The ongoing global pandemic has made it more difficult not only to reach out to new learners, but also to keep in touch with those who are already enrolled. Digital exclusion, new (family) responsibilities have proven to be a huge burden for your participants. Increased anxiety about the present and the future has compromised your learners’ engagement in the course, affected their concentration and motivation levels. To make matters worse, your teachers and educators are struggling as well: transitioning to an online environment and attempting to keep learners engaged – or at the very least attending the course – seems like an insurmountable challenge. What can you do as an adult education provider to support learners? What can you ask of your teaching staff, taking into account the many responsibilities and pressures they are already facing?
Solving the Problem
Reflecting on the obstacles faced by your learners might be the first step to solving the problem. Are they stressed? Overwhelemed by home-schooling their children and trying to work at the same time? Or perhaps the situation is even more dire – they rely on an unstable internet connection, have difficulty accessing health services or even doing the groceries. You might find that before getting your participants back into the course, you should try to provide material support, if at all possible. Is there a way for you to donate digital devices? A top-up card for their phone? To organise support packages with food and toileteries? It is unlikely that your participants will come back to or take up learning if their basic needs are not being met.
You can also start by reflecting on the objectives of your learning courses, or the main benefits that your learners usually gain – how can you convince your learners that you can still provide them? While you might have a list of learning outcomes at hand, perhaps the most valuable element of learning is interpersonal. You might find that your learners attend your courses because they enjoy the feeling of togetherness and community, and they feel that taking a class has helped them improve their well-being, all the more important during a crisis. A safe learning environment can also be re-established online, and in such difficult times you might find that it will bring learners the much-neeeded feeling of solidarity – and routine. Highlighting the value of learning as a space to share frustrations, discuss problems and support each other can encouage your participants to come back to the course.
Think about learners who won’t be able to transition to learning online, either because of their low digital skills or because they can’t afford or access a digital device. Perhaps the whole family is currently sharing one laptop, or their internet subscription has a data cap. What alternative can you offer to them? Would it be possible for you to send the course materials via snail mail?
Solving the Problem – Discussing with educators
The pandemic has wreaked havoc in everyone’s lives, including those of educators. Before agreeing on a course of action, you might want to “check the temperature” among your staff. Who has time resources to help out? What is everyone’s availability? Contacting learners might require considerable effort, perhaps phoning or messaging everyone. If you find that a support network for learners is needed, will your educators be equipped (also psychologically) to run it?
Online tools have become the everyday necessity during the pandemic. They can be used to keep in touch with learners but also for an exchange of experiences between educators. While some tools favour communication in professional environments, e.g Slack, others can be used for different purposes, e.g. Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp groups.
Digital exclusion is a reality: not all learners will be able to access your materials if you move everything online. Consider the use of other tools as an alternative: postcards, letters, printed course materials mailed to the door of your learners might be more useful than you thought.
Points for Discussion with Policy Makers
While many adult learning organisations have stepped up to support their most disadvantaged learners during the pandemic – by quickly transitioning to online teaching, or even offering material support when urgently needed – more is needed at the policy level to enable adult learning in times of crisis. Adults need reliable and affordable access to the internet, financial support if te pandemic has put the temporarily out of employment, access to psychological help to deal with anxiety, isolation and family tensions. At the same time, adult learning providers need flexibility in the delivery of their learning programmes to make sure that they can be continued regardless of the situation. Rigid curricula, funding streams dependent on the number of face-to-face classes or high adminsitrative burdens can make not only outreach, but also the delivery of any adult education programmes impossible in times of crisis.