Themes from the IdeaShop

Making / Learning / Work was an adult learning innovation project hosted at the MIT Media Lab from September 2014 to May 2016. This site is an archive of the project documentation.

Wall of themes that emerged from the IdeaShop on adult learning on 5/22-5/23

This post-it wall was created by participants of the IdeaShop (held at the MIT Media Lab in May 2014). It maps the opportunities, barriers and challenges for adult learners. We are using it to identify promising areas for experimentation and to guide our work.

1. Emotional Barriers

  • Adult learners with low-skills often lack effective support environments
  • Past experiences may have lowered their motivation and confidence
  • Low self-esteem limits good learning behaviors like asking for help (learners feel embarrassed to ask)

2. Literacy

  • 36 Million Americans have low numeracy and/or literacy skills (see 2012 PIAAC results for more details).
  • Few jobs in the US economy do not require basic literacy and numeracy
  • Low literacy also limits access to technology-supported learning programs.

A man in California speaks about his own loss of identity, of self-location, definition: “I stood at the bottom of the ramp. My car had broke down on the freeway. There was a phone. I asked for the police. They was nice. They said to tell them where I was. I looked up at the signs. There was one that I had seen before. I read it to them: ONE WAY STREET. They thought it was a joke. I told them I couldn’t read. There was other signs above the ramp. They told me to try. I looked around for somebody to help. All the cars was going by real fast. I couldn’t make them understand that I was lost. The cop was nice. He told me: ‘Try once more.’ I did my best. I couldn’t read. I only knew the sign above my head. The cop was trying to be nice. He knew that I was trapped. ‘I can’t send out a car to you if you can’t tell me where you are.’ I felt afraid. I nearly cried. I’m forty-eight years old. I only said: ‘I’m on a one-way street …’” [1]

3. Life Barriers

  • Significant costs (tuition, babysitting, loss of income from job)
  • Significant time loss (loss of time with kids, loss of basics like time to sleep)

Jorge Delgado, the assistant principal at Carlos Rosario International Charter School, says many of these adult students make incredible sacrifices to come to class. 40% have school-age children, and some send money home to support their families. The other day, Delgado remarks, he was leaving at 3 o’clock in the morning and when he went to pay for parking, at the cash register was one of his students. I said, “Don’t you have class at 8AM? When do you get out?” He responded, “5 in the morning”. [2]

4. Pathways

  • No “tried and true” pathways outside of K-12 education
  • Current pathways to success require attending classes or groups
  • No methods of encouragement through success stories and highlighting personal progress. (This ties into the theme of motivation (5) discussed below.)

5. Motivation

  • One of the biggest motivators for adults to go back to school is to help their children.
  • Parents want to be able to converse with their kids, who grew up learning English in school

A mother speaks about the inability to help her kids to read: “I can’t read to them. Of course that’s leaving them out of something they should have. Oh, it matters. You believe it matters! I ordered all these books. The kids belong to a book club. Donny wanted me to read a book to him. I told Donny: ‘I can’t read.’ He said: ‘Mommy, you sit down. I’ll read it to you.’ I tried it one day, reading from the pictures. Donny looked at me. He said, ‘Mommy, that’s not right.’ He’s only five. He knew I couldn’t read …” [3]

  • Improving job prospects. Being able to calculate a hourly rate, understand tipping, recite a menu to customers.

Ernsest Robertson is a part-time yard worker. He says no matter how many hours he worked, he only charged $20, because he didn’t know how to make change. Robertson remembers vividly all the times he’s been cheated. “I think it’s one price, and it’s always something else,”” he says. “I think people can tell when you don’t know how to handle money. They know how to get you.” [4]

6. Fun and Luxury

  • For adult learners, learning is a luxury. To study, they are missing out on other aspects of life.
  • Fun: We talk about basic skills acquisition as a chore, not as an enjoyable activity.

7. Mentorship

  • Every learner needs someone that they can turn to for help, who is there to help motivate them.
  • Many literacy programs pair volunteers with one student or a small group, which allows them to work closely together and build up trust.
  • The mentorship model is time-intensive, both for the students and for the teacher, and requires a long-term commitment on both parts.

8. Credentialing

  • Need to help adult learners certify and market the skills that they already have.
  • Is there a way to take the job experience that adult learners already have and repurpose it to count towards credentials that will help them get a job?

IdeaShop participant Michael Bettersworth from Texas State Technical College System (TSTCS) told the story of a man who walked through the doors of TSTCS wanting to become certified as a welder. He didn’t want to take a course – he already knew how to weld – but could not use his welding skills to get a job since he didn’t have any sort of welding certification. After one week in the machine shop working with the welding instructor, he was able to demonstrate all the techniques that he needed to get his welding certification – without ever having taken TSTCS’s welding course.

9. Digital

  • Is it viable to produce a mobile, tablet, or web solution? Do adult learners have sufficient access to these technologies?
  • Will technology be another learning barrier that adult learners will have to overcome to learn? Or will it be a helpful tool?

10. Employment

  • Help adult learners learn what the next step in their careers is
    • E.g. dishwasher to waiter, stockroom worker to cashier
  • Help them identify what skills they need to get to this step in the careers
  • Help them lay out a path to master these skills

11. Libraries and Public Spaces

  • Severely underutilized by existing adult learning solutions
  • Allows adult learners without Internet access at home to access the Internet
  • Platform for illustrating that low adult literacy and numeracy is a problem that needs to be addressed
  • Free, neutral meeting space

12. Skills and Practical Applications

  • Traditional education has a lot of overhead that skills acquisition does not require
  • Education typically has a bad connotation for adult learners if they dropped out of the K-12 system

13. Greater Community & Community Needs

  • An inmate enrolled in a basic skills program is 40% less likely to return to prison [5]
  • Improving basic skills improves health care (knowing how to count pills, reading labels to take the right dose of medication)

14. Scalability

  • One-on-one and small-scale instruction is difficult to scale
  • Many adult learners are too embarrassed or don’t have time to schedule and attend classes

15. Groupings

  • How do you group similar learners when the spread of adult learner’s skills is much larger than in K-12 education?
  • What groupings are effective for giving learners a support network: 1st language, location, career goals, friendships?

16. Assessment

  • How do you quantify what adult learners need to learn and what they already know?
  • How do you create lightweight assessments that encourage learners, rather than being perceived as barriers?
  • Is there a way to assess students through non-traditional methods that inspire creativity and communication, not recitation? (See #17: Project-Based Learning)

17. Project-Based Learning

  • Can we effectively teach basic skills through real-world projects and experiences?
  • Are team projects possible with adult learners’ busy schedules?

[1][3]: Illiterate America by John Kozol
[2][4][5]: Yesterday’s Dropouts by Kavitha Cardoza