What do the PIAAC results suggest?

A post by Jill Castek

In light of the PIAAC data being released last month (PIAAC stands for Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) I’ve been thinking a lot about opportunities for school-based and life-long learning.  This post focuses on what PIAAC is and reasons why might be interested in further exploring these data, and what they might suggest about the integration of technology into teaching and learning opportunities.

What is PIAAC? 

PIAAC is a survey coordinated internationally by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It assesses key cognitive and workplace skills and measures competencies needed by adults in the 21st century, including literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments.

PIAAC was designed to better understand the skills of the adult working-age population (ages 16-65) both nationally and internationally. It provides  international comparison of the adult workforce that will enable the United States to better understand its global competitiveness and benchmark how well education and training systems are meeting emerging skill demands. With these data, researchers can examine and analyze what conditions and factors impact skills growth, maintenance, or loss over a working-age life cycle.

Twenty-four participating countries and regions, including the United States, assessed adults in 2011–2012.  Data from this survey were released in October 2013. Nine countries will administer an additional round of PIAAC in 2014.

What do the PIAAC data show? 

There are a number of interesting and possibly surprising results brought to light by the PIAAC data.  To examine some of these patterns, check out the publications put together by the OECD available at http://www.oecd.org/site/piaac/publications.htm

In perusing these data, I learned that only between 2.9% and 8.8% of adults demonstrate the highest level of proficiency on the problem‑solving in technology‑rich environments.  Given the prevalence of technology in our world, and the proliferation of technology in our lives, I would have expected a much higher level of proficiency for the wider population.  This suggests to me that not only do we need to integrate technology more systematically into K-12 education, but that we also need to offer multiple opportunities for skill development across the lifespan.  Not doing so puts our learners at a disadvantage for college and career readiness and limits their participating in our digitally-centered world.

Education and Skills Online 

The developers of the PIAAC assessment have designed a suite of assessment tools that can be used by researchers within their own studies for a fee.  This assessment is called Education and Skills Online (E&S Online).  It is designed to provide individual level results that are linked to the PIAAC measures of literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology rich environments.  These valid and reliable assessment tools are a computerized measure that assesses a set of cognitive and non-cognitive skills that individuals need for full participation in modern societies. The suite of tools incorporates flexibility and adaptability to provide reliable and valid measures of critical skills associated with work, home, and community. The skills and knowledge measured include being able to understand and use printed and electronic texts, reason with numbers, and solve problems in technology environments.  If you’re a researcher working with technology, using such a measure of learning to determine the skill level of your learners (and benchmarking them to national norms) may offer you new and valuable insights.  It might also inspire you to provide more opportunities to guide learners in their use of technology.

There is a great deal to explore with the PIAAC data in terms of national and international trends.  A quick Google search for PIAAC will offer you a variety of resources to explore.  I look forward to your reflections and ideas.  Comments are encouraged and welcomed!

A Framework for Effective Technology Use in Online Teaching

Since my retirement from the California State University system, I have enjoyed teaching online at several universities. My field is literacy and I am a teacher educator, but I have always been interested in the intersection of literacy and technology. Thus my students, usually practicing teachers who are returning to the university for advanced degrees and meaningful professional development are usually eager to learn about new “tools of the trade,” especially for use their K-12 classrooms.

All of us know that today’s K-12 students tend to be intensive media users who use the Internet for many social purposes. Students use media and the Internet to respond to literature, create compositions and fanfiction, and to connect with others in interest-driven communities, both outside of school and in classrooms (Grisham & Wolsey, 2006; Wolsey & Grisham, 2012). But what are we doing to prepare teachers to address the learning needs of today’s tech-savvy students? In the context of the classroom, teachers choose the content. We know what we want to teach and what we want our students to learn. Can we (should we) try new technological tools to reach and teach our tech-savvy students? When looking for new technological tools, I look for ease of use, application to curriculum and instruction, and positive impact on affect and learning of mystudents. This is what we (Grisham & Smetana, 2011) call “generative technology.”

In the online teaching environment it is relatively easy to answer that, as teachers (and teacher educators) must learn to use some new tools in order to participate in online coursework. But I would argue that we need to be both savvy and strategic about the tools we require them to learn. It is not new, but I like to use the TPACK model in my planning (Mishra & Koehler, 2006) as shown in the figure below.

The TPACK framework or model suggests that three elements must be considered in planning instruction:  content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and technological knowledge. Where the three intersect may be referred to as the “sweet spot” of TPACK and where we should direct our attention when we plan instruction.

I’d like to give an example of this from my own work. I have taught research methods for many years, originally in the brick and mortar environment of Washington State University, where teacher candidates did action research for their certification and MA degrees. I taught it for almost a decade at SDSU, and recently I have been teaching it online for two other universities.

Content Knowledge:  Teachers need to know about research paradigms and how action research fits into their practice. They need to know how to frame a research question, how to do a literature review, collect and analyze data and how to present and discuss their findings.

Pedagogical Knowledge:  As the instructor, I need to engage these teachers in both learning and applying their new knowledge. The key is engagement.  I can lecture, using a PowerPoint presentation (and I do some of that), but I want them to think and interact with others over the content.

Technological Knowledge: I want to find a tool that is relatively simple to learn and use that will provide my teachers with something “new” and useful to them beyond their own immediate learning (hopefully, something they will use for their K-12 students).

In my research classes, then, I have used another fairly well-known tool called Voicethread to provide an opportunity for my teachers to think and respond to what they have read about action research and use a visual to prompt their reflections.

I created a 4-page Voicethread and provided audio directions for responding to each page. Then I suggested my students should respond to the prompt via audio, which they did. The following screen capture shows the initial page of the Voicethread and if you follow the link below, you can view the page itself.


Students responded thoughtfully and appeared to enjoy the process from the feedback I received. Several of them also talked about using Voicethread in their classrooms (the Voicethreads can be kept private) with their K-12 students. Their action research projects also seemed to reflect a deeper understanding of the purposes of action research and evidence-based instruction.

In the same classes, I asked students to prepare Glogs and Prezis to summarize their research reports and have been really pleased with the results. I’m grateful that I have the TPACK model to remind me that technological tools have to be used meaningfully.

In a prior blog posting I made the following recommendations for distributing technology throughout teacher preparation and professional development programs, but I think they bear repeating here:

Whether or not you are teaching online, I would suggest the following guidelines for teacher preparation (and teacher professional development):

1)   Work collaboratively within the university to distribute technological use across the teacher preparation programs instead of relying on stand-alone  “Ed Tech” courses.

2)   Seek workshops on technology use for themselves and to learn at least one new tool each academic year to apply to their own teaching.

3)   Where possible, seek student teaching placements for teacher candidates in classrooms and schools where technology is being used productively.


Grisham, D.L. & Smetana, L. (2011) Generative technology for teacher educators. Journal of Reading Education, 36, 3, 12-18.

Grisham, D. L. & Wolsey, T.D. (2006). Recentering the middle school classroom as a vibrant learning community: Students, literacy, and technology intersect. Journal of Adult and Adolescent Literacy, 49, (8), 648-660.

Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. J. (2006). Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge: A new framework for teacher knowledge . Teachers College Record 108 (6), 1017-1054.

Wolsey, T. D. & Grisham, D.L. (2012). Transforming writing instruction in the Digital age: Techniques for Grades 5-12. New York: Guilford.


Using Strip Designer for Literacy Learning

Using Strip Designer for Literacy Learning

“In order to be read, a poem, an equation, a painting, a dance, a novel, or a contract each requires a distinctive form of literacy, when literacy means, as I intend it to mean, a way of conveying meaning through and recovering meaning from the form of representation in which it appears.” (Eisner 1997, p. 353)

It has been 15 years since Eisner eloquently reminded us that we are moving from a text-based world to a multimodal one where we learn to learn from a fresh variety of sources and communicate generatively with a vast array of tools at our disposal. Schools around the U.S. have not always been quick to adopt such new tools and in some cases have moved to discourage the use of new literacies and evolving technologies in the classroom. In other places, such technological innovation is not only welcomed, but also supported.

We find a welcome case of such support in Napa, California, where a non-profit institution, NapaLearns (napalearns.org) has become a benefactor of technological innovation, providing grants to schools in the area for the purchase of tools and training. You may learn a great deal about the efforts of NapaLearns by visiting their website.

Here I would like to highlight one of the projects that NapaLearns funded. The project takes place in a public school and in the Kindergarten classroom of a very talented teacher, Ms. Martha McCoy. Martha and I became acquainted through her graduate program in Innovative Education at Touro University, where I taught research methods last spring.

In Martha’s words:

This year our kindergartners embarked on a great journey to explore the ways technology can be used to enhance their learning. In addition to crayons, paper, pencils, playdough, puppets, puzzles, play, manipulatives, and realia, we are learning with iPads.

Our students are primarily English Language Learners, 100% of whom are living in poverty based on qualifying for free or reduced lunch. Less than 2% of the students’ parents graduated from high school in the U.S. and 17/18 students only speak Spanish at home.  These students are at the greatest risk of school failure.

The strategy for use of the iPads was to provide early academic intervention focused on building English language vocabulary and school readiness in our most ‘at risk’ students. The iPad enhanced kindergarten project began as a partnership between NapaLearns, a nonprofit organization, Calistoga Family Center, a family resource center, and Calistoga Joint Unified School District. The partners share in NapaLearn’s mission to “re-imagine learning for all children in Napa Valley …to promote implementation of education innovation and promote student- centered 21st century learning…so our students can compete in a fast paced technology enhanced world.” (NapaLearns Mission Statement, 2010).


Martha completed an action research report to ascertain the effects of a partnership in her school between her kindergarteners (who knew iPads) and 6th graders at the school (who knew about writing). The Kinders and the 6th graders worked in cooperative pairs to create comic strip posters to show preschool children (who would be in K the next year)  what a typical day in Kindergarten looks like.

The Kindergarteners used their iPad cameras to take pictures of typical scenes in a Kindergarten day. They also drew pictures using Drawing Pad (see screen capture below).



The drawing pad application costs $1.99 and I purchased it to try it out. Don’t laugh (I’m not an artist!), but learning the program was simple and here is a terrible example.

For those of you who know my husband, Marc, he is well represented by a firetruck (we own one from 1949). Me, I’m always up in the air.

The students put this photos and text together using another iPad (and iPhone) application called Strip Designer (see screen capture below). This program costs $2.99 and I also downloaded and tried it out using photos.

Strip Designer also has a tutorial and is relatively easy to learn.  I’ve done a couple of the comic strips, but instead of sharing mine, I have Martha’s permission to share one her student did:

But probably the best way to get the essence of Martha’s work is to view her Animoto on the project, also created for the Innovative Learning program at Touro (under the auspices of Program Director, Dr. Pamela Redmond). You can view this at http://animoto.com/play/xLgpKJU7wrQjLe1qaVfWuQ.

You can also get more information about Martha on her weebly website: http://msmccoysclasswebsite.weebly.com/

One project is complete, but new learning continues. Martha is busy planning new efforts for this academic year. She has already designed lessons on digital citizenship for the K-6 team. She plans for 6th graders to learn about Internet safety, cyberbullying, and respectful (and responsible) digital behavior to prepare for teaching their Kindergarten buddies.  Then they will design posters, digital books, and skits with their Kindergarten buddies about how to be safe and respectful online. Martha plans to weave elements of Internet safety throughout their projects all year long and build it into their rubrics.

I can hardly wait to see the results!

In the meantime, I am planning a little research of my own with the collaboration of four high school teachers who will use Strip Designer to scaffold the literature they will be using in their classrooms. Much more on that later.

There are so many ways that the above two inexpensive programs can be used to scaffold our students’ learning. The Drawing Pad art can be emailed and archived, as well as placed in “albums” and books to be viewed online or printed out. Strip Designer is very productive also. I have written before with colleagues on the uses of graphic novels in special education (Smetana, Odelson, Burns, & Grisham, 2009; Smetana & Grisham, 2011), while having used them with mainstream classes. Storyboarding and graphic novel writing is made easy with Strip Designer. There must be many more uses of this that readers of this blog can envision! A very positive part of this is that one iPad can be used to do all of this. Martha has iPads for all her students, but even if you have one in your classroom, you can provide enormous benefits to your students with very little expenditure.

What are YOUR ideas for using these new tools? All ideas and comments are very welcome!


Eisner, E.  (1997). Cognition and representation: A way to pursue the American Dream? Phi Delta Kappan, 78, 349-353.

Smetana, L., Odelson, D., Burns, H. & Grisham, D.L. (2009). Using graphic novels in the high school classroom: Engaging Deaf students with a new genre. Journal of Adult and Adolescent Literacy, 53, 3, 228-240.

Smetana, L. & Grisham, D.L. (2011). Revitalizing Tier 2 interventions with graphic novels. Reading Horizons, 51, 3.

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