March/April 2002 // Case Studies
Training Professional Workforce Educators Online
by Sharon P. Pitt, Edmund Vitale Jr., and Diane L. Foucar-Szocki
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Sharon P. Pitt, Edmund Vitale Jr., and Diane L. Foucar-Szocki "Training Professional Workforce Educators Online" The Technology Source, March/April 2002. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

"I like the flexibility of place and time with an online course" says Sylvia Weaver of Pennsylvania's Workforce Improvement Network. This summer, Weaver participated in a course offered via the Workforce Development Campus (WDC), an Internet-based virtual campus providing certification opportunities to educators who are or who want to be involved in workforce education. The Workforce Development Campus (WDC) targets workforce professionals, across the nation, who may be adult educators in public programs, human resource development professionals in business and industry, or workplace-focused community college educators.


The Workforce Development Campus evolved from an initiative that began in Virginia. In the late 90's, the Virginia Department of Education funded the Workforce Improvement Network (WIN) to provide training to Virginia's adult educators. After training, those educators went into workplaces to deliver customized industry or business specific basic skills training rather than having workers come to adult learning centers for more general training. Virginia's WIN, a partnership between the Virginia Literacy Foundation and James Madison University, developed and still conducts face-to-face workshops for adult educators that focus on marketing and developing programs for and instructing basic skills in very specific business contexts.

To reach a broader, national audience, staff at James Madison University decided to investigate in online technologies to facilitate, expand, and enhance workforce development programs to a broader audience. After securing funding from Verizon, the Workforce Development Campus project began.

Why is there so much interest in workforce development?

In 1998, Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which requires the development and implementation of state programs for workforce investment and education, was signed into federal law. The WIA requires the development of state workforce development programs that promote greater individual access to educational and training opportunities, which can assist those individuals in enhancing their job opportunities or advance their career.

Putting It Online

Like many state-focused initiatives, Virginia's Workforce Improvement Network addressed requirements of the WIA by training professionals who went on to develop workforce education programs. After the state of Pennsylvania adopted Virginia's workforce development model, it was clear that Virginia's model could be the basis for a national program to train adult educators.

Expanding the horizons of workforce development through online learning has not been without challenges. The process has been illuminating and instructive from initial program design, to incorporating innovative teaching methodologies, to addressing needs of the technology challenged, to reflecting on what participants and designers.

Program Design

The Workforce Development Campus curriculum is built around specific modules within seven broad courses dealing with workplace education. WDC courses were based on materials from the face-to-face curriculum of Virginia's Workforce Improvement Network. A structure and sequence, together with an instruction methodology, was developed that retained the strength of the face-to-face curriculum and the flexibility of an asynchronous, online learning environment. Each certification program, allows an adult educator to take all seven courses or to specialize in one of the three areas of program development, curriculum design or instruction in the workplace.

Each instructional module within these courses is designed to model effective adult-learning practice and principles and to encourage dialogue and active learning.

Educators can participate in seven courses:

  1. Introduction to Workforce Education (includes a technology orientation)
  2. Marketing Workforce Education Programs
  3. Planning and Designing Workplace Programs
  4. Organizational Assessment in Workforce Education
  5. Curriculum Development in Workforce Education
  6. Instruction in Workplace Education Programs
  7. Program Evaluation in Workplace Education

Instructional Methodology

Instruction is learner-centered. Course materials are designed for flexibility and responsiveness when providing professional development offerings to current or potential workforce educators. The facilitator, who may or may not be the course designer, is encouraged to use all the various technologies available within the course management system, such as threaded discussions, attachments and group work, to custom-design specific professional development options to meet specific learner needs. All modules contain pre-designed activities that can meet varied facilitator objectives and learner needs. The curriculum is designed to balance skill practice and functional context learning, fostering learner control, motivation, empowerment and opportunities to explore personal learning strategies and methodologies

The courses are designed for discovery/exploratory learning. In addition, and possibly most importantly, the results of all assignments and activities are directed to all participants in each course and not just from the individual learner to instructor. Thus, the participants learn from each other. Each module, when appropriate, has activities where the learners:

  • Review information in resources or questions;
  • Respond to questions that make them think about the information in terms of their needs, prior knowledge, and interests;
  • Research;
  • Work individually or in groups to apply or synthesize information;
  • Discuss findings, responses, conclusions, or opinions with the rest of the class;
  • Review and comment upon other learner's opinions and information.

Addressing the technology-challenged learner.

One of the greatest challenges has been to design a learning experience for learners who may not be adept at manipulating technology for research or learning. In fact, a typical learner participating in the WDC is technically inexperienced. Although course delivery systems have fairly intuitive interfaces, preliminary needs assessments within WDC revealed that WDC learners were easily confused and disoriented using this online medium. Therefore, specific navigational guidance was integrated into every element of the instructional material.

Each course contains information on how to save, print, and submit resources. Directions are also provided on how to access a link and when and where to select the "back" option. Though these instructions may seem redundant and unnecessary, users reinforced the need for repetitive and specific instructions at several presentations and workshops. The philosophy was adapted that if a user knew how to perform certain functions, for example, how to send an attachment, then he or she could ignore the instructions, but if guidance was needed, it was available. Non-technical language and consistency was a key concern in the development of user-friendly guidance. The abundance of point-of-use navigational help allows students to focus on course content, rather than learning how to use the delivery system. "Compared to my previous experience with online learning, this course was much easier to navigate," says Kandi Fredere, a participant from South Carolina Workplace Education.

Lessons Learned

During the design and piloting phases of the development of the curriculum, it became more and more apparent that the online medium itself had a lot to offer for the delivery of content. In fact, it was discovered that the medium has as much, if not more, potential to encourage content exploration, reflection, and participation than a face-to-face class. Here's why:

  • You Can Ask Open-ended Questions: Online courses do not have to focus on right and wrong. Discussion boards facilitate discovery learning through the ability to ask open-ended questions that permit the facilitator and other classmates, not the computer, to engage in a dialogue through threaded discussions.
  • Learners Can Use Technology to Explore for Information: A world of research information is available to the learner who wants to explore and support or contradict opinions or issues.
  • Everyone Has to Participate/Reply: Within the WDC, activities require participants (either an individual or a group) to answer questions or give information in a threaded discussion, so everyone participates. This brings a new and inclusive dynamic to learning. Keith Baker a participant from the Adult Education and Job Training Center in Lewistown, PA, comments: "It is interesting to "hear" the viewpoint of all participants (who come from different programs and different positions.) Often in verbal discussions, there are a few who dominate the discussions and not everybody is heard from."
  • The Answers Are Reflective: Since the medium requires written responses, answers to questions tend to be more thoughtful and focused than the sometimes quick responses a face-to-face discussion generates.
  • There's a Record of Insights: Once the learners have explored and recorded their insights, comments or questions on the threaded discussions, a record is there for everyone to use. And you don't have to take notes!
  • Participants Learn from Each Other: Participants' recorded replies to threads become another source of learning as well as the Internet itself. This availability of each participant's work to everyone else contrasts greatly with assignments in traditional courses which go to the instructor and not always accessible to other students.
  • Students Learn Online Facilitation Skills Modeled by Instructors: Keith Baker comments again, "I am in the process of develop a "Workplace Communication and Writing" course to offer to employers through distance education . . . I was planning to use [this course manage system] in conjunction with the curriculum, and am grateful for the experience from the learner perspective. I now have a better framework from which to work."
  • "This computer cannot whip me!": Peggy Collins, a participant from the South Carolina Workplace Education in Laurens, South Carolina was determined to succeed, regardless of her personal challenges with the technology. An online course, thoughtfully designed for technologically inexperienced users can give the learners a feeling of confidence and empowerment.


Preparing workers for rapidly changing work environments is a critical need in the United States and abroad. Demands for adult education, literacy programs, and professional workforce developers already exceed available supply from state and local agencies in the United States. Low unemployment rates and the lack of a comprehensive educational delivery system exacerbate these demands. Online technologies provide an effective method, currently untapped in the workforce development arena, to provide flexible, inclusive and universal access to instruction. This preliminary, pilot effort of the Workforce Development Campus seems to indicate that online instruction for workforce development is a real and viable option. Linda Grosse of Pennsylvania's Workforce Improvement Network may be proof enough: "I learned a great deal from my course mates. I also learned that I can contribute substantially. Best of all, I learned that I really like learning online."

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