How Tech Can Bridge the Employment Opportunity Gap

By Yigal Kerszenbaum, Employment Technology Fund, and Alison Ascher Webber, EdTech Center @ World Education

Originally posted on Walmart Today

Having recently arrived to the U.S. from Cape Verde, Africa, Solange is eager to improve her English and pass her citizenship exam. She hopes to pursue a career in healthcare and build a brighter future for her two young girls.

Now a hotel room attendant, she has limited time to study. But through a new program available on her smartphone, she can take courses anytime, anywhere, right from the palm of her hand.

Technology is quickly changing how we live our lives, helping to make so many things easier, cheaper and faster. It’s also changing the way we work. Research suggests that innovations like artificial intelligence have the potential to significantly shift what certain types of work look like in the future.

While these changes might cause some to worry, they also provide an incredible opportunity to help us work in ways we haven’t before. Imagine being able to match your unique skillsets, strengths and personality in a way that helps you find the right job. Or learning new skills through an app or platform that performs as easily as social media does. Or technology that connects you directly to services that can help overcome specific career barriers.

Helping bring technologies like these to life is exactly what the Employment Technology Fund (ETF) has set out to do. Funded by the WalmartRockefellerJoyce and W.K. Kellogg Foundations, the ETF invests in organizations and companies that have developed technology-enabled solutions that help workers overcome the barriers that often hold them back from advancing their skills, connecting to meaningful work and ultimately living up to their full potential. In doing so, the ETF strives to increase equal opportunities for millions of working adults – many of whom are women, minorities and immigrants.

ETF’s latest social investments include Signal Vine, a company that uses text messaging to deliver highly personalized and interactive coaching to drive better behaviors and outcomes; SkillSmart, a skills-matching platform that increases transparency in the career development and job search process; and Nepris, a video-driven platform that provides teachers and students a way to connect with professionals around the world. These three companies exemplify a growing force of new entrepreneurs who share the belief that technology can drive social and economic progress.

With additional funding from the Walmart Foundation, ETF is working with The EdTech Center at World Education to field test the products ETF has invested in and provide the larger workforce development field with information about effective employment technology products and practices.

Currently, World Education is field testing ETF’s first two portfolio companies– Cell-Ed and Northstar Digital Literacy Assessment – both of which have national and international reach. In Boston, Seaport Hotel employees who are studying workplace English have just started extending their learning on Cell-Ed, a mobile solution offering interactive text and audio lessons over cellular, rather than internet. Adult learners, including refugees and dislocated workers, in computer and job skills programs across Minneapolis and at libraries in Providence, Rhode Island, user tested newly updated Northstar assessments before formal release last week.

When we embrace the changes technology innovation sends our way, we’re better able to harness the opportunities it provides us. ETF is proud to be working together with like-minded companies and organizations to find technology solutions that will help bring meaningful employment to all.


2017 Highlights from the IDEAL Consortium

By Jen Vanek, Director of the IDEAL Consoritum at World Education

A key strategy to our EdTech Center’s work catalyzing an edtech movement in adult learning is the IDEAL Consortium, a Professional Development (PD) and technical assistance initiative comprised of state-level staff, PD leaders, and ed tech specialists from 11 member states. Through peer mentoring, networking, and an annual Institute, IDEAL members work to improve blended and distance programming in their own states and identify opportunities to combine forces on PD and advocacy initiatives.

To date, this fiscal year, the IDEAL Consortium work has accomplished much.

Professional Development: This fall the EdTech Center has provided a range of online PD options to help over 100 teachers and many program administrators to improve distance and blended learning program options and policy in their state. A highlight of this work is the collaboration between the Outreach and Technical Assistance Network (OTAN) and the EdTech Center in support of OTAN’s Digital Leadership Academy; This work has included training teachers to utilize problem-based learning in both classroom and blended learning.

Policy Advocacy: IDEAL Consortium Director Jen Vanek, together with World Education Vice President Silja Kallenbach and Director of Strategic Initiatives Alison Ascher Webber, convened a call with Cheryl Keenan,  Director of the Division of Adult Education and Literacy, and other Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) staff. The core of the discussion was to share policy challenges articulated by IDEAL Consortium members in the following areas:

  •      NRS guidelines for proxy contact hours and the challenge of counting hours in a blended learning program.
  •      Alternative models for NRS testing at a distance
  •      Standards for digital literacy

OCTAE staff responded with a consistent message, stating that their goal in crafting federal policy is to create flexible guidelines that are relevant in diverse contexts but not unduly restrictive anywhere.

In terms of proxy hours and blended learning, they suggested that states already have flexibility within the federal guidelines to craft state policy that determines how and when to count hours for the online portion of blended learning.  

Similarly, regarding concerns about the difficulty of pre- and post-testing distance learners when they live far from their host institution, OCTAE staff noted that current requirements for in-person testing come from both standardized test developers, like CASAS and TABE, and the federal guidelines. The crux of this policy is that learner identify and time spent testing be visually verified and monitored, not that the test be administered at the ABE program where the learner is registered. There is precedence for testing outside of ABE program sites; in Arizona staff in some libraries across the state are trained to conduct testing, making it possible for distance learners to test closer home.

Finally, when discussion turned to the topic of digital literacy standards, the staff expressed excitement that state leadership is prioritizing developing technology skills of adult learners. However, they suggested they would not likely initiate the development of official digital literacy standards and certainly would not include such standards as an outcome measure. Doing so, would perhaps create unnecessary barriers to providing programming. Further, they acknowledged that the current administration did not place as much value on federally-mandated standards as did the past administration.

With respect to each of these issues it was clear that there is a role for the IDEAL Consortium to play in providing technical assistance to member states as they craft local and state policy that align with current NRS guidelines. The OCTAE staff also said that they were open to continued discussion with EdTech Center staff if issues were raised and would be happy to hear specific recommendations for how policy might be shifted to better guide programs serving adult learners.

IDEAL Summer Institute: In August, the IDEAL Consortium membership met for its annual multi-day IDEAL Consortium Summer Institute. Participants had an opportunity to share information and learn from one another, see presentations, and discuss innovative instructional strategies, important policy considerations, and administrative practices. This year members from the states of Arizona, California, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan (Traverse City area), Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Texas convened.  A highlight of the Institute was a focus group discussion co-facilitated by Ed Tech staff and Mitch Rosin from Aztec Software, which resulted in a white paper titled How Investment in Technology can Accelerate Collective Impact in Adult Learning. The paper includes examples of innovation shared by our member state representatives.  

For more information about joining the IDEAL Consortium, please see program description and registration information on the EdTech Center website.

Facing The Tech Revolution In Adult Education

Marcus Shingles COABE 2017
Marcus Shingles, CEO of XPRIZE Foundation. Photo courtesy of XPRIZE Foundation

In the closing speech at COABE 2017, XPRIZE Foundation CEO Marcus Shingles gave a wake-up call to adult educators warning that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will change learning at speeds and in ways we could never imagine.

Showing a chart similar to Ray Kurzweil’s on the growth of computing, he illustrated how digital technologies develop exponentially.

Exponential Growth of Computing
Courtesy of Ray Kurzweil and Kurzweil Technologies, Inc. (en:PPTExponentialGrowthof_Computing.jpg) [CC BY 1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Their biggest impacts occur relatively overnight and tend to blindside whole industries. Whereas it took 100 years of technological advancement for $1,000 to be able to buy the computational power of an insect, the speed of change nowadays is mind-boggling. That same $1,000 will soon buy the power of one human brain. In the next 25 years, $1,000 will likely buy one billion times more power than all human brains combined.

How can we as educators even start to imagine ways to incorporate such computational power into our teaching? This morning I’ve just begun processing how we might use the new Augmented Reality tools Facebook announced today for our phones – and eventually to be projected onto our glasses and retinas. Increasingly, this computing power will merge with other technologies such as nanotechnology, robotics, and genomics, and eventually even merge into our own bodies. Technology will dramatically change what we and our students do (our work) as well as who we are (our identities).

A bit shaken by Marcus’ speech, I checked in with Shlomy Kattan, leader of the The Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE, an app development competition for literacy instruction. I asked what he would say to me and other adult educators feeling overwhelmed. He responded, “Rather than being terrified and frozen by the speed and scale at which technology will change education, we can take action to harness these exponential technologies for the social good – to increase access to education and accelerate learning for the world’s most vulnerable populations.”

Shlomy’s call to action proved comforting to me – perhaps because it aligns so much with the mission of our EdTech Center at World Education. It also addressed the biggest needs I see in our field – to extend learning to those we currently don’t serve and improve learning, opportunities and outcomes for those we do.

But perhaps most reassuring was the optimism he and Marcus shared after meeting adult educators from all over the country at COABE. They both felt that the fact that new technologies have not yet made their way into many adult education classrooms doesn’t mean that adult educators don’t have what it takes to harness their power. On the contrary, they were impressed with adult educators’ openness and creativity.

Again Shlomy’s words gave me comfort. He is right. We do adapt constantly. We use our creativity daily to meet the unique and changing needs of each of our students. We adjust to the shifting needs of our communities. And technology can enable us to do this even better.

Photo courtesy of XPRIZE Foundation, Trevor Traynor
Photo courtesy of XPRIZE Foundation, Trevor Traynor

It is an exciting time to be an adult educator. There are few things about which we can be certain, but one is that we’ve got a wild road ahead. We’re going to need the collective power of all of our minds to help navigate the upcoming speeds, curves and bumps. Now more than ever we need to collaborate and advocate to ensure new technologies help close skills and other divides rather than deepen them. Please share with us at the EdTech Center your successes and failures, your ideas and concerns, and opportunities for advocacy in leveraging new technologies to advance adult learning.

Originally posted in Tech Tips for Teachers April 18, 2017.

Make sure to check out other articles about technology in Education on the Tech Tips for Teachers blog!