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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

Online Courses

January 2021


What research or resources are available on adult basic education and online learning?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive studies on adult basic education and online learning. In particular, we searched for resources on best practices to facilitate online instruction and engage and retain adult learners working to obtain a high school diploma or equivalent. For details on the databases and sources, keywords and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Abdrahim, N. A. (2020). Weaving school and life involvements: Exploring self-regulatory process of adult students in online distance education courses. Journal of Educators Online, 17(2).

From the ERIC abstract: “This study presents a new understanding of how adult students engage in the self-regulatory process. Based on the social cognitive model of self-regulated learning (SRL), a qualitative study was conducted to inductively explore the adult students’ self-regulatory process in online distance education (DE) courses. In addition to being registered as online DE students, all participants were purposively recruited to meet the age requirements of being 25-years and older and having a self-supporting job and/or key family commitments. The findings broadly suggest the adaptive nature of the adult students’ self-regulatory process; influenced by their online distance course settings and requirements as well as their broader life involvements and responsibilities as adults.”

Digby, C., & Bey, A. (2014). Technology literacy assessments and adult literacy programs: Pathways to technology competence for adult educators and learners. Journal of Literacy and Technology, 15(3), 28–57.

From the abstract: “This case study was conducted to consider digital literacy programs for lower literate adults in Minnesota. Two programs were considered, the Northstar Digital Literacy Program, and the Learner Web system. Both are being used at regional sites in Minnesota to target digital competency and literacy education for adults. Interviews were conducted with a current educator at one site, with a coordinator for these two programs who has been involved since the programs began, and, experiences of the authors acting in the capacity as tutors for these programs were included for considering practical experiences in the learning environments. This paper’s effort is a brief environmental scan of challenges and possibilities for this emerging area of adult education, and should not be generalized. Emphasis is placed on digital literacy teaching and learning; considering assumptions educators might make about their students access to, and knowledge of, technology use; how technology could be further integrated into literacy education; and, on assessments and higher level technology competence (being able to type or send an email are important skills, but in today’s society more skills are needed to succeed in college or work).”

Murphy, R., Bienkowski, M., Bhanot, R., Wang, S., Wetzel, T., House, A., Leones, T., & Van Brunt, J. (2017). Evaluating digital learning for adult basic literacy and numeracy. SRI International.

From the abstract: “More than 36 million adults in the United States do not have the basic literacy and math skills needed for many entry-level jobs and even less so for the types of jobs expected to dominate in the future. And current federal- and state-funded adult basic education (ABE) programs, the main providers of skill development and training programs for this population, do not have the resources, facilities, or trained staff to serve all those adults in need of further education to improve their basic skills and job prospects. In 2014, The Joyce Foundation asked SRI Education’s Center for Technology in Learning to investigate the role and efficacy of five different digital learning products in (1) improving the basic reading, writing, and math outcomes for low-skilled adults in ABE programs and (2) helping programs increase their capacity to serve a greater number of students. Through this research, we set out to understand how ABE programs might use these technologies to improve the instruction they offer, whether such technologies are effective with low-skilled adults (performing at fourth- to ninth-grade levels in reading and/or math) and which practices and product features might be associated with better outcomes for students and programs. In this report, we present the findings from this three-year study.”

National Center for Education Research. (2018). Advancing adult education research: Post-WIOA (Technical working group meeting). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. [209 KB PDF icon]

From the abstract: “On October 26, 2018, the National Center for Education Research (NCER) of the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education (ED) convened a group of experts to discuss the current state of adult education. This group of experts included adult education instructors, program directors, state directors, representatives from technical assistance and advocacy organizations, and researchers (including developers of technology, curricula, and professional development as well as evaluators). Representatives from IES and the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) at ED also took part in the conversation. The goal of this technical working group meeting was to hear from the field about how adult education programming is or is not changing since the authorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) in 2014. The meeting also focused on how research and dissemination may support activities under Title II of WIOA: Adult Education and Family Literacy. The day’s discussion centered on four topics: (1) basic skills and the traditional focus of adult education programming, (2) workforce preparation and the role of WIOA’s integrated education and training (IET) programming, (3) the implications and potential of technology in adult education programming, and (4) building a research base and disseminating information.”

Olesen-Tracey, K. (2010). Leading online learning initiatives in adult education. Journal of Adult Education, 39(2), 36–39.

From the ERIC abstract: “Adult learners often face barriers to participation in traditional classroom instruction. As technology access grows and adults naturally incorporate technology into their daily lives, adult education programs are finding innovative ways to blend technology with instruction through quality online learning opportunities. This article highlights the tips, strategies, and best practices learned from the deployment of GED-i, a nationally recognized online GED test preparation curriculum developed at the Center for the Application of Information Technologies at Western Illinois University. However, the procedures presented are applicable to all online/distance learning options and are based on solid administrative leadership strategies such as determining benchmarks, establishing and communicating clear processes and procedures, and setting professional development goals.”

Pearson. (2018). MyLab Foundational Skills: Efficacy research report. Author.

From the ERIC abstract: “Pearson sought to explore whether the use of MyLab Foundational Skills, a mastery and competency-based online platform designed to assess and remediate a selection of skills to prepare students for college and careers, is related to students’ course grades. This Research Report presents findings from two research studies: one comparative study conducted at a community college in the state of Arizona, with students enrolled in Adult Basic Education courses; and one correlational study conducted at Rio Salado College. Our aim in using mainly correlational study designs was to seek out possible relationships between the use of MyLab Foundational Skills and students’ course grades to identify areas of focus for potential future research using more rigorous causal study designs.”

Shaw, D., Tham, Y. S. S., Hogle, J., & Koch, J. (2015). Desire: A key factor for successful online GED adult learners. Journal of Research and Practice for Adult Literacy, Secondary, and Basic Education, 4(1), 21–35. Full text available from

From the ERIC abstract: “The purpose of this study was to analyze the experiences of 12 adult online General Educational Development (GED) students to determine the role of program and personal factors that influenced their successful passing of the GED or their dropping-out of the program. Through surveys and interviews, we discovered that desire was the key factor for success. Teacher support also played a very important role. Our findings support the interest in adult online GED programs and provide insight to factors of persistence.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

Adult Education Research and Technical Assistance Center –

From the website: “Adult learners include individuals with low levels of education who need to improve their literacy skills or obtain a secondary credential, immigrants who want to learn English, and adults seeking to improve their employment skills. The Adult Education Research and Technical Assistance Center (AERTAC) at AIR conducts research and provides technical assistance to states and local programs to improve the adult education system by promoting quality instruction and support services through better professional development, evaluation, strengthening accountability, and increasing the use of promising practices such as technology in instruction.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “adult basic education” blended

  • “adult basic education” COVID-19

  • “adult basic education” online

  • “adult education programs” online

  • “online courses” “adult education”

  • “online courses” “adult literacy”

  • “online courses” “adult students” GED

  • “online courses” “adult high school diploma programs”

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2006 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.