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Leading adult education through support for and the effective application of technology.

California Adult Education Digital Learning Guidance - Chapter 1

Chapter 1 – Introduction

The Guidance supports adult educators and program administrators in the design and implementation of meaningful digital learning experiences in adult education, including a focus on adult basic education (ABE), adult secondary education (ASE), adults with disabilities (AWD), career and technical education (CTE), English as a second language (ESL), and high school equivalency (HSE) programs.

Purpose of the Guidance

The Guidance supports adult educators and program administrators in the design and implementation of meaningful digital learning experiences in adult education, including a focus on adult basic education (ABE), adult secondary education (ASE), adults with disabilities (AWD), career and technical education (CTE), English as a second language (ESL), and high school equivalency (HSE) programs.

Intended Audience

The audience for the Guidance is primarily classroom educators and support staff who work directly with adult learners—including classified and office staff at schools, community volunteers, librarians, and the many others who support adult learners.

The Guidance also provides support for the administration and leadership of adult education programs. In California, a combination of regional consortia, county offices of education, school districts, and community colleges provide adult education through both federal and state funding. Beyond educators and program providers, the Guidance may be of interest to policymakers and researchers in the broader field of adult education. Other stakeholders in adult education such as community-based organizations, employers, and unions may also be interested in the Guidance.

History of Adult Education in California

For more on the history of adult education in California, read Meeting the Challenge: A History of Adult Education in California, From the Beginnings to the Twenty-First Century by archivist and librarian Linda West (2005).

In the 1960s, federal funding was established for ABE programs. By that time, the California adult education system was one of the largest in the nation. CTE programs offered carousel-style “open-entry, open-exit” classes. Though classes were mostly in-person, the emphasis was on allowing learners flexibility in their attendance and participation in programs.

Adult education in the state of California began in the early years of statehood in the 1850s. Starting in the 1920s, classes were conducted in learner communities at various times throughout the day to accommodate as many learners as possible, thus establishing a precedent of “education on demand — any time, any place, and any pace.”[29]

The 1970s brought a rise in competency-based education, with California at the forefront of the movement. The movement influenced all aspects of adult education programming including designing a learner-centered curriculum, incorporating adult learning principles into classroom instruction, alignment between instruction and assessment, and expansion of learner support beyond the classroom walls.

In 1998, the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, part of the Workforce Investment Act, established accountability requirements for adult education programs receiving federal funding. To better assess the effectiveness of these programs, the US Department of Education’s Division of Adult Education and Literacy established the National Reporting System (NRS). The NRS established reporting standards for program outcomes and performance indicators.

In 2018, the California Legislature mandated the creation of the California Adult Education Program, which combined the efforts of the California Community College Chancellor’s Office and the California Department of Education (CDE) into a consolidated program. The California Adult Education Program distributes over $500 million in annual funding to adult education program providers across the state including K–12 school districts, community colleges, and community-based partners. Additionally, adult education program providers from both K–12 school districts and community college districts participate in 71 adult education regional consortia across the state.

History of Digital Learning in California

By the 1980s, the California workforce was “significantly affected by the demands of the technology explosion” and included “increasing percentages of disadvantaged minority and limited-English-proficient workers.”[30] In response to the changing demands, the 1989 California Strategic Plan for Adult Education recommended adjustments to funding mechanisms and policies to allow for “any-time, any-place, on-demand” instruction through technology-based instruction, nontraditional instructional methods (e.g., internships, tutoring), and collaborative programs.[31] This strategic planning process included an alternative model for funding that allowed programs to allocate 5 percent of their funding to innovative instructional programs for adult learners, such as distance education courses. A groundbreaking model at the time, the 5 percent projects were one of the major elements that facilitated the rise of distance education and digital learning in California adult education programs.

The Outreach and Technical Assistance Network (OTAN) began operating in 1989 within the Hacienda La Puente School District as a federally funded project through the California Department of Education, Adult Education Office. OTAN was established to “provide technical assistance, staff training, and information for adult education providers.”[32] The network provided professional development on topics such as assessment, literacy instruction, and technology integration; created a statewide email forum; and established a library of educational technology training materials. In 1994, OTAN moved to the Sacramento County Office of Education and established its current mission to “provide electronic collaboration, access to information, and technical assistance for literacy and adult education providers.”[33]

The 1990s brought the California Distance Learning Project, created to implement a statewide distance learning infrastructure for adult education. Other program goals included expanding technology access, building a distance learning knowledge base, distributing instructional materials and resources, and providing professional development and technical support.[34] During the same time period, OTAN created a website with electronic information dissemination and member networking capabilities.[35] OTAN also conducted a statewide technology infrastructure survey that revealed internet usage in adult education programs tended to be most popular for administrative and teacher planning purposes, with classroom internet use less popular. The primary barrier cited by survey respondents was a lack of technology-related professional development. In response, OTAN conducted technology training at agencies and professional conferences, and developed online learning modules.

Today, OTAN provides “electronic collaboration and information, and support for instructional technology and distance learning to literacy and adult education providers in California.”[36] OTAN activities are funded by the Adult Education Office in the Career & College Transition Division of the California Department of Education through federal funds. OTAN puts its vision into action through a multitude of activities, including:

  • Electronic Collaboration and Information
    • Maintaining the OTAN website, a collection of information and a starting point to explore the world of adult education and literacy resources;
    • Supporting email lists, webcasts, videoconferencing, online meeting, and other forms of electronic collaboration;
    • Developing online grant application and reporting for the California Department of Education Adult Education Office;
    • Providing support to users through telephone support and regional training; and
    • Continuing to develop and improve electronic services to best meet the needs of California adult educators.
  • Instructional Technology
    • Providing information and training for planning and implementing new technologies in adult education classrooms;
    • Providing face-to-face and online workshops to increase skill levels of adult educators;
    • Hosting the Digital Leadership Academy (DLAC) to train on-site technology mentors; and
    • Producing a collection of online videos on innovative uses of technology in the classroom.
  • Distance Learning
    • Providing statewide licensing of curriculum materials appropriate for distance instruction;
    • Hosting a Technology and Distance Learning Symposium;
    • Supporting the Innovation Programs online application and reporting system; and
    • Assisting CDE with distance learning policy development.

In spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a sudden shift to distance learning. OTAN rose to the challenge with a multitude of programming options to meet the varying needs of California adult educators. OTAN also used the new environment as an opportunity to rethink existing programming, using virtual formats to invite a broader audience and wider participation. Some programming highlights from 2020–21 include:[37]

  • providing tool-specific trainings to establish foundational digital literacy skills;
  • providing trainings on effective digital learning and instructional strategies;
  • hosting regular office hours to provide personalized educator support;
  • holding the annual Technology and Distance Learning Symposium online for the first time. A record 800 attendees registered for the online conference, including several out-of-state attendees and presenters;
  • leveraging the expertise of national partners through virtual OTAN Advisory Committee sessions;
  • working with the content provider partner CK–12 to develop a database of open educational resources; and
  • promoting open educational resources through development of the EL Civics Exchange, a repository of instructional materials available to educators to revise, reuse, and redistribute.

From Distance to Digital Learning

Distance education constitutes only one aspect of digital learning. In this guide, digital learning is defined as learning experiences that utilize digital tools for teaching and learning. Digital learning can happen in any learning environment—including in-person settings. Therefore, the Guidance is designed to benefit and support adult educators in all learning environments, whether in-person or online. To better prepare adult learners for living, working, and thriving in an increasingly digital world, it is vital for adult education providers to help learners to develop digital literacy and digital resilience.

Digital literacy includes the ability to find, evaluate, organize, create, and communicate digital information. [38] Digital information might be used in an educational setting to learn, to access social services, or in workforce education and advancement. Think about how often you interact with digital information in your daily life—applying for a job, banking, utilizing social services, and even reading this guide. In addition to developing digital literacy skills, adult learners must develop digital resilience to be better prepared for a constantly evolving digital landscape.

Digital resilience signifies having the awareness, skills, agility, and confidence to be empowered users of new technologies and adapt to changing digital skill demands. Digital resilience improves capacity to problem-solve and upskill, navigate digital transformations, and be active participants in society and the economy.[39]


Lynne Ruvalcaba | Administrator of Educational Technology | California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
What are some of the challenges and opportunities that you see in using technology with your students?

We’re asking our learners to do things in preparation for their release that aren’t setting them up for success, because we know they’re going to need to use computers and technology daily. So, while they do have access in the classrooms, it’s not every student, every day. That is changing. Slowly, we are rolling our classrooms over to having at least one classroom set of laptops that can be used in the classroom space. That said, we see our learners in the ABE courses two hours a day. We see our CTE learners more frequently, they come every day, but they’re doing hands-on applications and the book work must be sort of shoehorned in. And then our postsecondary students, we see them once a week. So that limits what they’re able to do because in our environment they can’t gather to do study groups, they go to teacher office hours. Our initiatives now are to put devices in their hands that allow our teachers to say, “Here’s some materials that you can take with you on your laptop. Continue studying, continue working toward that GED or reading proficiency, or whatever it is that you’re focused on.” They want to get those high school diplomas, gain some career proficiencies, pursue degrees. Providing them access to laptops allows them to use a device to reach their goals.

What we’re seeing is our students are responding in such positive ways to increased access to technology. They’re recognizing this as a tool for their future. We’re talking about adult learners who were disenfranchised for the most part coming through the K–12 system, whether they were in areas where there wasn’t quality education, or they had unidentified disabilities, or whatever factors in their lives prevented them from becoming proficient and becoming literate, they end up in our system. We can’t in good conscience put them back on the streets with no skills. Teaching adult learners the fundamentals of reading, literacy, and numeracy comes by engaging them in ways that they were never engaged as kids. These devices can be configured to do that. We can give them grade-level reading material that’s still attractive to adults. We can give them experiences in the broader world. We want these tools to inspire our students and help them to understand that the world is so much more than this adversarial relationship between them and a system.

Just one example I’ll give—I was working with a 62-year-old student who’d been with us for more than three decades. He was facing a parole board and likely release soon and he had no computer skills to speak of. When he got his laptop and there was a trackpad on it, he just looked at it. He was looking for a mouse. I explained to him that the trackpad had replaced the mouse, did some training to show him how to use it, and within an hour he was proficient in navigating his device. If that’s all it takes to set a person up for success to get a job when they leave, we’ve done our job.

Standards in Practice

Today, digital learning encompasses a variety of learning environments and experiences. Standards can help educators and program providers establish clear expectations for learners, improve curriculum and instruction, measure learner outcomes, and develop effective programs—regardless of where they are in the digital transition. The following standards will be considered throughout the Guidance where appropriate.

The Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment Systems (CASAS) provides resources for adult education programs, mainly through research-based assessment systems that measure individual learner and program-level outcomes important to function effectively in the community, family, and workplace. CASAS assessments are both competency-based and standards-based, meet NRS reporting requirements, and are approved by the US Department of Education and US Department of Labor.[40] Adult learners can complete assessments in-person (computer or paper) or through remote testing. CASAS assessments are designed to measure basic academic skills in adult learners such as reading, listening, math, and writing. In addition to learner-centered assessments, CASAS offers curriculum development (competency- and standards-based), instructional support (targeting assessment results), and data reporting.

The College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education (CCRS) include standards for adult education intended to prepare adult learners for success in college, career and workforce preparation, and citizenship. Subject areas include literacy and mathematics, and standards align with the Common Core State Standards. The CCRS provides a framework for adult education program providers, establishes consistent expectations between K–12 and adult education, creates consistency among program providers and professional development offerings, and improves learner preparedness for high school diplomacy or equivalent assessments.[41]

The California Standards for the Teaching Profession (CSTP) include standards for professional educators to “define and develop their practice”[42] at all experience levels and for varying contexts and roles. The CSTP include six standards of learner engagement and support, creating and maintaining effective learning environments, understanding and organizing subject matter for learning, designing learning experiences for all learners, learner assessment, and developing as a professional educator. In order to reflect the increasingly diverse learner population that California educators serve, the standards are designed to be intentionally holistic.

The ISTE Standards provide the competencies for learning, teaching, and leading in the digital age and serve as a comprehensive roadmap for effective digital learning. [43] Grounded in practitioner experience and research-based practices, the ISTE Standards include guidance for students, educators, education leaders, and coaches. The ISTE Standards aim to ensure that digital learning results in high-impact, sustainable, scalable, and equitable learning experiences for all learners.

The National Standards for Quality Online Learning include three components: online teaching, online programs, and online courses. These components provide a framework and flexible guidance for (adult) education programs to improve online teaching and learning. The standards utilize a competency-based focus and include benchmark indicators to determine effectiveness and quality of the three components, while also allowing for flexibility across various programs and settings.[44]

ISTE’s SkillRise initiative helps empower various stakeholders within adult education using educational technology. The SkillRise Profile of a Lifelong Learner helps to define, measure, and advance the digital and lifelong learning skills required for adult learners to succeed in today’s workforce (and beyond).[45] The Profile of a Lifelong Learner was developed with support from experts in adult basic education, workforce development, community colleges, employer partnerships, K–12 schools, career and technical education, and educational technology. The profile can be used to help develop curriculum and services to support working learners. The Profile of a Lifelong Learner includes the following qualities: lifelong learner, empowered worker, solution seeker, mindful colleague, and digital citizen.

Formal Literature Review

A formal literature review was conducted to curate and synthesize existing scholarly research on distance education and digital learning in adult education. The literature review informed the writing of the Guidance and information from the literature review is integrated throughout the guide where appropriate.

Search Methodology

To be included in the literature review, sources were required to:

  • be peer-reviewed (e.g., scholarly journal article) or from a reputable noncorporate source (e.g., government agency, educational research nonprofit);
  • be published within the last 20 years (2002 or later);
  • focus on digital learning or distance education;
  • focus on adult education (or nontraditional learners in higher education);
  • use an andragogical lens; and
  • support the aims of the Guidance.

Search Process

The Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), an educational research database sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education, was used to locate sources. To ensure a comprehensive search, the following keywords were entered into ERIC in various combinations:

  • General terms: adult education/learners, nontraditional education/learners
  • Subject terms: ABE/ASE/HSE, CTE/IET/VE, correctional education, citizenship education/ELL/ESL
  • Focus terms: digital learning, distance education, distance learning, online learning, nontraditional

The final list of sources reviewed for the literature review included 25 academic journal articles and 11 research reports.

Preview of the Guidance

The Guidance includes six main content chapters.

Chapter 2 explores the various considerations for ensuring equity and access for all educators and learners. The chapter addresses equity and access related to digital devices, connectivity, digital infrastructure, and digital literacy skills. Chapter 2 also addresses accessibility considerations and identifies Universal Design for Learning as a framework for meeting the needs of diverse learners.

Chapter 3 focuses on foundations of adult education and digital learning. The chapter includes research-based benefits, challenges, and recommendations related to digital learning in adult education. Chapter 3 also explains relevant standards in adult education, introduces various roles that support adult learners, and shares examples of high-quality technology professional development.

Chapter 4 focuses on designing flexible learning experiences. The chapter identifies instructional models and technology integration frameworks for learning design. Chapter 4 also introduces different types of digital tools, including open educational resources, and how to use them to meet the needs of diverse learners.

Chapter 5 provides best practices and strategies for adopting digital learning models that work. The chapter includes information about various digital learning models including distance education, blended learning, and HyFlex. Chapter 5 also includes implementation strategies and reporting considerations.

Chapter 6 focuses on data-driven instruction. The chapter explores various assessment types including standardized assessments, digital skills assessments, and informal assessments. Chapter 6 also considers remote testing and identifies digital tools for assessment.

Chapter 7 focuses on fostering healthy, equitable, and inclusive online communities. The chapter examines the role of “learner” as one of many competing roles in adult learners’ lives. It also shares strategies for cultivating educator and learner well-being, developing educator agency in creating inclusive learning environments, and fostering digital citizenship. The chapter concludes by addressing the role of the community as a central facet of the digital learning experience.

The Guidance also includes an executive summary, foreword, glossary, references, and a list of supplemental resources by topic (see appendix A).

NOTE: Digital resources and tools included in the Guidance are mainly derived from interviews with California educators and field experts. Programs exercise local control when selecting digital resources and tools. Inclusion in the Guidance should not be considered an endorsement by the CDE.

In addition to the chapter content outlined above, the Guidance incorporates vignettes featuring California adult educators. These vignettes provide practical, real-world examples of educators using digital tools and online learning environments to facilitate meaningful learning experiences for adult learners. Vignette participants include individuals from across the state of California in a wide range of adult education programs and settings.

  1. California Adult History
  2. California Adult History
  3. Strategic Plan for Adult Ed
  4. California Adult History
  5. OTAN Vision
  6. CA Distance Learning Project
  7. California Adult History
  8. OTAN Vision
  9. OTAN Annual Report 20-21
  10. Digital Literacy
  11. Building a Digitally Resilient Workforce
  12. CASAS About
  13. College and Career Readiness
  14. CSTP 2009
  15. ISTE Standards: Educators
  16. Quality Online Learning
  17. Profile of a Lifelong Learner

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OTAN activities are funded by contract CN220124 from the Adult Education Office, in the Career & College Transition Division, California Department of Education, with funds provided through Federal P.L., 105-220, Section 223. However, OTAN content does not necessarily reflect the position of that department or the U.S. Department of Education.