Life-Changing Learning

From increasing happiness to aiding the hot job market to serving an aging population, adult learning programs make a difference

January 31, 2023

From left: Michelle Jeske, city librarian and executive director of Denver Public Library, and Kristen Sorth, director and CEO of St. Louis County (Mo.) Library. They were joined by Robin Westphal, state librarian of Missouri, in a 2023 LibLearnX session about adult learning programs.Photo: Rebecca Lomax/American Libraries

“Libraries play a primary role in connecting with adults on their learning journeys,” said Jan Murphy.

Murphy, product management director at Gale, moderated “All Together Now: Changing Lives through Library Adult Education and Learning Resources,” a January 29 session sponsored by Gale at the American Library Association’s 2023 LibLearnX conference in New Orleans.

Joining her to discuss why adult learning programs are critical and how libraries can help serve these patrons were panelists Michelle Jeske, city librarian and executive director of Denver Public Library (DPL); Kristen Sorth, director and CEO of St. Louis County (Mo.) Library (SLCL); and Robin Westphal, state librarian of Missouri.

Why is adult learning an important topic, especially for libraries?

  • An estimated 23% of American adults—or 48 million—struggle to read.
  • More than 30 million Americans—representing 11.5 % of the population age 18 and older—are without a high school diploma.
  • In fact, the US Department of Health and Human Services defines high school completion as a social determinant of health, with nongraduates frequently reporting poor health and more frequently suffering from one or more chronic health conditions compared with high school graduates.
  • A 2022 Pew report found that one of the top reasons workers left their jobs during the pandemic was because of a desire for better pay and career mobility. Half of these workers switched occupations or fields of work entirely.
  • A study sponsored by Cengage found that during the Great Resignation, two out of three resignees took at least one online learning course to get a leg up in their job search.

“Lifelong learning is a growing segment,” Murphy said. “There is a breadth and depth of need.”

For our aging population, this is especially important. “The speed and ubiquity of technological innovation really makes this desire to keep up table stakes,” she said, especially for staying connected with people and institutions.

And this learning can be life changing. Sorth’s library has graduated over 100 students from its online high school completion program. They now offer Gale Presents: Excel Adult High School and have nearly 40 students currently enrolled in the program. “It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve participated in,” she said.

Jeske agreed. “It’s the highlight of my year,” she said. “There’s not a dry eye in the house when grandma is getting her high school diploma.”

Identifying gaps

The panelists all said that identifying current gaps can help libraries stay ahead.

At DPL, Jeske and her team look at both qualitative and quantitative data to assess, among other things, changing consumption habits, demographic shifts, growing disparities, and different ways people want to engage with learning, all of which drive the library’s strategic road map.

“The pandemic exacerbated many of those trends,” Jeske said, “and it also accelerated some of them.”

To help inform decision making around adult programming, Jeske said they use library and city surveys, community profiles at the neighborhood level, and geographical information system data.

“It really helps us identify where we need to spend our resources,” she said. For instance, the dropout rate across Colorado has increased for the first time since 2015, prompting the library to invest in Excel Adult High School.

And because there were two job openings for every available worker in 2022, DPL invested in upskilling and reskilling products like Gale Presents: Udemy and Mango Languages.

As a state librarian, Westphal connects the 160 libraries that are part of the Missouri Library Association (MLA) with needed resources. Most MLA members are rural libraries, she said, and they are seeking to “evolve and adapt” services provided to their communities.

“Sometimes the best stories come from small towns,” Westphal said. After running programs to help new Americans take their citizenship tests, for instance, the Excel Adult High School has been a natural next step for many of those same patrons.

“You have to think of ways to present a new program,” Westphal said.

Measuring outcomes

While it has been difficult to do community surveys and gather people over Zoom for feedback during the pandemic, Sorth said, “it’s well worth it because you might be surprised.”

She and Jeske agreed that libraries can improve on tracking and measuring outcomes. COVID-19 hampered DPL’s evaluation of qualitative data, but the plan is to revisit community-level indicators for some of these measurements. In the meantime, the library has been gathering stories from patrons on how adult learning programs such as Excel Adult High School have changed their lives.

“The profession holds itself back because we’re too humble,” Sorth said a former library school professor once told her. That has stuck with her. “We decided we don’t want to be under the radar anymore,” she said, adopting the approach to never shut up about the awesome programs at the library.

It has helped drive the narrative at SLCL. Patrons now come up and say, “Oh, my gosh, the things that you did during the pandemic to support this community.” Sorth and her team developed “authentic relationships with the media … which is very, very helpful to getting your story out into the community.”

Said Sorth: “Don’t be afraid to brag. Brag all over the place, all the time.”

Forming partnerships

“As libraries, we try to be everything to everybody,” Sorth said, “but sometimes we just can’t,” which is why it’s even more important to partner with organizations that can. When groups approach SLCL to partner, she said, “We show up and we say yes.” These relationships have been even more critical during the pandemic, when the needs have been greater and have necessitated broader, deeper outreach during a time of isolation.

At the state level, Westphal has extension agents in every county to help encourage libraries to form partnerships and learn about resources being offered. “It’s teaching [individual library directors] how to do their own advocacy,” she said, especially as budgets tighten and local funding resources diminish. “Once you learn to advocate and make those connections, it’s so much more than just about funding. It’s about your business community knowing the resources that the library has,” and hopefully there will be partnerships and funding opportunities from that relationship as well.

Jeske said that connecting with your state library is also a partnership that should be nurtured. In turn, this can lead to further collaborations with other libraries around the state working on similar issues or looking to share resources.

Connecting communities

Sorth and Jeske agreed that pandemic-era isolation has made it more challenging for public libraries to reach adults. “I don’t know what the secret sauce is,” Sorth said. “It has to be something super compelling that they want to do, or else they’re going to put their pajamas on and stay home.”

Jeske said that growing research on happiness and social connections makes it imperative that libraries try to figure out how to reach adults in their communities. With mental crises, suicides, and other indicators of health declining in the country, “I believe a lot of it has to do with social isolation,” Jeske said.

Which makes adult learning all the more important these days. Even personally, Jeske said she pushes herself to say yes more often. “What can we do as libraries to encourage people to spend more time together?”


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