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Preparing for the GED Online: Lessons Learned from Experienced Teachers and Adult Learners
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This exploratory study contributes to research that provides student and instructor perceptions of preparing for the GED through an online option, in which the programs were developed by publishers. Eight students were currently studying online and the majority had been enrolled for less than half a year unless there were extenuating circumstances. We learned that students spent relatively little time enrolled (i.e. ¾ of the students spent less than 3 months) and most of the respondents (93%) passed their GED. This finding supports previous research that the online GED is a valuable, and perhaps desired, option for many adults (Porter & Sturm, 2006; Prins, et al., 2012; Reeder, 2007). Scheduling and transportation difficulties were the two prevalent reasons students chose the online option. Teachers recognized transportation costs as a main reason for online use, though there was less agreement among teachers and students about other reasons.

Our first question inquired what GED subjects (e.g. social studies, science, math, writing, reading) were most easily learned online. Our research indicated that math was rated as the most difficult subject by both students and teachers, which was also confirmed by Zhang and Patterson (2009). Zhang and Patterson previously found reading and science to be the subject areas that most students pass on the first attempt and likewise, the majority of our students found these subject areas relatively easy. Social studies also posed some challenges for Zhang and Patterson’s group of participants and for a small portion (7 students said it was a little difficult) of adults in this study.

The second question focused on the teacher support that was given and needed. The participating adults in this study were successful at using a computer and self-reported they rarely needed assistance from their online instructor. This finding needs to be weighed against the fact that only 63% of the contacted students agreed to participate in the study. The non-participating 37% may have had more difficulties, as mentioned by Student A. Even if we consider all non-participants as drop-outs of the online GED program, we can conclude that approximately half or more benefit. We discovered that the amount of support requested of and provided by the online teachers was reported as minimal by both the teachers and participating students. Research shows that support should be provided (Porter & Sturm, 2006; Silver-Pacuilla, 2008). Porter and Sturm (2006) found students’ retention was related to their relationship with their teacher. The current study did not find much evidence that students and teachers perceived a need for these previously recommended supports. It appeared that the students who needed more support than the online program offered chose to reach out to a personal contact (e.g. friend or tutor) or use the available wealth of information on the Internet.

Most participating students spent 15 hours per week engaged with online GED lessons. Forty percent did this for a month or less and then passed the GED test. Another 35% continued with lessons for up to 3 months before taking the GED test with a high success rate. The remaining 25% continued for longer with about 10% of the total who experienced on-going difficulties (including medical issues for one student) and needed continued teacher support. Our discovery parallels Prins et al. (2012) finding that students who enrolled in distance learning and passed in a relatively short time “were more academically prepared upon program entry and thus required fewer instructional hours” (p. 228).

The third question addressed the balance of face-to-face and online support for learning. The vast majority (i.e. more than 90%) worked on lessons at home and a few students went to use the computer at a friend’s house. No one mentioned visiting the public library to use the library computers. Since 93% of the participants had passed their GED test, it appears the online option provided sufficient support and face-to-face interaction may not be that important for this group of learners. Interestingly, four of the twenty-two surveyed students (two of these were interviewed), said they attended class or saw a tutor on campus and simultaneously signed up for the online GED for more practice. So for these few students, a mixture of face-to-face and online provided what they needed. The teachers reported 15-30% of students drop out or are terminated each month primarily due to lack of hours rather than reported program difficulty. Further study of these dropouts is warranted to determine whether the reasons are related to online learning or other causes such as program quality, teacher relationship and more. In addition, 37% of available students did not respond to the survey. We need to learn more about this group of adult learners in the future including their reasons for not participating in the survey and whether some of these reasons might also be reflected in online learning difficulties. Would a combination of face-to-face and online support help dropouts and non-responders continue despite their challenges?

Limitations of this study include a very small sample from a single adult education site. Future research should increase the sample size including adults who dropped out of online GED programs. There are many areas for further inquiry. One possibility is to identify the types of communication that were exchanged between students and teachers and the effectiveness of responses. Another idea is to shadow students as they complete the online program to better understand how the instructions, feedback and quizzes align with the GED test. Another inquiry is to determine if students who take the online program have a higher passing rate than students who enroll in on-site classes; what differences or features are essential for success? Are they personal features, program features or both? An important factor for further study is how teachers help students master difficult content in the online GED preparation program.

In sum, we can conclude that this study offers literacy practitioners useful information regarding online GED programs. The vast majority of students participating in this study used GED online lessons for 15 hours or more per week for a few weeks (i.e. less than 12) and then passed their GED examination. It is unclear whether they might have passed the exam without online learning support. The degree to which the online program actually enhanced skills and/or confidence is also not clear. What is clear, based on this small sample, is that many students who can read at a sufficient level to be independent, are able to work the computer without problems, and possess self-discipline can study online preparatory programs and pass the GED examination. This is good news for students at a time when taxpayers don’t seem inclined to fund teachers and learning center space to accommodate all their needs.

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