Adult Learning through Online Instructional videos

 rosen headshot

David J. Rosen, Ed.D. President

Newsome Associates

Many adult learners are finding instructional videos on YouTube and elsewhere that may help them learn numeracy and mathematics or improve essay writing skills, prepare for high school equivalency tests and learn other things that are important to them. They may access and watch these videos through a desktop or laptop computer, a smart phone or an electronic tablet. For some, YouTube is their primary search engine.


In technology use, young adult digital native students are sometimes ahead of their older digital immigrant teachers.[1] Some adult education teachers don’t yet realize that their students have been watching instructional videos. Other teachers, for example those who are experimenting with the “flipped classroom” model, are aware of video instruction web sites such as Khan Academy, but may not have looked systematically for other online instruction videos for their students.


In this article we will explore what teachers and learners will need to think about to make best use of online video instruction resources, whether they access the videos from mobile or from desktop devices.


Why is it important to use online instructional videos?


A large — and growing — problem in adult basic education, including numeracy and English language learning, is that students don’t have enough time on task to make good progress in a relatively short period of time. One example of this problem is the 2014 GED® exam; it will use higher, college and career ready standards and, for most students, will require more preparation. There are many reasons why students don’t have enough time on task. Strapped for resources, states have slashed funding for adult education programs or schools. As a result, programs cannot expand teachers’ hours or hire more teachers. Adult students too, particularly if they are working, are limited in the number of hours per week that they can attend a class. One solution to increasing instructional intensity (hours of instruction per week) is to blend face-to-face with online learning. If adult learners, for example, can only attend class for five hours per week, they might be able to learn online for an additional five hours at home or work, or from a mobile device, at times that are convenient. They could use a mixture of text- and video-based web sites. One might ask, isn’t this just a new kind of homework? Perhaps, but well-made videos can engage them more than decontextualized textbook exercises.


My students don’t have access to online learning.


Too often adult learners don’t have computers at home with Internet access; sometimes this is because of the prohibitive cost of hardware and software, or a costly monthly Internet access fee and/or because using digital technology intimidates them. However, the digital divide is narrowing, and adult education teachers now report that more of their students now do have access. In some English language learning classes, for example, teachers report that nearly all or all students now have Internet access at home. According to data on the Pew Internet & American Life Project web site, in 1995 only 10% of American adults had access to the Internet, but as of 2010, only fifteen years later, 80% had access to the Internet. Home broadband Internet access is now over 50% for American adults, and has continued to rise. Black Non-Hispanic and Hispanic families, in particular, have greater access to the Internet than in earlier years, and their access through smart phones is now at a rate (47%, and 49%) that exceeds white, Non-Hispanic residents (42%). [2]


Adult students access the Internet now in many different ways: from a desktop or laptop computer at home, work, a learning center, a community computing center or public library. Some, particularly young adults, access the web from smart phones or increasingly, as the price drops, from electronic tablets. Some students arrange with friends or family members to use their computers, tablets or smart phones.


The cost for a desktop computer has dropped considerably, and costs for some smart phones and tablets are gradually declining. In some places income-eligible adults can buy good quality new or refurbished desktop computers, fully loaded, for under $200. There are programs that enable income-eligible parents to buy a new computer for $150 and to access the Internet for as low as $10.00 a month.[3]


How do students read those tiny mobile phone screens?


Some teachers may doubt how practical web-accessible mobile devices, particularly small-screen mobile phones, are for online video instruction. It’s a reasonable concern both because the screen and font size are small, but also because some web sites that may be well designed for a computer are hard to navigate on a smart phone. Still, many young adults are not daunted by these font size and navigation challenges and, as more people own somewhat larger-screen electronic tablets or mini-tablets, accessing the web from a mobile device is becoming less challenging.


 How can I find good instructional videos suitable for adult learners?


A few years ago one might have had difficulty finding free online basic skills instructional videos; now, this is easier. A December 2012 YouTube search of “adult basic skills instruction” produced 728 web site results. A more specific search for “grammar” produced 165,000 results, and one for “punctuation” produced 10,000 results. Among the adult basic skills instruction entries in the initial search were promising possibilities such as:



as well as non-relevant videos like How to Twirl a Baton For Beginners and The Basics of a Great Batman Costume.




Some web sites specialize in video collections, but most of these sites are designed for K-12 learners, so the videos would need to be carefully screened for adult learning suitability. Among these web sites, for example, is WatchKnowLearn ( A video collection web site designed for adults as well as children, Awesome Stories, has 1700 free video clips in topics such as biographies, disasters, movies, history, sports and the arts. (




In 2012, on the national Literacy Information and Communications (LINCS) numeracy discussion list (now called a Math and Numeracy Community of practice,, I asked teachers to suggest video math sites they thought were suitable for adult learners. From their recommendations I put together a 21-page list of videos, sorted by numeracy or math topic, including an introduction about the state of the art of online numeracy and math video instruction and ideas for how to use the videos with adult learners. You can read a review of the math videos list ( or download a free copy at






Perhaps others have made or might make video instruction compilations like this for adult English language learning for immigrants, reading, writing, digital literacy skills, science, social studies, preparing for high school equivalency or college placement tests, or for other important adult basic skills learning areas.





How to select good instructional videos for your students


Selecting good videos for students is more difficult than finding them because this requires review and judgment. For math there are a number of web sites that have a full range of instructional videos, but this is not as true for some other areas where there may be some good videos (and some poor ones) and where the videos are not well organized by scope and sequence.


Here are some guidelines for selecting videos:


  1. 1.Look for compilations, by subject area, before searching for individual videos.
  2. 2.Consider including videos made for school children in your review, but screen out those that are designed specifically for elementary school-age children unless the videos are to be used for family literacy.
  3. 3.Before assigning a video to students, review it in its entirety. Consider for example:
    1. a.Is the content of the video accurate, and up-to-date?
    2. b.Do students find the video engaging? Is it contextualized, for example in an area of high interest to them?
    3. c.Is the content broken down into clear, small steps? Do students understand it?
    4. d.Is the video accompanied by opportunities to practice?
    5. e.Is the approach and language of the teacher in the video suitable for adult learners?
    6. f.If there are of students in the video, do they look like your students? (Is this important to you? To them?)
    7. g.Is the video related to content standards, for example the Common Core State Standards, your state adult education content standards, or Center for Applied Linguistics English language learning content standards?
    8. h.Is the approach in the video compatible with (or better than) your own approach?
    9. 4.Ask a handful of students to review each video before assigning it to a whole class. Some of the above criteria might be used to develop a video evaluation form for your students’ reviews.


How to use adult basic skills instructional videos


There are many ways to use instructional videos well in an adult education classroom. However, like other instructional materials used well, they all will take a teacher some preparation time. Here are a few of the major ways:


  • Review videos for teaching a particular topic, and assign them to students as supplemental instruction in class; in a program computer lab; at home, work or a library; and/or from a portable device such as a smart phone or an electronic tablet. As mentioned earlier, there are several good ways to search for videos: use a major search engine such as Google, use YouTube or TeacherTube search engines, or find reviewed lists such as The ABE and ASE/HSE Math Videos List.
  • Use a “flipped classroom” model, where instruction is provided first through an ample selection of well-made videos that are each viewed (sometimes more than once) by students before the class that deals with that topic, where students also take an assessment after they watch the video, and these assessment scores are aggregated and reported for the teacher before the class, and where class time is used by a teacher, tutor, aide and/or student peer tutors to help those who did not understand the topic from watching the video.
  • Use a well-developed instructional web site that has videos, print and other instructional materials as a primary source of instruction. Examples of these include: USA Learns ( for ESL/ESOL; Learnzillion ( designed for children but used in some adult education classrooms; TV411 (, a free video magazine format for adults with accompanying text-based materials, especially useful for science and math, but also helpful in other areas such as reading, writing, vocabulary, finance; and Learner Web (, free for adult learners, but for now only available in ten states and the District of Columbia.
  • Make videos of yourself or your students modeling skills or knowledge or solving problems, or have your students make their own instructional videos; select good ones and use them to build or supplement a classroom video library. For resources on how to make your own videos, see .


Can instructional videos be used without a teacher or tutor?


In most cases probably not; however, teachers and tutors may have very different roles once instructional videos are used. In most countries the role of a teacher, including teachers in adult basic education, involves many different aspects, for example: instructional manager; classroom manage; advisor; instructor; demonstrator; encourager and supporter; assessor/evaluator of learning; lesson planner; and curriculum writer. In adult education one instructor may teach several different subjects, and may also be a tutor, counselor/adviser and administrator. However, most people think of a teacher as someone who stands in front of class and lectures, demonstrates or leads instruction. Perhaps this is because in many classrooms the majority of a teacher’s time is spent on these three activities. If a teacher or tutor has access to a large scope (and perhaps sequence) of good instructional videos, ideally ones in which different methods of teaching – some emphasizing visual instruction, some aural, some hands-on — as well as different approaches to problem solving in numeracy, writing, reading comprehension, and project-based learning — then the teacher doesn’t have to stand before the class and model skills. She can assign a video for that. This is the basis of the “flipped classroom” developed as part of the Khan Academy approach ( For a good introduction to Khan Academy and the Flipped Classroom see this TED talk by Salman Khan In the flipped classroom a teacher spends more one-on-one or small group time with learners who, based on results of online assessments related to the instructional videos, need help. Time that teachers would have spent lecturing, presenting or demonstrating in front of the classroom is spent at students’ sides, helping them figure things out.


Another approach — available only to classes where students have easy access to the web in the classroom through electronic tablets, laptops, smart phones and/or desktop computers — involves the teacher’s identifying a piece of instruction that is needed to help a learner solve a problem, and assigning it on the spot. For example, a learner is having trouble with the correct use of punctuation, perhaps commas. The teacher has a list of grammar and punctuation videos on a web page, and sends the learner there to watch a particular video on comma faults. Perhaps the video has accompanying text examples and exercises to practice. The teacher moves on to the next student who is having problems writing a good topic sentence. She assigns that learner a video on writing a strong paragraph. And so on.


One might ask why videos are needed to do this, couldn’t good text-based instructional web sites, or printed texts do as well? Of course they could, but there might be some cases where a demonstration video would do it better. Here’s an example. On a professional development web site called the Media Library of Teaching Skills ( is a video for GED writing teachers that shows how to teach a five-paragraph essay. The video is also on YouTube, where as of January 2013, over 15,000 people — almost all GED students — had looked at it. Several have commented that it helped them a lot. What makes this video so effective? It’s the teacher, of course. But it’s something else, too. The teacher is interacting with her students. We see what the teacher – and the students – say, how they are thinking, how they are solving the problems involved in writing a good five-paragraph essay.


Distance education courses are another way that adult learners can use instructional videos. It is usually best when asynchronous distance learning is blended with either face-to-face teaching or tutoring, or with highly interactive online real-time or asynchronous teacher-student and/or student-student interaction.


Online video instruction is growing for everything, including adult basic skills; we can expect that the quality of online video instruction over time will continue to improve. Many online video instruction web sites are free or relatively inexpensive. Since many students are finding these videos on their own, their teachers should be looking for and evaluating videos, too. Together, an adult basic education teacher and her students can put together carefully constructed lists of online instruction videos that can complement what they do in class.






From 1986-2003 Dr. Rosen was the Executive Director of the Adult Literacy Resource Institute/SABES Greater Boston Regional Support Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston, a professional development and training organization supporting adult basic education and ESOL teachers in greater Boston. Since 2003, through his company, Newsome Associates, ( he has been an independent educational consultant to U.S.-based and international projects and organizations. He is an Implementation Advisor for the Learner Web at Portland (ORE) State University, co-founder of the Media Library of Teaching Skills, and co-founder and manager of the Adult Literacy Education Wiki.


[1] Prensky, M. 2001. “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. ” MarcPrensky. Retrieved January 9, 2013 from

[2] Rainie, L. Smart Phone Ownership Update: September 2012”.   September11, 2012.  Pew Internet & American Life. Retrieved December 29, 2012 from

[3] For example, Comcast has a program in many states for parents whose children are eligible for free school breakfasts or lunches to benefit from a $9.95/month Internet access fee. Comcast can also provide them with a computer for about $150. For more information, see and