March 2015
Jenifer Vanek, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA & Jerome Johnston, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

Jenifer Vanek

Jerome Johnston

In the United States, there are about two million adults enrolled in adult basic education (ABE) classes. In the 2010–11 program year, 40% of those adults were ELLs (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). To increase access for adults who live far from adult schools or who have job or family responsibilities that make it difficult to attend class in a brick-and-mortar school, providers are increasingly offering the option of studying online at home or in a location that is more convenient for the student.

For the most part, distance education for adults in ABE or ESOL programs is built around a single commercial curriculum product such as USA Learns, Rosetta Stone, or SkillsTutor. A teacher provides an initial assessment of student needs and makes assignments in the curriculum. The curriculum product provides the instruction. As the student completes the assignments, the teacher monitors the student's performance and provides feedback and counseling. The online exercises are focused on presenting new concepts in manageable chunks and testing for mastery.

However, because we live in a highly technological world, there are demands on learners to use digital technology for everyday tasks at work, in daily life, and at school. Given the demands of ubiquitous technology, today’s online distance learning (DL) instruction cannot be limited to the academic content found in a typical online DL curriculum. To make the most of technology available to support language learning and to build learner capacity with technology, distance instruction must be actively facilitated by teachers to provide students with opportunities to use a variety of online technologies to learn and solve problems.

Project IDEAL Instructional Strategies Project

The Project IDEAL Support Center ( is a research, policy, and professional development center housed at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. It provides member states with assistance in developing distance education programs for adult learners. Many ABE programs working within the consortium of states working with Project IDEAL report that their ELL distance students achieve as well or better than their classroom counterparts. Using standardized measures of achievement (BEST Oral Interview, BEST Literacy, BEST Plus, and CASAS), ELL distance students in three states—North Carolina, Ohio, and Indiana—outperformed their classroom-based counterparts (Project IDEAL Support Center; 2006, Fall–2007, Winter; p. 3). In 2013, the center convened a study group of DL coordinators to explore the state of DL practice and describe the practices used by distance teachers who achieved better-than-usual outcomes.

First, members of the study group identified teachers who had moved beyond use of one singular curriculum product for online instruction by adding activities delivered through a variety of learning technologies and modes of communication. Through interviews, the group found that innovative teachers had integrated supplemental online tools to support collaboration, supplemental instruction, or the development of digital literacy skills critical to use of technology in daily life or successful transition to postsecondary education and the workforce. Spelled out simply, this is what characterizes innovative English language instruction at a distance. Here are the specific themes that emerged in these interviews.

Use of One Core Distance Learning Curriculum

Teachers encourage students to start their distance studies using one online curriculum. Student work within the online curriculum provides a means by which teachers formatively assess learners’ needs for additional instruction and practice activities.

Use of a Content Management System

Many teachers use a content management system, often a simple website, to organize instruction and activities. Teachers who did so were more likely to provide differentiated instruction. This strategy also puts the teacher in the role of active facilitator who mediates between the learner and the online content, making constructivist learning possible, something commonly missing in ABE DL (Askov, Johnston, Petty & Young, 2003, p. 68).

Careful Adaptation of Technology to Pedagogical and Content Needs

These teachers found a balance between encouraging learners to use new technology and using technology authentically to support instruction and the demands of the content being taught, rather than just using a learning technology because it was novel (Mishra & Koehler, 2006).

Hybrid Model

Many of the DL teachers interviewed teach in hybrid courses, defined as a blending of face-to-face and online instruction (Askov et al., 2003, p. 64). This blended model is effective because it allows teachers to intensify and differentiate classroom instruction and provides supported use of online learning that prepares adult learners to continue their education if they have to withdraw from classroom learning.

On-site Computer Lab

Many of the programs where these teachers work provide on-site computer labs. Learners participate in DL in the labs, with support. The support helps learners develop computer skills while they are working on their academic content.

Lifelong Learners

Finally, in their comments, these teachers revealed that they themselves embrace opportunities to grow as learners and are open to continuous experimentation with technology.

A Sample Class

These themes can most easily be seen in the work of one ELL teacher working in an ABE program in Freemont, California. Her class is a multilevel, mixed-skills vocational ESL course conducted as a hybrid learning experience, blending classroom and independent online instruction. The teacher’s goals for her students are to help them develop technology skills to support their English language development and to help them build organizational and independent learning skills required to find and keep a job. In her computerized classroom, students work collaboratively on job-related content like writing résumés, filling out online job applications, and online job searching. Students build oral communication skills in class and build reading and writing proficiency through individualized complementary learning online. In addition to this online in-class instruction, the teacher assigns USA Learns for distance ESL instruction. Students can do this work at home or in the on-site computer lab. Because the language level of the students is so diverse, a range of online learning materials including specific websites is used to supplement the core curriculum product—USA Learns—to meet different students’ needs.

The teacher coordinates all course activities (including both in-class and DL), communicates with her students, and encourages students to communicate with each other using a web page created with a free web-authoring tool called Weebly (see Figure 1). She uses weekly self-assessment checklists collected using SurveyMonkey, an online survey tool where students report on completion activities for the week. The survey responses turn into a record showing the arc of their work and progress on long-term projects, which vary depending on their language development needs. Each student has his or her own Weebly page, which he or she uses as a portfolio to store and present project work.

Figure 1. V-ESL hybrid course webpage

Used with permission.

The teacher in this example created a rich online learning environment. She created opportunities for learners to use multiple forms of expression in English (recording their voices, conversing with others, creating written artifacts, etc.) and, in the process, helped them build technology skills that will help them in other parts of their life. Though most of the students used the same core DL curriculum, USA Learns, the teacher provided differentiated learning experiences in relevant online contexts, and was thus able meet the learning needs in the multiskills, multilevel class. Her work typifies themes that emerged from the interviews of each of the innovative teachers and can serve as an example to ELL teachers searching for instructional strategies to support effective online distance language learning.


Today, our learners come to ABE programming to learn English but also to prepare for full participation in communities of work, school, and civic life—including the parts of that community that exist online. Use of technology in learning is essential if learners are to keep up with the significant pace of changing technology and achieve success in future schooling and work (McCain, 2009). Use of supported online DL in ABE programs can help bolster ELLs against the disruption of future developments in technology. Taking advantage of the commitment a learner has made to participate in formal learning and leveraging it to provide opportunities for integrating computer skill development as they learn English will prepare them to respond flexibly to future demands that evolving technology places on them.

Acknowledgment: We wish to acknowledge the work of Sheryl Hart and Destiny Long for their contributions to the paper. Both interviewed teachers and participated in discussions through which the themes of our findings emerged. We also wish to thank Sharon Ram of Fremont Adult and Continuing Education for sharing her expertise.


Askov, E., Johnston, J., Petty, L., & Young, S. (2003).Expanding access to adult literacy with online distance education. Cambridge, MA: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy. Retrieved from

McCain, M. (2009). The power of technology: Expanding access to adult education & workforce skills through distance learning. New York, NY:. Retrieved from

Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. J. (2006). Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108(6), 1017–1054. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9620.2006.00684.x

Project IDEAL Support Center. (2006, Fall–2007, Winter). Project IDEAL update. ProjectIDEAL Update. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education, OVAE. (2010). Adult Education and Family Literacy Act of 1998: Annual report to Congress, program year 2010-11. Retrieved from:

Jenifer Vanek is a doctoral student in second languages and cultures/curriculum & instruction at the University of Minnesota. She has been working with ELLs for nearly 20 years, devoting the last several years to supporting both learners and teachers with technology integration, online learning, and digital literacy.

Jerome Johnston is research professor of education and director of the Project IDEAL Support Center at the Institute for Social Research, the University of Michigan. He developed the Project IDEAL online professional development system to train adult education classroom teachers how to teach at a distance. With John Fleischman, he developed the free online ELL resource USA Learns (