space holder

Spreading the Word (continued)

    "There are people here who work mainly on [high-tech] tools," Maamouri explains. "We also have a connection with the field, and we have contacts with big organizations that lead to funding."
    That last effort is more than a matter of shaking the money tree, he's quick to point out. Since some of those big organizations have a "definite interest in educational issues, sometimes in literacy," he sees one of the ILI's roles as helping to "inform some of these agencies and foundations towards the right moves." He cites an example: "For the last 30, 40 years, the World Bank has been placing most of its money on primary-school education. We have been one of the very, very scarce voices at the World Bank meetings trying to promote a trend towards placing some of their funds and interest in adult literacy." And their voice has been heard: After abandoning its funding of adult-literacy programs for several years, the World Bank recently resumed "selectively supporting" such programs in Africa, South America, and Indonesia.
    In addition to hosting the occasional forum for policy-makers at the Library of Congress, NCAL has quietly cranked out reams of research papers on literacy-related topics, ranging from "Technology: New Tools for Adult Literacy" to "Early Warning Signs of Functional Illiteracy: Predictors in Childhood and Adolescence" to "What Works? Literacy Training in the Workplace."
    "We produce high-quality research papers and reports," says Dr. Christopher Hopey, NCAL's quick-talking, Boston-accented associate director. "I believe 15,000-18,000 people download those, or they buy them at cost, which is in itself like a small publishing business. That shows some impact, because you're talking about a field that never really had a research base before us. You had lots of what I call propaganda papers -- 'Fight for Literacy' and so on. But nobody was really saying, 'How do you tie literacy into welfare-to-work programs, into employment programs? What does this mean for companies versus individuals? What does it mean to have a GED? Does it improve wages?' Nobody really did those studies before us, and we've done a lot of that work, and people use that.
    "Our research has shown that while the delivery of literacy has its problems in this country and internationally, it's a worthwhile public investment," he adds. "You'll find a lot of people saying, 'We already invested in these people once, and they failed -- why should we invest in them again?' I think we have made some very strong arguments" to answer those questions.
    The two centers also, as Maamouri suggests, have a strong focus on technology. Perhaps NCAL's most innovative project has been to develop, along with PBS and Kentucky Educational Television, a multi-media project called LiteracyLink. Its components include LitHelper (an on-line service for adult learners that will identify their individual skills and craft an individualized learning plan); LitLearner (new and existing materials for on-line GED instructional modules, which will be tailored to meet the needs of individual adult learners); and LitTeacher, a "virtual resource center" designed to improve the knowledge and skills of literacy teachers. One of the LitTeacher events is its series of satellite video conferences, which bring together adult-literacy educators around the country.
    "I think it's one of the most exciting projects I've ever been involved with," says Noreen Lopez, who's in charge of the PBS end of LiteracyLink, "and I've been involved with adult literacy for 25 years. NCAL developed the entire Web component, which is a huge component of the project. It was really starting from nothing and developing the whole design, both in terms of instructional design and the graphical look and feel of a program that would be appealing to people who might be initially afraid of the technology."
    NCAL has also created an award-winning Web site, Literacy Online ( and an Adult Literacy Explorer CD-ROM. Two other on-line projects -- Lit Kit and Learn@home -- are in the works.
    "NCAL has new links in the World Wide Web that offer fantastic opportunities for adult learners," says Jo Ann Weinberger, executive director of the Center for Literacy in Philadelphia, whose staff of 50 serves more than 2,800 adult learners throughout the city. "I think it makes a fantastic contribution to the field. It opens up opportunities and windows for adult educators to individualize lessons for adults based on their goals."
    "The work they've done in technology, designed to recognize its role in facilitating adult learning beyond drill and practice, is particularly good," agrees Maggi Gaines, executive director of Baltimore Reads. She describes NCAL as a "thoughtful group that has been able to integrate scholarship and practice."
    Since even NCAL admits that for the average adult learner, the promise of technology has so far been brighter than the reality, I ask Chris Hopey if it might not be wiser to put the money into, say, more teachers instead of all these cyber-bells and -whistles.
    "No," he says firmly. "There are a number of issues with adult learners. The first is that they have almost no time to spend with the teacher. They have families, children, jobs, lives, experiences -- all of the stuff that basically says, 'I'm lucky if I get to my teacher once a week. For an hour.' So you could hire 10,000 more teachers, and the fact is that half would be sitting idle, because students couldn't come to them. Technology offers an opportunity to reach them in their homes at 10:30, 11, 12 o'clock at night, on weekends, with the short times they have. Not only in their homes, but in local libraries.
    "We have a huge retention problem in adult-education programs: a 67 percent dropout rate," he adds. "Not because they're not motivated to learn but because they have other things -- their kids get sick, they can't get transportation, they get a new job and have to work extra hours. And thus technology is that bridge, that mechanism, to break outside that box and keep those people retained."
    In addition, he says, "technology allows us to get out new materials inexpensively. New quality materials, new ideas. Teachers are limited to what's on their shelf. If I give them access to the Internet or a CD-ROM, they quadruple that shelf 10 times over. There's many more resources they can tap into. And they can also tap into what we call functional context for learners. We're really trying to build a holistic approach to providing instruction.
    "The fact is that adults are more interested in stuff that interests them. We can force kids into experiences. We can't force adults."

September/October Contents | Gazette Home
Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 9/1/98