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Hidden in plain sight: low-literacy adults in a developed country overcoming social and educational challenges through mobile learning support tools


Illiteracy is often associated with people in developing countries. However, an estimated 50 % of adults in a developed country such as Canada lack the literacy skills required to cope with the challenges of today’s society; for them, tasks such as reading, understanding, basic arithmetic, and using everyday items are a challenge. Many community-based organizations offer resources and support for these adults, yet overall functional literacy rates are not improving. This is due to a wide range of factors, such as poor retention of adult learners in literacy programs, obstacles in transferring the acquired skills from the classroom to the real life, personal attitudes toward learning, and the stigma of functional illiteracy. In our research we examined the opportunities afforded by personal mobile devices in providing learning and functional support to low-literacy adults. We present the findings of an exploratory study aimed at investigating the reception and adoption of a technological solution for adult learners. ALEX© is a mobile application designed for use both in the classroom and in daily life in order to help low-literacy adults become increasingly literate and independent. Such a solution complements literacy programs by increasing users’ motivation and interest in learning, and raising their confidence levels both in their education pursuits and in facing the challenges of their daily lives. We also reflect on the challenges we faced in designing and conducting our research with two user groups (adults enrolled in literacy classes and in an essential skills program) and contrast the educational impact and attitudes toward such technology between these. Our conclusions present the lessons learned from our evaluations and the impact of the studies’ specific challenges on the outcome and uptake of such mobile assistive technologies in providing practical support to low-literacy adults in conjunction with literacy and essential skills training.

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    For the study presented later in this paper, the “Collins Cobuild Advanced Dictionary of American English” 1st Edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2007, and the “Collins Gem Thesaurus” 6th Edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2009 were embedded in ALEX©, although any XML-based dictionaries can be uploaded.

  2. 2.

    The students who participated in the initial design sessions were not the same as those in the longitudinal study.

  3. 3.

    We will refer to the participants in the apprenticeship study by using the A-prefix in front of the participant ID (e.g., A-P1). Similarly, the teachers will be referred to as A-T1 (the main teacher) and A-T2 (the substitute teacher).

  4. 4.

    We have since ported ALEX© to both iOS and Android.

  5. 5.

    An extensive analysis of these factors and detailed design recommendations can be found in [24].


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Correspondence to Cosmin Munteanu.

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Munteanu, C., Molyneaux, H., Maitland, J. et al. Hidden in plain sight: low-literacy adults in a developed country overcoming social and educational challenges through mobile learning support tools. Pers Ubiquit Comput 18, 1455–1469 (2014).

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  • Mobile computing
  • Educational interfaces
  • Mobile learning
  • Assistive technology
  • Evaluation methodology