Using Distance Learning to Strengthen Access to Rural Healthcare Career Pathway Programs

A key challenge to builders of career pathway programs is creating entry points for adults with multiple academic and skill levels. The National College Transition Network (NCTN) has designed accelerated career pathways with adult education, community college and workforce systems and knows first-hand that this challenge is intensified for pathways in rural areas. Geographic distance, limited childcare options, lack of public transportation, and adult basic education class schedules contribute to this intensity.

Located in the very rural region of Southwest Minnesota, Southwest Adult Basic Education’s (Southwest ABE) Pre-Healthcare Bridge program uses distance learning programming to complement classroom instruction to address these challenges.  The region is roughly the size of Vermont. The largest city has 12,000 residents with most communities having a population of less than 1,000.

A unique aspect of this Pre-Healthcare Bridge program is that it engages the students at the point when they show interest in Certified Nursing Assistance (CNA) training without their needing to wait for a cohort to begin their study. The program uses Northstar Digital Literacy Assessment to ensure that students can benefit from online learning. Once enough students are participating in the online Pre-Healthcare Bridge program, a CNA training cohort is formed. Southwest ABE uses the Learner Web, a State-approved site. (Students’ time on the Learner Web is considered as “seat time” for classroom instruction.) The Pre-Healthcare Bridge program includes self-paced online coursework with additional independent learning activities to prepare students for CNA training, support from a Navigator to provide assistance with personal and financial barriers, and college readiness support from the community college. The Navigator position is funded by the Southwest Private Industry Council, a partner of the Southwest MN Workforce Development Board.

Students start their study by completing online assessments in reading, math, and digital literacy to determine their skill needs. Program staff determined that students need to attain a CASAS reading score of 230-235 to be successful in the CNA class. Minnesota West Community and Technical College sends an individual student an online career assessment to help to assure that this career is a good fit. These assessments help the instructor steer learners to activities that address their needs. Students work concurrently on pre-healthcare content through their Learner Web assignments. These self-paced activities involve students in increased levels of self-management as they work through the lessons. Additionally, with online tools, the instructor can check how many hours each individual has invested in activities. Students who prefer not to use online tools are invited to come to the classroom for help.

If students lack either sufficient reading or digital literacy skills (or both) to benefit from the program, the ABE staff can help them.  Students can go to the Southwest ABE’s computer lab during hours of operation. The local library has the Southwest ABE website bookmarked on their computers to allow students easy access to these digital tools, plus the library waives the one-hour time limit for students working on school material.

Students work with the Navigator to determine any educational barriers that may exist (e.g., assisting with tuition, childcare, transportation, integrated instruction, etc.). The Navigator builds a relationship with each student to support them in overcoming those barriers. Navigators also help students use the resources of the local Career Center to complete a resume, take a creative job search class and a financial education class, and register in the state job bank.

The Pre-Healthcare Bridge program was developed and is managed as a collaborative effort among Southwest ABE, Southwest Minnesota Private Industry Council, and the Minnesota West Community and Technical College. The program gives rural students a starting point and a path to follow to make sure they get the assistance needed to be successful in the CNA training. Ninety-eight percent of the students participating in this Pre-Healthcare Bridge program earn their CNA, and about seventy-five percent of these completers are employed as CNAs.


Mortrude, Judy. (2016). Defining On-Ramps to Adult Career Pathways. Center for Law and Social Policy. Center for Law and Social Policy. Washington, DC.

World Education E-Learning PD. Navigating Pathways to Opportunities: Comprehensive Student Supports. Facilitated online course.

World Education EdTech Center. Tech Tips for Teachers. Hands-on ideas for integrating technology into adult education.

Published by

Ellen Hewett

Ellen Hewett

Ellen Hewett is Senior Technical Advisor of the National College Transition Network (NCTN) at World Education, Inc. She served as the Director of the NCTN from 2008 until July 1, 2018. As Director she provided vision and oversight to the NCTN team, and assisted state, regional, and municipal agencies, employers, and educational institutions in building the systemic collaboration needed to design and implement college and career readiness programming. In her new role, Ellen continues to provide system-wide professional development activities and consultation aimed at ensuring adult learners’ success.