Unlocking Adult Learners’ Greatest Potential Through Technology

Nov 05 2019

Matt Greenfield, Managing Partner of ReThink Education & Asi Burak, award-winning videogame and digital technology executive

Adults who struggle to read face a distinct set of challenges in accessing adult education classes, such as having reliable transportation, finding childcare, or having time to attend classes. That is why only less than six percent of the 36-million adult learners in the U.S. enroll in traditional place-based instruction.

Mobile technologies open up a world of possibilities to address the needs of these learners, but designing mobile apps or games for low-literacy adults—ones that are user friendly, engaging, and effective—is complicated.

During our three years serving as independent judges for the Adult Literacy XPRIZE, we—together with the other members of the Judging Council—were able to see the smart ways competing teams addressed the unique challenges adult learners face when learning with apps. Through a 12,000-person field trial, we were also able to see what worked for learners over time. By combining what we saw from these developers with our own backgrounds and experience in the gaming and education technology sectors, we’ve come up with a set of best practices that apply not only to adult education, but to designing mobile software for adult learners everywhere. In writing up these best practices, we hope to accelerate the development and adoption of existing and other mobile learning tools for adult learners in the U.S. and around the world.

Best practice #1: Beginning with empathy yields the best results

Adult learners are a diverse group, with many potential factors contributing to their reading difficulties, such as dyslexia, denial of access to education when young, recent immigration status, or even isolation. They are young and old, born in the U.S. and abroad, working and unemployed. However, many of their day-to-day struggles are alike. Communicating with a child’s teacher, reading a prescription label, keeping abreast of important news, and completing a job application can all feel daunting without a basic level of literacy. Mobile developers who put themselves in the shoes of their end users can better understand learners’ motivations as well as the many challenges it takes just to navigate an app.

The Codex: Lost Words of Atlantis app, produced by ALXP Grand Prize co-winner People ForWords, has a minimalized login process: the user just picks one of two avatar options and starts playing. Similarly, the other Grand Prize co-winner, Learning Upgrade, set a goal for onboarding learners in the early phases of app design: less than one minute from download to learning.

ALXP Finalist team, Cell-Ed, made ease-of-use paramount by utilizing a texting interface with which smartphone users would already be familiar. Such universal design, along with welcoming visuals, gives learners a sense of comfort with the app as soon as they open it.

By focusing on simplicity and ease of use right from the outset, each of these teams put themselves in their end-users’ shoes and set those learners up for success.

Best practice #2: Meet learners at their level and adapt quickly

App design for adult learners should consider the needs of users from a wide range of reading levels. At the same time, developers must find a way to tailor their content, making it adaptable and able to hone in on each individual’s skill level.

To accommodate these competing demands, Finalist apps AmritaCREATE and Cell-Ed include a brief assessment as part of the initial onboarding of users, incorporated seamlessly into the app design. In both cases, users are not made to feel that they are taking a separate, stand-alone assessment, but rather that they are already and simply using the product. Along these same lines, these apps also provide adaptive content, allowing learners to proceed at their own pace, accelerating and slowing down as needed.

Meanwhile, teams People ForWords and Learning Upgrade used gaming elements to keep users engaged and goal-oriented, with the ability to level-up, and fail in a safe environment. One of the more interesting innovations introduced by Learning Upgrade was the way it designed the learner feedback process as a game, incentivizing users to move forward in small, achievable steps.

By incorporating initial and ongoing assessment into the usual flow of the app’s progression, developers can tailor the learning experience to the needs of the individual and tap into learners’ innate sense of motivation.

Best Practice #3: Proof your concept and observe

When user testing with adult learners, developers have to get creative. All four of these finalist teams went beyond the traditional in-app feedback gathering and mobile analytics, though those are also critical features of their design processes. They put a concerted effort into observing users interacting with the apps, piloting the apps among varied populations, and iterating quickly and often, with new versions designed based on lessons learned in the field.

Cell-Ed, for example, built partnerships with literacy groups, states, unions, and employers to pilot their app among a diverse host of adult learner populations. AmritaCREATE deployed its technology in rural villages across 21 Indian states in through partnerships with schools and NGOs, testing its app in both formal classroom and informal learning environments with learners young and old. Learning Upgrade tested with hundreds of adult education providers—including employers, public housing departments, libraries, churches, and immigrant centers—and in the process, learned to implement a design that capitalized on the scalability of independent learning, blending it with the benefits of place-based programs. People ForWords started by convening focus groups of adult learners that directly informed key early decisions in their app’s development, such as starting with the most basic literacy skills.

One of the most rewarding aspects of judging the Adult Literacy XPRIZE was the opportunity to see these and so many other innovators apply these strategies in developing apps for adult learners. Our focus on these four here is to illustrate some of what is possible, not to limit it.

By keeping empathy, engagement, and effectiveness at the heart of each design decision, developers can truly harness the breakthroughs of handheld technology to transform education for those who can most benefit from it.

Matt Greenfield, Managing Partner of ReThink Education & Asi Burak, award-winning videogame and digital technology executive