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Aug 30, 2023 |

Earlier this month, I was asked to provide the keynote address for the Literacy Texas Annual Conference in College Station, Texas. It was such an honor to speak with literacy professionals from across Texas and to see firsthand their commitment to and support of adult learners. I was also truly inspired by the conference theme: Literacy Unleashed. As students and educators across the country begin a new school year, I am pondering what it would look like in practice for us as educators and literacy providers to engage more deeply in innovative practices and design learning experiences that spark creativity? What new ideas and technologies might we embrace to enhance literacy and learning outcomes? Learners - birth through adulthood - need these types of experiences in classrooms, out-of-school contexts, and community learning spaces. 

It’s an exciting and daunting challenge considering the dizzying pace of technological change. But there are some immersive technologies - including Virtual Reality (VR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) - that have shown promise. This topic has captivated blogs, articles, and news media, especially over the past year.  Our challenge as professionals will be in using those technologies as tools to help learners achieve their education and career goals while ensuring that families furthest from opportunity are not left behind. 

Virtual Reality (VR) has already demonstrated some efficacy as a learning tool, bringing experiences that would otherwise be out of reach into the classroom. Students can tour the International Space Station or explore the inside of a volcano all without ever leaving their classrooms. A 2021 overview of the use of immersive technologies in education by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation noted a host of potential student benefits, including “higher engagement and improve[d] memory recall for complex or abstract topics”. 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is another growing field making rapid advances into the education space. While popular tools like ChatGPT capture headlines, AI is a quiet force behind many online education tools, providing personalized learning opportunities tailored to a particular student’s knowledge level and learning speed. On the homefront, the technology is even more ubiquitous. Students and families interact with AI to foster learning in various ways such as voice-to-text applications that support literacy and language acquisition and through the use of machine learning to create adaptive learning paths. At NCFL, we are exploring ways AI can be beneficial to adult learners in family literacy programs across the country.  We’re listening closely to our partners as this innovation begins to show promising practices for tutoring supports, language enhancements, and informal and local research endeavors. Digital literacy skills have become increasingly necessary, causing policymakers around the country to pause and explore the importance of adopting strong policies to protect and engage learners across the age continuum. 

The stakes are undoubtedly high. But new technologies and multiple literacies - including digital literacy - are not optional in today’s global economy. It is incumbent on us as education and  literacy professionals to consider what materials we are using to prepare learners for the many different modalities of text they are encountering.  We have all transitioned from exclusively reading from the printed page to reading from a wide variety of modalities on a daily basis. How do our learning environments reflect these shifts? Our practices must catch up with the innovations in the field, even as they proceed with some cautions.

The digital divide in education has been a concern since the mid-1990’s when the U.S. National  Telecommunications and Information Administration first published a report on the ways in which the growth of the internet was leaving some populations behind. But the ways in which the digital divide impacts children and families continues to evolve. While the gap between internet users and non-users - known as the first level digital divide - has narrowed, inequalities in digital skills and usage (the second-level digital divide) persist. But even when internet access and usage are equal across groups, research has shown that the benefits of that access are not evenly distributed. This third-level digital divide makes clear that the tangible outcomes of both the internet and the new technologies it has given rise to are far from assured, likely due at least in part to many of the same inequities that disenfranchised communities face in other parts of their lives. 

The persistence and depth of the digital divide is daunting, but there are solutions. Interestingly, AI itself may hold some of the answers. In a recent article on the Getting Smart blog, guest author Dr. Kara Stern challenged educators to use ChatGPT as a tool to help incorporate student and parent point of view into the learning equation. “What if we asked ChatGPT to think like the populations we’re serving,” Stern asks, “as a way of improving the education…we’re delivering?” What if, instead of fearing the ways in which AI might upset the instructional paradigm, we instead embraced it as a tool to visualize and overcome our own biases and preconceptions?

These are the very questions we’re grappling with at NCFL. Our mission is to spread and scale education solutions for families. We’re focused on partnering with organizations to explore innovations in the field and engaging families in learning together around new tools and practices - all while maintaining a keen focus on ensuring that the benefits of access are evenly distributed to all families.

NCFL will be highlighting the multi-faceted topic of emerging technology in education during our upcoming 2023 Families Learning Conference in Omaha, happening October 23-25. Emergent technologist and humanitarian Christopher Lafayette will join us on the mainstage in Omaha to discuss ways to include humanity itself in the conversation about the intertwining of technology and human experience. We’ll also feature a robust panel discussion highlighting the work being done around the country to foster digital equity and resilience, with expert commentary from World Education Vice President Priyanka Sharma, Digital Promise Chief Digital Equity Officer D’Andre Weaver, and Chapman University School of Communications Professor and NCFL Board Member, Vikki Katz.

When we define the conditions that allow individuals to thrive, we can change the trajectory of adult and family learning. This will require us to unleash new ideas for learning and set up new contexts that are both relevant and captivating to underserved audiences. It’s an important journey, and it’s not one NCFL can undertake alone. 

The promise and possibility of this time of year, with schools returning to session, is something I remember well from my time as an education and district and state administrator. I wish educators, students, and families a safe and productive start to the school year. And I challenge schools, education providers, civic leaders, and policy-makers to join with us in working to close the digital divide and equip communities and learners of all ages with educational tools that balance technology, opportunity, and equity.


Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith

A lifelong educator and national thought leader for teaching and learning, Dr. Felicia C. Smith brings decades of valuable experience to advance NCFL’s mission of working to eradicate poverty through education solutions for families. Having served in a variety of leadership roles in P-12, higher education, nonprofit, and philanthropy, her career has allowed her to experience leading systems and develop a unique vantage point of a learner’s educational trajectory from preschool to adulthood. Smith holds an Ed.D. in education leadership and administration from the University of Kentucky, and an M.A. in elementary education with an emphasis on K-12 literacy development and B.S. in elementary education from the University of Louisville. 

Follow Dr. Felicia C. Smith on Twitter and LinkedIn.


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NCFL Partners

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Toyota, one of the nation's most successful corporations, began a partnership with NCFL in 1991. In addition to a commitment of more than $50 million, Toyota has also contributed a wealth of in-kind support — including advertising, planning and management expertise — to form one of the most progressive corporate/nonprofit partnerships in the nation.

Three major programs have been developed through the Toyota partnership based on the family literacy model of parents and children learning together. These models have influenced federal and state legislation, leveraged local dollars to support family literacy and led to successful programs being replicated across the country.

Read more about Toyota's commitment to communities

William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust

NCFL received its very first donation in 1989 from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust to promote and implement family literacy programming, first in Kentucky and North Carolina and later nationwide. The Kenan Family Literacy Model in part laid the groundwork for 30 years of subsequent family literacy and family learning programming developed by NCFL.

Kenan has continued to support NCFL’s place-based family literacy programs since our inception. Most recently, it has invested in our organization’s Sharon Darling Innovation Fund, which will launch emerging ideas and programmatic evolutions in the multigenerational learning space.

Learn more about the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust

Dollar General Literacy Foundation

The Dollar General Literacy Foundation began partnering with NCFL in 2006. A signature effort of this partnership is the National Literacy Directory, a resource that launched in 2010 and strives to guide potential students and volunteers to literacy services, community education programs, and testing centers in their communities.

The National Literacy Directory contains over 10,000 educational agencies located across the United States and has a dedicated toll-free number to help support those wanting to pursue educational opportunities in their communities.

Dollar General also provides support for development of NCFL’s innovative family learning resources centered on financial literacy and Parent and Child Together (PACT) Time®.

Learn more about the Dollar General Literacy Foundation

PNC Grow Up Great

PNC Grow Up Great believes deeply in the power of high-quality early childhood education and provides innovative opportunities that assist families, educators and community organizations to enhance children's learning and development.

PNC Grow Up Great has partnered with NCFL since 1994, most recently in Louisville, Kentucky, to support Say & Play with Words, our pre-Kindergarten vocabulary-building initiative.

NCFL's work is also featured on the PNC Grow Up Great Lesson Center website. The Lesson Center includes over 100 free, high-quality preschool lesson plans and research-based instructional techniques and strategies. All lesson plans contain Home/School Connections printouts, in English and Spanish, to help families extend and reinforce the learning at home.

Learn more about PNC Grow Up Great

U.S. Department of Education

Initiated through the U.S. Department of Education in 2018, the Statewide Family Engagement Centers (SFEC) program provides 12 grantees and 13 states with five-year, $5 million grants to promote and implement systemic evidenced-based family engagement strategies. NCFL was selected to lead SFECs in two states, Arizona and Nebraska, and is a primary partner for two other SFECs in Kentucky and Maryland/Pennsylvania. 

The SFECs work to support family engagement through state- and local-level agencies while providing both professional development to school districts and direct services to families related to children’s academic outcomes and overall well-being.

Learn more about the U.S. Department of Education

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

NCFL was named a recipient of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s "Voices for Economic Opportunity Grand Challenge," which seeks to elevate diverse voices in order to broaden the conversation about the issues inhibiting economic mobility and generate deeper awareness along with actionable understanding. NCFL will develop and launch a podcast series that will highlight the remarkable stories of low-income, diverse families across the U.S. who have improved their communities through Family Service Learning.

Foundation Website