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The state of adult education in the age of COVID-19

The state of adult education in the age of COVID-19
September 21, 2020 Heather Gillin
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The state of adult education in the age of COVID-19

Like most fields, adult education has been put to the test with the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic. Adult education expert Dr. Elizabeth Roumell said the pandemic has magnified adult learning disparities and changed the way the field will operate for years to come.

“This year has brought professionals in the field to the table to re-imagine how we may be able to come up with more flexible ways of serving adult learners and to better meet them where they are,” Roumell said.

Roumell is an associate professor of adult education in the Department of Educational Administration and Human Resource Development. She serves as editor of the Adult Education Quarterly journal where she previously shared an editorial on COVID-19 and the future of adult education.

Roumell also works with the Texas Center for the Advancement of Literacy and Learning housed in the college. TCALL has been working closely with the Texas Workforce Commission to ensure that courses and professional development can be accessed online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Many states have regulations regarding what percentage of these classes can be offered via an online format, so it has taken very large, coordinated efforts to ‘pivot’ and get both adult learners and adult educators trained and acclimated to the virtual learning environment, and to make sure that the coursework in this format will still count,” Roumell said.

She said earlier in the year there was an intense rush to educate everyone on the latest online and hybrid-flexible delivery, or hy-flex, teaching techniques that still meet the needs of learners who may be struggling with basic literacy, English language literacy, digital literacy, career training and academic skills.

Disparities in adult education

One of the biggest disparities that COVID-19 has highlighted for the entire field of education is access to reliable technology. Roumell said several organizations nationally are coming together to develop a roadmap to address this “digital divide”.

“Organizations like World Ed have been pushing to improve learners’ reliable access to the Internet, with robust connections, and getting technology and tools into people’s hands so they can continue learning,” Roumell said.

Another challenge highlighted by the pandemic is diversity and inclusion. Improved professional development and training in the areas of diversity and inclusion are necessary to reach more adult learners effectively.

“We know that learning is always culturally and context bound, so it is critical that we re-examine how we work with diverse populations, and particularly with learners who might now be further marginalized due to financial, housing and food insecurity in the face of high unemployment numbers,” Roumell said.

Prisons, jails and youth detention centers have also been severely impacted. Restrictions on educators entering facilities have completely halted some programs. Limited educational programs in prisons do not lend themselves to online learning, therefore adult learners there do not have this option when in-person is not possible.

“This is another area that is currently receiving a great deal of attention, in terms of the ‘school to prison pipeline’ and ways that we may be able to collectively and positively impact communities by finding more education and career pathways for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals,” Roumell said.

The Matthew effect

Those who are most likely to participate in adult education and lifelong learning are those who are already highly educated, as opposed to those who are most in need of learning opportunities. This is called the Matthew effect.

Roumell said that those who could most benefit from such learning opportunities generally face more barriers to participation, such as complicated work schedules, childcare, lack of reliable transportation, lack of access to computers and the Internet. The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating these factors.

“What the Matthew effect tells us is that resources tend to go to those who are already better off, and that more policy and programming should be focused on making sure resources are targeted to areas of high need,” Roumell said.

Adult literacy

More than 42 million adults currently do not have the necessary literacy skills to fully participate in the 21st century economy and society. Roumell works with the Barbara Bush Family Literacy Foundation exploring various approaches and models for adult education that work toward improved literacy, workforce skills and digital skills, all of which are necessary to thrive in the current economy.

“As a society, we all do better when our neighbors are doing better, and we all benefit from a population who is economically and socially integrated into the fabric of US society,” Roumell said.

If parents cannot equitably access educational and job training services, it may affect their children’s success. Roumell said illiteracy and lack of access contributes to children becoming trapped in the pattern of generational financial fragility.

“When parents are doing better, and are better educated, their children also do better and will have greater opportunities,” Roumell said. “This is why we need to emphasize adult learning opportunities as Family Literacy, because it is an important way we can directly support families in our communities.”

About the Writer


Heather is responsible for news coverage in the Department of Health and Kinesiology, as well as the Department of Educational Administration and Human Resource Development.

Articles by Heather

For media inquiries, contact our Media Relations Coordinator, Ashley Green

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