By Dina Weinstein
University Public Affairs
On a recent Monday night, VCU associate professor of computer science David Shepherd, Ph.D., taught coding remotely to a group of 18 adult students through a Twitch channel. Shepherd explained programming concepts that the students used to create hip-hop style musical patterns, rhythms and breaks.
The class, called Code Beats, was offered through Computer CORE, a technical training program for adult learners in Northern Virginia, thanks to the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Katherine Hansen, the resource center’s communications and community engagement specialist, read about Shepherd teaching a similar coding class to kids in the spring and reached out to him about the possibility of a class for adult learners.
“Coding is really great because someone doesn't need to have a college degree to be able to master that skill,” Hansen said. “And it's one that marginalized communities just haven't been introduced to, or it's made to seem unattainable.”
Donna Walker James, executive director at Computer CORE, which teaches underserved adults foundational computer and professional skills, said Code Beats is using hip-hop music to teach basic coding in a light way to help people get interested in the skill.
“The idea is that [by] making it fun, we can get people excited and then Computer CORE can offer the follow-up curriculum to get people skilled enough to go into jobs that need coding,” Walker James said.
The Computer CORE students generally are immigrant parents, mostly women with children who are just entering the workforce or have been laid off from a service job or are at home with a work-related injury, Walker James said.
“They haven't used a computer. Many don't know how to use a mouse or turn it on,” Walker James said. “Part of it is cultural, or because they were busy doing motherly duties, and a lot of it is financial. They came to this country and immediately had to take whatever job they could get, wherever they could. They paused whatever education they were involved in before they got to the U.S., raised their kids. They're sending their kids to college now and they're beginning to look around and go: ‘Wow, I never thought about myself.’”
Connections and foundations
The Code Beats class is one of many new online courses offered to adults with support from the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center, a division of The Literacy Institute at VCU in the School of Education.
Hansen said COVID-19 restrictions have actually made more educational resources, such as Code Beats, available to the resource center’s partner organizations because the courses are offered remotely.
Students in adult education programs range from refugees and immigrants in Northern Virginia to native-born Virginians in urban and rural parts of the state who left the educational system and now need credentials to get a job or a promotion. Instructors help adult learners embark on a series of courses toward career pathways, such as coding proficiency.
Walker James said the COVID-19 pandemic, and the related pivot to online learning, have actually been a benefit to adult learners.
“Our numbers shot up,” she said. “We've updated our curriculum to meet that challenge. Other advantages are the adult students do not have to arrange for transportation or child care.”
Walker James and Hansen both hope that more adult education programs across the state, especially from urban centers, encourage their adult learners to participate in the next Code Beats camp and learn about careers in computer science.
Adult learning resources
Staff at the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center provide support for adult educators throughout the state.
“We are helping all of our providers figure out how to continue teaching in this virtual and hybrid world. It's been busier than ever,” Hansen said. “We're being leaned on much more. We're being looked to for answers and connections with resources and experts to be able to help our providers be able to do what they need to do.”
This year, the resource center is shifting its annual conference, which usually draws hundreds of educators from around the state, to a monthslong professional development program, with the resource center’s staff providing coaching along the way.
It's an opportunity for instructors at adult education centers around Virginia to be peer coaches and to guide teams in project-based learning, Hansen said. Many of these instructors are retired K-12 or English as a second language instructors, and they are not necessarily that comfortable with digital literacy and how to provide online training to their adult students.
That is where the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center comes in, said Joanne Huebner, manager of the resource center. Huebner said the center has responded to the needs of the adult education organizations around Virginia.
“We produced a series of tutorials for English language learners … to support and assist students registering for classes. These videos, along with their accompanying scripts, have been made in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, Farsi and slow-speed English,” Huebner said. “We continue to pivot as needs become a priority. It seems every day brings a new challenge. We are proud of the practitioners in the state who never lost sight of their mission and are energized every day through meaningful work.”
Huebner said programs across the state are registering good numbers of students, many of whom prefer to learn remotely — especially now when they have the additional burden of providing instruction for their children.
“Supports for [adult] learners have shifted from the need for child care and transportation to the need for digital tools for learning and flexibility of time to be able to learn when they can squeeze it in, not just on Thursday from 5 to 7 [p.m.],” Huebner said.
The ultimate beneficiaries, of course, are the adult learners themselves. Bushiri Salumu is one of them. When Salumu, a refugee from the Congo in Central Africa, came to the U.S. in 2012 he spoke no English. He earned a GED diploma, studying at a center supported by the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center, and now is working toward a nursing degree at Piedmont Virginia Community College. The nursing program requires work experience, which is what led him to a job in the neonatal intensive care unit at the University of Virginia Medical Center.
At the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center conference last winter, Salumu reflected on the impact his instructors and tutors had on his accomplishments.
“All of these experiences have made me happy and grateful,” he told the adult educators from around the state. “I have learned that the United States is a country where dreams can come true. It does not matter where you come from or how you look. If you have a dream, you focus on it and you work hard, your dream will come true one day.”