Volume 4, Issue C ::: December 2000
Providing instruction in computer use and using computers for instruction helped attract and retain learners
by Ralph Silva & Walter Wallace
In January, 1998, the Brattleboro, VT, center of Vermont Adult Learning (VAL), a statewide literacy and adult education organization, began the use of information technology in the classroom. We started offering classes in computer skills and, later, introduced computers as an educational tool: using them to deliver basic educational instruction. The purpose of the computer skills classes was to help students gain basic employability skills, since most jobs in our local area require some degree of computer knowledge. At first, without sufficient funds to invest in a computer lab, we used a combination of old Macs and even older personal computers (PCs) to run mainly word processing classes. Additionally, all Learning Center students had use of the computer lab during nonclasss hours.
As soon as computers became available in our center, we noticed a new group of adults coming through the door: adults who had not traditionally sought Learning Center services. Perhaps of greater interest, we saw students persisting in classes longer. We also noticed something else. Our old, slow, limited computers were not meeting the needs of our learners, who told us at every opportunity that they needed more: more Internet, e-mail, e-commerce, technology, graphics, and higher-level applications. To respond to learner needs, we set about upgrading our computer lab. Working with the Vermont Community Loan Foundation, VAL acquired for the lab six new Pentium computers equipped with Windows 98 and Office 97. We offered classes in basic computer skills, word processing, spreadsheet use, and Internet with e-mail. Over time, we developed an online writing workshop, an English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) computer-assisted language learning lab, and an e-commerce class.
A Good Hard Look
Given the intensity of learners' interest in the program, it seemed natural to examine the effect the use of informational technology was having on learner motivation and persistence. We had been involved with the practitioner dissemination and research network of the National Center for Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL). Working with NCSALL had interested us in practitioner research, so we decided to use these methods to understand better how technology affected motivation and persistence in our program.
We used a combination of teacher observation and student interviews to gather information. Observational data were easy to collect, since Ralph teaches virtually all the computer skills and application classes. Walter led the integration of computers and other information technologies in content-based classes and workshops. He chose to interview students about their experiences.
Ralph noticed that about half his learners were coming early to computer class, and staying late to work on resumes and to do other job-seeking activities. This contrasted with adult basic education (ABE) students, who only came to the center during their assigned class times. Learners with school-aged children often came in with their kids during nonclass hours, to do online research together for the kids' school projects. One computer student, for example, brought her daughter to several open computer labs. She helped her daughter do web searches for a sixth grade project on African animals. Together they downloaded photos of lions, placed them in a word processing document, and formatted the photos to fit into the text of the girl's project.
Some learners who had never expressed much interest in pursuing academic skills or content seemed to view such information differently when they accessed it online. One computer and ABE student who is dyslexic and rarely chose to read in class enthusiastically did research on the Web for a writing project on the American presidency. Another computer student used the Internet to find information on area community colleges, looking through their course and class offerings for the content she sought. Some students became interested in specific content areas such as geography, history, current events, and art. They were attracted to these subjects because of the thrill of, for instance, visiting the London Museum virtually, by way of the World Wide Web.
Exposure to computers and information technology had an impact on at least two students' career development and direction. We take computers apart and put them back together in basic computer class as a way to demystify what's in the box. One basic computer student discovered a talent in the area of computer technology. He went on to receive further technical training, and is now, a year and a half later, an A+ certified technician. Another student took classes in basic computing and word processing. We worked collaboratively with the state vocational rehabilitation agency and a local microbusiness development project to integrate this learner's new information technology skills into a small motorcycle repair business. He now has an online business buying and selling motorcycle parts as part of his enterprise.
Walter interviewed 45 basic computer students, 27 of whom are women. Access to computers attracted 36 students to VAL programs. All the learners he interviewed identified computers as vitally important for learning, personal use, and for getting a good job. One learner pointed out: "I can now do things I couldn't do before. Computers are everywhere and you have to know how to turn them on and use them to get a good job. I want to work in an office. All the jobs I hear about are ones that you have to know how to use a computer. It's like everyone has to know how to use them. I have to use them to get a good job."
Another ventured: "All the jobs out there say you have to have to use a computer so I wanted to learn."
Some of the interviewees' comments also reinforced our belief that the availability of computers was helping us to attract and keep learners. "Computers are everywhere and I can talk to people I never knew. I like games. I always feel like I'm in control. I like learning new things on the Internet and to meet people," said one learner.
"Computers make learning fun and I like to work with the computer all morning [in class]. Time goes by fast. I don't even know how long I'm working at the computer but I just know that I am learning something new every time I sit there, like how to make the computer do things I didn't know it could do," observed another learner.
A Learning Experience
At the start of this pilot program we expected to teach general and job-oriented computer skills. While we also expected to draw students into a deeper interest in the world of computing, we did not imagine that students would respond as they did: becoming self-starters, taking over their own progress, and expanding their uses of computers into academic and other interest areas. Given the results we have found, we intend to capitalize on the program's success.
Our plans for the future include expanding the scope of computer instruction by making it a regular aspect of all ABE and credentialing classes. We want to help all our students become comfortable using computers on a regular basis. For instance, new intermediate- and advanced-level students will use our computers to register for our services. Also, we constantly look for good interactive reading, writing, math, and content programs on the Internet, and plan to use these resources more over time. We already have formal and informal e-mail writing, tech help, and discussion groups for students with access to computers. We want to increase those activities, and to increase student input in our program's web pages. We hope that through the creative use of computer technology, we can continue to engage new students and then keep them motivated and interested in furthering their education.
About the Authors
Ralph Silva has been teaching at Vermont Adult Learning for five years. In addition to the basic and applications courses at the Brattleboro Learning Center, he also teaches computer technical certification and web page design classes at the Hands-On Computer Learning Center in Brattleboro.
Walter Wallace is the former director of the Brattleboro Adult Learning Center, where research for this article was done in 1999. He now coordinates nonclinical curriculum development and internal reviews as a staff member of the Graduate Medical Education Department at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, NH.