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Blended Real-time Learning

November 10, 2014

Is it always important for adult learners to come to class? The answer may sound like a no brainer to some. Yes, of course!  Several years ago I would have agreed, but now I am not so sure. With new technologies, if adult learners have regular access to the web through a digital device such as a computer, electronic tablet, or smart phone, if they want or need to they can fully participate in a real-time class from home, work, a library or someplace else where they have Internet access.

Using combinations of software or one integrated web-based application, a teacher can, for example:

  • Present lessons from a classroom electronic tablet that students in class or outside can follow as s/he presents them
  • Ask classroom-based or remote students to present to the class from their own device, and other students in the classroom and at a distance can see their presentations
  • Showcase a student’s work, for example on a tablet, to the entire class, including those at a distance
  • Broadcast messages to all the students
  • Chat (by text) with any or all students
  • Post images, videos (including screen-capture videos), audio files, presentations and other learning resources for students to access both in the classroom and outside, at any time
  • Assign work to individuals or small online and face-to-face groups
  • Enable students assigned to a small group to collaborate on projects from their electronic devices, and
  • Monitor students’ work in their workspaces, and comment on their work.

Attending class remotely might not work for all adult learners. Some may want – and need – to regularly attend face-to-face classes, but some may not; and some who might not be able to attend a class in person that day could attend it remotely, and now have close to the kind of experience that they might have had in the classroom.

Does the hardware and software for this already exist? Yes. There are ways to do each of these things now using different pieces of free and commercial software. With tools such as Edmodo, Schoology, Moodle, Dropbox, Google drive, Netop’s Vision Me, PowerPoint, Google slides, free conference calling, Skype or Google Hangouts (and Google Hangout presentations) in various combinations, a teacher can do all of these things, although with all the moving parts it may not be easy. However, there is also beginning to be integrated software that combines these features to make it easy for a teacher to have a real-time classroom. One example is Smart Amp™.


This is a relatively new, subscription-based service from SMART Technologies. Its cost is around $10 per student annually. Think of it as an integrated, web-based learning environment for use by students who can access it from Internet-accessible digital devices in the classroom, or from anywhere else that has Internet access.


Screen capture image from SMART Amp™ YouTube Video

SMART Amp™ has most of the features described earlier in this article, including Google drive/docs, in one piece of single sign-on online software. With this, many kinds of lesson content (e.g. Notebook files, Open Education Resources, proprietary content, online videos, audio files, teacher-made lessons) can be integrated by the teacher or by students in lesson presentations, assignments or assessments.

Particularly appealing is the “Follow Me” feature, where a teacher can lead the students through a work space as s/he models how to think about or solve a (math, writing, science, or other) problem. S/he can then copy and digitally distribute this recorded process to individual students or small groups who may need it. Another feature allows a teacher, or students, to view or edit a shared document in real time, which may be especially useful for writing classes. A teacher can also design and embed assessment tools for student learning progress and mastery, which the teacher can then easily track. SMART Amp ™ has a dashboard from which the teacher can control the class roster and monitor progress. It has workspaces where students complete their individual or group work projects. Using this web-based software, compatibility of digital devices is not an issue as students can access it from nearly any digital device (tablets, smart phones, computers, etc.) A teacher might want to also use a communication tool, however, such as free phone conferencing or videoconferencing software such as Skype.

I believe that there will be more integrated online learning platform subscription services like this one, that in the next two to five years there will be ones that focus on what is needed in higher education as well as in K-12 real-time learning. We also need a service that focuses on the features that adult basic/secondary education and adult ELL teachers need.

Blended Learning and Competency Based-Education

In higher education there has been a growing trend the past few years toward competency-based (aka mastery) learning. Competency-based learning has long been a mainstay of vocational education in the U.S., and for some years was a focus of many adult basic education programs. There is still a national competency-based adult diploma program, and some ESOL/ESL teachers use competency-based lessons with a focus on what the learner can do/demonstrate as a result of the acquired learning.

While some learners may need classroom seat time, we should ask why. What is it that a teacher or face-to-face class can provide that could not be provided by that teacher digitally and remotely in real time? In any case, we must acknowledge that seat time in class is a means to an end – that the end is demonstrable learning of acquired knowledge and skills, including demonstration of the ability to transfer knowledge and skills to new environments and contexts. The newly acquired, demonstrable learning, not seat time, must be our focus.

A competency-based blended real-time learning model would need to have a high degree of teacher-to-students and student-to-student interaction, high teacher engagement, excellent modeling of skills and rigorous content standards. It could also benefit from a formative assessment and learning management system that allowed a teacher to easily see what each student was — or was not — learning. With the addition of online real-time and asynchronous learning, more instruction, practice and formative assessment would be possible. Students’ time on task could increase, and the number of missed lessons could decrease.

What if….

What if, with the expert use of blended real-time learning technology and the widespread availability of electronic tablets and Internet access to students, we could improve the quality learning, help students achieve more learning in less time, and increase the focus on higher order thinking skills compared to what teachers can do with the limited time available in most traditional adult education classrooms? What if, with the addition of electronic tablets and computers, we could significantly reduce the number of months or years it takes to prepare for and pass a high school equivalency test or acquire English language listening, speaking, reading and writing skills. What if the hardware and software for such an effort were subsidized by public state, federal and local investments? And what if this blended real-time learning model — through experimental design research measuring adult learner outcomes of the same content, same knowledge and skills, provided to the same kinds of learners, perhaps even by the same teacher – could be demonstrated to be more effective?


I am indebted to my colleagues John Fleischman at the Sacramento (California) County Office of Education, and Steve Quann, at World Education, for helping me think about the software for blended real-time learning.

Post-blog comment: I have created an Adult Literacy Education (ALE) Wiki page on Ted-Ed talks of interest to adult educators. You’ll find it at

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

October 5, 2014

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

Should we teach adults speaking skills?

August 31, 2014

Speaking in class and doing oral presentations are common in adult English language learning classes; indeed speaking is formally tested on the U.S. Citizenship test. However, some adult educators might ask why adults need good oral presentation skills in Adult Basic Education (ABE) and Adult Secondary Education (ASE), and if these skills are included in the College and Career Readiness Standards that we now expect of adults.

Adult learners need or can benefit from good speaking and oral presentation skills in many important ways in their roles as workers, patients, parents, community members, and in preparation for college:


  • Oral self-presentation skills at a job interview often determine whether or not the adult learner is offered the job.
  • Clear, complete, oral communication is essential in most jobs. People who work in teams must communicate orally to get their work done. Employees must communicate clearly and completely with their supervisors. In jobs that involve communicating with customers or clients, good speaking skills are often essential and always a plus.
  • Adult learners often need to stick up for themselves at work to avoid wage theft, address unsafe working conditions, and get the wages and benefits they are entitled to. In addition to reading, writing and numeracy skills, oral presentation skills may be essential to make their cases.


  • Adults need to be able to communicate clearly with health care professionals in person, and by telephone. They need to be able to organize their thoughts, and speak clearly and succinctly.


  • Often parents need to communicate with their children’s teachers or school administrators. Clear and complete oral communication in English is essential to get information, and also to build good relationships with teachers and school officials, which is often helpful for support of their children in school.
  • Parents with good oral presentation skills themselves may be able to help their children prepare oral presentations for class, and can model oral question-asking that may help them with participation in class discussions.
  • In some cases children may have good learning options that their parents don’t know about. Being able to ask other parents and school officials about possible choices may open opportunities for their children that they would otherwise not be aware of.

Community and civic action

  • As a community member an adult learner who wants to express views about an issue, and who has good oral presentation skills, will be more persuasive. The ability to speak clearly, with logic and passion, and to offer good examples, may convince others to act for mutual benefit.

College preparation

  • In addition to college classes that require formal oral presentations, some may require participation in discussion, and grades may depend on this. Adult learners who are comfortable with speaking in discussions and making formal presentations will likely be better prepared for what college requires.


Are these kinds of skills included in the new College and Career Readiness Standards (College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education, Susan Pimentel, MPR Associates 2013) that we now expect of adult learners?

Yes, they are!

Speaking skills are included as part of one of the major shifts to these new standards (shift 2, page 10,) “The second key shift required by the standards and reflected in panelists’ selections is the prioritization of textual evidence across the domains of reading, writing, and speaking and listening – a decision based on national assessment data and input from college faculty indicating that command of evidence is a key college and career readiness skill. “ [emphasis mine]

There is a whole strand of speaking and listening standards: “Including, but not limited to, skills necessary for formal presentations, the Speaking and Listening Standards require students to develop a range of broadly useful oral communication and interpersonal skills. The standards ask students to learn to work together, express and listen carefully to ideas, integrate information from oral, visual, quantitative, and media sources, evaluate what they hear, use media and visual displays strategically to help achieve communicative purposes, and adapt speech to context and task.” They include, for example: “Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task. (SL.9-10.4)” and “Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating a command of formal English when indicated or appropriate. (See Language standards 1 and 3 for specific expectations.) (SL.11-12.6).” Speaking, of course, is also included in the language standards.

In Appendix C, RATIONALES FOR THE SELECTION OF THE COMMON CORE, is this important sentence: “Panelists also argued that articulating ideas and information orally with precision and coherence (Speaking and Listening Standard 4) is a skill students need in college or at work. Indeed, both employers and college faculty cite the ability to articulate thoughts and ideas clearly and coherently (orally and in writing) as key on their respective surveys.” (College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education, page 109)

In an article on the Common Core State Standards that she wrote in January, 2014, prolific K-12 technology blogger Jacqui Murray begins her list of “11 Things I Love About Common Core,” with “They teach speaking and listening. Of all the skills that make a difference in a child’s future, their ability to speak and listen to others tops that list. How have we not included this in the past? I have no idea and truly don’t care. I’m happy it’s part of the plan now.”   Speaking and listening are now part of the adult education standards, and we need to make them a priority now in our ABE and ASE teaching.


TED Talks

August 14, 2014

Have you — like me — watched the various TED talk videos for your own continuing education, both professionally and for other purposes? If so, please share what you have found to be especially interesting for yourself, and possibly for your students. To get the ball rolling, here are four TED talks I have found especially useful and inspiring:

  • At a TED X Boston talk in June, 2012, Noah Wilson-Rich, the President of the Best Bees Company, did a presentation on the successful beehives that are found on the tops of Boston buildings, including the convention center in South Boston. Through this talk I learned that honeybees are thriving in cities in the U.S. and throughout the world while, as you may be aware, honeybees are vanishing in rural areas because of a widespread phenomenon called Beehive Colony Collapse disorder,  “a phenomenon in which worker bees from a beehive or European honey bee colony abruptly disappear.”  They are not just dying, but disappearing. What do you think the explanation might be? I wondered if  there are pesticides that are used on farms that are not used on building tops in cities?
  • Recently I watched a two-year old TED talk by a Stanford University professor and inventor named Manu Prakash. He talked about his invention called the Foldscope, a rugged, so-called “origami microscope” designed especially for poor countries.  It has 2000 times magnification; it can be assembled in under ten minutes and, once commercially manufactured, it may cost under a dollar.  When I saw this, I searched the web for other information about it and it led me to the Foldscope web site and Prakash’s contact information. I emailed him to find out if adult education science teachers in the U.S. could participate in the beta test because most do not have access to microscopes. As a result we now have a few U.S. adult education teachers who have applied and at least one that I know who is part of this beta test..   and
  • Colleague, Daphne Greenberg, Director of the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy at Georgia State University, did a TedX talk on adult literacy in Atlanta earlier this year that I — and other colleagues — have found useful in advocating for adult literacy. You will find it at
  • Bill Strickland is a community educator and activist in Pittsburgh, PA. In his February 2002 TED Talk he describes how the arts saved him when he was in high school, and how the arts are integral to the success of the community job training center he helped to create in Philadelphia and that has influenced job training centers in other cities such as L.A.

What are your favorite TED talks? What do you recommend to your colleagues and friends? Tell us about them in your reply to this blog article.

What will U.S. adult basic education look like in the future? Ten technology trends that may be transforming it.

July 6, 2014

What technology trends will continue, and perhaps transform adult basic education in the future? Here are ten that could — and perhaps already are beginning to — transform adult basic education (which also includes English language learning for immigrants, adult secondary education and transition to higher education) :

1. Blended Learning. Within the next five years most adult basic education programs will have web-based instruction that supplements what students do in class. For an example of this, read about what the San Mateo Adult School is doing,  and look at their online video clips These videos are actual classroom lessons also made available to their students online.

Blended learning will enable students who have access to the Internet to: put in more time on task, review a lesson that they found difficult to understand when it was presented the first time in class, and to make up a missed class. It may enable students to progress more quickly. It will also enable teachers who wish to, to provide a range of ways to teach the same topic. Online lessons can include video files, audio files, simulations/games that can be accessed from mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets, texts, screen captured multimedia presentations and more.

2. Flipped Learning. In flipped learning a teacher develops or finds suitable “homework,” most often instructional videos, that students are assigned to watch before class. A flipped class is no longer a teacher presenting to a large group but a teacher, peer tutor, volunteer tutor or aide working with students who need one-on-one or small group help. In an ideal flipped classroom the teacher has a management information system and knows before the class who has watched the instructional video lesson, and whether they are ready to be assigned more difficult lessons, if or that they need a little or a lot more help. S/he then organizes the class to provide that help. It may be technology’s best answer to the competency-based Mastery Learning model Benjamin Bloom proposed several decades ago, but that teachers have found difficult to achieve in their classrooms.  Flipped Learning, of course, is one type of blended learning. For more information about flipped learning, and to join the adult basic education and ESL group there, go to the Flipped Learning Ning at

3. Pure Distance Learning. This is online learning with little or no face-to-face interaction. It has been around for many years in adult education, beginning before digital technology with well designed correspondence courses that were successful for example in rural areas of new York State. With the help of Project Ideal, a national consortium of many of the states that offer adult distance learning, and with leadership from states such as California, pure distance learning is already a reality in adult basic education and I think it will continue and grow.

4. Mobile Learning (mlearning). Adult basic education teachers who regularly survey their students to learn if they have access to the Internet through computer, and/or smart phone, and/or electronic tablet, are finding that smart phone access is a fast-growing phenomenon, especially among immigrants, but also among other adult learners, including a big growth trend among African American students. Students’ smart phones are not always used for learning, but savvy teachers have designed BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) learning models, and are finding useful language learning and other adult basic education apps. This will continue to grow, but a major impediment in many adult basic education programs and adult schools is the lack of resources to purchase broadband wireless that can be accessed in all the classrooms. For examples of mobile learning with adults, tale a look at Susan Gaer’s web site Also,  note the rapid growth in mobile learning apps for adults, for example those that can be found on “”. As the founder and moderator of the Mlearning Wiggio Group, I would be happy to extend an invitation to those who are interested in joining this online group. (Email me at )

5. Online Curricula Aligned with College and Career Ready (CCR) Standards. A major change in U.S. adult basic education is that for the first time all states are — to one degree or another — using a set of common curriculum standards. The College and Career Readiness Standards, an adult education version of the Common Core State Standards, is now in place, and in many states programs are now expected to create curricula aligned to these standards. One logical outcome could be the development of (voluntary) state and national adult education curricula that if well-developed and can be shown to produce good learning outcomes might be widely used. We’ll see.

6. Computer-based Assessment. The GED® 2014 exam is already offered primarily on computers, and all the high school equivalency tests are moving in this direction. I also expect that we will see more formative assessments being made available online.

7. Digital literacy assessment and instruction. This trend has been growing for several years, and some of today’s examples include:

8. Online Professional Development. With the advent of national curriculum standards, and a raised bar for high school equivalency and college readiness assessment as a result, the current level of online and blended adult basic education professional development will undoubtedly grow. For examples of where this is offered now, see , and for “a video window on other adult basic education teachers’ classrooms”  take a look at the authentic classroom videos in the Media Library of Teaching Skills .

9. Intelligent Tutoring In adult literacy education is new. One example, the Autotutor Intelligent tutoring program developed at the University of Memphis and being used by the National Center for the Study of Adult Literacy, has a fascinating “trialogue” feature that, in addition to an interactive automated tutor who responds to the the learner, provides an interactive online adult learner. This is the closest thing I have seen to an automated (granted, small group) classroom, and can be quite engaging.

10. Online Simulations/games Examples of adult English language learning simulations include Xenos and Skylab Learning . Several years ago a free online adult work-oriented reading, writing and numeracy simulation was developed called The Office. It will be found at

Perhaps you see other adult basic education technology trends, or have comments about the trends that I see. If so, please send your comments.


Assessing Digital Literacy and Problem solving in Technology-Rich Environments

November 14, 2013

A recently released U.S. report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Survey of Adult Skills, also known as the PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) assessment, has Problem solving in Technology-Rich environments (PS-TRE) as one of its three assessment areas.  PS-TRE is defined as  using digital technology, communication tools, and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others, and perform practical tasks.” Although the U.S. assessment is a survey of a small, scientifically-selected sample of adults, not specifically of adult learners, it does call our attention to the need for formative and summative assessments of digital literacy and problem solving skills in technology-rich environments that are taught in adult literacy programs.  In this article, I will list some of the relevant technology-related questions and, a few of the pertinent formative and summative assessments for adult digital literacy and problem solving skills, and will provide some basic information on the PIAAC PS-TRE assessment.

Several Good Adult Digital Literacy Skills Questions

(These could easily be turned into learning objectives.)

  • Can the learner describe basic features of computers and the Internet such as “how to use command names, drop-down menus, naming protocols for files and folders, and links in a web page?” (from the PIAAC Survey of Adult Skills)
  • Can the learner demonstrate the needed level of keyboarding (typing) skills? E.g. 40-60 wpm.?
  • Can the learner demonstrate good skills to find specific needed information online?
  • Can s/he describe what to look for in judging the accuracy, quality and appropriateness of the information found?
  • Is the learner fearless, or at least reasonably comfortable, in attempting to solve technology-related problems?
  • When given a task to solve in a digital environment, can the learner analyze the task requirements, identify goals for the task, identify the tools and other resources available, develop a plan to solve it, and successfully monitor the progress to solution of the problem?
  • Can the learner effectively and efficiently use digital tools such as menus, search tools, sort tools, and word processing tools, in accomplishing the task or solving the problem?
  • Does the learner “create and communicate” using digital technology? For example does s/he create or add to web sites or blogs, join and contribute to threaded discussions or “listservs,” add to wikis, comment on online news articles, and/or help to create a class online newsletter?
  • When faced with computer or Internet hardware or software tool technical problems (e.g. in word processing, spreadsheets, databases, file management, statistical packages, graphics, web browsers, or email,) can the learner suggest strategies that might lead to a solution?

Four Adult Learner-oriented Digital Literacy Assessments

  • Northstar is a free, online digital literacy assessment designed for adult learners by a state-level partnership of adult education, workforce development and libraries in Minnesota. It assesses basic skills needed to perform tasks on computers and online through six self-guided online modules, measuring Basic Computer Use, Internet, Windows Operating System, Mac OS, Email, and Word Processing (MSWord). Northstar could be used for formative or summative assessment. A passing score of 80% is needed to demonstrate competency on a module. The learner may take the assessment as many times as needed, and in between can learn skills needed through a variety of ways. One way, for states where this is available, is through a Learner Web digital literacy Learning Plan. (For more information on Learner Web, go to There is a high degree of congruence between the Learner Web digital literacy learning plan instruction and this assessment. Other free digital literacy learning resources, ranging from mouse and keyboard skills and writing letters and words while learning basic word processing skills, to spreadsheet, database and Internet problem-solving skills will be found on The Literacy List at
  • A Teacher-made Computer Skills Assessment  Several years ago teacher, technology field specialist, and adult curriculum writer, Kenneth Tamarkin, wrote an article for Adventures in Assessment, a Massachusetts SABES publication in which he included an adult-focused computer skills assessment. You will find it at
  • Self-assessing One’s Online Learning skills  Many colleges and universities offer free, online assessments for students to determine if e-learning or online learning is right for them. To find these, search for “Is eLearning Right for You?” (Be sure to put the whole phrase in quotes.)  For example, Carroll Community College offers a free self-assessment for those who want to assess their readiness for online learning. It will be found at
  • PIAAC Digital Literacy (PS-TRE) Assessment  According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics Website,, the PIAAC Survey of Adult Skills assesses an “Information communication technology (ICT) core: A set of easy, basic computer tasks to assess basic functional computer skills necessary to take the main assessment on the computer” and includes 14 problem solving in technology-rich environmentsitems based on the PIAAC problem solving framework (See below for more information about this framework.) The PIAAC Assessments, including the PS-TRE assessment, will be made available online in January, 2014. Education & Skills Online, an online assessment tool, will enable individuals and organizations to assess key literacy, numeracy and PS-TRE competencies in real time, on demand. You will find more information about this at Retrieved 11.11.13.

More on the PIAAC Assessment

The PIAAC Problem Solving Framework

Specifically, it assesses the cognitive processes of problem solving–goal setting, planning, selecting, evaluating, organizing, and communicating results. The environment in which PS-TRE assesses these processes is meant to reflect the reality that digital technology has revolutionized access to information and communication capabilities over the past decades. In particular, the internet has immensely increased instantaneous access to large amounts of information and has expanded capabilities of instant voice, text, and graphics communication across the globe. In order to effectively operate in this environment, it is necessary to have (a) knowledge of how the environment is structured (e.g., an understanding of the basics of the environment, including how to use command names, drop-down menus, naming protocols for files and folders, and links in a web page), and (b) the ability to interact effectively with digital information. Such interaction involves understanding electronic texts, images, graphics and numerical data, as well as locating, evaluating, and critically judging the validity, accuracy, and appropriateness of the accessed information. These skills constitute the core aspects of the PIAAC PS-TRE assessment.

PS-TRE items present tasks of varying difficulty to be performed in simulated software applications using commands and functions commonly found in the technology environments of email, web pages, and spreadsheets. These tasks range from purchasing particular goods or services online and finding interactive health information to managing personal information and business finances.

PIAAC recognizes the diversity of digital technologies and the fact that they are evolving at a rapid pace, but due to implementation constraints the first round of PIAAC will be limited to using computers and computer networks. The PS-TRE assessment will only be computer-administered. Retrieved 11.11.13 from

PIAAC Sample PS-TRE Items

Exhibit B-6. Examples of problem solving in technology-rich environments items

Items that exemplify the pertinent features of the proficiency levels in the domain of problem solving in technology-rich environments are described below.

Level 3: Meeting Rooms (Item ID: U02)

Difficulty score: 346

This task involves managing requests to reserve a meeting room on a particular date using a reservation system. Upon discovering that one of the reservation requests cannot be accommodated, the test-taker has to send an email message declining the request. Successfully completing the task involves taking into account multiple constraints (e.g., the number of rooms available and existing reservations). Impasses exist, as the initial constraints generate a conflict (one of the demands for a room reservation cannot be satisfied). The impasse has to be resolved by initiating a new sub-goal, i.e., issuing a standard message to decline one of the requests. Two applications are present in the environment: an email interface with a number of emails stored in an inbox containing the room reservation requests, and a web-based reservation tool that allows the user to assign rooms to meetings at certain times. The item requires the test-taker to use information from a novel web application and several email messages, establish and apply criteria to solve a scheduling problem where an impasse must be resolved, and communicate the outcome. The task involves multiple applications, a large number of steps, a  built-in impasse, and the discovery and use of ad hoc commands in a novel environment. The test-taker has to establish a plan and monitor its implementation in order to minimize the number of conflicts. In addition, the test-taker has to transfer information from one application (email) to another (the room-reservation tool).

Level 2: Club Membership (Item ID: U19b)

Difficulty score: 296

This task involves responding to a request for information by locating information in a spreadsheet and emailing the requested information to the person who asked for it. The

test-taker is presented with a word-processor page containing a request to identify members of a bike club who meet two conditions, and a spreadsheet containing 200 entries in which the relevant information can be found. The required information has to be extracted by using a sort function. The item requires the test-taker to organize large

amounts of information in a multiple-column spreadsheet using multiple explicit criteria and locate and mark relevant entries. The task requires switching between two different applications and involves multiple steps and operators. It also requires some amount of monitoring. Making use of the available tools greatly facilitates identifying the relevant entries.

Level 1: Party Invitations (Item ID: U01A)

Difficulty score: 286

This task involves sorting emails into pre-existing folders. An email interface is presented with five emails in an inbox. These emails are responses to a party invitation. The test-taker is asked to place the response emails into a pre-existing folder to keep track of who can and cannot attend a party. The item requires the test-taker to categorize a small number of messages in an email application in existing folders according to a single criterion. The task is performed in a single and familiar environment and the goal is explicitly stated in operational terms. Solving the problem requires a relatively small number of steps and the use of a restricted range of operators and does not demand a significant amount of monitoring across a large number of actions.

(From Appendix, Page B12 of Literacy, Numeracy, and Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments Among U.S. Adults: Results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies 2012 First Look. Retrieved 11.11.13 from )




Misinformation, Agnotology, and Remedies through Media Literacy

October 7, 2013



Agnotology is the study of culturally induced ignorance. Agnotology refocuses questions about “how we know” to include questions about what we do not know, and why not.
Londa Schiebinger, in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1 Sep. 2005.

 Historians of science have tended to focus on the processes by which scientific knowledge gets accepted. In recent decades, some scholars have come to see that processes that impede or prevent acceptance of scientific findings are also important. Such processes include the very human desire to ignore unpleasant facts, media neglect of topics, corporate or government secrecy, and misrepresentation for a commercial or political end. They often generate controversy, much of it ill-informed. Examples include the health implications of tobacco and of genetically modified plants, the safety of nuclear power, the environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and the existence or extent of man-made climate change.”[i]


What responsibility do adult education teachers, and other educators, have in helping students deal with media misinformation and culturally induced ignorance? 


English language students frequently bring to their teachers deceptive letters or emails they have received that appear to be government or legal requests for information or compliance. The students may have been able to read these, but often do not understand that they are attempts to sell something or get private information from them for illegitimate purposes. The letters or email messsages are intended to deceive. Learning how to recognize these practices and avoid being deceived is part of what is often known as “media literacy.”


In a broader social context, adult learners, their teachers — all of us — are bombarded in the media with an overwhelming amount of advertising, sometimes of products whose use is unhealthy, such as high-calorie fast food, other processed foods, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).


Not long ago low-income adults and others were told in the media that, with special mortgages, they could afford to buy a house or condominium, when the truth was that while they might have been able to get one, with their income they could not afford to keep it.


We are told that natural gas is environmentally preferable to oil and coal heating when, with “fracking” techniques of mining natural gas, this may not be true.


We were told for many years that human-made climate change was imagined. Now, scientists from nearly two hundred countries have affirmed it is real and caused by humans.


And we are (mis)led to believe that there are “free” services on the Internet.


What can adult educators do to help students understand these, at best misleading, often deliberately deceptive practices?


For many years, one adult literacy publication has taken on literacy and social change, helping adult learners to read critically.  It has made it easier for teachers to help students improve their critical reading skills. The current issue of The Change Agent, published by the New England Literacy Resource Center at World Education, focuses on Technology, and its lead article, by Romenigue dos Santos, an adult English language learner, takes on culturally induced ignorance in Internet technology.


In his article, “You Are the Product!” [ii] dos Santos begins  “Google knows more about you than your own mother does….Google knows most of our likes and interests, and they sell this information to the highest bidder. What do we get in exchange? We get lots of great applications, developed by them, for free. So the question is: is it worth it?”


The Change Agent technology issue is not entirely critical of technology. It offers a balanced approach, including an article about a great free adult learning web site for teachers and learners by Lora Myers, “Education on the Go at,”   “Using Technology to Solve Problems,” by Steve Quann, “Dragon Naturally Speaking” by Bernice Sicely, and “Technology in the Care of Others,” by Eva Ramos. Other articles, such as a review by Cynthia Peters of Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy,” Akira Kamiya’s “Internet for All. Really?” and Sterlin Reaves’ “It Hurt. I was Furious. Deceived through Social Media” help teachers and learners to read critically, and perhaps to cut through the fog of internet malpractice and technology agnotology.

You can subscribe to The Change Agent individually or in bulk online and on paper. For more information:



[i]  From: World Wide Words is written, edited and published in the UK by Michael Quinion. ISSN 1470-1448. Copyediting and advice are provided by Julane Marx in the US and Robert Waterhouse in the UK. The linked website is


[ii]  I have been a fan of The Change Agent for many years. I am an article contributor, and on the Editorial Board for the Technology issue.

Is the Adult Education and Literacy System in the U.S. prepared to Unlock the Door to Economic Opportunity?

June 2, 2013

What would happen if by January 2015 or 2016 the new, higher-bar adult secondary education tests (the GED®, TASC™ and HiSET™ high school equivalency exams that will be available in January, 2014) show that very few test-takers can pass at the College and Career-ready level that each of these assessment makers plans to include? What if the Adult Education and Literacy System in the United States is found inadequate to prepare adults for college level studies, and in some cases, for training and work?

Wait, some may say, we don’t know that yet. Maybe we are resilient and resourceful enough to make the adaptations to prepare students for tests that have these new standards. Maybe teachers will rise to the challenge and learn the math – and how to teach it – that these new CCR standards require. Maybe teachers will be able to help their students learn how, on a timed test, to quickly read text and write or type a persuasive argument about it. Maybe adult education programs will figure out how to provide 40 WPM minimum keyboarding skills for students who want or need to take the test on a computer. Maybe they will figure out, given the same number of hours per week of instruction, how to include social studies and science background content that the tests will require. Maybe they will, somehow.

But what if they can’t? What if the system and its programs and schools don’t have this capacity? What if adult education programs don’t have qualified math, science and social studies teachers and don’t have the resources to hire them? What if adult secondary education (ASE) teachers, rarely full-time, often with other, competing part-time or full-time jobs, don’t have unpaid time to take the training to get up to speed to teach the needed math, science or social studies? What if programs don’t currently offer a typing/keyboarding class or, if they do, if they don’t have enough computers so every ASE student could use them to practice keyboarding to meet a 40 WPM standard?

What if programs did have new resources – more money – to make these changes, would their students be able to make more hours per week available to learn the new content, to learn critical thinking, reading, and writing skills — in English – to successfully prepare for the harder exam in the same amount of time, roughly a few months to one year?

I am concerned that programs, and possibly learners cannot do this, at least not with only minor changes. To meet the new standards, major reform of adult basic education is needed, reform that results in:

  • More hours of instruction per week, and by qualified instructors;
  • More technology for almost every adult education program, hardware and software that at least matches the level available to local public schools. That means more desktop and laptop computers in classrooms as well as labs, a multimedia projector and/or whiteboard in every classroom, possibly loaner laptops or electronic tablets for students, and training for teachers in how to use the technology well.
  •  ASE students understanding that the HSE door now will have two locks, one called High School Equivalency and a new one called College and Career Readiness (CCR), and that for most people the door only opens to education and economic opportunity, i.e. increases in lifetime earnings, when the CCR lock is opened.
  • Most students understanding that quick-fix high school equivalency preparation ends in December, 2013, and that most students who take a 2014 HSE exam will need more than a few weeks or months to prepare to pass the new higher standards, if that is their goal. They may need more hours of class per week, perhaps as many as 10-15 hours, and/or more independent instruction and practice using a computer and the Internet – at home, a library, school, or work.
  • Students who need it, doing a typing/keyboarding course to get their skills to at least 40 WPM.

Many of these changes require more than small adjustments, and most require significant new resources.  The test-makers have rightly aligned what they plan to test to what the Common Core State Standards think high school graduates – and college and career ready students – need to know.  ASE programs want their students to be prepared for these test changes. Now it is time for state legislatures and Congress to learn what the changes imply, how the adult education and literacy system nationally and in states needs to be improved to address these new standards, and what that will cost.

Teaching Good Writing with Twitter and Text messaging, and Good Video-making with Smart Phone Videos

May 1, 2013

What do Twitter, text messaging, and videos that are designed for mobile phones have in common? They are all considered by most teachers to be time-wasters and learning distractions; however, these social media technologies also have the potential to improve how students present themselves and communicate in writing or in moving images.

Some see constraints such as the number of characters that can be used in a tweet or the size of a tiny video screen as pointless limitations; however, they may also be seen as beneficial artistic constraints. The poet Robert Frost, for example, believed constraints were needed for good poetry. In an address at Massachusetts’ Milton Academy, in 1935 he complained about poetry with limits, said that, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” Another example of useful artistic writing constraints is Haiku, a wonderful form of poetry usually limited to lines of 7, 5, 7, and 7 words.

In the visual arts, there are a great many examples of small works of fine sculpture, drawing, painting, and jewelry, some that require a magnifier to appreciate. We should not dismiss Twitter, and text messaging because there are constraints on the number of characters or words, but instead we should use those limits to help students construct clear, concise writing.

I recently read a discussion about using tweets to reach potential employers. Good job counselors tell their clients that posting or emailing resumes and job applications, even in response to an ad, is usually a waste of time. The key, they say, is developing a relationship, letting a potential employer know who you are, what you can do, and how you can help her or his organization or company. This is good advice but often it’s not easy to follow. How do you find, reach and intrigue a potential employer?

Suppose you find the employer’s hashtag. You have 140 characters to get his or her attention, an interesting and challenging writing problem. You have to provide both a way for the employer to learn more about you (by responding to your tweet, email address, web page link, or phone number) and a compelling reason to do so. You need to research the employer, speak the employer’s language, choose words that will get the employer’s attention. You also need to represent yourself well; so using “U R” for “you are” may cut down on characters, but will not impress most employers. This is a writing problem that might intrigue some students.

I know adult learners who are entrepreneurs. They sell things they have made themselves, or purchased at a discount. They sell these goods in their communities online, or both. As entrepreneurs they have to reach and communicate with potential customers. A high interest writing problem for them is how to intrigue a customer with a tweet or a short text message. They have to boil down their pitch to a few, well-chosen words. This, too, is a problem that can engage some learners in the art of good writing, regardless of what form of writing they choose.

I recently read an article on using video for non-profit marketing with mobile devices. It addresses another constraint problem, not for writing, but for visual media; that is, how to communicate effectively to people who are looking at your video on the small screen of a handheld device. The author, Michael Hoffman, writes, “Because mobiles have a small screen and often more limited download speed and bandwidth restrictions, you are well advised to deliver a more focused and simplified experience in your mobile content.” Hoffman advises, for example, that because the screen size of a smart phone is small, “video ideal for a phone will often use more medium and close shots so the details are visible on the small screen” and because smart phone users are often listening to the video in a public place and often without a headset, “having a video that works even if you don’t catch every single word is more likely to impact the smart phone viewer (and is a good idea in general because we live in a world of constant distraction.”
Hoffman continues, “When several New York-area Planned Parenthood Federations wanted to reach youth at risk they knew that both video and texting were key to that audience. We worked with them to develop a program that used short online video stories to encourage text-based opt-in from the youth.

The videos ended a short story before the dénouement and in order to find out what happened, you had to text in.

Youth Video + Texting Campaign – Planned Parenthood of New York

In this case, engaging video was key to the execution of a mobile strategy.”

Many adult learners, especially younger students, have smart phones, often not only with built-in still camera but also video-making capacity. With simple-to-use editing software, students could create a video, edit it to under a minute, and engage their viewers in a problem or issue about which they are personally concerned: getting hired, promoting important health practices, getting community members to register and vote on vital neighborhood issues, driving potential customers to their web sites, recruiting students to their literacy program, or getting out an “elevator pitch” on why adult literacy programs need more (not less) funding in hard economic times.

Project-based learning that requires clear, concise and engaging communicating is a highly motivating way to help learners improve their aural, written and visual communication skills.

Sorry, too busy to have a conversation

April 14, 2013

This is the 40th anniversary of the cell phone (“On April 3, 1973, a Motorola inventor named Martin Cooper made the first-ever call on a handheld cellular phone.” )

In a 2011 TED talk, MIT Professor Sherry Turkle, reflecting on how our society uses cell phone technology, observed that “reclaiming conversation, that’s the next frontier.” By that she meant old-fashioned face-to-face conversation, without the sometimes never-ending distractions and interruptions of handhelds. In this TED talk,, and in her book, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” Turkle explores how profoundly handheld technology has changed our culture, and she argues that we need to make better choices about how we use this technology. We can turn off our cell phones, we can tweet less often, we can visit Facebook once a week instead of once an hour. And instead, we can have real conversations with family, friends and colleagues.

I turn off technology, and I am encouraged that Sherry Turkle, and perhaps others who have heard her and read her books, are doing that too. I take technology-free vacations in Maine, and in the Caribbean, where I camp in a tent and remove digital technology from my life. I don’t talk on any phone unless there is an emergency, I don’t bring a computer or even an e-reader. I take books.  My wife and I hike, and climb, kayak, swim, build campfires at night, look at the stars, and endlessly talk. I try to do these “retreats” at least two times a year, for at least eight days each time. I almost always manage at least once a year. I come back feeling refreshed, with new insights and ideas.

I have a friend who takes technology-free vacations in the city. She turns off everything:  land line, cell phone, television, and radio. She walks or takes public transportation.  That’s harder than what I do, and I am not sure I could manage it, but she, too, feels cleansed, reinvigorated, and more aware of herself, her friends and family, of being alive.

Our interrupted and distracted culture, accelerated by mobile technology, is not a hopeless addiction, Turkle argues. We can easily do something about it. We can tame technology, turn it off. We can be fully present when our family, friends and colleagues are talking, not be “online.”

The high-volume of  interrupting phone calls, tweets, and emails, and our frequently-Facebook-checking culture, Turkle argues, is a substitute for authentic interaction.

Here’s an example. I subscribe to several  Communities of Practice (CoPs). These are online professional discussion groups where practitioners, researchers and others are supposed to engage in dialogue, learn from each other, add to our professional wisdom, explore new ideas, think together critically, provide a sounding board, offer insights, and perhaps at times inspire each other.  However, that doesn’t often happen. Mostly, these are announcement lists of other activities, resources, and events. Each of these online professional communities has hundreds of subscribers, so the critical mass needed for good discussion is not the problem. Most have subject matter experts, although they may lack discussion leaders, who often can be helpful in seeding and nurturing discussion.

When confronted with the lack of real discussion, and even shop talk, some CoP members reply in defense that they are just too busy. For a long time I thought this meant too busy working; people in the adult basic skills (literacy, basic education, secondary education, English language teaching) field, where most teachers have two or three part-time jobs to make ends meet, and where funding has been cut and those left employed have to do the work of those laid off, are busy.  But there’s something else going on, I think. The people in CoPs are not too busy to subscribe and to skim the posts, or at least the subject headers and digests of posts. They are just too busy to engage. Of course some people would (rightly) argue that there is benefit from getting information from CoPs, that some people may participate in some of the webinars, conferences, and online courses they learn about from these discussions. Still, CoPs themselves, are intended as a community, an opportunity for sharing professional wisdom, for discussion, a place to share ideas and have them critiqued. Those who “subscribe” but are not truly members of these communities, miss an opportunity for important and genuine conversation, for reflection and professional improvement.  Are they really too busy to engage in a conversation? Perhaps its because their lives are filled with what Turkle describes as the “illusion of connectedness.”

Is your own life filled with tweets, email, and short phone calls? Can you remember the last time when you had a “a good conversation”? Are your conversations distracted or interrupted by technology?  If so, try to take control:

• Turn off your cell phone during certain hours of the day.  Carry two cellphones, one that is always on, but only to be used for emergencies. Turn the other one off and only check it at the beginning and end of the day.

• If you subscribe to several professional development CoPs, cut down the number (perhaps to only one) but then actually engage with that one.

• Unsubscribe from all commercial email advertising – use the time you might spend looking at ads in real-time (face-to-face or online) talking with family, friends or colleagues. You’ll miss a bargain or two but gain something more valuable.

• Take technology-free vacations, perhaps short ones as well as longer ones. Use the time to become more aware of yourself, your family, your friends, your community, your environment, and  the world in which you live.

• Establish new ground rules such as no cell phones used

• During meals

• While walking  (There are other important reasons for this rule: hearing safety, in some environments, physical safety)

• During meetings, and

• When you are having a conversation

I would be interested in hearing other ways to tame our technology-domineering culture. Hope you will comment below.