Learning from the Forgotten 90 Percent

Why is it that only 10 percent of the adults in the United States who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills participate in adult education? Program capacity is certainly one reason. But what about the adults themselves? What is holding them back, and what changes could increase their levels of participation?

To find out, VALUEUSA and Research Allies for Lifelong Learning partnered to conduct a research study that asked adult nonparticipants for their perspectives. The Critiquing Adult Participation in Education (CAPE) research project sought to identify deterrents and discover ways to mitigate them in order to increase motivation to participate.

Researchers administered a survey to and conducted focus groups with 125 nonparticipating adults in five states. Study subjects included parents, seniors, homeless adults, formerly incarcerated adults, recovering addicts, adults with disabilities, and elder caregivers. The median age was 35 years, with a range from 18 to 75 years, and just over half (57 percent) were female. Annual personal income was at poverty levels, with 84 percent earning $0 to $18,000 annually. All of the study subjects had either left the education system without completing high school or had been educated outside the United States. None were currently enrolled in adult education, and 75 percent had never participated in it at all.

The CAPE project has now released three reports on its findings, summarized below.

 

Report 1: Deterrents and Solutions

by Margaret Becker Patterson and Wei Song

On the basis of the group interview responses, the researchers identified three categories of deterrents: situational, dispositional, and institutional.

  • Situational deterrents included transportation, family care needs, and finances. These deterrents were listed most often; the report notes that “many adults in CAPE interviews were literally fighting to survive financially and seemed on the brink of losing their few resources from threats such as a car breakdown, a family emergency, or a job loss.” Study subjects also listed other situational deterrents, including lack of a support system, anti-education sentiment in the community, unemployment, and work-related issues.
  • Dispositional deterrents included “influences from the past, health concerns or disabilities, struggles with behavior, lack of motivation, little time for themselves, anxiety or fear, [and lack] of confidence in themselves.”
  • Institutional deterrents “included requirements of education policies and procedures and ways in which adults perceived the helpfulness of adult educators. Some adults simply did not know adult education existed within reach.”

In addition to identifying deterrents, study participants outlined a number of actionable solutions. These included partnerships with faith-based and community-based organizations to establish ways of assisting adults with financial management and other situational deterrents; provision of counseling services at adult education sites to help adults manage dispositional deterrents such as anger and feelings of failure, develop self-efficacy, and persist in pursuing their educational goals; and use of both high-tech and low-tech means of distributing information about adult education opportunities more broadly.

 

Report 2: Motivation Around Adult Education

by Margaret Becker Patterson, Research Allies for Lifelong Learning

This report summarizes the attitudes that study participants expressed about adult education and their reasons for nonparticipation. For the most part, attitudes expressed in both surveys and group sessions were positive, although some differences of opinion became evident in the group sessions.

“At the group level,” the report notes, “male, employed, and low-income adults [identified] issues associated with the value of education somewhat more frequently than their counterparts.” Except for a small difference by gender (“a higher percentage of women placed value on education than did men”), the value placed on education did not vary by demographic group. “This finding is positive and important for those planning policy and programming, in that frequently held assumptions such as ‘older adults don’t care about adult education’ or ‘people in poverty don’t value adult education’ are not supported in this research,” according to the report.

Despite their positive attitudes toward adult education, most of the study participants had never participated in it. The reasons for a few were the cost of participating (including conflicts with other commitments and exhaustion, as well as actual financial cost) or a perception that further education was not something they needed. However, for most, the major deterrents were “past influences or traumatic experiences” associated with education, as also noted in the first report. “Adult education policies and outreach efforts need to assure adults that adult education will offer skills that will enable them to reach their goals,” the report concludes. “They need instructional services delivered in a welcoming social context and accepting learning environment.”

 

Report 3: Technology Use

by Margaret Becker Patterson, Research Allies for Lifelong Learning

As its title indicates, this report focuses on respondents’ experiences with technology in general (defined as getting online, pursuing online activities, and experiencing challenges that make online access more difficult) and their attitudes about using technology for learning (defined as employing learning software on standalone computers, participating in online learning, and using apps on a smartphone). The study found the following:

  • 62% of respondents are currently online
  • 24% have been online previously
  • 14% have never been online

Among those currently online, 9 out of 10 connect using smartphones. Four out of five stated that they could locate a website easily, and three out of four stated that they could find the information they needed. As the report notes, “the high rate of access to technology is encouraging and shows promise for engaging” adults who are not currently enrolled in adult education.

According to the report, technology use did not differ significantly by gender, but differences by age group were apparent. “Nearly all Millennials and two-thirds of Generation Xers used smartphones for online access at least sometimes, but 20 percent of Generation Xers and 29 percent of Baby Boomers reported never going online on a smartphone,” the report states. In addition, “Although [respondents] generally perceived high technology efficacy, efficacy rates were higher for Millennials and decreased significantly as age increased. Ease in finding a website and finding information within a website also decreased with rising age, and 10 percent of Generation Xers and 40 percent of Baby Boomers found it difficult to find websites.” However, most Baby Boomers did indicate the belief that they could learn to use technology with support.

Overall, respondents showed a preference for learning on their own rather than in groups, whether by using technology, by reading print materials, or with a tutor’s support. This preference was particularly clear with respect to using technology for learning. “Very few [respondents] preferred learning with others via technology, and stronger preferences were apparent by age. With the exception of Generation X, most indicated a preference to learn on their own rather than with others. … Two in five would use technology to learn along with other people or to solve problems with other people,” according to the report.

Respondents also reported a variety of challenges with using technology. The three challenges cited most often were difficulty concentrating, difficulty sitting for long periods of time, and eyes that tire easily. The report notes that “adults in all age groups reported comparable rates of challenges… The top three challenges were experienced at high rates by adults reporting ‘fair’ health.”

The report observes that the wide availability of access to technology and the overall positive attitude toward its use for learning bode well for initiatives that seek to expand participation in adult education through online offerings. However, it cautions that adult educators will need to respond to the learning preferences of adults who are not enrolled in adult education and work to mitigate the challenges that many of these adults face, if outreach to the forgotten 90 percent is to be successful.

 

The CAPE project was sponsored by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation. For more information and full copies of the three reports, visit the VALUEUSA website at http://valueusa.org/projects/.

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