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Written off?

Tom O'Mara describes a pioneering approach to distance education in Ireland

In 1997, the number of learners participating in adult education in Ireland was about 5000, approximately 1% of those found to be at Level 1 in the International Adult Literacy Survey[1]. In response, the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) has been using mass media, particularly television, to highlight literacy issues, outline the support that is available, motivate people to return to education, and provide opportunities for learning in the privacy of their home. It has been groundbreaking and challenging work.

Previous approaches

From 2000 to 2004, we produced five TV series, called Read Write Now. These attracted an average of 122,600 viewers, 12% of the total TV audience. Each series featured real learners who had difficulties with literacy in everyday situations and included up to eight minutes of didactic learning. On average, 7500 learners called the supporting freephone line over the 12 weeks of each broadcast to request accompanying free workbooks and advice.

The fly-on-the-wall approach allowed us to keep the learners' needs central

Callers were told about local literacy centres, which subsequently reported an increase in numbers. In 2006 and 2007, we tried a new approach - The Really Useful Guide to Words and Numbers. This was a studio-based programme with a 'named' presenter, and was again accompanied by free print materials, freephone support and a website. The series attracted an average of 80,000 viewers, 10% of the total audience, in a 12 noon Sunday time slot.

Although the viewing figures represented a good share of the audience for that time, we felt that we needed to get literacy back into a prime-time slot. We also knew there was money available from the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI) for the right idea[2]. In order to access this round of funding we had to get the national public service broadcaster (RTÉ) on board, and then convince BCI that we had a new and innovative idea.

Making a change

There were two compelling reasons to change our format. Firstly, we wanted to increase the motivational aspect of the programmes, to encourage more people to return to education. Instead of simply picking up the phone and calling us for a free book, they would see on TV the implications of this decision and make a considered choice to return to learning. We would then monitor this take-up in order to better appraise the impact of television.

The second reason for changing format was to create something fresh, to reflect contemporary viewing habits, and to capture viewers who might not have watched adult literacy programming before. Following consultations with RTÉ and various production companies, it became clear that broadcast space today is significantly different from what it was in 2000.

It would be almost impossible to get broadcast, production and funding support to develop TV programmes containing didactic content for a peak schedule slot in Ireland in 2008. So, from 2007, and with €500,000 funding from BCI, NALA developed a new eight-part television series on adult literacy and numeracy to be broadcast on RTÉ One. We called the series Written Off?.

The series followed the everyday lives of 11 adult learners as they progressed through an eight-week specially designed intensive learning course in the classroom that brought in specific learning content related to real-life situations (budgeting for a meal, going for a night out at the dogs, etc). Unlike Read Write Now and The Really Useful Guide to Words and Numbers, Written Off? did not include didactic content. As a fly-on-the-wall documentary, the series showed the benefits of returning to education and the effects this has had on these learners' lives.

Not quite reality

We made a clear distinction between reality television and fly-on-the wall documentary-style programmes. The primary purpose of reality television is to entertain and appeal to a mass audience. The fly-on-the-wall approach on the other hand allowed us to keep the learners' needs central. We knew it would be important to have an entertainment element to attract viewers to the new series but we were clear that the dignity, privacy and needs of the learners should never be compromised for the sake of entertaining television.

Core to the delivery of the course was adherence to NALA's Guidelines for Good Adult Literacy Work, which commit us to maintaining a learner-centred approach and designing content around individual learner needs. We envisaged the series as a motivational call to action, where educational participation and progression would be presented in an interesting and entertaining but factual and ethical manner.

We therefore made sure that course designers, tutors, NALA staff, and television production personnel agreed baseline principles about ethical and pedagogical concerns before we started, and then met regularly to iron out any difficulties as the work proceeded. NALA staff were present for a significant proportion of filming time and commented on draft versions of each programme. The result was a successful compromise, creating a product that everyone was happy with.

Recruiting and supporting learners

The Media Advisory Group[3] approved the participation of 11 learners, who were selected by interview after a national recruitment drive. We tried to select learners to represent a crosssection of the population with regard to age, location, school experiences, and socio-economic background. One of the selection criteria was that participants' learning needs and goals would be well served by a course designed to meet Level 2 standards in the National Qualifications Framework for Ireland[4].

FETAC* validated the course and so provided the option of accreditation for interested learners. All 11 learners opted to work towards an accredited award and all achieved the Level 2 Certificate in General Learning. Following the series, the course tutors and NALA engaged with each learner individually to support them in continuing with their learning. Nine of the eleven learners enrolled in additional adult learning courses within a short time of finishing filming of Written Off?


The programme enabled us to showcase adult literacy practice to a potentially very large audience of people who might like to develop their literacy and numeracy but, for whatever reason, have not taken that step. We knew that the series did not simulate exactly what a learner would encounter in their local ALS but we hoped that potential learners would be inspired by the learners on the programme and decide to take up a learning option. The programmes also informed the general public about the whole issue of adult literacy. We benefited from extensive and positive pre-publicity.

For example, we were 'Pick of the Week' in the TV section of five major Irish newspapers, both broadsheets and tabloids, and were featured on The Late Late Show (Ireland's best known chat show) - the first time that adult literacy and learning had received such high-profile coverage. The series was given a prime time slot in May/June 2008, and attracted an average of 210,000 viewers a week, 14% of the viewing public.

Considering it was up against Coronation Street, we were happy with this, especially as the largest numbers of viewers came from the farming community and people over the age of 55, both traditionally hard-to-reach groups. From May to July 2008 we received 650 calls. This was fewer than for the Read Write Now shows but might be because we did not advertise the freephone number within the programmes, nor did we provide the incentive of a free book to get people to call.

In previous series, our freephone team spent a lot of time administering the distribution of books and had few callers who actively wanted to engage in learning over the telephone. We wanted to move the service away from the public perception of a free book service to that of a true distance education service provider. In Written Off?, 142 people engaged with our tutors over an extended period, with 42 still working with us today.

Reach and motivate

The purpose of previous NALA TV series had always been to both 'reach' and 'teach' adults who would like support to improve their literacy skills. With Written Off?, the emphasis has shifted to reaching adults, showing them that support is available and that they can improve their skills, and motivating them to take that first step by contacting their local literacy service or calling our freephone number.

Callers to the freephone number are either directed to local literacy services or allocated to a Distance Education Tutor. This tutor, who is a trained adult literacy practitioner, calls the person back at a convenient time, conducts an initial assessment, and supports them for as long as is required, using print, web content and other materials.

In addition to the freephone service, we developed two websites to support learners. www.writtenoff.ie allows people to watch each programme whenever it suits them. www.writeon.ie is an interactive learning website providing initial assessment, individual learning plans, interactive learning content, and post-assessment options at Level 2 to independent learners who have access to the internet and the skills to engage with interactive online learning materials.

The future

NALA is committed to widening opportunities for adults to engage with flexible learning options that suit their lives and interests. Adults with literacy difficulties need a flexible service that delivers results. We see potentially limitless possibilities as broadcast, web and information technologies continue to converge in making learning and knowledge accessible across so many aspects of our lives.

Tom O'Mara is Distance Education Co-ordinator at NALA
For further information, contact Tom O'Mara at tomara@nala.ie
All these projects were evaluated by external consultants. The evaluations are available on the NALA website at www.nala.ie/publications

[1] OECD (1997) Literacy skills for the knowledge society: Further results from the International Adult Literacy Survey. Paris:OECD
[2] The Broadcasting (Funding) Act (2003) gives the BCI responsibility for the disbursement of 5% of the licence fee to support new TV and radio programmes. A specific requirement is to support new TV programmes in the area of adult literacy. Funding for the non-broadcast elements of NALA's Distance Education Services is secured annually from the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
[3] The Media Advisory Group includes literacy learners, with representatives from NALA, government departments, practitioner and learner organisations, the TV production company and RTÉ.
[4] Corresponds to Access Level 3 in the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework and to Entry Level in the England, Wales and Northern Ireland National Qualifications Framework.

*See Glossary

Course design

The course ran for eight consecutive weekends, with two break weekends in between. Learners arrived in the centre on Friday evening at 6pm and stayed until 3pm on Sunday. Over the eight weekends, the learners had 104 hours of classroom tuition, compared with a typical two hours' tuition per week in the local Adult Literacy Service (ALS).

For the most part, learners participated in group sessions, but one-to-one tuition was possible at any stage. This allowed learners to receive specific support on areas of individual weakness. Learners also worked on exercises during the week at home and participated in extra-curricular activities directly related to the classroom content.


People involved in adult literacy work often feel protective of people with literacy difficulties, feeling that they may be vulnerable to exploitation. These concerns were heightened as NALA engaged with the media industry. The aim was to show the power of learning, particularly in a group. For those of us familiar with the experience, this is readily understood. For others it is an unknown. In using a television programme to portray it, we hoped to encourage and motivate others to engage in a learning opportunity.

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