Summit on the Future of Adult Education in the New Digital World
The Mass Amateurization of Adult Literacy Instruction: Exploring Crowdsourcing in Adult Basic Education
rom the development and growth of the Internet to the ubiquity of mobile devices, digital tools and computer technology continue to shape the ways in which we work, learn, and communicate. The popularity of blogs, wikis, massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, and other web-based social communication tools have dramatically transformed how information is created and shared and how people and groups join together and interact.
an army of bloggers to challenge the professional class of journalists. A mass of non-professionals can often do the same job more cheaply than a handful of elite professionals, and the Internet provides a means to easily distribute the products of these efforts. Crowdsourcing is a recent phenomenon that harnesses mass amateurization to outsource a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee or expert) to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call (Howe, 2006).
The argument for using crowdsourcing to support These communication tools have begun to change adult literacy is based on four predictions about future how we understand and approach teaching and learning, technology innovations: giving us new opportunities to connect with, manipulate, 1. The digital divide will become less a problem of techand share learning content and providing a means for a nological access than one of technological applicamore social learning experience. So, while these changes tion. seem at first to be fundamentally technological, they are 2. Educational content will be widely available online in fact mostly social in nature (Wesch, 2008). and the creation and sharing of educational content In this paper I address the question How might techwill be easy to do using widely available, online tools. nological innovations change adult literacy education by However, being able to consume this educational the year 2020? by suggesting that those of us engaged in content will be less important than having the skills adult literacy education need to harness the social revoluto locate, manipulate, share, and evaluate it. tion fomented by innovations in technology by using the 3. Online communication will continue to increase in principles of crowdsourcing to help support adult literacy sophistication, making location-based educational instruction. Crowdsourcing is a form of mass amateuriservices less essential for learners and virtual learning zation. Mass amateurization happens when the products environments more prevalent and more accessible. or services typically provided by a professional class are 4. The evolving definition of literacy, combined with produced by amateurs instead, usually because a technodevelopments in assistive technologies, may reduce logical development lowers the barrier for the participasome of the barriers many low-literate people curtion of the masses. For example, inexpensive and easyrently experience when engaging in learning activities to-use digital cameras allow almost anyone to take high both online and offline. quality digital pictures, and free blogging software allows 70
Summit on the Future of Adult Education in the New Digital World
The narrowing of the digital access divide widens the digital application divide.
Mobile devices have the potential to dramatically narrow the digital access divide by providing users with an inexpensive and portable connection to the Internet. In the report The Future of the Internet III, a majority of the report’s contributors expect “the mobile phone will be the primary connection tool for most people in the world by 2020.” The report also predicts that the “bottom” threequarters of the world’s population will account for at least 50% of all people with Internet access—up from 30% in 2005 (Anderson & Rainie, 2008). The 2009 Horizon Report also suggests that mobile computing, already gaining significant market traction with the popularity and increasing functionality of mobile devices like the Blackberry and iPhone, will likely dominate innovation efforts in the technology market over the next few years (Johnson, Levine, & Smith, 2009). However, while increased ownership of mobile technology and access to the Internet is a significant development, especially for the low-literate and low-income people who make up the majority of ABE learners, the emerging threat of the digital divide in the United States is not that some people will have computers and some won’t, but that some will have the knowledge and skills to access these tools and resources in order to persuade, argue, analyze, critique, and interpret, while others, lacking these skills, will be limited to pre-packaged choices (Warschauer, 1999).
ers themselves to create and share their own content. There are already numerous examples of institutions of higher education offering online content to the general public, including MIT’s OpenCourseWare, The University of the People, and a wealth of learning content freely available on iTunesU. In adult basic education, learners have access to such programs as KET’s LiteracyLink online programs and the video-based ESOL series, English for All. In addition, there is a host of user-generated educational videos and other learning content scattered across the web. In 2020, we can expect that online learning content will be even more plentiful and considerably more sophisticated. As is true today, however, making the most of this access requires that adult learners possess the skills and knowledge to successfully locate, filter, and critically evaluate this content as well as make connections to the groups and networks that exist around this content.
The Social Web
Until recently, online learning has been considered a less effective but necessary educational choice for learners who had no other options. However, it has developed into a learning option that is as, if not more, effective as faceto-face classes (U.S. Dept. of Ed., 2009).
One possible reason for this is the explosive growth of what is referred to as social media or social software into online learning. Clay Shirky (2002) uses the term social software to define all uses of software that support interacting groups even if the interaction is offline. Social software includes tools such as blogs, wikis, discussion Content vs. Connections boards, photo- and video-sharing sites, and chat rooms— tools that allow users to not only consume content but As more adult learners join the Internet in the future, actively create, manipulate, and share it as well. they will find they have access to a growing collection of Interaction and communication are an essential inpowerful learning content. This content will be both forgredients for successful learning. Both social cognition mal and informal in nature with some learning materials theory and situated learning theory assert that culture and produced and sanctioned by institutions and organizacommunity are prime determinants of individual develtions and others generated and shared on-the-fly by inopment. Vygotsky’s social cognition theory proposes that formal learning communities. Cheap hardware and free social interaction and cultural contexts play a fundamental software will make generating lessons, educational games, role in the development of the cognition of learners, and and other educational materials easy to do, allowing learnthese principles are a key component of situated learning 71
Summit on the Future of Adult Education in the New Digital World theory, which proposes that all learning is a function of the activity, context, and culture in which it occurs (Lave & Wenger, 1991). This interaction of activity, context, and culture is known as “a community of practice” and is a critical component of learning, especially informal learning. With the ease with which Internet-connected learners can form online communities, share information, and communicate, learning no longer has to be situated in schools or classes to provide a social context for learning. Learners can participate in rich learning environments online. These experiences can now be just as enriching as those in a classroom. This social revolution, fomented because of the ease with which these tools allow for the forming of groups, allows us to rethink both education and the teacher-student relationship in an almost limitless variety of ways (Wesch, 2009). which we read, write, view, listen, compose, and communicate information. “Thus, it may be that literacy acquisition is defined not by acquiring the ability to take advantage of the literacy potential inherent in any single, static, technology of literacy, such as traditional print technology, but rather by a larger mindset and the ability to continuously adapt to the new literacies required by the new technologies that rapidly and continuously spread on the Internet.” (Coiro, 2009) While technology may be making literacy more complex and situated, it also has the potential to alleviate literacy barriers for lower literate adults through developments in assistive technologies. Tools such as screen readers, text readers, and PDAs already help lower literacy adults to function more fully in life despite their deficiencies in print literacy. In the future, technology innovations will continue to lower these barriers through the development of RFID-enabled smart objects, mobile devices with video displays that “translate the world,” and other innovations that support those in need of literacy support.
Print-based literacy is still an essential skill for an adult’s success in life, but it is no longer the only form of literacy that adults need. The ubiquity of the web, with its rich multimedia content, challenges users to navigate hyperlinks, watch video, click on hot spots, listen to audio, and interact with literacy content in very dynamic ways. There is little agreement about how to precisely define what these new literacy requirements are, how they affect learners, and how they are best taught. And complicating matters is the fact that traditional literacy proficiency is an important component of fluency with technology (Strawn, 2008).
Implications for Adult Basic Education
By one estimate, over 88 million adults have at least one major educational barrier—no high school diploma, no college degree, or ESL language needs—and federal adult education, training, and English language programs reach only about 3 million adults annually (NCAL, 2008). That leaves a large number of adults who could These literacies are influenced by networked tech- benefit from some form of educational support. nologies such as blogs, wikis, massively multiplayer onSuccessfully serving even a fraction of this unserved line games, social networking technologies, and video population would be a significant achievement. The fundand music dissemination technologies such as YouTube. ed programs, community-based organizations, and nonWhile these technologies shape user practices, they are profits that make up the field of adult basic education do also shaped and altered by users, creating an unstable, it- not currently have the funding or the infrastructure to aderative process, so that equately deal with the number of adults requiring literacy, “literacy is no longer a static construct from the standpoint of its defining technology for the past 500 years; it has now come to mean a rapid and continuous process of change in the ways in language, or GED® services. Ideally, federal, state, and local agencies would not only institute radical reforms in public education but also provide a massive and sustained infusion of funding for adult and continuing education to 72
Summit on the Future of Adult Education in the New Digital World address this issue. However, business leaders and commu- • Crowdsourcing enables notable experts, such as nities should not wait for this to happen. Instead, those award-winning teachers, celebrities, or scientists, to invested in adult literacy must seek other innovative solucontribute materials or participate in online instructions. tion. If it is true that, in the future, innovations in technology will allow a significant number of the adult literacy population to access the Internet; that these adults will find a wealth of rich, engaging, and free content when they log on; that they will be able to join or form online communities around their shared interests and in support of their goals; and that their literacy development will both influence and be influenced by their online interactions and use of technology tools; then what are some innovative uses of technology that those of us interested in improving adult literacy should explore? • These materials could be rated using online reputation systems and user feedback directing learners to the most popular and effective material. Crowdsourcing Situated Literacy Instruction • In addition to the development of literacy content, literacy instruction can also be crowdsourced to both formal and informal online learning communities. These communities can form around a geographical location, a shared interest, or both.
• Adult education professionals can develop online literacy kits that assist these communities with integrating effective literacy instruction into their community In order to reach the large number of adults in need activities and exchange. of literacy support, current literacy services will need to be dramatically increased. One method for accomplishing • Many adult learners may be more engaged in participating in informal online communities of interest this is to promote mass amateurization in adult literacy (i.e., gardening, stamp collecting) and would prefer using the principles of crowdsourcing. receiving instruction built into these activities. There are numerous examples of successful crowd-
sourcing in business and research, such as an online company that sells T-shirts designed for free by users and the Netflix Prize, an open call backed by a one million dollar prize that solicits the creation of an improved movie recommendation system for Netflix users. The question is: how can these same techniques be used to create usergenerated adult education services?
To support these endeavors, adult basic education professionals will need to focus on helping adults to learn the skills they will need to successfully access online community activities. Providing technology literacy is essential, as is developing strategies to support learners’ participation in crowdsourced activities. As mentioned above, adult Crowdsourcing can be used to both generate online basic education professionals should also guide members literacy content targeted at adults at different levels and of any online communities that support adult learners to abilities as well as to create communities that can support integrate effective literacy instruction into their group interactions. widespread online literacy instruction. Crowdsourcing Online Literacy Content • Similar to Netflix’s call to develop a better movie recommendation system, adult literacy professionals could call for the production of innovative and high quality online literacy instruction to people or groups interested in assisting those in need of literacy instruction.
Formal adult education services do not go far enough in meeting the needs of a large number of adults who require literacy services. Outsourcing some of this effort to an “undefined, generally large group of people” connected by the Internet and an interest in serving
Summit on the Future of Adult Education in the New Digital World adult learners may be one novel approach in addressing the significant literacy needs of adults in our country. Shirky, C. (2004, October 6). Blog Explosion and Insider’s Club: Brothers in Cluelessness [blog]. Many 2 Many. Retrieved from http://many.corante.com/ archives/2004/10/06/blog_explosion_and_insiders_club_brothers_in_cluelessness.php Strawn, C. (2008). The Relationship between literacy proficiency and the digital divide among adults with low education attainment. Portland, OR.: Portland State University. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (2009). Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies.. Washington, D.C. Vygotsky, L. (1978 ). Mind and society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press Warschauer, M. (2006). Literacy and technology: Bridging the divide. In D. Gibbs and K.-L. Krause (Eds.), Cyberlines 2: Languages and cultures of the Internet Albert Park, Australia: James Nicholas. pp. 163-174. Wesch, M. (2009). From knowledgeable to knowledge– able: Learning in new media environments. Academic Commons.
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