Embedding literacy and numeracy with the NZ Department of Corrections staff

03 Educators heart disruption

This is a summary of all of the video content to date that highlights some of our best work with the Department of Corrections.

The instructors in the various video clips have all undertaken the National Certificate in Adult Literacy & Numeracy Education (Vocational/Workplace).

This qualification, which we abbreviate to the NCALNE (Voc), teaches a system for embedding literacy and numeracy explicitly into the content and context of trades and vocational training as well as other areas.

Each entry in the list below will take you out to a separate post with video.

  1. Rachel Bulliff introducing the NCALNE (Voc) training with ALEC.
  2. Graeme Smith on the structure of ALEC’s professional development training.
  3. Ritchie Howard on how he embedded literacy and numeracy into prison painting training.
  4. Kushla Clover on how she embedded literacy and numeracy into prison grounds and horticulture training.
  5. Arnie Kumar on how he embedded literacy and numeracy into prison farming training.
  6. Jeanette Matthers and Arnie Kumar on embedding literacy and numeracy into prison horticulture and agriculture training.
  7. Ken Collins on embedding literacy and numeracy into prison building and painting training.
  8. Andy wood on embedding literacy and numeracy into prison carpentry training.
  9. Andy’s also here as well talking about how he uses a basic framing task to embed literacy and numeracy.

MOOC 2.0 – What could Salman Khan do to make online learning even better?

Sal KhanYou’ve got to be careful looking for photos of Sal Khan online… There’s a Bollywood star by the same name so it could get confusing…

Anyway: Back to this riff about how to improve online learning and in particular MOOCs. A MOOC is a Massively Open Online Course if you don’t know, and has become synonymous with online learning in general these days.

MOOCs aren’t going to go away any time soon. If anything, they’re going to get better as noted recently in Wired magazine.

So if I was someone like Salman Khan, this is the question I’d be asking myself:

  • What could I do to make online learning, and in particular my MOOC, even better?

One answer is to think of the subject area or specialised content, whether academic or vocationally focused, as one of several strands that we’re trying to weave through the delivery.

What’s been missing has been the weaving through of the other skills and knowledge strands that adult learners need in order to learn the actual content that they signed up for.

Here I’m talking about explicitly weaving through the relevant and appropriate foundational literacy, numeracy, and learning how to learn skills that most learners need to make sense of the content.

This approach applies equally to classroom based delivery, but the thing that is new here is making this a major focus of further development when it comes to designing online learning.

And to be clear, what I’m suggesting is not that adult learners take separate courses to develop these skills (although there is certainly a need for this as well).

Instead, what I’d like to see is MOOC developers and instructional designers directly and explicitly embedding important literacy, numeracy, and learning-how-to-learn skills into the actual online content and contexts for all kinds of content and subject areas.

So what’s an example?

Any new area or subject is likely to make use of technical jargon and specialised language. This is as true in a trades or vocational courses, as it is in a course on philosophy, linguistics, science, or any discipline you like.

Here’s a very simple approach to dealing with just the vocabulary that could inform the development of online learning including MOOCs.

  1. Understand the context
    • This means, if you haven’t already, getting a sense of who you’re audience is including where they come from, what their backgrounds are, and why they might struggle with aspects of the course work. This is also a good time to do a brief stocktake of some basic principles of adult learning and think about how many of them actually underpin your learning design.
  2. Analyse relevant texts for specialised technical language
    • This means some work. Either you could use a tool like the Online Vocab Profiler as a starting point, or just use your knowledge of what people have struggled with in the past to create a bank of words that are likely to cause difficulty.
  3. Create a pre-test
    • For starters, all you need is some kind of simple vocabulary pre-test. Here’s an example of one I made that would translate well to some kind of online format.
    • Build this into the start of the module. The purpose is to give you and your learner a “heads up” when it comes to the kinds of words that they need to learn and know. Think of it as a diagnostic too.
  4. Front load vocabulary
    • And then make sure that you deliberately make a point to teach and explain in simple language what the technical words mean.
    • Depending on how you’re building your online course this could be compulsory for everyone, or optional based on the score in the pre-test. Simple matching of terms to definitions is a great way to get people thinking here.
  5. Develop further vocabulary resources
    • From there, depending on the needs of your learners you may need other things. For example, you could create an online glossary for the technical terminology. Some authoring tools might allow you to have key words highlighted in a way that when you hover over them with your mouse, a small window opens with the plain English explanation.
    • Think about adding audio if you can as well. Your learners who struggle with learning your content may have reading issues or prefer a different kind of learning style. Adding a “read aloud” feature for terms, definitions, and other content might help them learn key vocabulary faster which means they’ll engage more with your course.
  6. Post-test
    • At the end of the content module you should just be able to re-administer the pre test that you designed. This allows both you and the learner to compare their knowledge of the key vocabulary both before and after completing the online module.
    • This should allow you to validate the approaches that you’re using the embed the vocabulary, i.e. weave it through, the content module.
  7. Evaluate
    • No doubt, you’ll be thinking through for yourself how effective this approach is, but it’s certainly helpful to gather some data from your learners with regards to their perceptions as to what was helpful and what was not.
    • A simple rating scale for a series of questions relating to your vocabulary interventions would do the job nicely. E.g. “We want to know how effective our teaching was in this module. Rate the features below on a scale of 1 (not helpful) to 5 (very helpful).

That’s just a basic approach to dealing with nothing more than technical vocabulary. There’s certainly a lot more that we could do here and with other areas including developing academic writing skills as well as developing an understanding of relevant numeracy for a particular discipline.

Hit the comment button to let me know what you think.

MOOC 2.0 – Why the future of online learning is about embedding foundational literacy, numeracy, and learning-to-learn skills


If you work in education or you’re just interested in education you’ve probably been following the developments of MOOCs – Massively Open Online Courses.

Debate around the MOOCs tends to be polarised. I’m always interested in anything in education that creates such strong emotional responses regardless of which side of the fence you tend to sit on (bilingual education is another good example).

I follow Wired magazine online as they often report on interesting things that are happening regarding the intersection of technology, education, and design – which is really where I see myself working as well.

The other day, they posted an interesting article about Anant Agarwal, one of the founding fathers of online university education. Agarwal is an MIT computer science professor and the CEO of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based non-profit, edX.

The MIT edX is it’s own thing, but they also supply their platform as open source code which is being used by a lot of other universities and organisations around the globe.

Agarwal is aware of the criticisms around MOOCs. Some of these criticisms include, for example:

  1. How effective is computer mediated versus classroom teaching?
  2. Why do MOOCs suffer from low completion rates?
  3. How do you develop a sustainable business model around “free” content?

In any case, Agarwal is convinced that we are on the cusp of what he’s calling MOOC 2.0.

In simple terms, what we’ve been working with in terms of online learning is essentially a first generation product. What we’re moving into will be the next iteration of open online learning. Imagine if Steve Jobs had given up on version 1 of the iPhone because it had a clunky operating system or a limited set of features that didn’t work as well as he’d envisaged.

In the closing words of the article: “To judge a breakthrough technology by only its earliest flaws is to ignore all the good it might do when given the time and the trust to do it.”

So welcome to MOOC 2.0…!

This got me thinking about our own mini MOOC – which is more of a “mostly open online course” – and where I think the future of MOOCs and online learning needs to go.

Which is the following:

  • Embed foundational literacy, numeracy, and learning-to-learn skills into all MOOCs and other forms of online learning.

Since 2007 in New Zealand, we’ve been developing and working with a specific set of skills and practises around how vocational and trades tutors can embed literacy and numeracy into their training.

I think that this same model can be applied to online learning of all kinds. My hypothesis is something like this:

  • We will see an increase in learner uptake of content knowledge as well as course retention and completion if we embed foundational literacy, numeracy, and learning-to-learn skills into online content-based courses at the level of the learners.

My comments here apply to academic courses as well as more practically-based trades and vocational training.

The embedded approach works great with carpenters and hairdressers, but let’s try it with academics as well.

  • Why should learners in an academic pathway struggle with their work just because the professors assume they come to the learning with a pre-existing set of foundational skills?

We know these learners usually don’t have these skills, but often we get bogged down in not wanting to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. It’s time to get over that and teach people what they need to know in order to learn what they need to know.

And we have a good model in place that suggests we can do both at the same time. This means it’s efficient and a value for money investment.

I think that the embedding model, which involves an explicit focus on the underpinning literacy and numeracy skills and content that learners need in the contexts that they are learning, could be the key to unlocking huge growth in online education.

I’m not just talking about learners taking courses on learning how to learn. What I’m talking about here is key principles and practices from the world of embedded literacy and numeracy directly applied to the design of all kinds of content-based learning, and in particular via online media of every kind.

By building and developing foundation level skills in a multitude of contexts and for the wides range of content we would be fostering life long learning both online and offline.

What would this look like in practice? I’m glad you asked… that’s what I want to explore moving forward. And that’s what I think we could export to a global market.

Any thoughts…? Hit that comment button…

But you might ask a painter to teach literacy & numeracy 2013 – Part 5 – Arnie Kumar

But you might ask a painter to teach literacy & numeracy 2013 – Part 4 – Kushla Clover

But you might ask a painter to teach literacy & numeracy 2013 – Part 3 – Ritchie Howard