7 Things You Need To Do To Totally Dominate Literacy and Numeracy

2B08153900000578-3182764-image-a-2_1438496978386The other day I listed a bunch of reasons why you need to punch literacy and numeracy in the face.

Today I want to tell you how to be the Ronda Rousey of adult literacy and numeracy education.

Some of this you can do on your own. Mostly, though you need to do this as an team inside an organisation.

That makes it hard. This is mainly because people are idiots.

I’m kidding (don’t quote me out of context please). People aren’t idiots, but this is a niche inside a niche so you have to have a deep understanding of how things work across a bunch of different dimensions. And you’ll have to work hard to pull it off.

But if you (and your team) can master these 7 areas, I think you could totally dominate this field. You could rip the arms off literacy and numeracy and throw them in the corner.

This is from my reflection and experience so I’m happy to be wrong. If you think differently and have some better ideas please let me know in the comments.

Here’s my take on the critical success factors that need to be in place if you want to totally dominate this market:

  1. You need the right team. This is not rocket science. But you do need the right team including subject area experts with deep domain knowledge. This team needs to include the key thought leaders in the sector at the present time. I think this means a (mostly) younger team of people aligned to a strong vision for literacy and numeracy in the 21st century.
  2. You need access to TEC funding. Access to dedicated literacy and numeracy funding streams. This includes a spread of funding across all aspects of literacy and numeracy provision including ALEG, ILN, and WPL as well as probably SAC funding for courses where literacy and numeracy are supposed to be embedded as part of “business as usual”. It goes without saying that you also need a good relationship with the TEC. There is no point going to war with your funding agency. This is called “cutting off your nose to spite your face”.
  3. You need to be able to deliver the right outcomes. This means meeting and exceeding TEC requirements for showing progress in Assessment Tool results, embedding LN into business as usual operations, and minimum professional development of staff, i.e the NCALNE (Voc).
  4. You need a strong professional development focus. If the sector was in its infancy prior to the $167 million investment of the TEC, then we must now be nearing the end of our adolescence. However, there is still a huge amount of work to be done to upskill tutors and trainers at every level, but especially those teaching at Levels 1 and 2 or in Foundation Learning programmes. Vocational training programmes around the country see massive amounts of churn when it comes to tutors. This area needs immediate attention, especially due to the requirements of the TEC in regards to Section 159 of the Education Act 1989 where these tutors are required to hold the NCALNE (Voc) as a minimum qualification. This is where you need to really to punch literacy and numeracy in the face.
  5. You need to create new knowledge. We need to build on the existing infrastructure and knowledge to create new knowledge, new content, new qualifications, new courses, new research, new processes and new systems for increasing our learners’ literacy and numeracy levels. This is not just in order to meet compliance requirements and avoid financial penalties, but to contribute to the wider education goals of our country.
  6. You need to set up scalable systems. Most of the way we currently do education is not set up to scale. This is true of the teaching as well as the systems that exist behind the scenes. For example, the success that ALEC has enjoyed with the NCALNE (Voc) training is due in part to the project management approach we use behind the scenes. Rather than a regular student management system we have adapted and refined a cloud-based project management system for our own specific purposes. Each candidate is a project within the larger system and we can track and assign every step along the learning journey from enrolment through training through to digital archiving at the end. Our course now sits inside Pathways Awarua in an online learning environment. Both of these systems are massively scalable.
  7. You need an entrepreneurial approach. There are multiple untapped opportunities for the right team to exploit and develop in order to reduce the impact of reliance on TEC funding. While these funding streams are the bread and butter of our work, they always represent a risk to some degree. Potential opportunities:
    1. Resources: The development of commercial education related resources and materials for sale nationally and internationally is one way to develop an alternative income stream. This needs an online business model, probably with some kind of freemium/premium approach and contextualised to the vocational areas that need the support.
    2. Training: The development and packaging of literacy and numeracy related intellectual property including training and qualifications for sale internationally is another opportunity. Our literacy and numeracy professional development qualifications are unique in the world and could provide the vehicle to export the wider infrastructure. This is untapped potential although I’m aware that people have been talking about it.
    3. Consulting: Investigating opportunities for international consulting around the unique approach we have which incorporates indigenous pedagogies with adult literacy and numeracy education and professional development is another potential opportunity. The NCALNE (Voc) is a case study how to bring together these various elements in an effective way. Again, this is untapped international potential.
    4. Approach: Approaching education through an entrepreneurial lens in general. This means looking for practical solutions to all aspects of the work through effective use of technology and creative thinking. We’re still largely stuck in a 20th century model of doing education and we don’t really know what is going to work moving forward. However, we need space to try (and fail) at a whole range of different things if we want to start seeing different results.

Sign up to Pathways Awarua now…!

One of the best kept secrets in tertiary training in New Zealand is Pathways Awarua. It’s not really a secret, but up until recently, this has only been available to tutors and trainers.

From now, however, this great suite of teaching and learning tools is available to everyone. Well, to Kiwis anyway.

Check out the cool video above with Ben Mitchell (better known as TK from Shortland Street).

So, if you have older kids who need a hand with maths and reading, or you’re interested yourself, there is a fantastic resource available online here: https://pathwaysawarua.com.

The emphasis is on improving literacy and numeracy for adults including young adults. So think 16+ or use your judgement.

Content includes reading comprehension, vocabulary, maths, and most recently The Road Code.

It’s current, free (funded by the TEC) and your tax dollars. And it’s all NZ content and linked to post high school vocational training as well.

10 000 learners around the country already use it and now it’s open to anyone regardless of whether you’re in an official training course or not.

Disclaimer: I’ve written some of the content available on Pathways Awarua including the modules for the online version of the NCALNE (Voc) training and professional development.

Using the Speak to Communicate Progression to Assess Confidence

speak to commThis is a bit rough and ready, but I wanted to get down some thoughts on using the Speak to Communicate Strand that have been rattling around in my head for a while now.

Here’s the problem

  • Lots of tutors and trainers notice an increase in the levels of learner confidence that they see over time with regards to speaking and communicating, but they don’t know how to measure this or talk about it in a robust way.

For example, from a classroom training point of view, if you’re working with a group, particularly if the group includes older adult students who don’t speak English as a first language, and you notice that many are withdrawn, shy, won’t make eye contact, struggle to participate and so on, you’re likely to make at least a mental note that they are lacking in confidence.

From an employer’s perspective, you might observe that some workers dislike making small talk on the factory floor, or actually hide behind pieces of machinery so that they don’t have to engage in any kind of interaction.

Another scenario, might be that a trainee cannot deliver a clear set of instructions or tell another person a procedure for how to do something.

Here’s a possible solution

The Learning Progressions that we work with in New Zealand for determining the literacy and numeracy demands and assessing learner proficiency provides a way to describe and work with learners’s abilities for speaking (just as it does for reading and numeracy).

Speaking is not part of the focus of the TEC’s Literacy and Numeracy for Adults Assessment Tool, so it tends to get sidelined. However, most trainers, tutors, and employers would agree that listening and speaking are critical in the classroom and workplace.

This is probably doubly important for employers as it’s something that is visible to them in terms of the sometimes limited interactions that they might have with workers and employees.

I think that we can look at the Speak to Communicate strand and incorporate our ideas of “confidence” in a way that makes sense for both trainers, learners, and employers (and the TEC).

Here’s what I suggest:

  1. Start with the actual speaking and listening scenarios or tasks that people really have to do. Here’s a couple for starters below. Brainstorm some that are generic and some that are site or context specific:
    1. Introduce yourself to others
    2. Discuss a workplace issue or concern that relates to an area that you are familiar with.
    3. Discuss a workplace issue or concern that relates to an area that you are not familiar with.
    4. Deliver a short presentation to a manager outlining possible changes or improvements to workflow.
  2. Map the speaking demands using the Speak to Communicate strand and progressions. If you’re doing this work, you should have done the NCALNE (Voc) training and have a good idea on how to do this already. The image above is not meant to replace the actual strand, but I scribbled out some of the key words in each step as a way of getting a very rough and ready analysis of certain kinds of scenarios. Don’t take my word for it – go and look at the whole strand, but for example:
    1. introduce yourself to others: Step 1 – 2
    2. Discuss a workplace issue or concern that relates to an area that you are familiar with: Step 2 – 3
    3. Discuss a workplace issue or concern that relates to an area that you are not familiar with: Step 3 – 4
    4. Deliver a short presentation outlining possible changes or improvements to workflow: Step 5 – 6
  3. Come up with real samples and examples of the actual language you’d expect to hear for each scenario (like you would when creating a judgement statement for an assessment schedule for NZQA purposes). Create your own master guide for each scenario showing the kinds of language that you’re expecting and how much of it you need to hear before you can make a judgement that the learner is confident in relation to that particular aspect of the interaction.
  4. Use a “Confidence” traffic light system for each relevant step for each scenario that you’re assessing. Probably, I need to expand on this somewhere, but here’s what I mean in a nutshell: For each relevant step that relates to a particular scenario you can assess your learner as follows:
    1. Red: Not confident
    2. Amber: Developing confidence in this area
    3. Green: Can do this with confidence
  5. Summarise the results if you need to report to an employer or manager. You don’t need to give everyone all of the detail, but it is important to work from a system that is part of what we’re already using, i.e. the Learning Progressions. This avoids coming up with a new system based on flakier measures of confidence that aren’t tied to actual learner performance of specific tasks.And then when it comes to reporting to employers or managers you can say things like this:

“We measure speaking proficiency and confidence on a scale of 1 to 6 steps with 1 relating to simple, formulaic interactions like greetings and 6 relating to more extended, complex work-related interactions like a short presentation.

When Jones started our training he was only able to handle low level speaking tasks at steps 1 and 2 with any kind of confidence.

In the last 6 months we’ve seen him develop his knowledge of work related vocabulary, express his own point of view about different issues, and speak about less familiar topics including health and safety concerns.

This means he’s now between steps 3 and 4 and can handle some more complicated work-related speaking activities with confidence.

By the end of the training he should be able to deliver a short formal presentation as well as give verbal instructions relating to some of our key standard operating procedures (SOPs).

At this point he will have shifted to step 5 and 6.”

Hat tip: Dave Curtis

4 Things I Can Do to Become Antifragile in Education


Nassem Taleb is an expert on risk and probability and he recommends in his latest book that we become less fragile, more robust, and actually antifragile.

This is more than just Sissy Resilience… and this means that when the stuff hits the fan you actually bounce back stronger than before, and actually made stronger by the disorder around you.

Education is fragile. And working in education opens you, your career, your mortgage up to all kinds of fragility by implication. This is bad.

Education, of course, is good. But if we want to survive as educators in this increasingly fragile landscape we need to embrace the fact that it’s fraught with risks and randomness of all kinds.

And we need to do things to mitigate the risks to ourselves and our businesses where we can.

One of the lessons from Taleb’s Antifragile for me seems to be that rather than avoiding things like risk, uncertainty and variability we should be embracing them. And in fact, seeking them out.

With that in mind, here’s my take on 4 things I can do in education and in my work that hopefully increase my ability to be really resilient by intentionally playing around with risk, randomness, uncertainty, and variability.

I’m not saying that they’ll work for you… but if they work for me I’ll let you know.

1. Disrupt my education business model


The idea here is that either I can wait for someone to disrupt my work or I can disrupt it myself and maintain some slight control (even if it’s illusory) over the disruptive factors.

Our education business models are pretty much a last century paradigm. Mostly the old-school business model goes something like this:

  • Someone pays a fee + I deliver training. I might possibly award some kind of credential if the stakes are a bit higher.

Leaving aside the problems with our current models of education, let’s focus on messing with the business model.

My real business model is the unique package of things that allows me to sell education and training and generate revenue. This would still hold true even if I worked for a non-profit or charitable organisation.

But consider the new business models though… They’re online. They require people to transact online. That either means a shopping cart or a subscription-based approach.

Bothered by that…? Me too. But disturbing thoughts like these have been nagging at me for awhile. It’s time to do something about it.

If you’re curious about business models Alex Osterwalder’s book really helped clear things up for me in term of what a business model is and gives some great examples. There’s also an iPad app you can play around with.

2. Open source my expertise and knowledge


Am I the only one who has noticed that the world I live in is radically different to the one I grew up in, even the world I started working in…?

Everything is being disrupted and education isn’t any exception. Aside from firing middle management and cutting dead wood, I think we’re going to see changes everywhere in education resulting in education products for learners that are cheaper, faster, smarter, and more convenient.

What’s more, as we move forward, education will most likely become open sourced, and possibly crowd sourced. This will come at a cost, of course. Some of us won’t survive.

But one of the things that has changed for certain in my mind is that there is no longer a competitive advantage in sitting on any kind of “secret sauce”. The new secret sauce is open source.

And that has implications for my job. And my expertise. What I know and can do is not just information, but a big chunk of it probably is. And that information really wants to make itself freely available to others. This is just the nature of the web.

And the thing is, if I don’t open source what I know, then someone else will do it for me. Either they know they same stuff and they’ll open source that, or they’ll just upload what they’ve learned off me.

So I need to do it first. That’s why I’ve open sourced what I know about our approach to embedding literacy and numeracy via Pathways Awarua and through making our course content freely available to everyone.

Doing nothing is not an option. In fact, doing nothing while everyone and everything around you moves forward is pretty much the same as going backwards.

3. Design the way I want to work


I think that another part of the solution is to design the way that I want to work. For me this means:

  • treating everything as a project
  • working on these projects with a small agile team
  • being mobile and “always on” (except when I switch everything off)
  • working from home (or anywhere)
  • having a team that is geographically dispersed,
  • and mostly ignoring conventional establishment wisdom relating to what I do.

To expand on these, everything in education can be a project. This includes training, resource development, writing and publishing, and running conferences. If I make everything a project then I can project manage. I use Basecamp for this.

“Always on” means that I can work on my projects anywhere. Most of my work is written on laptops and devices in various cities and towns in New Zealand. I now use cloud-based applications almost exclusively for this including Google Docs, WordPress and Evernote. I also use Dropbox and Google Drive to manage it all.

4. Look for new ways to do the same stuff


Another part of the solution for me is to do education and training in new ways that meet the needs and demands of 21st century work and life. This is where expertise needs to collide with new opportunities and disruptive technologies.

And this is hard because it means I have to learn new stuff. And sometimes things don’t work out.

I’m not quite sure where to go with this in all honesty, but something that I’ve done intentionally is to mess around with different online platforms used for authoring education and training materials. I’ve tried a bunch of them, but the one that stuck was the Bracken platform that we used to write up our course and assessment modules.

Authoring software is kind of tricky… and it’s time consuming to learn how to use… but something that is a whole lot simpler and still incredibly disruptive is video and audio. The incredible success of Kahn Academy continues to testify to the disruptive power of video.

I’m hoping to make this year the year I really get serious about capturing much more of our training, resources, knowledge, and expertise via niche audio and video content.

What have I missed? What do you have planned for 2015 that is going to make you stronger, more resilient, resistant to risk, and ultimately more antifragile?


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…