Concordia College Vocational Retreat Keynote

This keynote presentation addresses how to best support refugee and migrant English language learners. I describe how the speech communities of refugees and immigrants today are much broader and dynamic than were those of newcomers who arrived before the time of the internet. I describe characteristics of a subset of newcomers – students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE). I explore how both learning preferences of SLIFE and ever-present technology create a unique situation for the teachers that support them and suggest strategies to help SLIFE succeed in schooling.

Vanek 2018 Concordia Vocation Retreat


COABE 2017 The Digital Homeroom: A Resource to Help Teach Computer Skills to Low-Literacy Adults

There is a wealth of online resources that teachers can use to help their learners develop digital literacy skills. Often, the biggest challenge is finding, evaluating, and then organizing them for instruction. This presentation will introduce participants to 1) a free website template, called a digital homeroom, that teachers can stock with links to instructional websites, and 2) a rubric to help evaluate online resources.  The website’s design is based on findings from two related research studies that show how important clean design and culturally relevant resources are for supporting digital literacy instruction. The presentation will provide strategies for using the website in a classroom instruction or for independent work. Finally, options for customizing the website will be offered.

COABE 17 Northstar Bridging Literacy Online Final

Link to website building guide

Link to resource folder

New Models – Instructional Strategies Report

COABE 2017 Presentation: Involved Instruction

IDEAL and Involved Instruction: Using Practitioner Expertise and Research with Distance and Blended Learning

Effective online learning requires more than assigning an online curriculum and handing out log-in information; it requires teacher involvement. Administrators and teachers will learn what is required to create opportunities for “involved instruction.” Topics for discussion include efficiently using core and supplemental online resources in blended learning, selecting technology tools to align with pedagogical and content needs, and making use of computer labs to support instruction. Participants will have time to map “involved instruction” at both the programmatic and instructional levels. Attendees will learn how to access further technical support through participation in the IDEAL Consortium.

Vanek IDEAL effective online instruction 2017 COABE

San Antonio Digital Inclusion Summit

It’s no secret that we are living in a world where use of digital technology propels many of us through the day. In fact, I’m sure there are more computers in this room than there are people.  That may be a powerful illustration of our technological society but what is more telling is that you, the owners and operators of those computers, know when to use them (well mostly) and for what purpose.

This way of moving through the day is characterized in research about technology use as Problem Solving in Technology Rich Environments (PS-TRE). It’s the ability to 1) access information through information communication technologies (ICTs) and/or 2) solving problems that exist because of the presence of ICT itself.

PS-TRE is relevant because fewer and fewer daily tasks can be accomplished through habitual action; essentially we are continuously figuring out how to do things because tasks that were once done offline or by hand are now more efficiently done with ICTs technology. For example: Balancing your checkbook, creating a household budget, writing to your mother, making a doctor appointment, communicating with your kid’s teachers, and shopping, to name a few.

This way of getting through the day can be a “bridge” that gives you access to efficiencies, resources, and information or a “barrier” because others can leverage technology as a resource better than you can. Well, as it turns out the US has a very large proportion of people who cannot do this well.

This was an important finding of the PIAAC Survey of Adult Skills, which measured proficiency with literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology rich environments. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development administered it in 2012 to better understand how well 166,000 adults aged 16-65 in 24 countries use technology to solve problems and accomplish tasks.  Follow up surveys have been given to millennials, incarcerated adults and the elderly since then.  Numerous papers breaking down the results of this massive study can be found at  So, here’s the bad news that I’ve pulled from some of these papers.

Of the 5,000 adults who completed the PIAAC survey in the U.S. in 2012, 13% could not even take the PS-TRE, which was only available on the computer-based version of the assessment, because they had no computer experience or computer skills. Of those who did take it,

  • the U.S. had the highest percentage of participants scoring at the lowest proficiency level
  • 58% of Millennials tested at the low-skill level despite spending 35 hours per week using digital media.[1] And These scores were among the lowest reported among all participating countries.[2]
  • 30% of the participants who couldn’t take PSTRE reported being out of work and 41% reported educational attainment below a high school level,

Also troubling, a  2013 Pew Center Research on Internet use in the US showed that 13% of Americans do not ever go online and that one-third of these respondents don’t because they don’t see the Internet as relevant. Both this report and a 2016 Pew study about readiness to learn online show that adoption is linked to people’s socio-economic status, their race and ethnicity and their level of access to home broadband and smartphones.  Further, despite efforts to increase home access to broadband, the rate of smartphone adoption is outpacing new home internet connections. This is a problem because success in learning, the workplace, accomplishing daily tasks, and (for migrants, refugees and immigrants) sustaining connections to home language and community requires fluency with a range of ICTs, not just smartphones and social networking sites.

Based on my reading and my work as a researcher and adult ESL teacher, I think the task for us now is not to just make digital literacy training available – but to make sure training is quality education. I’m beginning to think that this work needs to be done well or not done at all. When learners go to a computer lab for help with skills and don’t get the help they need, their future investments in their own learning are negatively impacted, as is their sense of agency in digital world. They leave feeling like computers are not for them.

So – what does quality programming look like?  We’ll hear from several innovative practitioners next, but here are a few of my ideas:

1. I think quality instruction requires embedding digital literacy instruction into context that is already relevant to learners- so that within the learning experience they can see the potential for becoming proficient ICT users and build confidence required to make use of new skills and access on their own.


  • In schools, embedding instruction in to learning of other content like ESL or adult diploma classes
  • In OneStops and other Workforce Development agencies, embedding it into job search and application support
  • This has been done in other surprising places, too – in Oregon there are medical providers who offer digital literacy training for patients, which is embedded in instruction for how to access medical information online.

2. I think that online environments for learning are clearly laid out and easy to navigate. Focus group findings from my recent research showed elements of a site that can help novice teachers support low literacy students. These can be viewed at:  Here are some of the good resources that linked to there. The site includes a rubric for volunteers and teachers to use to vet these and any resource for usability with learners.

Additionally, the Northstar Digital Literacy Assessment help you see where your learners are and what they need to work on:

3. My current research is making clear the importance of adequate support for learners engaged. Because learners show up with such a wide range of computer skills and experience AND other supporting proficiencies like shared language and literacy, models that provide self-paced, learner driven learning are likely to have more success than instructional programming were learners work in isolation or in large cohorts.

I think an ideal learning situation would be an open-access lab, stocked with culturally relevant and easy to navigate curricula and plenty of helpers to interact with and guide learners when they get stuck.

This, it seems, is the model that is gaining traction around the US. A recent Benton Foundation report on Broadband Adoption Initiatives shows this model becoming more popular.  There is a library of descriptive materials published by the Language Literacy Technology Research Center at PSU showing what this looks like.  The project is called Tutor-facilitated digital literacy acquisition in hard-to-serve populations.

In environments where classroom instruction is expected, programs should endeavor to provide embedded instruction and use of skills in support of other learning.

There is guidance on how to shape this work, again a colleague from Portland, Kathy Harris has written a useful guide called Integrating Digital Literacy into English Language Instruction

I have written a brief that provides suggestions for adding Problem Solving in Technology Rich Environments. It provides some suggested activities and explanations.

No matter what your context or the sort of classes you offer, be sure you have adequate support for your learners and that they feel like the materials and activities are meant for them. The job is to help people become resilient to the rapid change that characterizes use of ICTs.


Tyton Partners authored two papers that might inform developers as they work to build learning content for computer newcomers. Here are papers available in their Learning for Life series. 



[1] Goodman, Sands, and Coley (2015). America’s skills challenge: Millennials and the future. ETS.

[2] Time for the U.S. to Reskill? (2013). OECD.

Critical reflection on opportunity and digital literacy

A colleague just shared this image with me; though I’m not sure of the source, it is thought provoking.


Last week I wrote about an article written by Rantala & Suoranta (appearing in Lankshear & Knobel, 2008), which suggested that moves to build digital literacy in the EU have a neoliberal bias.  I think the same is true in the US, too.  Essentially, most of the literature I’ve read defines neoliberalism as the economization/marketization of social issues. Harvey (2007) defines it as:

“theory of political economic practices proposing that human well-being can best be advanced by the maximization of entrepreneurial freedoms within an institutional framework characterized by private property rights, individual liberty, unencumbered markets, and free trade” (p. 22).

In such an environment, the premise for education is workforce development and the building of a healthy economy, and government is supposed to get out of the way of entrepreneurs so that can happen.   Davies & Bansel (2007) write of a shift in responsibilities and functions of government implicit in neoliberalism, where it becomes the “duty of the citizen: the newly responsibilized individuals fulfill their obligation to the nation/state by pursuing economic well- being for themselves and their family, for their employer, company, business or corporation (p. 252).

I worry that with such a motivation for technology in education Scenario 2 is more likely than Scenario 1.  We have a well documented Matthew Effect in American education. Coined by Kerckhoff & Glennie (1999), Matthew Effect describes the reality that “those with an advantage at one stage very often obtain a further advantage at the next stage, and those who are disadvantaged at one stage very often become further disadvantaged at the next stage (p. 61).  Knowing this, it’s hard for me to imagine a situation where economic development is sufficient to push for equity.  So, I think we have a responsibility to be advocates for our students, push back against reform movements that fail to acknowledge the difficulty of providing equitable education in communities segregated by poverty, and be sure that we maintain a critical stance on the potential benefits of technology in the classroom.

Davies, B., & Bansel, P. (2007). Neoliberalism and education. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 20(3), 247–259. doi:10.1080/14767720802506821

Kerckhoff, A. C., & Glennie, E. (1999). The Matthew effect in American education. In Research in Sociology of Education and Socialization (Vol. 12, pp. 35–66). JAI Press Inc.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2008). Digital literacies: Concepts, origins, and practices. (M. Lankshear, C., & Knobel, Ed.). New York: Peter Lang.

Critical take on technology integration

My reading the past few weeks has included literature that takes a critical look at the imperative to support digital literacy. While I am still firmly in the camp supporting policy and programming that ensures digital literacy skill development for low-skilled adults, especially immigrants and refugees, I think it’s worth acknowledging the importance of a critical stance.

Rantala and Suoranta, writing in Lankshear and Knoble (2008) describe the development of digital literacy policy in the EU, noting that such policy is firmly rooted in language connecting the digital imperative to movement toward a knowledge-based economy. Neoliberal justification for adult and lifelong learning is not new; most programs in the US are funded by legislation called the “Workforce Opportunities and Innovation Act” and the most influential research on which adult learning policy around the world is based comes from the OECD (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), note that “E” does not stand for education.  One such body of research, PIAAC,  surveyed over 100,000 employed adults in over 20 OECD countries. The results showed alarming low skill proficiency with respect to technology for persons who had low literacy, low education, and low income; however, it needs to be noted that these low scores did not include low-skilled unemployed or a huge percentage of immigrants and refugees who would have presumably scored even lower.

So what’s my concern?  I’m wondering about the efficacy of policy regarding technology skill development framed by a neoliberal lens and supported by research undertaken to explore skills of employed adults. What issues are hidden through such a lens? How might resulting policy fail to address needs of those adults who most need digital literacy instruction and academic skill programming that incorporates useful technologies? These questions have implication for further inquiry and setting realistic goals (both education and economic).  Framing adult learning opportunities from the perspective of workforce development is acceptable as long as it does not delimit the audience of learners AND as long as the research that supports such programming includes those most in need of formal education as participants.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2008). Digital literacies: Concepts, origins, and practices. (M. Lankshear, C., & Knobel, Ed.). New York: Peter Lang.

How Do I Define Myself as an Educational Researcher?

I had an interesting conversation a few days ago with an educational researcher who I deeply respect; someone who has been in the field for several decades. He said something that I’ve heard periodically that makes me feel very nervous. Before I share what it is he said, I’d first like to mention that I’ve spent nearly three years learning how to be a qualitative researcher. Interpretive and poststructural approaches to research are very appealing to me because they give license to develop a deep understanding of a situation and make connections to the broader world in a way that places inequity at the center of research. I think this is critical approach is essential in education research because the systems we have in place have not created equitable educational opportunities. Deeply diving into the classrooms, learner experiences, and a given teacher’s work is informative in a way that broad surveys and generalizable findings cannot be.

I’m particularly interested in knowing adult English language learners’ experiences with resettlement and how their education and adjustment to a new society is complicated by digital technologies. I’ve read countless times that providing access to computers and the internet (& knowledge about how to use it) can help smooth transitions and even lift people out of poverty – hardly any of these studies actually deal with the stories of the people they are meant to describe. In my future research, I’d like to start with the learners, to better understand their experiences adjusting and what role expectations for use of digital technologies plays. I would hope that my research would benefit practitioners and policy makers by adding color to the understanding created by more generalizable research.

I do fear that I’m putting myself in a box by not becoming a strong quantitative, positivist researcher.  Which gets me back to the conversation I began to describe at the beginning of this post. I’ve recently become very interested in Design Based Research; I’m excited about the potential it has to focus critical aspects of the qualitative research that I want to do.  In DBR one solves a local problem through iterative design and testing of a solution created by the researcher and a community impacted by the issue.  While working out a fix, a theory emerges.  The person I was speaking to suggested that this would not ever be a methodology much appreciated by the academy given the strong preference for evaluative research that is tightly positivistic.   I heard the same thing at a meeting in DC about a month ago.

What to do?  I want to do research that has an impact on policy, but I have a difference of opinion about the shape that research should take.