Effective digital skills teaching in the context of digital exclusion: ESOL and non-formal learning

Alex Stevenson

Drawing on research with ESOL practitioners in formal and informal settings, Head of Essential and Life Skills at Learning and Work Institute Alex Stevenson reflects on the links between basic digital skills and other basic skills, including literacy and ESOL.

To teach digital skills effectively, there needs to be a focus on learner needs and organisational capacity to respond to these flexibly. Professional learning and development should reflect the specifics of working with learners who have low language and literacy skills.

In a recent report, Learning through Lockdown: Findings from the 2020 Adult Participation in Learning Survey, Learning and Work Institute (L&W) examined how the pandemic affected participation in learning. The survey of a representative sample of around 5,000 adults deliberately adopts a broad definition of learning, including a wide range of formal and informal learning, far beyond the limits of publicly offered educational opportunities for adults. The survey found that over two in five adults – around 22 million people – participated in some kind of learning activity during lockdown in 2020. But people who were out of work and those in lower socio-economic groups were less likely to participate in learning, meaning that many who could benefit most from learning were missing out. Of those who did participate, poor internet connections and a lack of connection with other learners were commonly cited as challenges in online learning. 

For educators working with adult ESOL and literacy learners, these findings will resonate. Factor in that the Lloyds UK Consumer Digital Index finds that 9 million adults are unable to use the internet by themselves, with 3.6 million people almost completely offline, and it’s clear that the intersectionality between poor language, literacy, basic digital skills and digital poverty presents challenges for teachers working with these learners. Whether it’s about accessing learning online, supporting face-to-face learning with technology, or teaching basic digital skills to people with ESOL and literacy needs, it’s increasingly clear that we need to develop more effective approaches. 

What works?

Prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, L&W worked with ESOL providers to identify the ways in which technology was then being used to enhance ESOL provision. More recently, we’ve also been looking at the experience of the voluntary sector in moving English language conversation clubs online. This work offers a number of pointers for effective digital skills teaching in the context of digital exclusion.

  • Make basic digital skills learning relevant to learners’ lives

In our work on the use of technology in ESOL, providers and practitioners had mixed views on whether using technology supported more effective English language learning.  But they were agreed that using technology as part of ESOL teaching and learning had clear benefits to learners’ basic digital skills and their ability to use these skills in other areas of life. With many public and other services increasingly accessed online, lockdown has highlighted how important it is to be able to see a doctor or shop for food online.

A similar picture emerges from the experience of organisations delivering English language conversation clubs online. Organisations reported wider benefits to learners developing their basic digital skills, initially in order to participate in online learning but then benefitting other areas of their lives. 

“As more and more things move online, from the benefit system to accessing doctor’s appointments, learning resources … for their children … there are all sorts of advantages to moving online.” (Conversation club project lead)

  • Link basic digital skills learning to language and literacy learning

Volunteers and organisations running conversation clubs noted that talking about technology and digital skills was in itself a good topic for engaging participants to practise speaking English. The mind map below shows how different aspects of the topic of technology can be explored as conversation topics.

English Language Conversation Clubs questions
Image: Learning and Work Institute/Learning Unlimited – Volunteers, English Language Learners, Conversation Clubs

As this suggests, there are lots of ways in which basic digital skills can be embedded with ESOL and literacy learning. Many providers are including basic digital skills in their course inductions, to help prepare learners to access the online and blended learning elements of their course, often prioritising learners with less proficiency in language, literacy and digital skills for face-to-face delivery (where possible), so that they are better equipped to participate online in the event of lockdown, but also more generally in online learning in the future.

  • Start where learners are, and be flexible in the choice of technologies

Linking basic digital skills to learners’ lives and motivations leads to another key learning point for practitioners on the selection of technologies to use: to be accessible and engaging, it’s important to start with technology that learners are familiar with, or would like to use, and build from there. ESOL practitioners told us how learners with basic literacy and language needs often struggled to log in to institutional accounts and platforms, a source of frustration to learners and teachers alike. Some teachers highlighted the use of social media, such as Facebook groups, as a more effective way of communicating learning content with learners.

“I’ve opted for Facebook simply because it’s a flexible way for our learners to get access to the content, the course content. It’s also good for the students because it creates a sense of community and collaboration. It’s engaging and it’s easily accessible.” (Tutor, FE college)

However, in many formal settings, the choice of technology may be directed by institutional policies. Less formal settings benefit from the freedom to start with the most relevant and accessible platforms, with WhatsApp groups seen as particularly valuable (once the appropriate privacy settings are used to hide personal phone numbers etc.), and Zoom as the most accessible video conferencing platform, albeit not without challenges.

What change is needed?

The essential digital skills entitlement funded through the Adult Education Budget provides an opportunity to develop more integrated programmes of basic skills learning, that respond to a wider range of learners’ language, literacy and basic digital skills needs, along with other essential skills funded through the entitlement, such as numeracy.

Providers and practitioners already do much to develop basic digital skills in ESOL and other basic skills learning and are now doing more to help learners with the basic digital skills they need to access learning online. Our research with ESOL practitioners suggested it may be necessary to develop this further – not in the sense of training ESOL teachers as IT teachers – but ensuring that all practitioners are confident in supporting learners with basic digital skills.

As online and blended learning models are likely to become a bigger part of the learning offer in future, it may be necessary to identify early on – for example, through initial assessment – those learners who can take advantage of online and blended learning. Those who may struggle can be offered more tailored support with basic digital skills, particularly for the purposes of progressing to further learning.

Organisations need to consider how they can make use of different and accessible technologies effectively (ensuring privacy and safeguarding are maintained) to support basic digital skills learning and avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach. In this, providers need to undertake a careful evaluation of the technology they use – how is it benefitting the learning, how is it developing learners’ digital skills, and how valuable are these skills in the wider world? Who is accessing the technology, who is missing out, and what can be done to ensure they don’t?

What next?

One of the key things ESOL practitioners tell us is that professional learning and development needs to be tailored to the specifics of ESOL – and that applies to the specifics of teaching digital skills to ESOL learners as well, whether this is through support from ESOL teachers or by digital skills specialists. Practitioners need to be able to teach digital skills – and use technology in ESOL teaching – in ways which take account of the language and literacy barriers learners face. So, it’s not enough to demonstrate the latest tech: there needs to be a focus on how it can be used within ESOL teaching, or how it supports ESOL learners with basic digital skills.

“…and you think, ‘Well, I could use that, but how would I use that? I’d have to think about that,’ and by the time I’ve thought about it, it’s my next lesson.” (Tutor, FE College)

In formal and informal settings, practitioners value time and space with their peers to share learning and develop their practice. It doesn’t always have to be formal training in new technology or digital skills – sometimes it’s just about using established technology and existing skills more effectively.

About the author: Alex Stevenson is Head of Essential and Life Skills at Learning and Work Institute, an independent policy, research and development organisation dedicated to lifelong learning, full employment and social inclusion. Alex has over 20 years’ experience in adult basic skills, having previously worked as a teacher, manager and curriculum developer in Further Education and Adult Community Education settings. He is an executive board member at the European Association for the Education of Adults and an executive committee member at the European Basic Skills Network.

About this blog: This is the ninth in a series of Essential Digital Skills ‘Thought Pieces’ intended to stimulate discussion and dialogue around the development of effective practice in the delivery of digital skills to those who are digitally excluded. They are part of the ETF’s CPD programme for those delivering and preparing to deliver the new Essential Digital Skills Qualifications (EDSQs). You can access all of the pieces via the Essential Digital Skills CPD programme page.

Contributors come from a range of backgrounds including current practitioners and those with responsibility for supporting teachers’ CPD, as well as advocates of adult education in different contexts, both formal and informal.

These pieces aim to explore how practitioners in a range of settings are helping to inform quality standards by working collaboratively to test out new pedagogical strategies and digital resources.

Thinking around digital skills delivery has been very significantly affected by the impact of Covid-19, and contributors address the challenge there has been for teachers to upskill rapidly for remote delivery. Currently, there is no established framework setting out the features of ‘effective’ delivery of digital skills online, but these pieces help us to go some way in understanding what works in different contexts.

Comments on this, and the other pieces in the series, are welcomed on Twitter using the hashtag #EDSThoughts.

The ETF does not necessarily endorse any of the strategies, tools or approaches mentioned in these pieces.