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Alex Quinn: On a Learning Journey

Alex Quinn
"We're trying to help people find and practice literacy and numeracy in everyday situations."

Alex Quinn is executive director of ALMA, the Adult Literacy Media Alliance. He has more than 17 years of experience in the field of community-based and educational television, working as both an administrator and advocate. Prior to joining the ALMA staff, Alex was the executive director for Manhattan Neighborhood Network, a non-profit organization responsible for providing public access cable television services in the borough of Manhattan.

As a college student, Alex Quinn discovered a common theme in many of the diverse books he read as part of his major in comparative literature. Across cultures, languages, and time periods, there was a recurring plot: the main character of the story was on a journey, but to reach the destination he had to overcome many obstacles.

Today as executive director of the Adult Literacy Media Alliance, (ALMA), Quinn sees that same story played out every day in real life. It has proven to be such a compelling story that Quinn now uses it to make literacy relevant. But all good stories have a beginning, middle, and end, so it's back to the beginning of this one. We wouldn't want you to miss any of the good parts.

Biography
Our main character, Alex Quinn, is a college student, and college is a successful journey for him. He graduates magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Like most young adults, he doesn't know exactly what he wants to do with his degree, however, so he goes to work for one of this father's companies.

Meanwhile, Quinn's mother is involved in a telemedicine project at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bedford, MA. Employing special cameras and technology, telemedicine allows physicians to diagnose and talk with patients although doctor and patient are in separate locations. The whole process intrigues Quinn, and he decides to take a few classes in videography.

This leads to a volunteer position at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where Quinn does educational videos for physicians and nurses as well as entertainment videos for the patients via an in-house patient channel. And this leads to graduate school at San Francisco State University and a master's degree in broadcast communication arts.

"The focus was on instructional design using video," Quinn says of his master's work. "I took a lot of courses in educational technology. We were really looking at how people learn from video and how to teach using video and other visual media such as photography."

Quinn found that television is a "combination of things"—visuals, audio, and text. Combining these elements so they reinforce rather than compete with each other is the goal, a goal not always achieved on broadcast television today.

"A lot of news channels have a scroll on the bottom of the screen with text rolling past," he notes. This may be suitable in some instances, but it is also a great example of what not to do if you want to get people focused on particular point. You always want everything the viewer hears or sees to reinforce everything else."

Quinn put that lesson into practice in Oregon for eight years. As general manager of a not-for-profit cable group housed on the campus of Mount Hood Community College, Quinn worked with the college as well as the local school districts. His station provided homework help for local students, a magazine-style show that highlighted news in the schools, and carried telecourses for the college and GED programs, which proved to be among the most popular programs. They also conducted a lot of workshops for the community, showing others how to produce simple television programs.

It was a wonderful project," Quinn recalls. "It was a chance to build something from the ground up. We hired an architect, built a studio, and did a lot of the programming ourselves, particularly around education. It was working on the campus of Mt. Hood Community College that I first got to know people involved in teaching and studying for the GED." Those eight years helped Quinn develop his passion for educational programming.

"We used to televise the GED graduation ceremony at the college. The GED graduates were so inspiring. These were people who had gone to high school but had not finished. They had gone on with their lives and were working and raising families. Now they had come back to an earlier goal of finishing school."

Quinn also found television a wonderful way to respond to different learning styles. "Television is a great way to incorporate the different ways that people learn," he says.

On the other side of the country, Quinn found much the same inspiration when he became executive director of the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, a non-profit organization responsible for providing public access cable television services in the borough of Manhattan. As in Oregon, Quinn oversaw construction of the Manhattan studio, ran it, and produced local television for the Manhattan channels.

"It was an exciting time," he recalls. "It was another start-up, and this time we were purchasing real estate and renovating a building. The breadth of programming also expanded to "anything non-commercial."

Five and one-half years later, Quinn made another move, this one to ALMA.

Quinn is now executive director of ALMA and based in New York City. ALMA is a project of Education Development Center headquartered in Newton, Massachusetts, with offices in Washington, D.C., New York City, and the Netherlands.

One of ALMA's major products is TV411.

The mission of TV411 is to "support adults (increasingly young adults) who want to increase their literacy skills in ways that are very accessible, using a combination of television, video, print, and the Web."

"We don't see education as being isolated from the rest of life. You may not think of yourself as being good at the subject of math, but you may be very experienced in a lot of areas involving math. We're trying to help people find and practice literacy and numeracy in everyday situations. Reading, writing, and math skills are useful tools-useful for getting ahead in a job, useful in terms of enriching your own life, useful in terms of family life. It is really about how these skills can be better integrated into your life."

The emphasis is on relevancy, with a fresh approach that is respectful of its audience, according to Quinn. He uses fractions as an example of the TV411 approach.

"With the segment on fractions, we introduce it in an auditory way, beating out beats in a measure," he says. "You can hear the parts of a fraction. Then we reinforce the concept kinesthetically using dance steps. Then we approach is visually, dividing up a clock into hours of the day. The viewers are hearing it and seeing it and watching it physically happen. The concept-fractions-is the same, but the approach is different in each iteration.

Views on Literacy
"Everyone has a combination of learning styles. You never know quite what is going to click. One approach reinforces another. You are really teaching the same concept but coming at it in different ways. We try to equip our viewer with the tools they need to achieve their goals. We try to inspire them as well."

To do that, TV411 uses stories.

"Everything is very contextual," Quinn notes. "The situations are familiar to our audience. Learning takes place in life, not just in a classroom. In TV411, you don't see teachers very often standing in front of a classroom. The teachers are the people in the situations. We are all teachers in some of the time. TV411 is about modeling a way that learning can take place anywhere. We all have knowledge to share and things we can learn from others."

And the situations are taken from real life.

"Often it is simple things like profiling how one person chose to improve her skills. For example, she might have purchased a newspaper every day. If there were words she didn't know, she circled them and looked them up later. We are trying to highlight things that are interesting to our audience. We do a lot of strategies around math-what things really cost, what it really means if something is 30 percent off, basic concepts about percentages.

"A lot of learning is just asking questions. A lot of times we won't ask something, maybe because we think we should know the answer already. On TV411, if you don't understand something, we say ask."

The audience for TV411 is getting younger, according to Quinn.

"This is reflective of what is happening in adult education," he says. "People in the adult education field tell us that their students are getting younger."

Accordingly, ALMA is in the early stages of developing products designed specifically for the 16-to 21-year-old audience who have dropped out of high school.

"This is a new initiative that we are developing now," Quinn says. "Young people will often respond better when they see people who are close to their own age. We still have an emphasis on underlying reading, writing, and math skills, but we also want to focus on educational and career pathways. We plan to produce compelling profiles of young adults who have overcome a number of obstacles and are working on reaching their educational and professional goals."

Increasingly, high school may be one of those obstacles.

"High school drop-out rates are alarmingly high within some communities," he notes. "It is a complicated problem for schools. But the fact is that high school is not working for a lot of young adults so they are seeking alternatives. In some cases that is a GED. We are just addressing that fact."

Quinn says ALMA is also trying to build on the diversity of knowledge and skills people of all ages and backgrounds bring to life.

"We are all at different places on our learning journey," Quinn says. "We're all teachers, and we're all learners at the same time. We all have knowledge and experience that is valuable to share. Even though we are teaching basic skills, we are trying to build on the tremendous knowledge and skills that people have.

"We don't see education as being isolated from the rest of life. You may not think of yourself as being good at the subject of math, but you may be very experienced in a lot of areas involving math. We're trying to help people find and practice literacy and numeracy in everyday situations. Reading, writing, and math skills are useful tools—useful for getting ahead in a job, useful in terms of enriching your own life, useful in terms of family life. It is really about how these skills can be better integrated into your life."

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Questions and Answer Forum
Visitors to the website are invited to read literacy-related questions to Alex Quinn.


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