ProLiteracy is pleased to share the second in a series of Research Briefs on adult literacy and education. The briefs are summaries that offer a synthesis of research on a topic, implications for practice, and next steps in research.
All Research Briefs, written by scholars who have demonstrated expertise on specific topics, were developed to help adult literacy practitioners understand ideas that have emerged from research. They will also help researchers identify research needs by pointing to gaps in knowledge as part of an effort to respond to the needs of adult educators who are looking for relevant research to inform their work.
This second research brief was authored by Dr. Jen Vanek, Director of Digital Learning and Research at the EdTech Center at World Education and Dr. Kathy Harris, Director of the Literacy, Language, and Technology Research Group at Portland State University in the Department of Applied Linguistics. Editing for all Research Briefs is done by Alisa Belzer, Rutgers University. An excerpt of the research brief is highlighted below.
Digital literacy is “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills” (Digital Literacy, 2019). Adult basic education (ABE)1 practitioners can support the digital literacy development of their learners by integrating digital technologies into instruction and helping learners make use of them. This is especially important in our technology-rich society, which calls on each of us to have access to digital technologies and the skills to use them. Many adults do not and cannot. For example, service sector jobs (those jobs often available to adults with basic skills needs) comprise 32% of the U.S. workforce, and 73% of service sector workers lack skills to solve problems in digital environments (Bergson-Shilcock, 2017). Similarly, patient participation in health care is increasingly reliant on digital skills. Patient portals, wearable health tracking devices, and telemedicine have become ubiquitous despite the fact that many adults do not have the requisite skills and access (Harris et al, 2019).
Intensifying the challenge of the digital skills gap, many adults also lack broadband access.2 While 73% of Americans do have broadband at home (Anderson, 2019), an increasing number of adults, especially those with annual household incomes below $30,000, are dependent on smartphones to access the internet (Anderson & Kumar, 2019). When Wi-Fi is not accessible, these adults are forced to use the small screens on their phones and limited and expensive data plans to do complex tasks such as filling out job applications. It is reasonable to conclude that if ABE learners cannot achieve digital competence within ABE programs, where they may have access to Wi-Fi, easier to use computers, and support from teachers and tutors, they might not have any chance to do so. This missed opportunity will impact their participation in work and daily life.
1 Note that we will use ABE as shorthand to refer to the range of traditionally served in adult language, literacy, and basic skills programs in the US, specifically adult ESOL, adult basic education, and adult secondary education students.
2 “The term broadband commonly refers to high-speed Internet access that is always on and faster than the traditional dial-up access” (https://www.fcc.gov/general/types-broadband-connections).