SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
It would be highly
presumptuous for us, on the basis of six case studies, to offer general
solutions to the problems of adult literacy, or even to technology applications
to adult literacy. However, we
believe that it is both necessary and appropriate for us to offer for OTA's
consideration some summary observations arising from our cases, which probably
find application in a broad range of cases, if not all.
We will start with the good news and the bad news.
THE GOOD NEWS
In our cases, we found many
encouraging things that lead us to believe that technology can be an important
component of efforts toward adult literacy.
Some of the more notable items of good news include the following:
Really Can Be Effective
It is reasonably clear that
there is a wide variety of effective information technologies available to adult
literacy programs. Such tools range
from simple to complex computer applications, to viewer-oriented or interactive
video, to telecommunications-based shared systems. In our cases, we saw at least a sampling of each of these in
action. They are not always used to fullest advantage, either because of design
problems or implementation complications, but they are out there.
Access to such tools is open to even relatively small-scale programs with
limited resources, although of course large and expensive installations are also
possible. When such tools are used, there is a definite sense, although
not a lot of hard evidence, that learning is improved and progress toward
literacy is speeded. Technology
appears to be both an efficient method of reaching a larger number of clients
than traditional methods can accomplish, and probably cost-effective in terms of
Like the Tools
The overwhelming majority of
the people interviewed in our study were highly enthusiastic about the benefits
of information technologies in adult literacy efforts.
Almost everyone agreed that technology helps
attract adult learners to the programs and helps keep them there.
In addition to its instrumental value in the teaching of reading, use of
information technology, particularly computers, is often seen as a pathway to a
vocational skill. Mastering
technology enhances self esteem and increases motivation to learn; students will
work with well‑ designed learning programs for hours if given the
opportunity. Computer literacy programs designed to familiarize users with
specific applications such as word processing and spreadsheets are often more
popular than classroom-oriented basic skills courses, and in at least some cases
can be used as effectively as more specifically literacy-oriented software to
teach these same basic skills.
Tools Do Not Replace People
There is no substitute for
the dedicated and effective teacher. However
good the tools are, their application is no better than the underlying quality
of instruction offered by human beings. Learning,
particularly for adults, is at bottom a process of interaction between the minds
of the teachers and those of the students.
The tools can sharpen and focus this interaction, and can spell the
teacher during the more repetitive parts of the learning process; they can also
facilitate the administration of teaching.
But ultimately it is the teacher who must guide the use of technology and
shape its contribution to the overall learning context; only teachers are
capable of responding to the whole person, not just the reading skills problems
that may be presented in public. The
best parts of any of the programs that we studied are those that reach out to
clients across the full context of personal and social needs.
Tools Enhance Flexibility
Creative use of information
technology can support the open‑entry, open‑exit programs that many
believe essential for adult literacy instruction.
For example, it can support individualized, self‑paced instruction,
by adjusting to different skill levels, by providing a "private"
environment so that adult learner can avoid potential embarrassment, and by
providing immediate, individualized feedback to learners.
Technology can also be used to manage the complex administrative
arrangements that flexible programming often entails, and to coordinate the
multiple sources of funding that adult programs typically must reach for.
THE BAD NEWS
Along with the positive
elements of the picture, we feel compelled to point out some problems and
concerns experienced by our respondents that lead us to moderate our
expectations for technology successes. Some
of the more notable issues are as follows:
Literacy Problems Do Not Occur In A Vacuum
It is absolutely clear that
the populations most in need of adult literacy programs are also usually in need
of a more or less significant array of other social support services.
Among many of the clients of the programs that we studied at least, the
inability to read is only one element of a syndrome that may include
unemployment or underemployment, poor housing, nutritional problems, lack of
access to child care, and other social maladjustments.
No matter how good our tools for enhancing access to the printed word, we
will have only limited success in resolving these other problems through
literacy as such. Much as we would
like to think so, reading alone lifts relatively few bootstraps.
Moreover, the learning process itself is often impeded by these other
factors of peoples' lives. Unless
programs can develop ways of addressing the full range of life issues that their
clients face, their contributions are likely to be swamped in a sea of troubles.
Can Be Intimidating
Not everyone is equally
enchanted by information technology. Any
program that plans to open itself to a full range of clients needs to make
available learning opportunities that are based on technologies other than those
involving computers or even video. Some
people are simply resistant; others have had negative experiences that lead to
the tools' becoming more of a barrier than a facilitator to learning.
Those for whom technology does not work are often (but not always) older
and less generally equipped to cope with modern toys.
But they deserve as much consideration as we can give to those more
comfortable with state-of-the-art tools. Thus,
efficiency is almost always going to be compromised by the need to make programs
accessible to technophobes as well as technophiles.
Tools Require Learner Investment
For learners who lack basic
computer skills, use of information technology in adult learning can require
significant amounts of time to be spent orienting students to the technology.
This is not just an issue of "user-friendliness"; even the most
"friendly" interface available takes some time to learn to command.
For most clients who come into adult literacy programs, computer or even
video technology is something that is outside the realm of the familiar, and
time must be invested in learning how to use the tools themselves before they
can be used to make meaningful contributions to learning.
While some technologies are easier to access than others -- e.g.,
touch‑screen and voice‑oriented systems, even software programs that
teach the use of the mouse -- the fact remains that at this point there are no
"transparent" information tools in the literacy arena.
The problem is compounded when system developers, themselves highly
computer-literate, have a hard time putting themselves in the place of a person
who has never seen a computer, much less manipulated it.
Technology Requires New Skills of Teachers
Traditional methods of
training teachers, either professional or volunteer, for participation in adult
literacy are not for the most part oriented toward technology use.
Many adult educators lack computing experience or aptitude. Even when
they can operate the equipment, they may not be able to manage the technology
infrastructure: keeping it running, diagnosing common problems, setting up
different applications, or performing simple maintenance. They may also have
limited capabilities in the areas of hardware and software evaluation and
selection. Teachers must generally
become, if not computing experts, at least well-informed amateurs.
For some, this is not just an imposition -- it can even go against the
basic motivations for teaching in the first place.
But it is essential if information tools are to find full utility in the
teaching process. In our cases, we
interviewed both those who have made this adaptation and those who have had a
hard time with it. Both groups
include talented and capable and dedicated teachers.
It is no more easy to predict what kind of teacher will make this jump
than it is to predict who will become any other kind of computer
on Information Technology is Possible
There is a truism in
computing that the more powerful the technology, the more it can look like
magic. That is to say, the better
the tools, the more we tend to rely on them without completely understanding
what they do and how they do it. In
the context of adult literacy, teachers can easily cultivate a tendency to
augment what the computer does, rather
than find ways to have the technology augment what they do. There can also
be a parallel tendency for teachers to become "lab managers,"
technology facilitators rather than teachers.
The very "privacy" afforded by the technology can create
problems: instructors may fail to recognize when students need assistance. There is a certain irony in finding that the better the tools
we use, the more problems we can engender with this use. This is not a plea for limiting technology, merely for
recognizing that one must always remember that it is an "idiot
servant" rather than the "savant" its elegant interface might
Learning Systems" Can Be a Mixed Blessing
There has been a
proliferation in recent years of systems that purport to be all-inclusive, even
"turnkey" arrangements for handling the complete teaching task.
While these systems can reduce the need for specialized support
personnel, a quality particularly valued by the smaller programs, ILS's as a
class (there are individual exceptions) share some serious deficiencies:
1. They cannot be customized
(easily or at all) for specific learner needs -- e.g., in some settings,
instructors wish to enable or disable testing and timing.
2. They have frequently been
designed for children, not adults, and can be perceived as condescending;
students lose interest and attempt to finish as soon as possible, rather than
taking full advantage of the opportunities presented.
3. They may offer little
opportunity for student control -- e.g., students cannot advance to new lessons
(or skip over certain lessons) as quickly as they would like; when this happens
4. While ILS's usually
provide session‑specific student tracking, some of them have difficulty in
tracking student progress/attendance over time, and thus can frustrate effective
management of the program.
5. Some ILS's have limited
"save and resume" capabilities, so that students cannot easily restart
lessons. This is especially problematic for students with only a short time to
work on lessons (especially in workplace programs where students may go in on
Again, this should not be
read as a blanket indictment of ILS's, simply as a plea to recognize that there
is no single "technology fix" that overcomes all the limits of program
design and management. We shall
return later to this overriding issue of the need for effective
interrelationship of the social and technological elements in program
Flexibility of the Technology is Underutilized
Information technology for
adult learning seems to have made little headway in overcoming problems
associated with delivering the service to the clients whenever and wherever they
need it. Typically, there is little use of "distance learning" in the
programs we studied. Most of our group (except Cleveland) generally require
clients to come to program facilities within specified hours in order to receive
instruction. There are some very good reasons for this ‑
for example, the need for social reinforcement and the need to develop
job relevant skills such as punctuality, personal appearance management, and
social interaction. However, in almost all of our sites, clients experienced
major difficulties in going to program facilities (lack of adequate child care,
lack of transportation, need to work during program hours, incarceration). At
the same time, program administrators and technology support personnel
complained about difficulty in providing access to the technology whenever and
wherever it was needed. Equipment often sat idle at some times, while being
over‑demanded at others. People complained that the technology was
insufficiently "portable" to be taken to remote learning satellites.
One potentially important opportunity for distance learning might be to provide
opportunities for those who have exited a program for whatever reason (some
programs have six month maximums, tied to funding restrictions) to continue to
Availability is Limited
Software developers have not
as a class been responsive to the needs of adult learners.
Many of the program staff we interviewed expressed the opinion that
vendors are discouraged by the apparently small and fragmented market for high
quality adult programming. It is our assessment that they have underestimated
the size of the market for such programs. While there are certainly unique local
needs, we believe that there is a large market for high quality programming that
can be easily customized by instructors to meet the special needs of local
client populations. The needs are particularly acute in the following areas:
reading instruction, ESL, foreign language instruction (e.g., Spanish as a
second language), instruction that is integrated across subjects (e.g., reading
and math), software to identify and assist in overcoming learning disabilities,
and adult education that is not specifically "test" focused (e.g., GED
oriented). More adult programming of the "external high school
diploma" type is required.
The current software
offerings are also limited in another key respect. To our knowledge, almost all
technology‑based instructional approaches (with the exception of
non‑interactive videos) are designed to be used by individual learners
working on their own. While this supports individualized, self‑paced,
open‑entry, open‑exit, anytime, anyplace instruction, many adult
educators emphasize the importance of learning in groups.
All of the programs we studied made extensive use of group interaction in
some part of their curriculum. In
view of the increasing importance of "groupware" in the commercial
software environment, it is hard to understand the virtually complete absence of
support for group‑oriented learning technologies.
Technology Seems to be Surprisingly Under-useD
In recent years there has
been a virtual explosion of easily accessible video technologies.
Yet in only a few settings does there seem to be extensive applications
of this approach; the LA County Jail system is certainly the most effective
illustration of what can be done with video under the right conditions.
Granted its limitations, it does remain cheap and more accessible to many
people than the much more widely applied computer-based tools.
Perhaps it is sometimes seen as too "low-tech", not worthy of
attention precisely because it is accessible.
It is certainly true, as the jail case also illustrates, that a
substantial front-end investment in production tools is required, and an ongoing
commitment to the medium requires significant and specific talents and expertise
not found in the typical community-based literacy program.
In short, doing it right is not cheap, and might even be seen as a
diversion of resources from more pressing needs.
However, not every site has to have the full production facilities that
the jail system has developed; a few centralized facilities could probably meet
lots of specialized needs. While
the jail system has shared its materials with a number of other programs, there
is room for much more diffusion of this technology and its applications than is
being currently explored.
-- of Both People and Machines --is Far Too Limited
Possibly the saddest piece
of news that characterizes the parts of the adult literacy/technology scene that
we have investigated is the striking absence of networking, between sites and
often even within sites. We use the
term generically. At the most basic
level, there is far less use of networking among machines even within sites than
the state of the art would suggest possible and even desirable.
This is paralleled by a general isolation of personnel in one facility at
a site from those at other facilities. This
is not universal -- some sites have been able to create cross-fertilization
among their personnel -- but isolation is far too characteristic to allow the
literacy community to be comfortable. And
there is so little contact between sites as to suggest that programs in this
area are often operating in a virtual intellectual and functional vacuum.
Coordination of services
with other agencies is frequently desired, but singularly underachieved.
Despite the capability to use their own technology to exchange
information, there are few attempts made to help learners identify or access
other social services available to them (e.g., child care, food, housing,
transportation), other than where mandated by law as a part of a welfare reform
initiative or similar incentive package. In
short, the potential for information exchange is singularly untapped in the
agencies we studied, despite their wishes for it.
Like everything else, networking costs resources, and it is often hard to
justify taking funds from service delivery to support it.
Detection of good and bad
news in the overall picture of technology applications in adult literacy is only
one part of the picture. Of even
more overriding importance, in our opinion, is a set of issues and concerns
revolving around the social and organizational contexts within which technology
is applied in such programs. On
balance, it should come as no surprise that context critically conditions and
mediates the impacts of technology on organizational participants, both
providers and clients -- it is one
of the principal commonplaces of any systematic analysis of technology.
Nevertheless, it is appropriate here to offer some observations on how
socio-technical interactions pose both opportunities and limitations for
technology use in literacy improvement.
Programs Must Cope with their Political Environment
We would like to believe
that adult literacy is an educational issue, one "above politics" in
which the interests of individuals can selflessly and seamlessly be served.
Unfortunately, as soon as we set up social organizations to help people,
we are inextricably enmeshed in a web of politics.
Sometimes this is politics writ small -- the direct interactions of
different interest groups trying to maximize their own leverage over particular
social institutions. Sometimes it
is Politics in the larger sense -- that is, the interactions of large social
groups vying to shape society in ways that enhance their quality of life.
But always conflicts of interests can be observed, and must be coped with
in diverse ways.
Sometimes literacy programs
become a direct part of the political agenda, as we observed in Baltimore.
While this does have advantages in terms of increasing visibility for
such programs and thereby improving access to social resources, it does pose the
danger that he who lives by the vote can die by the vote.
If the next Mayor decides that Baltimore should be "the City that
Sleeps Safely" instead of "the City that Reads", something
critical will have been lost that may prove very difficult to regain.
The public agenda is notoriously fickle, and while there is a certain
satisfaction in being the Cause of the Month, it always the case that there will
be another Cause next Month. Adult
literacy is a long-term issue, and will not go away with the next shift of
public opinion or media hype. It
helps to be closely tied to a wide range of institutions, as in McAllen, where
the program appears to be firmly fixed in the local environment.
But politics is politics, and nothing is ever permanent.
The political dimension is
no less real in other settings, though it may be more subtle.
In the UAW/Ford program, for example, the politics are organizational
rather than societal. The activities of the projects in the auto plants are played
out in the context of labor/management relations generally, and the highly
sensitive environment of the domestic automobile industry in particular.
Passions run high in this environment, and threats to interests are strongly
felt and quickly reacted to. The LA
County jail program is likewise entangled in the entire set of issues dealing
with crime and punishment generally, and the particularly difficult environment
of contemporary Los Angeles, with its deep social, racial, and economic
divisions. What may appear on the
surface to be simple technical decisions turn out on further inspection to have
major ramifications for long-term organizational survival and development.
Increasingly, instability is
a hallmark of the current American political and social scene.
Issues come and go in prominence, and there is little consensus on
long-term directions and priorities. Moreover,
there is increasingly bitter competition among priorities for what appears to be
a steadily shrinking pot of resources, both public and private.
Under these conditions, cobbling together support for programs becomes an
art form of high order. All of the
programs that we visited drew on multiple sources of support.
This does allow programs a degree of flexibility in that they are not
tied inextricably to any one set of funds (with the possible exception of the
UAW/Ford program); on the other hand, it also requires agencies to respond to
goals and priorities of many different funding sources, some of which may be
incompatible if not downright contradictory.
This instability in turn
makes the effective implementation of technology-based strategies for literacy
programs problematical at best. Such
programs cannot be put together overnight, nor can they be easily retooled to
respond to a new set of priorities. Rather,
they require time to set up facilities, procure hardware and software, learn how
to use it effectively, recruit an ongoing client base, and generally establish a
credible reputation. Programs have
to become expert at reinterpreting themselves in different terms to different
groups and at different times. Constant coping with the environment, while it does keep
programs on their toes, also exacts costs in terms of time and energy at least.
Working out the place of adult literacy in the nation's and the local
agenda looks to be an ongoing and difficult process.
Constituency for Adult Literacy is Limited
The essence of politics is constituency
-- that is, the group whose interests are being served by the process.
If, as we have suggested, adult literacy programs almost always operate
in a political environment, this implies that such programs must develop and
maintain a constituency to remain viable -- and perhaps to attract better
attention from software developers and vendors. The difficulty is that those who stand to benefit most from
these programs are perhaps the group in society least equipped to mobilize on
its behalf -- that is to say, those who have limited reading skills.
Their very need for the program serves to cut them off from the normal
channels by which political influence is exercised.
Moreover, if the program works and people actually do learn to read, they
generally sever their connection with the program -- just at the point where
they might begin to be able to do it some good.
There is a cruel paradox at work here.
This perhaps overstates the
point. In fact, there are some
constituencies for literacy programs derived from the general social
consciousness of the country, and, as the UAW/Ford case illustrates, an
increasingly mobilizable constituency based on workplace interests.
Part of the problem remains that it is small business more than large
business that bears the brunt of the impact of worker illiteracy; large firms
can afford to be more choosy about whom they hire and retain.
Yet small firms are notoriously unable to form themselves into consortia
capable of exercising systematic influence and putting together joint programs.
Another possibility -- if "family values" becomes more than this
year's catch phrase, perhaps the family can itself become a literacy focus;
certainly family-based programs are among the more successful ones in operation.
In any case, the
mobilization of support for literacy remains diffuse and complex, and at a
considerable disadvantage relative to more organized social interests and
problems. Limited literacy remains
to a significant degree a "hidden" social problem, much less visible
than, say, homelessness or unemployment. Nevertheless,
as our cases illustrate, programs do get created and maintained, usually through
the political and organizational competence of extraordinary individuals.
The nature of the system does little to make their tasks easier
and Reinvention are Critical
Another key theme
illustrated by our cases is that the only thing permanent about them is change.
Yet another paradox -- only through continuous changes in structure,
emphasis, and procedures can any semblance of continuity in programs be
maintained. There are a
number of different sources of pressures for change, some of them social, some technical.
On the technical side, there is the pace of technological developments
themselves -- bigger, faster computers at a more manageable price, better
software, interactive video displays, and the full range of new toys that are
continually coming to market. On
the social side, there is the constantly shifting wind of the political agenda
noted earlier. Moreover, there is more or less steady personnel turnover,
both in terms of providers and clients, and thus a regularly shifting body of
program participants on both sides of the curtain.
Again and again, in our
cases as in virtually any other technology application that we discussed in our
opening frame of the problem, we see that the key to effective use of technology
is the capacity to "reinvent" -- that is, to modify existing hardware,
software, and systems to new uses and new purposes.
This may range from the glosses applied by a capable teacher to make a
software program designed for six-year-olds palatable to their parents and
grandparents, to full-scale customized installations of networked stations.
At all stages, it is the imagination and talent of particular individuals
that makes systems manageable. If
systems fail to be able to see the necessity of change, they die.
Infrastructure for Programs is Critical
The infrastructure of
programs may be described as the set of all aspects of the program, other than
those that actually provide services to clients, that are required to maintain
it. Technology does not operate
without an infrastructure, and the more a system depends on technology, the more
vulnerable it is to disruptions in that infrastructure.
As programs come to depend more on "open
architectures" with widely differing combinations of machines and software,
the more they need specialized
personnel to evaluate hardware and software, perform systems integration,
troubleshoot and solve systems problems, switch over equipment to different
applications, and handle the myriad of other strange and wonderful things that
The situation is compounded
by problems arising from equipment and software diversity. Many programs, even
those that rely heavily on ILS's, tend to have a very diverse portfolio of
equipment. Often they have acquired
much of their equipment in the form of miscellaneous gifts and "hand me
downs." This increases the
difficulties of teachers in using the equipment, and of equipment support and
maintenance personnel as well.
computer-sophisticated organizations experience system integration problems; yet
again and again we find literacy programs that can generously be described as
"computer-shy" coping with and effectively resolving highly complex
integration issues. Much as this is
a testimony to the dedication and capabilities of the individuals involved, it
can best be described as a disaster waiting to happen.
Each and every one of the programs we visited is in critical respects
staggering under a potentially deadly load of infrastructure problems in the
form of equipment failure, personnel turnover, and knowledge obsolescence.
Perhaps the most critical
element of the infrastructure, and the one least well coped with, is the level
of "local expertise" available to program sites.
In all the sites we visited, as in virtually every other information
technology-using site that the authors are familiar with, there are one or more
"gurus" who, by virtue of interest and capability (seldom formal
training) manage to provide the well of expertise and knowledge to nourish staff
usage by those who cannot equally grasp the underlying mechanics of the system.
These individuals are absolutely critical to the functioning of the
programs. Yet there is almost never
a formal mechanism set up to stimulate and reward guru-hood -- even to
"clone" or back up people who have assumed the role in practice.
Often the role must be carried out over the passive or even active
disincentives established by the organization.
We believe that the contributions of such individuals need to be
cultivated and encouraged, since it is they who manage to keep the
infrastructures patched together with baling wire and cellophane tape -- not to
mention recycled disk drives and self-taught midnight programming.
In short, while it is
relatively easy to evaluate the pedagogical advantages and disadvantages of
particular software programs, it is far more difficult to assess what is going
to be necessary to make the program usable in terms of administrative and
technical backup. But if the
infrastructure fails, it matters not how good the program was -- nobody is going
to benefit from it. Unfortunately,
there are few lessons in how to manage infrastructures to be drawn from the literature or the
experiences of others -- just an almost endless array of illustrations of
different ways to fail in varying degrees.
The one thing that we do know
is that the organizations that experience the fewest infrastructure problems are
those that recognize that it is there and needs systematic care and feeding.
"We deal with it by talking about it" is the sine
qua non of coping.
FROM OUR ANALYSIS
We conclude this analysis
with a few simple recommendations derived largely from suggestions offered by
our respondents during our interviews. Some
lend themselves to policy suggestions; some are offered more in the spirit of
cheer leading than specific changes.
technology should be encouraged.
While it is no
panacea for resolving issues of adult literacy in this country,
it is nevertheless likely to contribute to effectiveness of programs in
which it is used in conjunction with trained teachers and appropriate
infrastructure support resources. Adult
learners like it, use it, and benefit from it.
There should be more of it in use, and in more sites, and of a higher
level of sophistication.
How do we get more
technology utilization, particularly if, as we have suggested, much of it
depends on local initiative and reinvention rather than on central direction?
One way would be to try to focus resources onto technology, either by
mandating certain investments out of Federal grant funds or by setting up some
new grant program emphasizing technology in particular.
In general, this is probably less effective than it might seem, and would
be likely to introduce technology biases into the system.
There are, after all, certain "heavy hitters" in the literacy
technology game who would be likely to end up with a disproportionate share of
the resources. Reliance on the
market is better.
What could be done, and
relatively easily, is to expand the resources available for sharing information
and ideas about creative applications of technology in literacy.
We discuss this point in more detail further below in our comments on
networking. At this point, we
believe the barriers to technology applications are more conceptual than
financial. Money never hurts, but
the answer is not a great infusion of new funds; rather, the problem is to use
what is there in a more focused fashion.
software, and administrative flexibility need to be encouraged.
Since there will always be
local situations and problems requiring customized solutions with limited
applicability elsewhere, there will always be a need for
tools (both ILS's and products designed for an open architecture) that
permit easy modifications by instructors and flexible usage patterns by adult
learners. The incredible diversity
of situations even across six cases illustrates that "one size does not
fit all". Both program design
and technological content need to be responsive to both the immediate and the
ever-changing local context.
This concern can probably be
best addressed by a firm resolution to keep hands off.
There will be a temptation on the part of government, particularly if
there are additional resources to be allocated, to establish
"standards", define "best practices", and in general get
involved with the nuts-and-bolts of program design and implementation, all, of
course, in the interests of effectiveness. This temptation needs to be resisted. A hundred -- or a thousand -- flowers need to bloom, and the
good that might be done by preventing one or a few programs from making fatal
mistakes is likely to be more than compensated for by the harm that would be
done in reducing innovation and creativity.
We take this opportunity to issue a strong plea for the encouragement of
also needs to be encouraged.
We believe that
communication is the key to effective implementation of any improvements in the
entire technology/literacy picture. While
flexibility and reinvention are Good Things, we have seen many local innovations
with widespread potential applicability, both pedagogical and administrative
whose light remains hidden under a local bushel.
Along with our respondents, we believe that information dissemination
services for adult literacy administrators, educators, and technology support
persons are both essential and largely ignored at present.
This is something that
government could profitably become
involved with. There are ample
precedents that might be applied, such as the National Innovation Network
operated by the Department of Education to facilitate the diffusion of new ideas
in teaching generally. This might
usefully be supplemented with a modest program of support for technical
assistance rendered by program people in local sites to each other.
Creative people can and would be happy to help each other try new ideas,
share software, tell war stories, and in general support each other's efforts if
resources were available to fund travel and related costs.
Again, what is needed is not a large Federal presence in technical
assistance, but rather encouragement for people on the firing line to get
together and be resources to each other.
At the very least, there is
room for electronic bulletin boards devoted to evaluations of and experiences
with particular commercial or locally developed educational software or
supplemental materials. Such boards
are inexpensive to operate, but they do take initial investments and continuing
attention. For a set of small
grants to appropriate regional and/or national organizations, a great deal of
effective interchange could be encouraged.
With modems available for less than $50, there is virtually no excuse for
any computer system not to become part of the "cyberspace" of
What conferences and
professional organizations there are in this area do an excellent job, but they
barely scratch the surface of its potential.
Some additional funding for regional and occasional national conferences
would probably be well received and of significant impact.
evaluation research is needed.
Again, there have been
useful efforts made to compare different approaches to use of information
technology in adult education and to disseminate the best approaches.
But they have generally been under-funded and single-shot studies, without
an ongoing underlying research paradigm. There
is need for a fairly extensive set of studies in this field to address the full
range of socio-technical issues that we have discussed, as well as many that have
undoubtedly escaped our attention in the whirlwind of this project.
What we would suggest needs
emphasis is not research on literacy as such, or even on appropriate technology
for teaching literacy, but rather research on the processes by which successful community and workplace-based programs
can be created and maintained. This
is not to say that technology or content-focused research is not useful; it is
only to reinforce that we know so much less about what to do
with what we do know that it might be appropriate to let our ability to
apply knowledge catch up with the knowledge itself for a while.
We suggest that a combination of quantitative and qualitative research
aimed at understanding how implementation of technology in the field of literacy
is both like and unlike implementation in areas that have been more studied,
such as schools, offices, and industrial settings.
This would, in our opinion, enrich our knowledge about both literacy and
technology in general, at the same time.
Clearly, research on new
techniques should also be encouraged. The
developments under way at ETS toward creation of new group-based interactive
software show that there is always room for new kinds of tools to enter the
addition, technical research should continue to explore innovative ways
of networking both individual sites and groups of sites.
We believe that this research is probably more effectively funded by
vendors and other private sources rather than government, which does not have a
particularly good track record "picking winners" in technology
choices. The exception might be greater encouragement to agencies with
literacy interests such as the Departments of Education and Labor to use their
Small Business Innovation Research programs to encourage the development of
innovative technologies for literacy improvement.
Another area that might
profitably be explored is that of evaluation at the local project level.
Very few of the sites we visited had anything approximating a formal
evaluation capacity. This is not to say that they were not interested in what they
were doing, or with what effect -- simply that they had other things to invest
their resources in that appeared to be of more pressing importance.
Evaluation has never been particularly popular at the project level.
Yet where outside resources can be provided to support it, it can have
some very valuable consequences. The
major lesson to be derived from a good many years of Federal research on program
evaluation is that it cannot be imposed from without -- rather, the capacity has
to be grown within the project as part of its basic structure. Moreover, it must concentrate on the formative aspects of
evaluation rather than the summative or judgmental. In any case, a modest program of funding to support the
development of systematic evaluation programs within at least a few programs
might have significant payoff.
This is not an area that
calls for a single unified research agenda, particularly not one set by a
Federal agency. Rather, it
will be best served by a diversity of approaches and strategies fueled by the
different research interests of a range of sponsors, public and private.
One step that the Federal government might most profitably undertake is
to sponsor an annual or at least regular research conference at which various
aspects of the technology/literacy interaction could be explored and
cross-fertilized. Such conferences,
generally costing less than one individual study of modest scope,
can be of enormous value in encouraging research progress.
resource commitments sustaining.
We echo the heartfelt plea
of many of our respondents that whatever resource commitments may be made to
adult literacy and specifically to technology in teaching be continuing and
predictable. A modest level of
resources that could be counted on steadily would be far more effective than
a large one-time injection of resources that could not be digested
easily. Even worse would be
"seed-money" type commitments that are directed toward particular
types of technologies; these establish perverse incentives that are particularly
destructive of systematic organizational operations.
While everyone would like more money, there is general agreement that it
should be the right kind of money.
A steady pattern of support
is a key component of the "infrastructure" that we described earlier.
Specifically, steady support allows systematic planning for technology
acquisition and upgrade, staff training and development in both teaching per
se and technology applications, and the careful monitoring of outcomes
across time that alone can tell what is actually happening as a result of
different approaches. Environments
of resource fluctuation are particularly damaging to evaluation as well as
on literacy, not technology.
Finally, we offer the
observation, again suggested by many of our respondents, that the real problem
is literacy, not technology
utilization. Tools need to be
selected to meet needs, not to enhance the image of tool-builders.
There is little room in this field for the kind of
"technology-push" that has bedeviled other areas of technology
application, particularly in manufacturing -- a drive to secure advanced
technology simply because one believes that one will be outdated without it,
rather than an intelligent procurement based on understanding of both technology
advantages and program goals and needs. Applications
that are tool-driven are inherently less effective than those that are
use-driven; this is the consistent lesson of previous research.
This is not to say that the
evolution of technology should not continue, or that developers should not do
all they can to create applications and sell them to as many as they can.
As in any other area of technological evolution, the market is critical.
However, program planning -- from the level of the community agency to
the level of the Federal government -- needs to start and finish with creative
pedagogy, not technological determinism.
The major need is now for a
degree of "consciousness-raising"
on the part of system developers and users alike.
To this end, efforts such as OTA's present study are necessary and
worthy. But a sustaining and
continuing involvement with the issues will be required; as we noted, the
political agenda is mutable and full of potholes.
The interaction of technology and literacy is too important to be left to
any one focal point to nourish and protect.
There is plenty of creativity out there, as we have described; the
challenge now is to harness and empower it for the greater good.
It should be noted that there are very few systematic data available on
cost-effectiveness as such. See
our recommendation below regarding the need for systematic evaluation
Again, it should be noted that there are fewer applications of information
technology to program management than might be supposed.
The reasons for this remain somewhat obscure.
See our point later in this discussion on the absolute necessity to develop
appropriate local expertise in the management and operation of
technology-based learning systems.
In our cases, we encountered this problem more as a fear than as something
actually experienced. A number
of teachers did report that this was a tendency that they had to remain
continually alert to avoid.
The WICAT environment used in several of our sites is a classic example.
IBM's PALS system is related, but not fully integrated.
A few programs could not really be called "open-entry," since
classes started at fixed times and only when a minimum number of students
had been enrolled.
The system under development by ETS that we saw being tested at the Ripken
Center in Baltimore is an interesting exception, and its further development
and implementation should be well worth watching.
Of course, the peculiar conditions of this case, with the large and
constantly shifting client population, have made video virtually mandatory
as a medium.
In our Recommendations, we offer some suggestions as to how networking might
At present, there is no way of effectively determining how much SBIR
activity there may be in literacy. Assembling
these data would be a useful exercise in itself.