Development of high-quality multimedia broadband online educational resources requires considerable investment. Will that investment pay off educationally if not financially? Our experience with U.S.A. Learns says it will. U.S.A. Learns is an innovative project that creates an online pathway to literacy, language proficiency, economic opportunity, citizenship, civil participation, and civic integration for those who have been unable to benefit from traditional classroom programs due to problems with childcare, transportation, work schedules or other issues. It was conceived in 2005 when the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) recognized the seriousness of the language and literacy problem and contracted with the Project IDEAL Support Center at the University of Michigan and the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE) to find out if the Web could use broadband technology to deliver instruction directly to adults who could not attend school due to personal circumstances or a lack of available programs. As a test-of-concept, SCOE and the University of Michigan designed and built U.S.A. Learns (www.usalearns.org) - a Web site to teach English to immigrants, an audience considered least likely to be able to use the Internet for self-study. If we built it, would they come?
The site was launched November 7, 2008, with more than 400 hours of free instruction. Since then, with little or no promotion, the site has had 2,005,890 visits. With more than 7,000 visits per day, each lasting nearly 30 minutes, usalearn.org’s popularity exceeded everyone’s expectations. However, after 9 months of operation with no promotional efforts whatsoever, usage had begun to level off. With some 21.7 million adults in the U.S. who are limited English proficient, and another 1.8 million new immigrants arriving annually (according to the Migration Policy Institute), we were certain there were many more who would use and benefit from the site if they only knew about it. As an experiment to see if we could increase awareness and usage, we recently sent out a simple press release, fact sheet and public service announcement to media with Hispanic and other immigrant audiences in ten U.S. cities. The number of daily visits immediately tripled!
We think that this tremendous response is one more indicator of both the need and the potential for not just enhanced adult language learning and literacy programs online, but for a truly comprehensive adult learning portal on the Web that both takes advantage of broadband's capabilities and promotes its use among market segments not usually reached. Moreover, in today’s challenging economic environment, the dramatically lower cost of broadband delivery makes the case for an online learning portal especially compelling. (The Migration Policy Institute estimates costs for classroom ESL programs at $10 per learner hour; U.S.A. Learns is operated for less than seven cents per learner hour!)
If we build a comprehensive learning portal, will they come? Based on a typical learner's appreciation for U.S.A. Learns, they will: “Just I want to say thanks for this program. Is very important for me to learn English, but for my job, I can’t to go to school. Thanks again and God bless all of you.”