This section begins with a summary of insights from very recent literature on a new teaching mode termed “emergency remote instruction”. There is no published research on this type of teaching in our specific field of interest, because modern-day ABE and family literacy programmes have never experienced a global pandemic. Since remote instruction and DE share some similar instructional strategies, technologies and challenges, we also review pertinent literature on DE in ABE and family literacy, including parent education and parent–child interactive literacy activities (ILAs).
Emergency remote teaching
The term emergency remote teaching (or instruction) was coined in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Online distance education is an established, planned approach to designing educational content and using a suite of instructional strategies for online learners, whereas “emergency remote teaching should be considered a temporary solution to an immediate problem” (Bozkurt and Sharma 2020, p. ii) – in this case, pandemic-induced educational disruptions. Thus, emergency remote teaching and online distance education are not synonymous. Although focused on formal education in K-12 schoolsFootnote 3 and higher education, the emerging literature on emergency remote instruction includes teaching and planning recommendations pertinent to adult education. These include engaging in “creative problem solving” (Hodges et al. 2020, n.p.), providing active learning opportunities (Quality Matters 2020), providing scaffolding and cognitive aids (Pohan 2020), fostering community and collaboration among learners (Pohan 2020; Quality Matters 2020), creating “a climate of empathy and care” through “emotional presence” (Bozkurt and Sharma 2020, p. iii), and providing adequate training and support for teachers (Karalis 2020).
A webinar sponsored by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL 2020) highlighted how the pandemic has affected family and community learning in Poland, Ireland, Germany and Pakistan. Salient insights included the expectation for parents and caregivers – particularly mothers and older girls – to assume a more active role in young children’s education at home and revealed challenges related to low parental and child literacy rates. Programmatic and policy responses included supporting social and emotional learning, providing self-directed distance learning, organising online meetings for families and experts (e.g. psychologists, educators), and providing creative family learning opportunities (e.g. online stories series with actors reading fairy tales, online science centres, family music projects). These practices have emerged in various UNESCO Learning Cities,Footnote 4 for whom the webinar was organised. Sharing their experiences with these new forms of family learning, programme representatives highlighted the importance of cultivating a learning environment at home.
Distance education in adult basic education
In US-based ABE programmes, DE is nearly always online and asynchronous, meaning that teachers and students do not meet at the same time. There are four DE models:
pure (no in-class instruction);
blended (DE and in-class instruction are integrated);
hybrid (online curriculum is not necessarily aligned with in-class instruction); and
supplemental (online work is optional and outside of regular class time) (Murphy et al. 2017; Vanek et al. 2019).
Online instruction typically involves approved (commercial) products rather than teacher-created content. Instructors also use various online tools and resources to support and communicate with learners. The blended model is considered most effective and prevalent in ABE; structured programmes with in-person instruction combined with DE tend to be more beneficial than the DE model using digital technologies alone, particularly for beginner-level learners and those who need more guidance and support (Murphy et al. 2017).
Empirical studies indicate several benefits of DE. With flexible delivery, DE can serve geographically remote learners (Prins et al. 2012) and allow students to work at their own pace (Murphy et al. 2017; Prins et al. 2012). Online DE products can help teachers “identify struggling students”, “provide immediate feedback” and “differentiate instruction” based on students’ needs, thus helping to close educational gaps (Murphy et al. 2017, p. 31; see also Newman et al. 2015). As learners’ comfort with technology and their confidence in using it grows, their DE experiences can motivate them to continue learning (Porter and Sturm 2006) and apply their knowledge to real-life tasks (Rosen and Vanek 2017).
Many of the hallmarks of high-quality DE in ABE overlap with recommendations for remote instruction (as described above). Developing a consistent, personal teacher–learner relationship with regular communication is critical for enrolment, retention and learning in DE (Gungor and Prins 2011; Inverso et al. 2017; Porter and Sturm 2006). For example, a meta-analysisFootnote 5 showed that instructors’ involvement and active online presence predicted DE programme effectiveness and learning outcomes (Zhao et al. 2005). DE teachers also need to build community among learners, for instance, by using communication applications (apps) such as WhatsApp (Rosen and Stewart 2015). In addition, DE instructors should provide meaningful, relevant, high-quality learning material (Inverso et al. 2017; Vanek et al. 2019).
Digital access is a pervasive challenge in online DE in ABE and online remote instruction. To participate in online platforms, learners need to access the internet and computers or digital devices, however, this is inequitably distributed by income, formal education, ethnicity and geographic location (Ryan 2018). Access is not only material; it also includes other domains: mental (e.g. anxiety stemming from limited basic computer experience), skills (e.g. limited knowledge of how to use digital devices) and usage (e.g. limited opportunities to use technologies) (Van Dijk and Hacker 2003), as well as the ability to use technology to solve problems (Vanek et al. 2019). Since smartphones have become widespread and mobile apps for learning are increasing, using mobile devices is one way to lessen the digital divide (Inverso et al. 2017; Rosen and Vanek 2017).
Because some learners have limited experience with digital technologies, teachers should assess their readiness for DE (Gungor and Prins 2011; Vanek et al. 2019). They should also provide well-planned orientations and continuous technical support (Porter and Sturm 2006); however, these may not be feasible in emergency remote teaching. Lastly, since DE depends on instructors who can use technology effectively, high-quality professional development is needed (Gungor and Prins 2011; Newman et al. 2015).
Next, we turn to DE in family literacy, parent education and ILAs. We identified few studies on this topic, which underscores the need for more research.
Distance education in family literacy, parent education and interactive literacy activities
Research on distance learning for family literacy programmes is scarce. The available literature concentrates on integrating technology into the family, the educational possibilities of technology (at home or in a programme), and/or the need for programmes to foster families’ digital literacy skills (e.g. Lynch and Prins forthcoming; Marsh et al. 2017; Rideout 2014; Stephen et al. 2013). Similar to Marsh et al. (2017), we “use the term ‘digital’ in relation to literacy to reflect the way in which reading and writing practices are increasingly mediated by new technologies in the new media age” (Ibid., p. 47). This research shows that in wealthier countries, digital technologies are already integrated into most families’ lives, making online DE or remote instruction a viable delivery method for family literacy.
Typically, parent education and ILAs are delivered face-to-face (Debruin-Parecki 2009); however, COVID-19 has reinforced the need for different delivery methods. In one of the only studies examining DE in family literacy, Beschorner and Hutchison (2016) compared the experiences and outcomes of adult learners completing a parent education class through face-to-face classes with those who had received online instruction. The differences in parental experiences included participants’ characteristics (various family members attended in-person classes, but only mothers attended online), attendance (higher for online classes) and social networking opportunities (face-to-face participants valued these opportunities more). However, the children of participants in both groups performed similarly, indicating that both methods were equally effective for teaching dialogic reading (i.e. shared reading in which the adult and child engage in an active conversation about the story) (Whitehurst et al. 1994).
A key focus of family literacy programmes is the opportunity for parents and children to interact to enhance children’s language and print literacy skills, while also allowing parents to practise what they have learned in adult education. Coupled with parent education, ILAs are opportunities for parents to discover how to positively influence their children’s learning and development. Research has consistently demonstrated that parent involvement enhances children’s language and print literacy development (Fan and Chen 2001; Sénéchal and LeFevre 2002), and that shared reading is related to language, literacy and other academic skills development (Bus et al. 1995; Shalaeian et al. 2018).
Recognising that families already incorporate digital literacies in their everyday lives (Marsh et al. 2017; Rideout 2014), the Digital Parenting Workgroup at the University of Wisconsin (Clarkson 2017) produced a parent education programme (eParenting®) that combined online and face-to-face learning opportunities, focusing on “meaningful, positive uses of digital media with young children” (Clarkson 2017, p. 1). Both the face-to-face and online classes helped parents learn new parenting ideas and techniques for using digital media. This programme, along with Beschorner and Hutchinson’s (2016) study, demonstrates the need for further research on providing parent education online because this mode of teaching appears effective and there are myriad online teaching tools and learning platforms available.
Drawing on behavioural science insights regarding what researchers in that field term “nudges” (Hummel and Maedche 2019),Footnote 6 family literacy programmes have also used text messaging and/or e-mailing to reach parents with tips and ideas for parenting and ILAs, and reminders about classes, resources and activities. For instance, parents in Head Start (a US early childhood education programme for low-income families) who received text messages about child activities as well as parent encouragement, engaged in more learning activities with their children compared to parents who did not receive messages (Hurwitz et al. 2015). Similarly, an eight-month text-messaging intervention showed that parents’ home literacy engagement and school involvement increased (York et al. 2019). Finally, in a randomised experiment to prevent summer (holiday) reading loss, parents received text messages with ideas for at-home literacy activities (Kraft and Monti-Nussbaum 2017). Consequently, attendance at parent–teacher conferences (interviews) increased, as did reading comprehension for third and fourth graders (but not first and second graders).Footnote 7 These studies emphasise the importance of supplementing DE and remote instruction parent education with targeted text messages about family literacy resources and activities.