Innovative Digital Learning

NIIC Panel

By Alison Ascher Webber

This week I facilitated an all-star panel organized by the Migration Policy Institute to showcase innovative program models that leverage educational technologies to train hard-to-reach adults and extend learning beyond classroom walls. As the panel was for the National Immigrant Integration Conference, the models presented were designed for different immigrant demographics and largely included ESL instruction. The structures for incorporating digital learning into programs are relevant to training in any topic.

Given that programs varied from 100% digital learning (with no in-person instruction) to primarily face-to-face instruction (with digital tools used to personalize & extend instruction), I designed the accompanying chart to illustrate the range of models.

Range of Models for Distance and Blended Learning for ELL Adults

Leaders of California’s Mobile Up! project and Building Skills Partnership, Chicago’s Cyber-ESL, Central Texas’ Community Action, and the nationwide English Now!, English Innovations and National Immigration Forum shared how they designed their programs to meet the specific needs of their target demographic and ensure their educational success.

They emphasized putting at the forefront the following considerations when designing programs to reach and accelerate learning and employment outcomes for underserved demographics:

Learner Characteristics:

  • How often participants can come to class (if at all)
  • Access to devices & internet, digital literacy
  • Ability to navigate the learning tools
  • Education levels
  • Comfort level in a classroom
  • Experience/skills with how to study/ learn independently

Key Factors to Success:

  • Holistic design with wraparound support services to increase retention including child care
  • Human-centered design (put learner needs first)
  • Commitment to innovation and iteration
  • Human touch, including mobile coaching and counseling
  • Connecting students to each other & their communities
  • Bilingual support

Other Key Questions:

  • How to build a Community of Learning with peer support and peer learning?
  • How to incorporate volunteers?
  • How much upfront orientation and technology training is needed?
  • In blended learning, how do teachers align instruction with digital curriculum and support the digital learning?
  • How to connect technology and skills instruction to tasks in learners’ daily lives?

On the panel, each organization only had ten minutes to present their unique program design, challenges, and successes. However, each program deserved a whole panel just to themselves. For this reason, the EdTech Center will feature blogs on each program. Two are already published:

After the models were presented Johan Uvin, President of the Institute for Educational Leadership and former Acting Assistant Secretary for the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) at the U.S. Department of Education, shared his insight on policy and funding considerations for supporting such innovative digital learning initiatives. He emphasized the following key elements in building a technology-facilitated adult learning infrastructure: keeping the cost of Internet access, data services, and devices low; facilitating learning engagement; curating content; and navigation supports for adult learners. On the funding side, he encouraged leveraging WIOA resources to support development, distribution, and use/engagement as well as exploring alternative financing models like Pay for Success and partnerships with large employers.

Other panelists included: Aida Cardenas of Building Skills Partnership, on Mobile Up and Smart-Phone Workshops; Stephen Alderson of Instituto del Progreso Latino on Cyber-ESL; Jennie Murray of National Immigration Forum on Skills & Opportunity for the New American Workforce; Heide Spruck Wrigley of Literacywork International on English Innovations & Community Action.

Alison Ascher Webber develops and leads innovative projects for the EdTech Center, including advising the new Employment Technology Fund and leading its field testing. She also manages the Mobile Up! Project bringing mobile learning and career coaching to low-wage immigrant service workers. 

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