Evaluating Digital Learning for Adult Basic Literacy and Numeracy

This study investigated whether five web-based instructional programs increased the capacity of adult basic education (ABE) programs to provide efficient and effective leaning opportunities to adult students.

Robert Murphy
Marie Bienkowski
Ruchi Bhanot
Sam Wang
Tallie Wetzel
Ann House
Tiffany Leones
Jennifer Van Brunt
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
SRI International
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

The purpose of this study was to investigate if digital learning technologies increase the capacity of adult basic education (ABE) programs by providing more efficient and effective leaning opportunities to better serve adult learner needs. Thirteen ABE sites were selected representing a range of program types, governance, and goals for the adult learners: public and county school districts, community colleges, and community-based organizations. Five digital literacy products representing a range of approaches to delivering web-based instruction aimed at improving math and literacy skills were selected for investigation. One-hundred and five instructors and 1,579 adult learners participated in the study.


  • Greater student use was likely when the ABE program and the instructors made a commitment to use the product as a regular instructional activity integrated into class time rather than as an add-on supplemental activity.
  • Students were more likely to use products, both on and off site, when use was a mandatory part of the course rather than just encouraged.
  • Usage was higher when students and instructors viewed the products as instrumental in helping students achieve their goals.
  • Within a site, product use tended to be higher among female and older students, with some variation by product.
  • Baseline test scores are correlated with use of certain products. 
  • Sixty-five percent of students surveyed reported using the product during off hours.
  • Fifty-nine percent of students reported that the products gave them confidence they could learn new things on their own, while 50% reported that they had more confidence in their ability to read or do math.
  • Of the 13 separate impacts estimated for reading and math, 6 were positive and 7 were negative, but only 2 of the effects estimated were statistically reliable. These impact finding should be interpreted with caution.

Implications for ABE program administrators and instructors, and developers and vendors are provided.

What the experts say

Evaluating Digital Learning for Adult Basic Literacy and Numeracy addresses the need to assess the usefulness of digital instruction in promoting academic skills development of challenged adults in ABE programs. It provides information that teachers and administrators can use in selecting an online program. Reliable data is needed to justify the cost of equipment and implement of digital instruction. More research is needed on the conditions under which adults learn better through different types of digital instruction.

This is an excellent study on the impact that incorporating different learning technologies can have on student performance and gains in learning. The study does a great job of providing varying sample sites, being sure to include an example that could match just about any program type across the country. The study is easy to read and can be used by adult educators thinking about implementing of distance or hybrid learning in their distance learning classroom.

There were a number of variables that were not considered in the research design that were directly related to (1) the nature of adult students in ABE programs and (2) the instructional framework adopted by different programs. The selection of online commercial instructional programs was not ideal for use among at risk adults with little computer proficiency. To really evaluate the usefulness of digital instruction among remedial adult students, the tools employed must be designed to engage the targeted student populations.

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