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

California Adult Education Digital Learning Guidance - Chapter 4

Chapter 4 – Designing Flexible Learning Experiences

This chapter introduces strategies for designing flexible digital learning experiences and establishing learning goals and objectives as the starting point for design. Several technology integration frameworks and models are introduced to help educators with instructional design. Then, digital learning tools are discussed in terms of helping educators and learners to communicate, collaborate, be productive, and use a learning management system to organize learning experiences. Finally, the chapter discusses strategies for evaluating digital tools for classroom learning.

Designing Meaningful Blended Learning Experiences

What does an effective lesson look like in the digital age? Always begin instructional design with the following question: What do learners need to know, understand, and apply at the end of a learning experience? Once learning goals have been established, then educators may consider assessments, or how to determine if learners have achieved desired learning outcomes. Only then should educators begin to design the learning experience. Without clear and meaningful outcomes articulated in advance, it is difficult to establish details or determine what needs to be accomplished to be successful.

Technology Integration Frameworks and Models

Digital learning provides an opportunity to truly take advantage of the basic modalities available to engage learners—primarily through in-person learning or asynchronous and synchronous online learning activities. Each of the different modalities provides different opportunities to engage learners, share content, monitor learning, and provide feedback. How do educators know what tools to use and how to best integrate them to meet learners’ needs? Technology integration frameworks and models act as guidelines for integration, providing educators with a systematic opportunity to reflect on instruction design and teaching practices in their classrooms.

The SAMR model, created by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, includes four tiers of online learning, from enhancement to transformation.[123] While the model focuses on the what of technology integration, it is meant to be used in conjunction with the why. The goal of the SAMR model is to think purposefully about technology integration and how it can be used to engage learners and ultimately transform learning into authentic, real-world learning opportunities.

  • Substitution: Technology is used to replace in-person activities and materials with digital versions. Example activities: Scanning paper worksheets; video recording an in-person lecture.
  • Augmentation: Technology is used to enhance activities or content. Content remains the same, but digital elements like comments, hyperlinks, or multimedia are added. Example activities: Digital portfolios; virtual bulletin boards.
  • Modification: Technology is used to provide more inclusive opportunities for learner engagement. Example activities: Backchannel chats during video conferencing sessions; using a learning management system.
  • Redefinition: Technology is used to facilitate new learning experiences that transform the curriculum. Example activities: Virtual field trips; learner-led, collaborative blogging or wiki creation.

The Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK) framework recognizes the complex nature of teaching and learning and identifies three core components of content, pedagogy, and technology as the foundation for good teaching.[124] Additionally, the framework acknowledges the complex interaction between these three components as critical to understanding how technology integration is implemented within various contexts.

  • Content Knowledge (C): An educator’s knowledge of the specific subject matter they are teaching.
  • Pedagogical Knowledge (P): An educator’s knowledge of best practices and methods for teaching, including understanding how students learn, classroom management skills, instructional design, and assessment. While the TPACK framework uses pedagogical knowledge, this type of knowledge may also translate to the adult learning context with andragogical or heutagogical knowledge (see chapter 3).
  • Technology Knowledge (T): An educator’s knowledge of when and how to effectively integrate technology into the classroom curriculum.
  • Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PC): An educator’s knowledge of subject matter content, how to best represent that content in multiple modalities, and the knowledge of how to adapt instructional materials to better help learners understand content.
  • Technological Content Knowledge (TC): An educator’s knowledge of how technology integration impacts their specific subject matter.
  • Technological Pedagogical Knowledge (TP): An educator’s knowledge of how purposeful technology integration can impact teaching and learning.
  • Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK): Integrating all three components of effective teaching, purposeful technology integration, and subject matter knowledge.

The Triple E Framework is a research-based, reliable, and validated framework designed with the goal of helping educators implement effective technology integration.[125] The framework helps educators to evaluate educational technology tools for alignment with learning goals, design learning experiences that positively impact earning outcomes, and act as a coaching tool to support educators through the technology integration process. What makes the Triple E Framework distinct is its learner-centered focus. The framework includes three components:

  • Engagement: Technology helps learners actively engage in the learning experience. Questions to ask about engagement include: Does the technology help learners focus on the learning activity? Does the technology motivate learners? Does the technology cause learners to be actively involved in the learning process as colearners?
  • Enhancement: Technology adds value to the learning experience and transforms learning in a way that is not possible through traditional learning methods. Questions to ask about enhancement include: Does the technology help learners to more deeply understand content? Does the technology scaffold instruction to provide clear descriptions of content? Does the technology create personalized learning pathways for individualized instruction? Does the technology provide opportunities for creation and demonstrating understanding?
  • Extension: Technology connects learners to authentic, real-world learning experiences. Questions to ask about extension include: Does the technology create opportunities for learners to learn outside the traditional classroom? Does the technology make connections between learning and real-world experiences? Does the technology facilitate skill-building?

Digital Learning Tools

Choosing the right digital tool depends on the intended learning goals and outcomes, as well as the purpose for using the tool within the learning environment. Digital tools can help educators and learners communicate, collaborate, and be more productive. Additionally, learning management systems provide an organizational structure that can be used in both blended and online learning environments to be more effective and efficient in accessing and using digital tools.

Digital Tools for Communication

Digital tools provide flexible options for facilitating communication and participation. In a digital format, communication may be audio-, text-, or video-based. Digital communication tools also provide options for both asynchronous and synchronous communication, allowing additional flexibility for both learners and their instructors.

Asynchronous learning is when educators and learners interact with the content and with each other at different times. Asynchronous learning can happen within a structured schedule (e.g., weekly deadlines) and include a combination of collaborative and independent activities. Synchronous learning is when educators and learners interact with the content and with each other during live sessions. Synchronous learning can include in-person activities or in digital spaces (e.g., video conferencing sessions).

Asynchronous communication tools include online discussion boards, email, and text (e.g., WhatsApp). Text, while not a common instructional method, has the potential to increase learner engagement because adult learners are often more comfortable using their mobile phones more than any other digital devices.

The most popular method for live or synchronous virtual instruction is through video conferencing sessions (e.g., Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Zoom). This type of software allows educators and learners to communicate live using audio and video. Video conferencing platforms also include options for text-based communication through group and individual chat. Additional features to increase communication and participation include breakout rooms for small group work, polling the audience, screen sharing, and sharing files with participants.

Digital Tools for Collaboration

Collaborative activities enrich the learning experience by helping learners broaden their perspectives, connect with others, and learn how to contribute to a team. Just like with communication, digital tools provide flexible options for participating in collaborative activities. Digital tools help to establish a classroom community among all learners, regardless of learning modality. With device access and connectivity, learners can collaborate. This section shares a few example tools for facilitating collaboration. The tools listed in this section are free (or have free and paid options), and work on laptops, tablets, and mobile phones.

Flipgrid is a free, video-based digital discussion board.[126] Educators create grids with discussion prompts or questions for learners, with the option to include example videos, links, and supplemental resources. Learners then post their responses as video recordings in the corresponding grid. Depending on the specific grid’s setup, learners can also respond to each other’s posts through likes, text comments, or videos. Users can sign up for free with a Google or Microsoft account.

Padlet is a digital bulletin board tool that enables users to add text, links, multimedia, and upload files. There are multiple formatting choices (e.g., displaying information in a canvas, grid, or stream layout) for displaying information in a meaningful way based on the activity or content. Boards can be private, public, or shared with a specific group with options for moderation. Users can sign up for free with an Apple, Google, or Microsoft account.

Voicethread is an interactive collaboration tool that enables users to create multimedia presentations online.[128] Voice threads can include files, images, videos, and embedded files. Voicethread presentations can be shared with a group or individuals via link and allow for comment threads within the presentation.

In addition to the above-mentioned tools, various Google (e.g., Docs, Jamboard, Meet, Sheets, Slides) and Microsoft tools (e.g., Office, Teams) enable users to create collaborative documents, presentations, and spreadsheets. Within each platform, users can also create shared folders to organize files, utilize messaging to communicate asynchronously, and conduct video conferencing sessions to collaborate in real time.


Lynne Ruvalcaba | Administrator of Educational Technology | California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
How has access to digital tools improved learner outcomes in your context?

Many of our students that are in the postsecondary program use college instead of employment right away and they go right into postsecondary education on the outside, earning bachelor’s degrees and moving on that way. That’s an interesting thing in and of itself because until they got access to laptops, they were literally researching and preparing term papers with a golf pencil and a piece of paper. That was their manner of achieving a degree. When I think of all the work I did to get through my bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate, and the thousands of pages I wrote, if I hadn’t had the device and I couldn’t type it, I don’t know what I would have done. I never saw my dissertation in print until after it was bound and done. Everything was electronic.

Our students that are participating in postsecondary programs have been writing these papers by hand. When we deployed our first round of laptops, within months the faculty at the outside institutions were reporting that the quality of work had increased exponentially and the papers they were receiving were on par with what they received from their on-campus students. Even something as simple as a word processor, something that we often take for granted, helps them use the devices to do things for themselves, and the opportunities expand exponentially. It’s amazing to see them flourish.

How do you facilitate differentiated instruction and self-directed learning in your context?

Having access to technology engages our learners in a way that’s not only about learning the content, but they’re also thinking about what the technology can do for them. They’re exploring the devices and teaching themselves things that we didn’t anticipate. They’re becoming self-advocates. They’re becoming self-directed learners who try things out, and that really inspires them to keep going and to sustain interest in the learning process.

Bringing updated technology to our learners allows us to differentiate much easier. With features like interactive texts with built-in dictionaries or text-tospeech, our early literacy learners can do things they just couldn’t before. It’s also so much easier now for learners to engage with content that interests them but is still accessible at their reading level. Before, the content was limited. They’d have to sit and read a book about something a kid would read. Now, they can get sports, they can get politics, they can get almost anything that would interest them as an adult. Suddenly, they can engage in a conversation with their peers. They can have a meaningful conversation with a teacher. The engagement has really, really changed.

How do you use digital tools in your context to engage learners?

On the math side, I can’t tell you the benefit of having gamified learning. For people who thought math wasn’t for them, if you make it look like a game, they forget that they don’t want to be there. Because the system requires them to attend class if they don’t have a high school diploma, we have learners that are not only reluctant to participate but who are protesting being there. Now, they’re getting into the games and gamified learning and suddenly they’re all over it and don’t care because it is so engaging to them. To me, that’s the metamorphosis of our learners.

We also have installed interactive whiteboards in some of the classroom spaces. I love going into classrooms and watching teachers who introduce it well, because their learners are just amazed at first—“What’s this thing on the wall?” You can touch and move things and it makes noise. They love these boards because they like to show what they know. Being in front of the class, it doesn’t matter if you are in fifth grade or are 50, getting up there and knowing it, and demonstrating it, even if you’re a little reluctant, once you’re there and you can shine, it makes a difference. Our interactive whiteboards are something that we really are pushing right now to standardize across our system and get more into our classrooms because of that. We understand that there are things that learners can do with those boards that really will expand their feelings and validate them as learners. We’re also working on purchasing software that will allow extension beyond the classroom—video tours or meetings with subject matter experts—that will enrich the learning experience and be key in connecting students to the world.

Learning Management Systems

A learning management system (LMS) is a digital platform for storing and sharing digital content, managing assignments and feedback, and communicating with learners. An LMS provides organizational structure and can be used with a variety of learning environments. In the state of California, adult education program providers typically use Canvas or Google Classroom, depending on the individual institution.

Some of the benefits of using an LMS include:[129]

  • Content organization: Post digital content including audio, images, and video files. Organize content by lesson, topic, or unit to make it easier for learners to find and navigate course materials.
  • Embedding external content: Link to external resources or websites. Often, LMS include integration with supplemental resources such as digital curriculum or textbooks. Integrating external content within an LMS streamlines the digital learning experience and simplifies the process for learners, especially those who are less adept at navigating digital spaces.
  • Communication and collaboration: LMS usually include an option for direct communication between learners and the instructor through a direct messaging system or link to external email. Other popular LMS features for communication include announcements and discussion boards. Discussion boards can also foster a sense of classroom community among peers, as well as provide an opportunity for collaboration.
  • Monitoring learner progress: Multiple options exist within an LMS for monitoring learner progress. Educators can monitor learner participation in discussion boards, check whether a learner has submitted assignments, and utilize built-in grading or gradebook features.
  • Providing feedback: If learners submit assignments through an LMS, there is an option to provide learner feedback directly connected to the assignment. Feedback might include audio-, video-, or text-based comments. Using a rubric tool also provides learners with an additional level of feedback.
  • Automatic assessments: Some LMS include the option of built-in assessments that are automatically graded. Auto-graded assessments provide instant feedback for learners and educators alike. Educators can quickly see an individual learner’s performance and analyze assessment data for class-level patterns.


Francisco Pinedo | Lead Instructor | Soledad Adult School
Does your school use a learning management system? What are some of the benefits and challenges with using an LMS?

We transitioned to using a learning management system, Canvas, because that’s what our local community college uses. We wanted to train our students at all levels to use Canvas, so that way, when they go to the new campus just down the street from us, that won’t be another barrier. We started introducing Canvas here with ESL classes and we’ve had a lot of success. Next year, we’re going to expand it into our high school diploma and high school equivalency programs.

The way we introduce students to Canvas is the first week of class, that’s all we do. We teach them how to log in to Canvas, how to accept our campus invitation, and how to navigate Canvas. It takes a lot of initial investment of time, but it pays off. We don’t have to deal with it for the rest of the school year. They know how to access the information from the beginning, which is great.


Jaemi Nash | Director | Tamalpais Adult School
Does your school use a learning management system? What are some of the benefits and challenges with using an LMS?

One of the big things that we’ve done is getting involved in the Canvas pilot. While I was familiar with using Canvas as an educator, what was new to me was rolling it out with my staff. Instead of focusing primarily on the folks who are always early adopters of things, I tried to put it out to the whole staff. Mostly the GED teaching staff is interested in it, but they are liking it and using it. It’s led to us purchasing more training from Instructure to really support our teachers to use the platform and to have better confidence and excitement about using it.

In addition to the Instructure training, OTAN hired some great people to do Canvas training at several different levels. They’ve had training sessions for administrators, for new users, for intermediate users. It’s a lot of training, but it’s been provided for program sites that are participating in the pilot and I’ve really appreciated being part of the pilot. The administrator training made me realize that I wasn’t doing all that I needed to do for my new staff who were using Canvas, so it influenced me to do things differently to better support my staff.

Open Educational Resources

If budgets are limited, then how can educators implement high-quality digital content and resources? Open educational resources (OER) include freely accessible, openly licensed digital materials for teaching and learning.[130] There are many OERs designed for use in adult or general education to supplement classroom curriculum or help adults develop digital literacy skills—see appendix A of this guide for an annotated list of OERs.

Evaluating Digital Content, Resources, and Tools

As educators search for digital content and resources, they may discover that the information stream never ends. How then do educators determine what content, resources, and tools contain quality content that will benefit their learners? When evaluating a new digital tool, educators should evaluate the educational and technical usability of the tool to decide whether to implement it within their classroom. Be sure to consider the added value in implementing a new digital tool and how the tool will help educators guide their learners to meet desired learning goals and outcomes.

Pedagogical usability focuses on how well a tool facilitates the learning process. It includes the following criteria:[131]

  • Understandability: The tool includes clear and concise descriptions of content.
  • Added value: The tool facilitates an improved learning experience through improved processes (e.g., improved feedback process, increased flexibility).
  • Goal-orientation: The tool helps learners meet their established learning goals.
  • Time: The tool helps learners engage with content in an efficient manner.
  • Interactivity: The tool helps educators and learners be active participants in the learning experience.
  • Multimedia: The tool uses a variety of media elements (e.g., graphics, text, video) to represent content.

Technical usability focuses on the ease of use and interaction between users and the tool.[132] Several frameworks and guidelines for evaluating educational technology tools exist, though most focus on K–12 learning environments. However, the concepts tend to be broadly focused on using tools to improve the learning experience and thus also are applicable to adult education.

The 4A Framework evaluates edtech tools based on the following four elements:[133]

  • Accessibility: Digital instructional materials are accessible when they adhere to applicable legal standards, and users can open, view, and interact with digital material.
  • Active Engagement: Digital instructional materials attend to multiple dimensions of active engagement when they invite students to invest effort and energy into learning concepts.
  • Advocacy for Inclusion: Digital instructional materials promote advocacy for inclusion when they represent diverse peoples with contextual nuance, compassion, and respect.
  • Accountability: Digital instructional materials demonstrate accountability when they are transparent about their origins and purposes, based on standards or principles, and are open about personal information and user data collection-sharing processes.

The EdTech Center @ World Education has created the Criteria for Evaluating Workforce EdTech Tools to evaluate edtech tools for workforce education on the following topics: effectiveness, accessibility, ease of use, digital literacy, language and culture, affordability, engagement, quality and effective content, logical flow, user-centered design, user support, data privacy and security, and vendor reliability and support. The full rubric is available as a PDF download or editable Google Sheet and created with adult learners in mind.

  1. How to Apply the SAMR Model
  2. Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge
  3. Triple E Framework
  4. How Flip Works
  5. Padlet
  6. VoiceThread
  7. IDEAL Distance Education and Blended Learning
  8. Open Educational Resources
  9. A Conceptual Framework Web-Based Learning
  10. A Conceptual Framework Web-Based Learning
  11. Evaluating Digital Instructional Materials
  12. Tool Evaluation Criteria

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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.