PSU learning software receives $3.3 million grant

An online learning software developed at Portland State was given the green light by the U.S. Department of Commerce to expand to five other states with the help of a $3.3 million grant.

An online learning software developed at Portland State was given the green light by the U.S. Department of Commerce to expand to five other states with the help of a $3.3 million grant.

The grant is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, a governmental effort to bridge the digital divide in the country. The Learner Web software platform was developed by Stephen Reder, a professor of applied linguistics at the PSU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Reder said Learner Web has been a work-in-progress for the past five years and was originally used to help adult learners returning to college. The new grant will be used to develop content for Learner Web in the area of digital literacy, in addition to providing services for at least 23,000 people.

“The populations we’re trying to help are often marginalized in many ways,” Reder said. “They either have low education, [are] non-native speakers of English or [are] low income, which prevents their access to computers.”

Since most of the users won’t have any experience with computers, Reder said it is important to make the system as simple as possible. A unique feature of the program is that it will be a blend of computer support and in-person tutoring services at places such as libraries and community centers.

“Learner Web will be implemented in 75 different community centers [for each state] in this project,” Reder said, adding that the program will utilize volunteers for its tutoring services.

The five states receiving the service are New York, California, Texas, Louisiana and Minnesota. In some areas, residents are marginalized on several levels, such as Starr County, Texas, where 65 percent of the population lacks basic literacy skills and 33.5 percent live in poverty, according to the data provided by Reder. In other areas poverty rates are also in the double-digits, and the percentage of those without high-school diplomas is often equally high, such as the 19.8 percent rate in Richmond, Calif.

“I think digital literacy is an essential ingredient in a sustainable community,” Reder said. “I think this work is keeping in touch with a lot of the emphasis and focus that PSU has on sustainability.”

Learner Web has already been utilized in Portland and especially at PSU. The platform is being used by several departments on campus, one of which is the Intensive English Language Program  [IELP] in Reder’s department. The IELP has about 400 students—all of whom are non-native English speakers—and 60 instructors.

According to Errin Beck, the IELP instructor and Learner Web coordinator, the software is currently being used in three ways: academic support, tutor training and faculty professional development.

Beck said instructors also get the choice to utilize Learner Web in their curricula to help students study English proficiency tests, such as the TOEFL. In addition, the IELP was one of the first departments to test-drive the software back in 2009, and since then they have made several development changes to better suit its needs.

Another advantage of the program is an ease of use that allows users to modify the content. In the case of the IELP, since most students are non-native speakers, Learner Web uses simple language, and sometimes pictures, to convey a lesson.

“I like that we can incorporate different types of medias in our programs,” Beck said. “Learner Web is unique in its flexibility.”

According to Beck, the program is very compatible with non-native English speakers, which is one of the reasons Learner Web was developed in the first place.

In addition, Learner Web also helps the IELP train its graduate student tutors and provide orientation for newly hired instructors. Beck was involved with setting up the system for faculty development.

“Learner Web is a new technology; it’s important for us to encourage it and be informed about its potential for expansion,” Beck said. “I think this project will be exciting.”

In the next six months, Reder and several other developers will be working on creating new content for Learner Web. In November, he will meet with national partners to plan out the project. ?