Five Lessons and Reflections from COABE 2023

Joey Lehrman
5 min readApr 10, 2023


COABE 2023 from Atlanta is a wrap. After three (or four!) days of engaging sessions and opportunities to connect (and reconnect) with friends and colleagues, here are five reflections and lessons learned from another great annual conference.

Recruiting and retaining staff is a challenge

I talked to at least two dozen program directors, state leadership staff, and community college leadership, and one theme remained nearly unanimous across the landscape: staff hiring is a challenge. Programs are struggling to find (or keep) instructional staff.

Alongside that theme was an equally intriguing (and challenging) reality: colleges and programs are starting to limit (or eliminate) remote work opportunities.

Something about this dynamic will seemingly need to change, especially as additional funding starts to flow from WIOA and the Digital Equity Act.

For now, if you are struggling to recruit and retain staff, know that you are not alone.

Centralizing some services makes some sense, at least sometimes

Delivering quality adult education programming includes a variety of activities: intake, orientation, testing, instruction, data management, professional development, and so on. Asking local providers to do all of this might not make sense, and it seems that some states and regions are exploring ways to change that dynamic.

As we learned in our award-winning distance learning model in Louisiana, opportunities exist for states and regions to share resources in a way that better supports the capacity and strengths of local programs. In our model, students could enroll with a local provider to then take classes online together with other learners from around the state. In that structure, local programs were responsible for intake, assessment, and coaching. Then our team built and delivered the online classes. What seemed effective about this model was that local programs are great at building quality relationships, but might not have the capacity to build high-quality, digital-first curriculum (and related online learning infrastructure like LMS deployment and account management). So we split responsibilities in a way that enabled everyone to do what they do best.

At COABE this year, I learned about a variety of similar projects, like a statewide distance learning support call center in Texas, another statewide call center for program referrals in Massachusetts, and statewide remote testing in Illinois. What I find notable about all three projects is that by centralizing some level of service at the state level, local providers can focus more time and energy on building quality relationships with students, or providing high-quality instruction that enables adult learners to advance towards their academic and professional goals.

I’m not sure what the exact right balance is: what should we ask local providers to do, and in what capacity can regional consortiums and states support some level of programming?

For now, I’m glad to see that organizations are trying new things and exploring what balance can be effective and sustainable.

ChatGPT and Artificial Intelligence (AI) created a buzz

AI seemed to take the conference by storm. My perspective may be biased here as I was on the General Session panel, but I was excited and inspired by the number of people that wanted to talk about ChatGPT throughout the week.

What’s next?

My hope is teachers, leaders, and program staff just start trying this potentially transformative technology. As fellow panel member and emergent technologist Christopher Lafayette noted, “You won’t be replaced by AI. But you will be replaced by someone who knows how to use AI.”

So let’s rally around this energy and explore how AI can make our jobs easier and enable us to better support our students.

Try Googleing around to find ideas on what you can do with it. Or better yet, ask ChatGPT! Start with a simple prompt like, “I’m a teacher. How can you help me save time or better support my students?”

Then, keep trying to use it in different ways, and get on social media to share your experience so we can learn from the collective experimentation!

Digital is here to stay, so it’s time to shift the focus

For several years, I’ve noticed a slowly evolving conversation about the importance and efficacy of online learning, digital literacy, and technology transformation. Our community seemed understandably unsure of what role, if any, new digital tools could or should play in our programming.

That conversation seems to be over.

Few (if any) educators seem to be unsure about the importance of digital learning and online learning (whether fully at a distance or blended). The conversation is no longer about if these elements are important, but rather: we know digital is essential, so how do we do this well?

The focus of this post is not to explore the answer to that question (nor am I sure if I have the answers).

For now, I’m just excited that we may no longer need to convince anyone of its importance, and can now shift our energy and attention to researching new models, amplifying emerging practices, and supporting our community in doing digital well.

The buzz in adult education is real

How many times have you been to an educational website to search for resources and found a filter that includes two options: filter by “K12” or filter by “Adult Education.”

I remember the first time I saw Google Applied Digital Skills curriculum that included an “Adult Learners” filter. It was mind-blowing in its own small way.

It seems the conversation about Adult Education is changing. As the economy has shifted and the skills gap gains more attention (especially by employers realizing that upskilling is essential to their future success) I believe the focus on Adult Education will only increase from here.

Thanks to the ambitious and effective advocacy by organizations like COABE, we are also seeing new investment from public and private entities.

And innovation is happening. New assessment models are being explored. Agencies are finding ways to bring internet connectivity into correctional settings. And employers are partnering with AE providers to develop learning and development programs.

So to close this post, I’ll end with a prediction of sorts. The Adult Education system we’ve come to know is changing, and in the next decade, I believe we will see a meaningful expansion of attention, resources, and support for the work we do.

The challenge is now on us to deliver on the promise we’ve been trying to convince the world of in the years past.



Joey Lehrman

Joey is Co-Founder of Community Learning Partners and Project Manager with ISTE's SkillRise Initiative. Learn more at