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Davis, N.E. & Fletcher, J. (submitted for review). Motivating adults to address their literacy needs with e-learning and ICT. In J. Fletcher, G. Gillon & F. Parkhill (eds.) Motivating literacy learners in today’s world. Wellington: NZCER Press.

Motivating adults to address their literacy needs with e-learning and ICT

Niki Davis and Jo Fletcher

Draft chapter for review as at 3 February 2010


The 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey showed that over a million adult New Zealanders are missing some of the skills they need to successfully accomplish the literacy tasks common in today’s society and economy (Satherley, Lawes, & Sok, 2008). Lack of literacy skills can adversely affect adults’ chances of being employed, earning a good income and helping their children succeed in education (Earle, 2009; Statistics Canada, 2008). Motivating adults who have not succeeded in acquiring appropriate skills in reading and writing proves challenging as many of these adults have experienced ‘points of discouragement’ (Byrne, 2007) that have led to failure in their literacy learning. This has led to alienation towards learning, lack of confidence in their ability to read and write which can cause anxiety and lead to defeatist strategies. Breaking through this barrier requires a complex range of strategies. Previous research emphasised that these challenges can be met and that adults do acquire literacy when well-prepared tutors use deliberate teaching strategies. E-learning offers a way to structure and support learning. In this chapter we review evidence that blending e-learning, including information and communication technologies (ICT) resources to enhance face-to-face teaching, supports many of these adults find courage and motives them to become ‘second chance’ learners. The opportunity to undertake study enhanced with e-learning can help many adults the opportunity to overcome their ‘shame’ of repeated underachievement in literacy, by referring to their classes or study as a computer course (Davis & Fletcher, 2010). Furthermore, e-learning opportunities offers new contexts for literacy learning in motivating ways that were not part of the schooling that these adults experienced.

The extensive training for all adults who need help with literacy learning (Earle, 2009) is extremely challenging for the tertiary education sector in many countries and e-learning is emerging as an additional mode of delivery. Tasks can be made relevant to everyday life and within workplaces, where the need to have sound information literacy and numeracy skills is becoming more and more important.

Many adults with literacy needs are not able to attend courses due to work and/or other commitments. Many of these adults do not recognise their own need for this support or they feel too ashamed to seek help. E-learning, particularly when blended with face-to-face support, has the potential to offer these people more flexible and independent learning opportunities. The key is to support them to learn in ways that fit their individual learning needs and life circumstances.

Our research over the last two years for the New Zealand Ministry of Education informs this chapter. It included five major activities: an extensive international literature review; online seminars involving international experts; over 30 stakeholder interviews; case studies; and a synthesis of the research (Davis & Fletcher, 2010). Before presenting our findings in this chapter, we provide a brief overview of our understanding of the terms “e-learning” and adult literacy.


E-learning is a term with many definitions and so here is defined as learning that is facilitated through the use of information and communication technologies (ICT). Standalone computers and all they offer, such as internet access, are probably the most prominent of these technologies, but e-learning also encompasses hand-held data storage and transmittal devices. Distance and autonomous self study is of particular interest.

Tertiary e-learning programmes often blend in use of ICT so that learning can take place both with and without the presence of the tutor. Blended application of ICT can also be designed to fit in with learners’ workplace and home-based experiences and activities. For example, distance learning in New Zealand workplaces commonly requires learners to make their way through workbooks, and that approach is supplemented with periodic visits by assessors. However, this mode of workplace learning can be usefully extended through e-learning. Directed use of web-based resources at home with support of whānau (immediate and extended family) is just one is just one example. Proficiency with relevant ICT is a central feature of 21st-century literacy skills. It includes the ability to selectively access and make use of resources on the web (Mellar, Kambouri, Logan, Betts, Nance, & Moriarty, 2007).

Adult literacy

Literacy development is embedded within the context of our everyday lives (Wing Jan, 2009). Winch, Johnston, March, Ljungdahl and Holliday (2007) define literacy as making and sharing meaning by constructing and interpreting text in oral, written, graphic or electronic forms and include all facets of literacy in today’s society such as social literacy, critical literacy and technological literacy. In this chapter we are concerned with literacy in English for native speakers as well as adults for whom English is an additional language and culture.

Illustrations and challenges

The overarching message of this chapter and our research is that e-learning can motivate adult learners who have previously been unsuccessful in their literacy learning. It is relevant to and useful for most adults with literacy learning needs, providing the learning programme is carefully designed to fit each individual’s needs and lifestyle, their proficiency with ICT, and their reading literacy. E-learning can also help provide the time and intense practice need to develop their literacy.

Another important message is that realising the potential of e-learning depends on ongoing professional development for tutors and others who support learners, including organisations where programmes and resources are developed, such as colleges and private training providers. Access to training in the workplace, at home and in the community requires development of infrastructure and support from employers and whānau.

Given the prominent place that ICT now has in most businesses, there is an increasing need for employees to have broad-based problem-solving skills, including those associated with ICT. Consider for example, employees and citizens who are expected to find information on the web, such as completing forms to submit them for review as part of seeking a job or living accommodation.

Another rapidly developing expectation for adults in the 21st century is the ability to access training via e-learning. Because e-learning programmes can transcend the barriers of geographic location and time, they can be customised to meet work and community-based learning needs for adults unable to readily access traditional face-to-face learning provision (UNESCO, 2006). It is not surprising, then, that employers increasingly are using e-learning to update the skills of their workforce, and that most tertiary providers now enhance their programmes with e-learning. These developments underscore the need for adults to have ICT skills as part of their 21st-century literacy.

In addition, ICT provides a relevant learning context for adults wanting to improve their Literacy and help alleviate some of their anxiety about literacy learning. Adults who lack literacy are often embarrassed by these needs, and take care to conceal them with excuses such as not having their reading glasses at hand. Tertiary-level students report that their fear of attending and completing a literacy course would lessen if they knew the course offered a positive and non-threatening learning environment (Fletcher & Williams, 2008; Nash & Kallenbach, 2009). If these adults can tell others they are studying a computer course, rather than enhancing their literacy, their embarrassment is alleviated. Simmons (2002), for example, found that literacy programmes that included development of computer skills increased enrolment in these programmes.

Adults with literacy needs are attracted to learning activities that involve ICT because these tend to have immediate relevance to their lives at work and beyond (Davis & Fletcher, 2010). For example, a workplace tutor we interviewed supported three adults to improve their literacy by engaging them in a project on wastage in their department. The word-processed report that the three employees submitted to their manager included relevant photos. They had used their tutor’s digital camera to photograph areas and techniques in their shared workplace that contributed to waste. The opportunity to take photos not only helped the employees produce a useful report but also supported the development of their literacy skills and their ability to use ICT.

Motivating literacy learning using e-learning

In order to provide a context in which to situate further discussion of motivation we now provide a brief synthesis of research according to the four main aspects of language teaching:

  • Writing: The obvious tool here is the word-processing facility of computers, which is particularly motivating to adults who have been previously ashamed of their writing and are delighted to produce work with a professional appearance. Word processors incorporate useful language tools such as dictionaries, thesauruses, and spelling and grammar checkers. Having learners incorporate photographs in their documents also motivates literacy by supporting the development of structure and prompting relevant text production so that the adult produces longer documents with ease. Motivation is improved where text and illustrations are drawn from the learner’s own life experiences. Using drag and drop to answer online test questions and then receiving immediate feedback increases learners’ engagement with the activity and allows them to assess their own progress and needs. Online discussion forums, chat and texting can motivate practice and, along with grammar software, are best suited to more advanced second-language students, as is the use of. Drill and practice software and computer games can be successful, but only when carefully targeted to address individual needs.
  • Reading: A variety of glossing formats can be used to improve a learner’s understanding of the meaning of words and phrases. A gloss can take the form of a pop-up box containing a text and/or relevant pictures and/or audio. Vocabulary learning can be enhanced by analysing multimedia and relevant resources on the web. Embedded audio files are valuable not only for aiding reading skills but also for opening up computer access to learners who are still developing their keyboard skills, or who have not yet developed sufficient English-writing skills.
  • Speaking: E-learning tools can help learners develop oral presentation skills. For example, learners wanting to improve their pronunciation can use audio analysis software to compare themselves with native speakers. Voice recognition software may be used to turn speech into text, providing the words are clearly articulated. However, in our experience, voice-recognition systems generally recognise less than a quarter of English spoken by non-native speakers of the language. It therefore remains important to test this tool before using it in learning activities. Carefully structured use of online chat and discussions through email and online discussion forums, as described earlier, are also relevant here.
  • Listening: Digital voice recordings are widely used by language tutors. The web contains many relevant resources, including radio and television broadcasts with commentaries (see information regarding the web as a medium above). Some computer games, such as Word Shark, include an option that allows the user to replay the audio component.

However, the motivational value of these strategies depends on a fit with the individual’s literacy, ICT and study skills. An approach to learning that each adult’s lifestyle can enhance motivation to persist (Lister, 2007). E-learning is particularly accommodating of learners who cannot easily access face-to-face tuition, such as those in rural communities (Nash & Kallenbach, 2009; UNESCO, 2006).

The few adult learners endeavouring to develop their literacy and who learn online without tutor support tend to be well organised and to have good access to the needed technology. They also tend to need relatively limited assistance when developing their literacy skills, because these skills are typically ones they have lost through lack of use rather than ones they have never developed. Some adult learners who learn online have access to informal tutors, including whānau and workplace colleagues. In contrast, adults with beginning literacy levels need intensive face-to-face support (Davis, Fletcher, & Absalom, 2010; Lister, 2007).

Family and whānau can offer the adult learner important motivational support that might include tutoring. Activities related to everyday life challenges and family can also support e-learning because they provide strong motivational contexts. An example is grandparents on a literacy course who are motivated to offer their grandchildren support as they develop their Literacy. Mellar et al. (2007) allude to this type of motivation in their description of a promising e-learning course in the UK that focuses, as a means of developing adults’ literacy, on assisting these adults to support their children’s learning. In New Zealand, Benseman and Sutton (2007) found that family literacy partnerships bring clear benefits not only for the adult learners but also for the children in their families.

Outreach and open-access centres are effective in increasing motivation by improving access to education and training, particularly for adults who have been traditionally underserved. Appleby and Bathmaker (2006) and Pannucci and Walmsley (2007) note these benefits, and point out that they often extend beyond the individual. Learning with support of the church is common in the Pasifika community. One of our stakeholders described a project in which members of a Samoan community had access to a tutor and computers in a church hall where they could build their Literacy.

Our polytechnic case study illustrated the motivational impact of e-learning through the creation and ready availability of a wide range of e-learning resources. For example, tutors in the trades area had perceived reduced motivation of adults who had poor literacy due to their inability to make notes and use industry terminology at an early stage. They overcame such ‘points of discouragement’ through ongoing use of ICT to create materials for these adults with low-level literacy that included numerous images of workplace processes and techniques. The polytechnic’s online Learning Management System supported flexible delivery, including the opportunity to return to resources used in an earlier teaching session and to store evidence in portfolios structured by industry standards with which the adults became familiar over time. In addition, self test questions could be completed with drag and drop answers enabling the use of vocabulary recognition rather than the more challenging production. Most innovative was the creation of a computer simulation of the complicated task of laying out a building site. The simulation readily motivated young male learners, who were highly engaged by its game-like interface. This provision increased student retention, indicating that it overcame some ‘points of discouragement’ (to use Sainsbury & Schagen’s 2004 term).

Mobile learning refers to learning activities made possible through the use of lightweight hand-held devices, including mobile phones and portable audio and video players and recorders. Mobile learning is a relatively new in educational provision with the potential to extend learning into homes and workplaces. Manufacturers increasingly are using mobile devices on the factory floor to guide and monitor processes. Pictures, audio, and/or text instructions can be used for tasks in the workplace or at home, thus providing adult learners with opportunity to develop skills through practice. Adults with disabilities that limit their ability to learn are motivated by the increase their control and independence that m-learning can enable (Smith, 2009). However, m-learning can be challenging because the blended learning takes place outside locations traditionally used for study. Successful mobile learning accordingly involves careful negotiation among designers, instructors, adult learners and collaborating employers. This collaboration can ensure that expectations relating to literacy development remain realistic and ensure good fit with workplace routines and safety.

Our polytechnic case study of a programme for modern apprentices describes young apprentices, internet savvy and proficient with their mobile phones, successfully gathering evidence in the workplace in order to fulfil the assessment component of their vocational programme (Davis, et al, 2010). The use of the mobile phone camera temporarily reduced demands on their writing skills. In addition, the tutor texted multiple-choice questions relating to course content to the apprentices’ mobile phones, which motivated greater engagement in the workplace with the theory aspects of their programme, which was consolidated with on-campus work on their ePortfolio incorporating the photographs as evidence against industry standards. This innovative practice illustrates how ICT can be used as part of motivating formative assessment in workplaces and providing opportunities to scaffold the writing of reflections on achievements for summative assessment.

Reservations and Conclusion

There is no doubt that introducing and integrating e-learning into adult education and training is a complex process. Many factors have to come together to ensure that e-learning and/or ICT are motivating for adults with literacy needs. Our findings from our research indicate that the effective and thus motivating applications fit:

  • The adult’s lifestyle;
  • The tutor’s pedagogic goals;
  • The tutor’s e-learning proficiency (and that of other supporters);
  • The purpose and culture of the education and/or training organisation; and
  • All other locations where learning takes place, including the home and work.

Good fit with individual learners’ lifestyles is the overarching success characteristic that we identified through our research. This fit is not easy to achieve. It requires ongoing monitoring and development as the learning, organisational, and digital ecologies continue to evolve.

We consider that the success or otherwise of programmes that use e-learning to support adults wanting to develop their Literacy can best be predicted by considering these ecologies from within an evolutionary framework (Davis, 2010). Davis describes ecologies of people in and around the learning who all contribute to its success. The e-learning that takes place is supported by four tiers: bureaucratic entities, such as the Ministry of Education; commercial interests, including telecom companies; professionals including teacher educators; and political agents at all levels of society, from the local community to the international stage. Amidst this framework, teachers are the key players: they are the essential individuals who keep the edifice functioning.

E-learning also has the benefit of opening up greater interaction between adults’ study, work, home and community environments, simply because the learning environment can be extended into those places. These extensions of the locations where learning takes place stretch out the opportunities and time that adults have available to develop their literacy and the contexts in which it can be applied. (The time needed to develop literacy is often underestimated.) Mobile learning that encompasses ICT continues to expand the options, but this facility also increases the complexity of e-learning development within and across organisations.

The often intensive and challenging nature of developing adults’ literacy explains the need for organisational development and commensurate professional development for staff. Resource development is also vital. E-learning can also be used to support these developments at both local and national levels, while web-based technologies provide educators with opportunities to share ideas and resources through partnerships and learning communities, and across geographic boundaries. This is what is needed for e-learning to be most effective for adults with literacy needs in New Zealand and globally.

In conclusion e-learning can be use to motivate, recruit and retain more adults to address their literacy needs. We expect to see e-learning rapidly expand and literacy support co-evolve within an increasing range of ecologies where adults have access to e-learning. Where the focus is on the individual, e-learning can increase motivation, but where the focus is on the technology we expect many points of discouragement will be experienced. Professional and organizational development is key to the successful co-evolution of e-learning and literacy support. ICT can also be used to increase in resource and support in order to respond to the enormous diversity of adults whose literacy needs vary with their literacy skills (including ICT), work, and lifestyles.


** to be completed

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The following have not been exported from Endnote I think:

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