Twelve Strategies to Make the Internet more Accessible to Adult Learners

[Revised August 19, 2012]

Below are twelve strategies that can make the Internet more accessible to adult learners:

1. Make sure your State Education Agency that is responsible for federal adult education funding allows ABE programs to pay for digital literacy courses with federal and state funding. I have heard that some states don’t allow it; I have also heard that they have misunderstood the intent of federal WIA Title II (adult ed) legislation. My understanding is that originally the prohibition was against using Title II funding for IT/ICT job training classes, which made sense. However, it does not make sense to prohibit using public adult basic education funding for basic digital literacy. As some visionary state ABE Directors argued over a decade ago, computer and Internet literacy is as important a basic skill as reading, writing and numeracy.

2. Take full advantage of currently-funded U.S. Department of Commerce Broadband Technology Opportunity (BTOP)-funded programs in your state that offer adults digital and Broadband literacy classes and tutorials for free. These are offered by libraries, community computing centers, community colleges and — in some states (Texas, Louisiana, California, Minnesota, New York and possibly others) also by ABE programs.

3. Take full advantage of the technology that students  _already do_ (or easily could) have. This implies:

  • Surveying students at least annually to find out what devices they have: cell phones, smart phones, tablets, home desktop computers (with internet access?), netbooks, laptops, etc.
  • Helping students know where and when Internet technology in their communities (e.g. libraries, community technology centers, public housing, etc,)
  • Researching low-cost options: there are programs that provide significantly discounted costs for Internet access in some parts of the country to low-income families. There are also community-based computer recycling/refurbishing centers that make desktop computers available inexpensively. In Boston, for example, there is a city-run program that provides free training to adults (usually for parents or other adult family members of Boston Public School children), and at the end offers each participant a new Netbook for $50. In neighboring Waltham, Massachusetts there is a computer re-cycling program that provides top-notch systems installed with office software for $145-195. The computers are donated by a large private higher education institution, The oldest systems are less than three years old.

4. Offer digital literacy programs that use trained volunteers (who work with students in small groups or one-on-one). Some corporations may provide employee volunteers to be digital literacy tutors. At least one corporation I know will also make small donations to programs that use those volunteers for a certain number of hours.

5. At the state level, require that publicly-funded ABE programs make digital literacy (computer and Internet basic competence and comfort) instruction available to all enrolled students who want it.

6. As part of digital literacy instruction, help learners to practice using online instruction that they can access for free from their home computer or smart phone if they have one, or from a public library.

7. As part of digital literacy, start with the applications that mean the most to students such as learning how to type, Skype-ing, e-mailing, completing online job applications, shopping online, taking family photos with a digital camera and attaching them to an email to send to other family or friends, or other applications that students have told you they need and want to know.

8. Remember that not all learning takes place in a classroom. (Mark Twain once said that his whole life was an education– except for the years in school) . We learn things from family and friends, from groups that we are already part of, from “hanging out” with others who are also interested in learning the sane things; if you can, help students to organize informal computer clubs where they can get comfortable with computers, and other web-accessible devices.

9. Identify free or very inexpensive online education resources and make  a list of them available to learners as shareable bookmarks
(If you are looking for a list of free online learning resources to start with, here’s one I developed, the Literacy List :

10. Have teachers or volunteer tutors sit down with learners and a list such as The Literacy List, or one you make, and through a process of identifying their goals, guide them to two or three good free learning resources that they can use to get started. Help them to use each one well. At first, it may be a slow process of getting comfortable with doing any kind of online learning but, once comfortable, the skills of using one interface are often transferable to using another application. The goal should be to help learners get comfortable and confident in using the Internet for online learning.

11. Integrate word processing, spreadsheets, Internet information searching, and online learning into as many face-to-face classes as possible.

12. Try not to let your own or other teachers’ fears about using technology with students be misunderstood as students’ fears. Most adult learners want to be a part of our 21st century technology-using culture. Get support yourself, or support other teachers, in overcoming these fears through: regular daily access to a computer; technology training followed by ample opportunity to practice the skills learned, and good tech support.

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