SkillBlox & TSTM: Two Innovative Initiatives Working Together



By Jen Vanek and Jeff Goumas

In this research initiative, we explore an approach that makes it easier for adult education teachers to integrate Teaching Skills That Matter (TSTM) skills and topic areas into their instruction. Specifically, we want to develop relevant open and free digital content and add this content to an updated version of the SkillBlox application. We engaged in this research with the idea that providing teachers with more open and free resources might scale and improve TSTM-aligned instruction.

What is TSTM?

The TSTM framework encompasses nine central skills essential for success in the digital age, five topic areas, and three teaching approaches outlined in the image below. 

TSTM is a project of the Office of Career and Technical Adult Education (OCTAE) and led by our research partner, the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The TSTM toolkit created by AIR is a collection of resources designed to help teachers deliver TSTM-aligned instruction in adult education settings. While the toolkit has been introduced to hundreds of adult foundational education1, literacy, and English language teachers in the U.S., the components of the framework are not always prioritized in adult education, and teachers struggle to find instructional resources needed to teach them. 

What is SkillBlox?

SkillBlox is a free online application that supports the use of free and open educational resources, with the ultimate purpose of promoting equity through the widespread use of such resources. It is essentially a platform for finding, organizing, and making use of relevant instructional content created by others. Through the app, teachers can locate and then organize digital resources into a “SkillBlox,” a series of linked digital instructional resources they can share with their learners. Teachers can also locate SkillBlox created by other teachers and adapt them before sharing with their learners. The first iteration of SkillBlox was developed with funding from the World Education Services Mariam Assefa Fund. The features developed through this funding allow teachers to provide guidance to learners, integrate their own resources, and adapt and reuse open and free digital resources.

Why is SkillBlox and access to open and free resources needed?

Preliminary findings from our current research, as well as AIR’s research, support our assumption that a tool like SkillBlox would help teachers access and organize digital activities for students. We learned that teachers

  • Already use some free resources to support their TSTM-aligned instruction
  • Want a platform for students to access digital content
  • Need more easily adaptable resources that they don’t build from scratch
  • Lack time and/or skills to create all of the digital resources they need
  • Share content with other educators

In sum, teachers need more direct-to-learner activities, but finding them is not straightforward and many don’t have the time or skills to create activities that address the TSTM topics and skills. Try a Google search on something like Civics Education or Financial Literacy, and you will encounter a long list of links with very little information about the content available. Relying on open educational resource (OER) repositories is not much help; most are geared toward K-12 instruction and subject areas and require users to sift through a wide range of resources in different formats from different unknown authors. In short, finding usable OERs requires a lot of time because you have to evaluate resources for quality, relevance, reusability, adaptability, and accessibility.

So what are we doing now?

Through an iterative design and testing process, we are working with instructors to understand how to improve SkillBlox’s usability, and we are developing new features that will support more TSTM-aligned instruction. This TSTM-aligned version of SkillBlox will enhance the current platform by adding features to ease the work of finding, using, and adapting activities and lessons aligned to the TSTM topics, skills, and approaches. We will do this work in three sprints that mirror the tasks a teacher might engage in when looking for free content online.

At the same time, we are working with adult educators to develop more free instructional content matched to TSTM, organizing existing TSTM-aligned OER, and designing reusable skill-based activities. To do so, we have set up EdTech Maker Spaces (ETMSs), service-learning opportunities where teachers gain skills and knowledge while they collaborate in the development of open and free resources. The ETMSs mirror the tasks that teachers encounter when they work with digital instructional content: curating, adapting, and/or creating content. 

🔍 Curate
Existing Content
✨ Adapt + Remix
🎨 Create
New Content
“As-is” resources are available, you may need to organize them to make them more usable. Resources exist, but if you adapted them they could be more usable and accessible. Limited resources exist or are missing key components, so you may need to add content.

What’s in our future?

By early Fall 2023 we will have held six ETMSs and cycled through each development sprint to arrive at a newly updated SkillBlox shaped by new features and loaded with digital content to help teachers integrate TSTM into their instruction. At that point, a small group of teachers will test the TSTM-aligned SkillBlox in a usability and feasibility study. We hope to learn whether instructors can easily locate a TSTM-aligned skill they want to teach; select relevant lessons and high-quality OER, such as articles, videos, games, simulations, and assessments to teach that skill; and then share those OER with students through the platform. The final step of the research will be a pilot randomized control test of the fully developed platform, followed by a cost analysis of TSTM-aligned SkillBlox. We expect these activities to be completed by Fall 2025.


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