How to study the impact of adult education: The EduMAP example

From left to right:

Francesca Endrizzi
DVV International

Beate Schmidt-Behlau
DVV International


Abstract How can the effectiveness, achievements and shortcomings of educational initiatives be identified? That is the key research question explored by the European EduMAP – Adult Education as a Means to Active Participatory Citizenship project. This article describes how the project was designed to identify impact, and it presents some early findings.

Adult education is a complex field. It can be quite an overwhelming challenge to identify factors that impact on transformation, change and even empowerment for people in situations at risk. The potential payoff is well worth the effort. If successful, a project like EduMAP can help us understand how different parts of a system fit together that consists of policy makers, institutional providers, practitioners and learners. In other words, it helps analyse the impact had by adult education in policy and practice.

Asking the right questions

The research project entitled “Adult Education as a Means to Active Participatory Citizenship (EduMAP)” studies policies and practices in adult education providing services to young people across Europe who are aged 16 to 30 and at risk of social exclusion.1 The project involves research teams from Finland, Estonia, Hungary, the United Kingdom, Germany, Greece and Turkey, with one group developing a prototype of an Intelligent Decision Support System. We, the authors, from one of the organisations leading the data collection and analysis phase, are involved in developing the overall research design and in carrying out the research.

How can adult education contribute to building resilience among individuals and communities at risk, and how can young people become more active and participatory in society? The project looks at a range of programmes that reach out, for example to NEETs (“Not in Education, Employment or Training”), migrants and refugees, Roma and other ethnic minorities, the long-term unemployed, school drop-outs, or the homeless and prison inmates.

Research questions

R.Q.1.1 What practices are needed in the field of adult education to include young adults at risk of social exclusion in active participatory citizenship in Europe?

R.Q.1.2 What policies are needed in the field of adult education to include young adults at risk of social exclusion in active participatory citizenship in Europe?

R.Q.2 How can adult education programmes and practices be better communicated

  • to reach out to and connect effectively with young adults at risk of social exclusion?
  • to enhance interaction and learners’ engagement?
  • to enhance engagement and collaboration within the adult education organisation and with relevant external actors?

R.Q.3 What kind of information is needed for policy-
makers, educational authorities and adult education practitioners in order to increase their ability to design or shape adult education policies and programmes so that they respond to the needs of vulnerable young adults?

“The study on data availability, accessibility and usability revealed ­varying practices and policies  which reflect differences in data  collection procedures.”

Setting up the data collection

The research project is organised through different work phases. The first step was to gain a general understanding of the state-of-the-art by creating an inventory of the adult education policies related to young vulnerable adults in the 28 Member States of the European Union (EU) and Turkey. The availability and accessibility of data was also studied in order to gain a preliminary insight into the purposes of developing a database. The study on data availability, accessibility and usability revealed varying practices and policies which reflect differences in data collection procedures. Successful educational practices in 20 countries2 were identified by selecting cases. 40 such cases were investigated in total, assessing more than 800 respondents through individual interviews and focus groups among policymakers, adult education practitioners and the young people attending the educational programmes. In parallel, the “communicative ecologies” of the providers and the potential beneficiaries of the education practices were studied and mapped in order to understand information flows, communication needs and the channels used by selected groups of young adults (more on that later).

The research process

The research process is a journey through the challenges of social research and investigating the varied and cross-sectoral field of adult education. It was clear from the beginning that there are country-related and context-specific settings, starting from the identification of relevant policies and practices in adult education. Based on a background of very diverse policies and a highly-partialised statistical data situation across EU Member States and Turkey, caused by our complex theme, we decided to adopt an investigative inductive approach for the fieldwork.

To study impact you need comparable data. Working in different settings and countries makes the research design and guidance documents particularly important. These were developed in EduMAP to allow for collecting data jointly for all research questions (see box on the left). The aim of the semi-structured interviews used in the field phase was to examine the effectiveness, achievements and shortcomings of educational initiatives in enabling learners to participate in social, political and economic life, and to map and study the varied communicative ecologies that exist in adult education among the providers of educational initiatives and young people in vulnerable situations. The research design had been previously piloted in Romania. This piloting was necessary not only in the interest of fine-tuning the research design and interview questions, but also to gain an insight into the potential challenges to be encountered in the field by the research teams. To create a common understanding and approach, an additional training workshop with all researchers was organised before entering the field work phase in April 2017.

Research design, tools and analysis

The final research design consisted of three strands.

Strand#1 Context analysis. This phase was essential, as it provided deep context and validation for the educational programmes identified. It allowed for exploration of accessibility for research purposes and to negotiate research access.

Strand#2 Targeted research on selected cases. This is where the project went to the field, conducted individual semi-
structured interviews, and convened focus groups among three categories of respondents:

  1. policy-makers3, including educational authorities, politicians, policy offers, policy experts and national programme coordinators,
  2. adult education practitioners, such as teachers and educators, as well as social assistance, counsellors and coaches,
  3. adult education participants (aged 16–30).

Strand#3 Targeted research on young adults at risk: communicative ecologies mapping. This strand of research focused on young adults rather than on educational programmes, and included at least some individuals who are not – or have never been – in adult education. The intention was to understand their life situations, communicative practices and assemblages, experiences, barriers, attitudes and aspirations related to adult education and active participatory citizenship. Data was collected through communicative ecologies mapping.

Communicative ecologies mapping is a conceptual and methodological tool that is applied in order to understand how young adults in a specific situation of risk are accessing general information about adult education. Embedded in an ethnographic approach, this mapping allows us to examine communication practices and needs in the context of people’s lives and social and cultural structures (Lennie & Tacchi 2013). The method helped to shed light on interconnections and mismatches between the supply and user sides of adult education, and to identify potential untapped communication opportunities.

At the time of writing, we are in the middle of the data analysis phase. Data analysis was conducted adopting a hybrid approach, blending deductive and inductive coding in iterative cycles (see Figure 1). This means that emergent elements, the findings of the pilot studies, and our conceptual framework, have guided us in the development of a library of codes (master codebook) across the partners’ consortium (see Figure 2 for an example). On the basis of the master codebook, we then coded collected data using Qualitative Data Analysis Software, and selected and clustered the necessary data to answer the research questions.

Some initial findings

  • Learners’ needs matter. Education programmes adopting a learner-centred approach prove to have a noticeable impact and to be more effective when it comes to better responding to young people’s needs and enhancing the development of their skills to practice active participatory citizenship.

  • A network of supportive services, be they integrated into or external to the educational practices, adds to the impact of adult education. Supporting participants in their learning process, offering them tailored services, for instance financial, psychological and social support, help them cope better with the difficult situations that they are facing.

  • Professional teams involved in adult education should be multi-disciplinary. Besides technical trainers and traditional teachers, other domain experts such as psychologists, coaches and career counsellors working for or collaborating with the edu­cation providers contribute to success.

  • A set of soft skills makes the difference. Adult education practitioners agreed on the importance of empathy, listening and communication skills, positive attitude, flexibility and previous experience in the sector as key competences that can enhance impact and outcomes.


Data will be analysed on a country level, with a particular focus being placed on the peculiarities and impact of each investigated case. The final results will be used to draw conclusions about enabling policies and favourable field conditions, as well as about the design of adult education programmes to include young adults who are at risk of social exclusion in active participatory citizenship, thus aiming to help enhance the impact had by adult education.

Without being a direct research tool, the communication process enables researchers to participate in developing the research design and create a sense of ownership that is crucial to keeping everybody “in the loop”. Regular discussion and reflections on emerging data, as well as shared insights and experiences, were conducted through virtual meetings among the team. Field notes were taken during the fieldwork, in the form of a notebook to record factual events and conversations, but also impressions and interpretations about what happened and what was said. Field notes were a valuable support for better understanding the data and theorising about the research over time.

Challenges and lessons learnt

Multifarious challenges arose throughout the process, but they also fuelled the motivation to investigate the complex and valuable role and impact of adult education. Three are worth mentioning here:

1. Conceptual challenges

The first issue was related to the definition and use of the terms vulnerability, in relation to the research target group, as well as the active participatory citizenship, which are both interrelated.

The group clearly opposed the use of the expression “vulnerable groups”. Grouping people in this manner contributes to the production of stigmatising and labelling effects. Vulnerability could be considered as forming part of the human condition, potentially affecting every individual uniquely, based on his or her personal and social situation. Having adopted this perspective, we decided to define it in relation to a restriction of people’s choices and capabilities (Abrisketa et al. 2015). In this sense, the concept used in the EduMAP project is closely aligned with the idea of “disadvantaged people”, having certain disadvantages or possibly lacking opportunities.

We defined active participatory citizenship in relation to three dimensions: the political-legal dimension – incorporating civic and political participation, standing for election to committees and similar boards, being actively involved in neighbourhood activities, or leading community-based projects – the socio-cultural dimension – incorporating the development of social skills and/or social capital; being active in networks and cultural activities, promoting arts-based activities – and the economic dimension – relating to the development of all types of employability skills and knowledge about rights and available support, focusing on the job sector. We take the view in EduMAP that education contributes to strengthening social cohesion and active citizenship. Linked to the concept of human resilience, the counterpart to vulnerability, we try to understand how fostering active participatory citizenship helps young people cope better with risks and setbacks.4

2. The accessibility challenge

A more practical challenge was the exploration of the cases’ accessibility and negotiation of research access. The context analysis phase was fundamental in this regard. We started from existing contacts and networks, such as adult education organisations and experts, who suggested good practices on the basis of their knowledge and experience in the sector. Once the contact was established with the “gatekeeper”, who could be the director of the organisation or the programme coordinator, access was guaranteed. Other relevant stakeholders were identified using snowballing, while potential respondents among young people were indicated by the practitioners.

3. Methodological challenges

The interaction with the young people was also challenging. The use of semi-structured interviews for data collection did not emerge as the most effective method for gathering in­formation from young adults in a particularly disadvantaged position. Furthermore, there was no time to build up a relationship of trust, or even to conduct the interview, as most of the young adults had time constraints. There were positive experiences using communicative ecologies mapping, and the involvement of people in drawing the map turned out to be a more appropriate tool, being interactive and more practical, which enabled young respondents to overcome the ­uncomfortable interview situation.


Qualitative data analysis has proved to be an effective tool for an in-depth investigation of adult education programmes. Studying the different experiences and points of view of the main stakeholders involved, including the direct beneficiaries, allowed us to gain a comprehensive picture of the systemic nature of each case, and to better evaluate their impact.

More about the project

The results and activities of the EduMAP project can be accessed via the project’s website:


1 / The research project is funded under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme.

2 / The case studies were investigated in Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Turkey.

3 / We endorsed the definition of policy-maker provided in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2003), which defines a policy-maker as “a person with the authority to influence or determine policies and practices at an international, national or local level”.

4 / For a greater insight into the conceptualisation of vulnerability and active participatory citizenship in the EduMAP project, see Adult Education as a Means to Active Participatory Citizenship: A Concept Note.


Abrisketa, J.; Churruca, C.; de la Cruz, C.; Garcia, L.; Marquez, C.; Morondo, D.; Nagore, M.; Sosa, I. and Timmer, A. (2015): Human rights priorities in the European Union’s external and internal policies: An assessment of consistency with a special focus on vulnerable groups. FRAME Project Fostering Human Rights among European Policies: Work Package No. 12 – Deliverable No. 2.

Lennie, J. & Tacchi, J. (2013): Evaluating communication for development: A framework for social change. London: Routledge.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2003): Ecosystems and Human Well-Being.

About the authors

Dr. Beate Schmidt-Behlau has a background in educational sciences and has been working in different positions with DVV International since 2002. She is currently senior desk officer for South America and local research coordinator in the EduMAP project.


Francesca Endrizzi has been working as a junior researcher at DVV International since 2017. Prior to this, she researched in the areas of institutional development and social innovation policy.


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