Attracting, Retaining, and Engaging Adults as Learners


Across the past 8 months, every professional development session, including Community Conversations, and each Community of Purpose gathering has touched on the persistent issue of attracting/retaining and engaging adult learners. Practitioners have shared a lot of information and we have gathered that knowledge and experience through our newsletters over the past ‘pandemic’ months. We hope that this summary is a helpful reminder of how adaptable and creative you, and the adults who access your programs, are. What would you add to any of these lists?

Manage expectations:

Learners (and practitioners) are in cognitive overload right now. Keep your focus ‘learner centred’ with really manageable learning activities.

  • The adults who are continuing to participate in programs despite the challenges are coming for connection, connection to a learning self, as well as connection to the curriculum. One practitioner noted ‘keep it simple, keep it creative and responsive and remember to make the connection first’ – a simple ‘how’s it going for you’ can open up the door to problem solving together and practicing skills in a real-life context that makes a difference.
  • Authentic, truly learner-centred learning can be focused on supporting the learner to access resources and tools to meet basic needs in these challenging times.
  • The issues that learners are trying to solve ARE the authentic learning opportunities and although not all of the ‘curriculum’ will be about reading/writing/numeracy we can enhance trust, offer/practice strategies to reduce stress, recognize and promote resilience and adaptability, provide information/resources that supports next-step problem solving and imbed skills in these “just in time” learning opportunities.
  • Be cautious about making assumptions about technology usage and confidence, and about the skills to use that technology as a ‘learning tool’.
  • Modify course material to ensure delivery is optimal/possible and curriculum is relevant to this time or near future (i.e. some learners are eager to get their workforce tickets as they foresee a lot of job openings post-pandemic).
  • Encourage collaborative problem solving that has room for ‘solutions’ to not always work well… we all learn from that also. Practicing those reflective conversations with our learners will deepen the trust – we are all learning and often, especially in the beginning and even when it doesn’t always go smoothly.
  • Evaluate the learning process with the learners on a regular basis. Ask what works and what does not? The feedback is so valuable and helps us calibrate the choices we are making. This also highlights that what works well for some is not working well for another, or what worked well this past week suddenly is not working at all.
  • Pay attention to your adult learner demographics- what is different? Who is missing? Who does online learning work well for and who does it clearly not work for? Ask ‘why/why not’, ask ‘how’ including what would need to be in place in order for returning to learning to be possible? Use that information to inform your programming and let adults know that you will keep the door open and work with them to reduce barriers.

Leverage your strengths

Be the ‘any door is the right door’ agency. What we can do right now is keep regular contact with learners and with our colleagues, to share information and to problem solve. We need to trust that when we stay engaged with the adults attending our programs, even if it is not explicitly about reading and writing, we are supporting them to continue to see themselves connected to learning

  • Instead of recruiting a new group, perhaps extending the current course for the present cohort, encouraging momentum of whatever retention was managed through the transition to remote learning.
  • Encourage ‘word of mouth’ recruitment
  • Utilize internal connections within your organization (i.e. support workers introducing individuals to learning). “Natural feeders” may extend to community partners, reaching out to other organizations to get an idea of whether they know of individuals that the courses could be a good fit for.
  • Work through the waitlists and call and/or email potential learners to make a connection and to talk about learning plans for the future.
  • Develop a short PowerPoint and utilize screen sharing tools to walk prospective students through the course for a sneak peek, this might make it less intimidating for some learners.
  • Ensuring that learners are not “lost”, keeping in touch with them through whatever media they are most able to use.
  • Some practitioners are mailing out packages of materials and following up with a phone call. They are putting together newsletters with tips and resources and both emailing and hard copy mailing for learners
  • Work with your learners to find the platform that will work best for them! If they are already comfortable on a particular platform (ie: WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger), use it so they do not have to focus on learning to use technology at the same time as they are learning the subject matter/curriculum you are working on together.
  • Be prepared to do Tech support even if it is NOT your skill – learning a new skill can be (is) messy, hopefully we laugh and learn together. Remember that stepping out of your comfort zone and taking learning risks in a shared fail/try again experience with a learner can be very helpful.

Community Capacity

All community service agencies are struggling. Find new ways to work together if traditional partnership agreements are not workable at this time. Ask what is possible, know what you have to offer, and work from there.

  • Connect with formal and informal community partners to learn about how they are handling their programs and services at this time and letting them know what you are doing and what you hope to offer in the future.
  • Pay attention to innovations and resources that can be shared. For example, this spring some internet companies began to offer some very affordable internet packages. This is helpful info to pass along to community partners as well as the adults who are either considering stepping into learning programs for themselves or finding resources for their children who are trying to also learn remote/online/blended.
  • Make knowledgeable referrals. If you do not have the program someone needs make a good referral. This can build a stronger network of literacy and foundational learning programs and affirm that you have a learner’s best interests at heart – that’s good marketing!

Slow Marketing

  • Word-of-Mouth!
    • Your learners are your best advertising! Invite them to spread the word that you are safely open for business and have learner spaces to fill!
    • Marketing through community champions and ambassadors.
  • Posters!
    • Simple Plain Language posters emailed or delivered to community partners for placement in high traffic areas. These can also be inserted into those partner organizations newsletters for clients or other partnership networks to spread the word.
    • Practitioners also recommended putting them in grocery stores, service agencies, etc. When, and if, community halls, prayer halls and churches reopen, you may be able to post information there. Some closed organizations maintain a public message board – physical or electronic- that you might be able to get a quick ad on.
  • Radio ads, community newspaper or newsletters, etc.
  • Pop-Up info table – obtaining permission (when and where COVID-19 possible) to set up a table in a school, a library or a mall.
  • PHONE! Maintain the great efforts of the past 8 months and call past learners, learners who disappeared during the pandemic, learners who have expressed interest and did not follow through (yet). Find out what they need, what they are interested in, what barriers are getting in the way of them returning to learning

Fast marketing

  • Use your social media/Facebook/website, etc. for recruitment but know that only those who have access will benefit from that initiative.
  • Create short videos to advertise your programming. These audio/visual posters can go onto your social media sites. If they are YouTube links they can be emailed out and shared easily.

Reporting and accountability

Calgary Learns knows that your 2020/21 applications with projections were approved pre-pandemic. We want you to be able to deliver strong adult literacy and foundational learning programs. We know you are facing unprecedented challenges.

  1. Talk to your Calgary Learns Grant Coordinator about your challenges and concerns with your projections that you set.
  2. Track your progress. Keep notes about how you are problem solving, what works and what does not.
  3. Evaluate your efforts and those of the adults in your program. Remember, relevant positive feedback in a timely manner.
  4. Represent the learners in your program – Who is accessing your programming? What new challenges are adults facing that is a barrier to learning? We need to know so that we can represent those learners, and your programs, in our reporting to the Government of Alberta.
  5. Track the amount of additional time it is taking to offer your programs in these times – additional prep time, additional 1-1 time instead of classrooms, needing to provide tech support, ability to cover less ‘curriculum’ during class, etc. This can be discussed during site visits and become part of your report narrative.
  6. Tell your Grant Coordinator if there is proposed programming that you cannot deliver. Discuss your strategies and your ideas now – do not wait until next spring when it is time to write reports.
  7. Attend OME/Q&A sessions and share your challenges and your solutions with each other.
  8. Attend PD sessions and tell us what you would like to see more of – specific topics or recommended facilitators