What business model would be needed to provide every adult learner in the U.S. with digital literacy and problem solving skills?

The current “business model” for digital literacy software developers, as I understand it, is designing digital assessment and instruction products that are intended to be used by adult basic skills programs (all levels, including ESL/ESOL) in community colleges, public schools, libraries, one-stop career centers, corrections, community-based organizations and volunteer programs. Product developers I have talked with, committed as they may be to serving this market, struggle because the purchasing resources are so limited.

I wonder if there are other, larger markets that we all should be thinking about. Before you read further, see if you can guess where I am going. If you think of a market I haven’t mentioned, and a way to reach that market, please share your thoughts.


I have two markets in mind.


Many large and even some medium-sized companies are used to purchasing training. Now, increasingly they provide training online or in blended online and face-to-face models. Given what we have learned from the 2012 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) international Survey of Adult Skills findings, it appears that businesses across the OECD (developed world) countries need fairly sophisticated Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments (PST-RE) skills. When the PIAAC assessments are available online, (perhaps in early 2015?) this will offer companies a way to assess their employees PST-RE skills (and perhaps, if they wish, their numeracy/math and literacy skills.) If this is easy to do, if the assessment scoring is automatic and reported to the employer as well as the test-taker, and if the cost is low (I have heard the goal is to keep it at around $15.00 per test-taker) there could be a lot of interest. If so, and if the companies find their employees score low on PST-RE skills, they may be willing to pay for online digital skills/PST-RE skills training. The market for the assessment and for the instruction would be the employer, but the employee could also be a beneficiary of increased PST-RE skills.

I also see a potential for other software vendors, who specialize in literacy and/or numeracy skills to follow a similar model as the one I have described for PST-RE skills.

Direct marketing to Individuals

Many adults are aware of the importance of what they might refer to as “computer skills,” or increasingly “digital skills”, especially for getting and advancing in jobs and careers but also for family and personal reasons. Some address this need by taking face-to-face courses in libraries, community colleges and elsewhere. Increasingly, however, some may be interested in an online digital skills course. Such a course could address PST-RE skills and could begin with a face-to-face PST-RE online assessment offered in a one-stop career center, community college, or elsewhere. The cost of the assessment might be absorbed by the institution for those who can demonstrate financial need. Software vendors could also design more advanced PST-RE versions of existing digital skills assessments, for example those developed by Teknimedia, Northstar, or other software developers. These assessments might be offered free and online to individuals as a way to market an online PST-RE course for a fee.

Many adult basic skills level adults will not be able to take the PST-RE assessment or follow-up instruction in a pure distance model. For them, the assessment would need to be offered in a computer lab, staffed by people who could help them get started, at a community college, library, one stop or cbo. Once signed up for an online course, they may not need face-to-face assistance, but they will probably need assistance by phone and or in real time online, and that should be factored in as an additional paid option for those who need it

Perhaps there are other markets. Perhaps what I have proposed isn’t the best way to reach either of these markets. My hope is to get policy makers, educators, software product designer/vendors to think about what it would take to dramatically scale up digital literacy and problem solving skills. If we can figure this out, then we may also have a model for addressing, literacy, numeracy/math, and perhaps other areas of adult basic skills, and perhaps a way to significantly scale up provision of adult basic skills to many more of the 36 million or more adults in America who need them.

I would like our field to think about new ways to deliver these services, ways that are not limited to the currently static or declining resources of public and charitable funding to not-for-profit basic skills programs. I believe that digital literacy and PST-RE skills are the place to begin this exploration.

What are your thoughts?

David J. Rosen


2 Responses to “What business model would be needed to provide every adult learner in the U.S. with digital literacy and problem solving skills?”

  1. Arthur Rubin Says:

    Great timing, David. You are on the right track. I’ve thought about this for quite a while, and finally decided to DO something about it:

    Life Skills ESL is a start-up with the vision of reaching everyone with Basic Skills – Listening, Speaking, Reading, Writing, Grammar, critical thinking, for life and Work Prep, using digital delivery.

    Our intention is to market through all available tools, to all identified payers including: Employers, Non-profits, Faith-Based Organizations, Public Agencies, and anyone else, every one else, especially individuals.

    Our content is Competency Based, proven effective in the field, correlates to the Common Core, and fits into the goals of WIOA.

    A R

  2. Anne Murr Says:

    David, my personal experience in learning digital skills is that contextualized learning is far more relevant than any computer class I ever took. Even the most basic online computer tutorials cannot address the confusion/fear/sense of inadequacy felt by persons without computer experience. My most effective computer learning has come when I get stuck and someone “at my elbow” is there to show me how to navigate. Over time, then I am able to generalize what I learn to problem solve more globally.
    I do see a potential for PST-RE to set up simulations that could coach new users through the thought processes necessary to problem solve. These would need to be interactive with the possibility for personal interaction (either online or by phone) assistance.
    PIAAC data and conclusions definitely inform this work. Our field needs to get this information to employers and policy makers!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: