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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue C ::: September 2003

Same Curriculum, New Mode of Delivery

Adapting ABE Professional Development to the Internet

by Jane Martel
Before December, 2000, Kentucky's Department for Adult Education and Literacy (DAEL) had delivered all professional development opportunities to its 900 adult educators in face-to-face workshops. The best attended of these was usually the two-day Orientation to Adult Education, required of new instructors and program managers (Kentucky has approximately 120 new adult educators each year) and typically offered four times a year in various locations around the state. In May, 2001, we piloted our first "blended" professional development (PD) course: part delivered face-to-face and part delivered via the Internet. This quickly became our professional development branch's preferred format for nearly all of our professional development opportunities. Getting to this stage, however, many hard lessons were learned along the way, which we share in this article.

Reasons to Change
Kentucky ventured into the online PD world via a blended format for a number of reasons. First, in April, 2000, Senate Bill 1, also known in Kentucky as the Adult Education Act, passed. Kentucky's professional development system needed to prepare to support practitioners serving 300,000 adult learners a year by the year 2020 in comparison to the approximately 50,000 served in FY 2001 (Kestner, 2002). As a result of the Adult Education Strategic Agenda that grew out of Senate Bill 1, Kentucky's adult education programs are accountable for meeting increasingly challenging performance indicators. DAEL Commissioner Dr. Cheryl King wants practitioners to maximize the time they spend assisting learners in meeting their goals and minimize the time spent traveling to attend PD workshops. PD delivered online makes it possible to offer orientation information without interfering with teaching and learning activities at adult learning centers. The time new teachers needed to spend away from their learning centers to attend the two-day orientation training was halved by one-day face-to-face training supplemented with online work. 

Improved consistency and reduced travel expenses for trainers and participants were other good reasons for trying what we termed "e-PD." One of the most compelling factors supporting the use of web-delivered training was the opportunity to offer orientation information any time, day or night. Our online courses could be started at any time of year using any computer connected to the Internet; new instructors no longer had to wait for our next scheduled face-to-face session to be introduced to their roles and responsibilities. Also, the foundation for relationships with DAEL staff and with peers across the state could be built immediately.

Before adopting this blended approach, we had burdened newcomers with reams of paper that they probably never read. No matter how excited participants are after a workshop, few have the time to research further and read materials taken home. With our new approach, participants are asked to complete online modules in advance of a workshop. This let us raise the incoming level of knowledge and expect higher quality interactions in the face-to-face components of the training.

From information gleaned at regional professional development meetings with peer PD professionals, it seemed that few states had ventured very far into online PD delivery. At the time, much had been written about both online education and face-to-face training. Only now do we see a proliferation of material on the topic of blending the two formats. Our interpretation of the merits and challenges of the online environment combined with what we knew about face-to-face realities suggested that blended courses offered the best opportunity to capture the strengths of both delivery methods.

Lessons Learned

Testing Our Theory 
Plans were underway by May, 2001, to create a web site and "portal" for virtual adult education with the assistance of our new partner, Kentucky Virtual University (KYVU). Without a strong tech partner, such bold efforts in new territory would probably not have happened as soon as they did. Our challenge was to convert our two-day Orientation to Adult Education to a blend of one-day of face-to-face training followed by five units of online information. We embraced online course creation as an opportunity to use a new tool, make background material and facts "come alive," and differentiate cognitive information from behavioral changes. Using the Internet, we were able to link users immediately to exciting sites related to the information presented and to generate professional discourse by creating online discussions. 

PD branch members met to adapt curriculum to this new instructional environment. To determine which topics to deliver in a workshop and which to post online, we reviewed what we knew at the time: "Cognitive objectives are the most easily adaptable to distance education" (Thach, 1996, p. 11). Performance-based and attitudinal objectives and those requiring use of interpersonal skills were determined most appropriate for classroom delivery (Thach, 1996, p. 11; Brown, 2000).

We also considered the complexity of the material and its relative importance to new practitioners. Those topics deemed complex and/or vital to adult education - recruitment (45 minutes), orientation and goal setting (two hours), assessment (two hours), and professional development (15 minutes) - were covered in our one-day face-to-face training. We expected that those topics would generate many questions and would require the explanation of concepts and procedures in a variety of ways. Topics that were primarily information only (cognitive objectives) and that were less likely to require discussion (e.g., an overview of adult education, the adult learner, learner support and retention, and legal issues) were converted for online delivery.

Creating an interactive group environment online differs from creating it in a face-to-face environment. In the latter, other group members tend to assist, or at least serve as catalysts, in the effort to draw out communication from reticent participants. Based on our experience and on discussions with facilitators of other online courses, however, in an online environment, this responsibility seems to fall entirely on the facilitator. Each participant was encouraged to post comments about the online material to a discussion board. More difficult, however, was ensuring that the discussion board would contain conversations among participants, not simply postings of reactions by individuals. Schweizer (1999) identifies numerous ideas on maximizing the use of the online environment. Among them are linking web sites to the content, bringing course members together for face-to-face interaction to build group cohesiveness, communicating regularly with course members in an informal and clear writing style, being responsive to questions and concerns, using separate discussion boards for each group, and using the discussion board to summarize discussions and raise new questions. We used these ideas as guidelines when building our course.

Our first restructured Orientation to Adult Education was offered to a pilot group of 21 new instructors from throughout the state. All 120 of the ABE program managers in Kentucky were notified via e-mail of this pilot and were asked to encourage their new instructors (hired within six months) to participate. All new adult educators who expressed interest were allowed to participate. We started by gathering the group for a day of face-to-face training. Thereafter, participants had three weeks to complete the online units.

We had several goals for the course. As course developers, we wanted the pilot to answer the following questions about the online component:

Upon completion of a unit, the participant was required to e-mail answers to four questions to the online instructor. This let us know whether they mastered - or even looked at - the material. Three subject matter experts contributed content for the online course but only one (JM) facilitated the online course. I forwarded the module evaluations to the subject matter expert who had provided its content. The questions were subjective, prompting opinions of what material was most important and most confusing, and allowing participants to offer suggestions for improvement and to identify the amount of time they spent on the unit. At the end of the three-week course, we asked several of the participants to join the DAEL PD staff for a focus group. Notes taken on their likes, dislikes, and suggestions were used in conjunction with the e-mail responses to improve the course for its next delivery. 

Results of the Pilot
Reactions to our blended orientation were, for the most part, very positive. Some summed the experience up with "It was fun." Other supportive adjectives used by participants included "convenient" and "informative." They liked the tasks and wanted more optional activities added to the course and more information added about the topics that were introduced. They liked the quizzes and research requirements.

The negative responses included those from participants who preferred in-person discussions to the "discussion board responses that seemed fabricated to complete the assignment." Some were frustrated by the amount of supplemental resources offered online; although these readings were optional, they wanted to read all of the materials and explore all of the links but did not have the time to do so. Others experienced technical difficulties accessing some of the online materials or had no access to the Internet at work, requiring them to complete the course from home on their own time. Based on the evaluations of each module and the focus group, we determined that some topics warranted coverage both online and face-to-face. For example, data collection and reporting were too important and too confusing to deliver solely online. As a result of the pilot, we split this unit so that it is covered using both delivery methods. The focus group suggested that we reverse the order of the blend: instructors should be allowed to go online immediately upon hire to receive an introduction to every unit. The day of training would follow the online experience, allowing face-to-face discussion and an activity to reinforce the material presented online. 

We have offered all of our blended courses this way since the field test. Starting with the online portion allows for learning on demand shortly after hire, but our online participation rate has suffered as a result. In our field test, 10 percent of participants did not complete the online course requirements in the time allotted, compared to closer to 30 percent failing to complete it now. Practitioners are more confused as to how to get started. Also, participants seem more reluctant to participate in online discussions, perhaps because they have never met their online peers. In our pilot, we did not create groups, but we plan to do so in the future in an effort to stimulate discussion within a more intimately sized unit. 

"Like any other instructional tool, technology can serve to perpetuate poor educational practice or it can become a means for transforming learning" (Imel, 1998a). Using technology for PD is not magic; principles of adult learning must still be applied and built into any PD curriculum. These include involving the target audience in planning and implementation; using participants' experience as a resource; encouraging self-directed learning and collaboration; creating a supportive learning environment; using materials relevant to the world of the learner; and incorporating the use of small groups in learning activities (Imel, 1998b).

Despite setbacks, Kentucky persists in its commitment to blended PD. We are offering three new blended courses. We envision an increased use of webcasts and, perhaps, materials available on CDs (to reduce total reliance on the Internet for those with slow or limited access), and a strengthened resolve for fostering interaction in our blended courses. Never satisfied, we look forward to new lessons to be learned and to using them to improve our e-PD program for years to come. 

Adult Education Action Agenda, February 9, 2003.
  http://adulted.state. ky.us/ CPE_adult_education_action_plan.htm

Brown, B. (2000). "Web-based training." ERIC Digest, No. 218, EDO-CE-OO-218. www.ericfacility.net/ databases/ ERIC_Digests/ed445234.html Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Center on Education and Training for Employment.

Imel, S. (1998a). "Technology and adult learning: Current perspectives," ERIC Digest No. 197, ED421639, www.ed.gov/databases/ ERIC_Digests/ed421639.html. Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Career, and Vocational Education.

Imel, S. (1998b). "Using adult learning principles in adult basic and literacy education." ERIC Practice Application Brief. ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Center on Education and Training for Employment, College of Education. 

Kentucky Virtual Adult Education (2002). Home page. February 9, 2003. www.kyvae.org

Kestner, S. (2002). "New directions for professional development: Kentucky's journey." Focus on Basics, 5D, 23-28. 

Schweizer, H. (1999). Designing and Teaching an On-line Course. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Senate Bill No. 1. (2000). SB 1. General Assembly, Commonwealth of Kentucky. February 9, 2003. www.lrc.state.ky.us/ Statrev/ACTS2000/0526.pdf

Thach, E. (1996). "Effective distance learning," INFO-LINE, Issue 9607. Alexandria, VA: American Society for Training and Development. 

About the Author
Jane Martel was a consultant for professional development at Kentucky's DAEL for two years. She chaired the virtual resource database development team, created and facilitated online PD courses, and managed launches of web-delivered curricula for adult learners. She is now an instructional designer for the Verizon Literacy University Project at the National Center for Family Literacy in Louisville. 

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL