MOOCs for Adult Basic Skills Learners and their Teachers

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


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