the needs analyst to know which ones are most important, especially if the resources to carry out the needs analysis and to address the needs are limited, which they almost always are. One prioritization strategy advocated by Hutchinson is to ask the client to look at the long list after it has already gone through a Check for Completeness, and prioritize it using these considerations: “Suppose you could only address one criterion from this list. What would it be?” “Now, suppose you could address two criteria…” and so on, depending on the level of resources available for the needs analysis and to address the needs. Sometimes Hutchison also suggests that the needs analyst could suggest considerations for prioritization, for example in this case: overall importance to the purpose for which the needs analysis is being conducted, or needs upon which other needs depend.

The outcome of the Defining the Who step is a well thought-out and clearly defined population or populations whose needs will be assessed.

Step 2: Defining the Needs What Categories

The needs analyst asks the client to generate categories of need for the defined population in which the client is interested.

In the library context, the client might suggest as a need category direct services to be provided by the library, either in the library or in community agencies, or both; for example: reading, writing, numeracy/math skills, English language learning for immigrants, or high school equivalency exam preparation. Confidence-building, especially if the population includes people who have attended years of school but have not learned to read and write, may be an important need for adults who want to acquire these skills. Some libraries may be interested in meeting community needs for digital literacy skills such as how to use the Internet, how to understand the format of web pages, how to navigate web pages, and how to evaluate the quality of information from the Internet as well as other sources. The client may suggest as a need category low-literate adults’ need for information, for example about eligibility for TANF or SNAP (food stamps) support, housing assistance, subsidized child care services, or about books for children or teens. If the client has a limited idea of the categories, a check for completeness may be useful, and might draw on what kinds of needs categories that the needs analyst knows other library literacy programs have tried to address.

There are also Document Checks for Completeness, including for example in this context the Adult Literacy Through Libraries library literacy action agenda document, that can be searched for needs categories. A search might uncover needs categories such as: low-literacy hard copy and/or digital reading materials; suitable reading instructional materials; the loan of computers and/or portable digital devices (e.g. tablets or laptops); the need to access computers that have assistive technology and/or universal design features; the need to learn keyboarding skills; unique cultural needs; or the need to understand what services a library can provide, including what different staff members can offer to low-literate adults.

The client might (also) be interested in these needs categories:

  • Advocacy for increased community funding for adult literacy services
  • Professional development for library staff, library graduate students, and/or community based adult literacy instruction providers, provided face-to-face, online or both, and including topics such as: library collection development for low-literate adults; library programming and services for adult new readers; plain language communications; library marketing, promotions, and outreach to adult learners; building community literacy collaborations; cultural competency and sensitivity training; or managing adult literacy tutor training.

The outcome of the Needs What step is a list of categories of need that relate to the population(s) defined in the Who process.

Step 3: Defining the According to Whom Categories

Most needs assessment or needs analysis processes include ways to define Who and Needs What categories. As far as I am aware, however, the Coffing-Hutchison methodology is unique in asking the client to consider whose opinion(s) matter. In this step, the client is asked whose opinions on the needs matter most to them: experts, such as basic skills teachers, adult literacy program administrators or researchers; the people with the need(s), such as community adults who have poor reading skills; policy makers, such as library board members or boards of other organizations, mayors, city councilors, governor, legislators, etc.; or organization administrators, such as library administrators. If there is a long list of According to Whom groups, it needs to be prioritized.

The outcome of the According to Whom step is a list, in order of priority, of those from whom needs opinion data will be gathered.

Step 4. Designing the Needs Analysis Instruments

The needs analyst organizes the client output from the first three steps in a table like this. (Examples are included to illustrate what may be put in the cells of the table.)

Who Needs What categories According to Whom Data Collection Instruments
1. Low-literate adults in the community not enrolled in literacy programs Reading



Computer skills

Job readiness skills

Representatives of social service organizations and career centers ·  Online survey

·  Telephone or

in-person interviews

2. Low-literate adults in the community not enrolled in literacy programs Reading



Computer skills

Job readiness skills

Low-literate adults not enrolled in literacy programs ·    Focus groups

·    Telephone or

in-person interviews

3. Librarians, social service counselors How to best serve low-literate adults ·  Low-literate adults not enrolled in literacy programs

·  Adult literacy instructors

·  Low-literate adults enrolled in literacy programs

·  Telephone or

in-person interviews

·  Focus groups

Step 5. The analyst develops the data collection instruments, for example telephone or in-person interviews with:

  • Representatives of social service organizations and career centers
  • Low-literate adults enrolled in adult literacy programs
  • Low-literate adults not enrolled in adult literacy programs
  • Adult literacy instructors

Sample Interview Protocol

Below is an example of an interview protocol that might be used in these interviews. In an actual protocol, of course, the questions would be aligned with results of the high priority needs categories:


“I have some questions about the needs of low-literate adults in the community who are not enrolled in literacy programs, but who may be interested in learning to improve their basic skills. I am doing this as part of a community needs analysis requested by [the library; a group of community organizations including….] There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. They will help me learn what you think the needs are of those adults in our community who have low basic skills. I (or my colleague) will be taking notes on a flip chart about what you say. I am also audio recording this interview because I may need to listen to it again to clarify something. I will be the only person listening to the recording. Toward the end of our session, I will ask you to choose what you think is the most important of all the needs (for example by dot voting, or asking interviewees to raise their hand when the need is read out loud). I will be writing this up in a report, but in the report your name will not appear next to any of the responses. Your name will only appear in the report as one of the people I/we interviewed. If you want to see a copy of the report, it will be available on the website of —— After this date —— .“

Interview Questions

  1. What do you think the needs of low-literate adults are for reading? Why do they need to improve their reading skills? What specific reading skills do you think they need?
  2. What do you think the needs of low-literate adults are for writing? Why do they need to improve their reading skills? What specific writing skills do you think they need?
  3. What do you think the needs of adults with low basic math skills are? Why do they need to improve their math skills? What specific math skills do you think they need?
  4. What do you think the needs of adults with no or poor computer or Internet technology skills are? Why do they need to improve their computer or Internet skills? What specific skills do you think they need in order to use a computer or the Internet well?
  5. What do you think the needs of adults with low basic skills and little or no successful work experience are? Why do they need to improve their work readiness skills? What specific work readiness skills or knowledge do you think they need?

Following the last question asked, participants will raise hands or dot vote to show what they believe to be the highest, second-highest and third-highest need categories. The person who is recording the answers to the questions on flip chart paper should have printed the need category (reading, writing, math, etc.) at the top of the sheet. The needs analyst could decide to only allow voting on the categories, or to also allow voting on the specific needs within a category. There are many ways of doing this depending on what the needs analyst believes the client wants to do with the data and how refined or detail it needs to be. For some clients it will be sufficient to know that “Reading” and/or “Job readiness” are the highest priorities; for others, they will want to know more, for example if what is needed is reading and writing skills to pass a high school equivalency exam, or oral and written English skills needed to pass a U.S. Citizenship test and oral interview.

Step 6: Reporting the results of the Needs Analysis

For each needs analysis data collection instrument used with each According to Whom group, the responses recorded in the notes, and their priorities are listed by the analyst. A reader of the analyst’s report should be able not only to see what needs categories (and specific needs) were mentioned, and what needs had the highest priority, but also how this may have differed among According to Whom groups.

Step 7: Presenting the report to the client

Ideally the needs analyst meets with the client (e.g. individual, staff of the organization, or representatives of the partnership of organizations) and walks through the report with them to make sure they understand the needs categories and needs. Following this, if time is available, it is often helpful if the needs analyst asks the client group what they have learned about the needs, what if anything they would still like to learn and, most important, which needs they believe are most important for them to address.


[1] Hutchison developed another methodology, the Operationalization of Fuzzy Concepts, that a needs analyst could use, if needed, to help a client to refine the purpose. See Coffing, Richard T.; and Others. Self-Instructional Module for Learning the Hutchinson Method of Operationalizing a Goal or Intent. University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Education. June, 1971. Retrieved 10.24.15 from

[2] Coffing-Hutchison Needs Analysis Methodology, April 1974. Retrieved 10.24.15 from

Update on the Digital Divide: the Latest Data from the Pew Research Center Internet Survey

July 1, 2015

Data is now available from the June 26, 2015 Pew Research Center Internet Survey, Americans’ Internet Access: 2000-2015.

Below is my summary; however, before you read it, what two groups in America do you think have the lowest Internet access: women, older adults, low-income adults, African-Americans, Latino/Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, those who lack a high school diploma, or those who live in rural areas?

[Write down your answer before you continue reading.]

  • 84% of American adults now use the Internet. In 2000 it was a little over 50%. Note, however, that there has been little or no growth since 2012.
  • Older adults still lag behind. “Older adults have lagged behind younger adults in their adoption, but now a clear majority (58%) of senior citizens uses the internet” and older adults as a group have a faster adoption rate than young adults. (I presume because young adults are already the group most likely to use the Internet.)
  • Education and economic class differences affect access and use. “Those with college educations are more likely than those who do not have high school diplomas to use the internet. Similarly, those who live in households earning more than $75,000 are more likely to be internet users than those living in households earning less than $30,000. Still, the class-related gaps have shrunk dramatically in 15 years as the most pronounced growth has come among those in lower-income households and those with lower levels of educational attainment.” Note: 66% of those who have not completed high school, now use the internet. 74% of those with  household incomes below $30K have Internet access.
  • Racial and ethnic differences still matter but the gap has narrowed. “African-Americans and Hispanics have been somewhat less likely than whites or English-speaking Asian-Americans to be internet users, but the gaps have narrowed. Today, 78% of African-Americans and 81% of Latino/Hispanic-Americans use the internet, compared with 85% of whites and 97% of English-speaking Asian-Americans.
  • Internet access for those in rural areas is still lower but the gap has narrowed. “Those who live in rural areas are less likely than those in the suburbs and urban areas to use the internet.” Only 78% of rural residents are online.
  • Gender. There has been gender parity for fifteen years.

If you wrote “older adults” (58%) and “those who lack a high school diploma” (66%) you’re right; these are the two groups with the lowest rate of Internet access. Although the digital divide has narrowed, for some groups it is still a big problem, and perhaps for people who fit two or more of the gap categories — older, lacking a high school diploma, low family income, residing in a rural area, African-American, Latino/Hispanic American – as many adult basic skills learners do, the gap could be even larger.

Do any of the trends surprise you?

I was surprised that although immigrants are mentioned, “immigrants” is not in itself an Internet access category.

What role do you think adult basic education should play in helping the 34% of those who lack a high school diploma to obtain and prepare for using regular, daily Internet access? For example, should adult basic education (including English language learning) programs:

  • Help adult learners and their families to get low-cost computers and subsidized access to the Internet?
  • Help teachers purchase low-cost Internet hotspots for their classes so that learners with BYO devices or with portable program-owned devices such as laptops, Chromebooks or digital tablets can access the Internet in class?
  • Teach digital literacy, and problem solving skills in the context of technology-rich environments?
  • Purchase and loan portable digital devices to students?
  • Collaborate with local public libraries who could purchase and lend portable digital devices?
  • Advocate for legislation that narrows the digital divide adult basic skills learners, for example, by providing free Internet hotspots in all low-income communities?
  • What else?

Please reply below with your thoughts about what roles adult basic education should take on to help narrow the digital divide for adult learners.

Consider sharing this blog article with your colleagues, and in your organization’s newsletter, but if you do, please let me know.  Thanks.

David J. Rosen


[substitute @ for “at”, leaving no spaces]