Summary - Growing Learners’ Skills Through Virtual Literacy August 3 - 7, 2009

Growing Learners’ Skills Through Virtual Literacy

Part II of a 3-Part Technology and Professional Development Discussion on
Building Adult Education Technology Capacity

Description | Objectives | Resources | Full Discussion Thread

Discussion Summary

Virtual Literacy (VL)

Virtual Literacy has the power to change lives by providing accelerated access to information, facilitating knowledge construction through social interaction, and mediating literacy learning so that adults can achieve their learning goals. Steven Pritchard showed how adults can use some of these tools for literacy and language learning by sharing a video where he demonstrates them: Virtual Literacy to Succeed . He then used the tools to participate in our online discussion, and participants could see and experience (vicariously) how it works. Because of these tools, Steven was able to join in this national discussion. Thank you to Steven for bringing an important learner leader perspective to our discourse.

According to Glenn Young, Virtual Literacy is a concept by which adults utilize new technology tools, especially e-technology, to “enable persons with low reading skills to still gain the information needed to be "literate" in the modern world”. The goal of Virtual Literacy is not to replace reading, but to help mediate literacy and language learning. Drake University defines Virtual Literacy:

With emerging technologies, individuals with low literacy skills can now have immediate access to information and knowledge. Text-to-speech and speech-to-text give adult learners the opportunity to build knowledge and skills prior to their ability to gain literacy competence in the traditional sense.

This VL approach is therefore not a substitute for reading, but an expansion of options for those with poor reading skills to gain accelerated access to information while still learning literacy and/or language skills.

Through this discussion we expanded our understanding of Virtual Literacy to include:  

  • Tools for teaching (Web 2.0, such as blogs and blog aggregators, wikis, Facebook, Twitter, and other online social media)
  • Tools for learning (assistive technologies, such as text-to-speech, voice recognition software, screen readers, some of which are available as freeware).

Using VL tools for teaching accommodates multiple learning styles. Younger students, in particular, are incredibly more adept at using social media technologies; however, our teaching strategies do not match their emersion in technologies.

Not all adult learners are as skilled in using Web 2.0 tools and oftentimes the lesson becomes just as much about learning the technology as learning the literacy skill. Lessons, therefore, should include a learning objective for both. What is the technology skill they will learn? What is the literacy skill? What professional development is available to help instructors teach with these dual purposes in mind?

Role of Instructor/Facilitator

These tools, particularly tools for learning, call into question how we teach: the extent to which we rely on print in the classroom as the only means to access information, and how we help learners use technology to mediate literacy and language learning. Just because text can be read out loud to the learner does not necessarily mean that the learner comprehends it. Thus, there is a clear role for an instructor in helping the learner comprehend the text and learn literacy or language skills. VL also is a self-study approach for adult learners.

According to Heidi Silver-Pacuilla, scaffolding tools for technology-mediated learning include, but are not limited to:

  • E-dictionaries and other reference sources
  • Video supports
  • Highlighters and other note makers used for annotations and later extraction
  • Word processors with spell checkers, drafting, outlining, and webbing tools that can serve as graphic organizers 

These tools fit in both the instructional and learner VL toolkits. Learners may need help using these tools, and this can be done while using them to learn through text. Peers and family support networks can mediate all of this as well.

Voice recognition software, in particular, can be thought of as a technology-mediated Language Experience Approach. For example, such technology is only about 80% accurate in translating speech-to-text. Thus, the learner can engage in a back-and-forth editing process of correcting, revising, formatting, and editing. Text-to-speech program options can then read this back to the learner and the process continues until the learner is satisfied with the result.

What else is involved with Virtual Literacy? Elements include, but are not limited to:

  • Time management skills
  • Prioritization skills
  • Information management skills
  • Study skills

One key consideration for practitioners on integrating VL technology tools for teaching is that our online professional world walks a close parallel to our personal world. Thus, we need to learn ways to keep lines between the two. For example, we can create instructional or professional development groups in Facebook without including members of the group as our “friends.”


Access: Many adult education programs do not have access to Virtual Literacy tools for teaching: Not all programs have access to computers, to the Internet, or to Web 2.0 sites on the Internet. Most, if not all, programs do not have access to the Virtual Literacy tools for learning. The “adult education divide” could be described as:

  • Program access to VL tools for both teaching and learning.
  • Access to blended, extended, contextualized professional development that helps adult educators increase comfort and competency using these tools with learners.
  • Access to professional supports instructors need in order to benefit from the professional development noted above.

Nell Eckersley summarized additional challenges for us:

Time and Money: Some students do not have access to texting, computers, or the Internet outside the classroom. Technology changes quickly and it can be a challenge for educators to keep up with how new technology can be used in the classroom and to learn to use them efficiently and effectively.

Navigation: It can be challenging to navigate to a website if students have to type in long URL's. Students can seem reluctant to use online modules and campus email. Adult learners need to be taught how to use information on the Web effectively by navigating through it and evaluating what is useful.

Personal vs Public: The blending of personal worlds with professional worlds—how to manage the personal and professional on social networking sites like Facebook . By the way, you can control who sees what on Facebook and you can create groups and pages on which classmates/educators can share information without everyone having to become "friends".

Universal Design: If you design for people with disabilities in mind then all people will benefit.

Bridging: Meeting students where they are and acting as a bridge to more sustained reading/writing/thinking.

Professional Development: Providing professional development opportunities without the costs of face-to-face meeting.


Heidi noted that LD research on technology-mediated learning could apply to adult education. Tom Sticht shared research on whether oral texts are easier to understand than written texts and on listening and remembering. These discussions on the Technology and Literacy List and on the Professional Development List have based their conversations on the report, Investigating the Language and Literacy Skills Required for Independent Online Learning, using it as a springboard for discussion and planning on what’s needed for technology in adult education.

Professional Development

Integrating technology in adult education and the need for professional development go hand in hand. We need clear investments in both; simply providing technology is not sufficient if we are to move adult education forward in an increasingly technology-based society. Areas that professional development might address include:

  • Removing intimidation that learning new tools presents
  • Hearing from those who have had successful experiences with various VL tools
  • Providing tech-mediated professional learning experiences one new tech tool at a time
  • Providing tech-mediated professional development through authentic, meaningful tasks for instructors—something they can learn that they can then use with learners tomorrow
  • Planning long term for seamlessly and effectively integrating technology into instruction
  • Helping practitioners answer questions, such as, How dependent will students and instructors become on 'assistive' technologies - where do you draw the line in 'assisting' students or instructors and hindering students from actually thinking for themselves?

Thinking Long Term

Lack of funding and political will are two major barriers to making VL technologies accessible in adult education. The field of adult education needs start up funds. Additionally:

  • What other effective VL models exist? We need to identify and share them.
  • What research do we need?
  • Do states have plans to integrate or update technology in adult education programs?
  • How is professional development pushing the envelope, effectively integrating technology into training and instruction?
  • What are funding strategies to get VL technologies into the hands of adult learners in all programs?

Virtual Literacy is a powerful way to accelerate literacy and language learning by opening doors to information for adult learners. As Glenn noted, we are on the threshold of a new journey for technology through Virtual Literacy. How are you planning for it? How is your program or state planning for it? What are we doing to think long term? For me, Glenn sums it up when he writes, “We need to expand our thinking and our activities .. pool our resources and our political capacity to make this new future, this new way of accessing knowledge, available to our populations. Or the digital divide just keeps growing and growing and growing.”

How will you use your power to make change? Join us this fall, 2009, for Part III of the discussion on Building Adult Education Technology Capacity.

Jackie Taylor, Professional Development List Facilitator,

Please note: We do not control and cannot guarantee the relevance, timeliness, or accuracy of the materials provided by other agencies or organizations via links off-site, nor do we endorse other agencies or organizations, their views, products or services.