As seen on Elearning Industry and included in The seven year education itch and Discovering Educational Technology for Adult Learners
Adult learners acquire their knowledge very differently to children. They are much more results driven, goal oriented, and practical, as well as being very self-directed. When it comes to technology, we can’t simply assume that all adult learners understand or know what to do with technology. In this article I have grouped what I believe to be the 5 main technology challenges faced by adult learners.
Being in my mid 40s, I grew up in an age where technology was not as prolific as it is today, especially in the classroom. My introduction to computers was in the form of a massive box that had a black and green screen attached and (from memory) was BASIC. After entering a few lines of code, I was gob smacked to see my name display across and down the screen, constantly updating –this was just amazing! When I left the classroom, that was all soon forgotten– it was time for Home Science and there were no computers there.
The reason I speak about this brief blast from my past is that this is not an unusual scenario for anyone now in their mid 30’s and onward. We didn’t have smartphones, tablets, or this crazy thing called the “internet”. The way we learnt was very different to how children of today learn.
Let’s jump forward to today. I want to introduce to you a fictitious scenario that would not seem that out of place in todays world:
Judy is 47 and lives in Longreach, Outback Queensland, Australia. For the past 25 years she has been raising her family of 3 children whilst her husband, David, has worked the land on their cattle station.
Prior to starting a family and moving to Longreach, Judy worked as a Paralegal in Brisbane. Over the last 20 years, Judy has experienced many hardships on the land and at times has had to go without. Modern technology was not seen as a necessity, so would go without or seek cheaper alternatives. Mobile coverage was almost non-existent on her property; however, the family did get the internet in 2003 to help the children with the school studies on a basic computer.
Judy’s children are now in their 20s. The eldest son still lives at home and helps on the land with the family business. The middle child has chosen a path in Information Technology, but has moved to Sydney and works as a Consultant for a large financial company. The youngest daughter has moved to Rainbow Beach and is following her dreams of becoming an artist whilst working as a tandem skydiver to make ends meet. With the children now moving on, Judy has decided she’d like to get back into the work force and has always loved the business side of her husband’s work. She elects to complete a Diploma of Business as a distance student, conducting most of the course online. The course requires access to the internet and the ability to complete complex reports in Excel as well as Word, and also be able to upload assessments and assignments to the Learning Management System.
You may be able to relate to Judy, or know someone similar. Her priorities after leaving school (and working briefly) were to get married and raise her family. Her own education was purely work based and on the job training. It wouldn’t be a far cry from assuming that the last time Judy was at school, the technology probably extended to an overhead projector.
Now that Judy wants to start studying again, she faces many challenges. The method in which Judy was taught to learn has long since changed. Distance learning was not something that was readily available, but is very much a part of today’s learning environment.
I have summarized the challenges that Judy, and other adult learners, may face when it comes to using technology to learn.
How many times do we here “Apple® is better than Android®” or “Microsoft® has the advantage over Apple®”? This can be extended to “when on the internet, use Chrome® as it won’t work on Internet Explorer®”. These are all too common these days, however this could affect the way an adult learner can access learning tools. Think about an adult learner that simply uses Microsoft Windows® and only uses the built in web browser (Internet Explorer®): How would this affect them? There are also adults that will only use Android® and will continue to bag out any other competitor and will not use any other brand; we all know someone like this! When Instructional Designers are designing courses, they should consider making their tools platform agnostic, that being that work across any platform and not discriminate. This is not as easy as it sounds, but from an adult learner’s perspective, it has to be considered.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Can everyone conduct an internet search?
- Can everyone use different search engines and change the search term to refine their search?
These are assumptions that educators make. These are fairly good assumptions given the technology we all have access to. It’s all around us, so everyone knows it. Right? I’d have to disagree. I’ll give you an example that I personally experienced. Whilst delivering a short workshop on iPad® 101, I was asked by an older student “Where does the CD go?”. This invoked a few snickers of laughter from around the room. Just because we’re bombarded with technology does not mean we understand it. This person was used to the way that a CD has information on it and we simply put it in the computer, it loads and away they go. As far as they were concerned, the iPad® IS a computer, so why shouldn’t it have a CD? There is also a level of “jargon” that comes with technology. This can bamboozle some people. We hear the jokes of the older generation saying FaceTube or MyFace etc., but when you think about it, this is because they don’t understand – they are not digitally literate. Another example is I once mentioned in a workshop, “just Google® Office 365®”. To me, this was a simple statement. Open Google®, enter the search term Office 365®, and follow any links. However, I received an email the next day stating “Where can I find Google® Office 365®?”.
3. Experience and exposure.
The technology that adults are exposed to varies extensively, and can be very diverse. If we were to look at our example of Judy, how much technology has she been exposed to? Chances are the family had a PC for the kids going to school to do their homework. They would’ve asked their mum for help, but she couldn’t help that much, as she didn’t have any experience with PC’s. Over time, the kids would expose her to different types of technology, but is this enough? When it comes to an adult learner starting to studying again, will they have the experience to just pick up an online course or resource and just slip straight into it? I’ll use an example and this time I’ll bring my mother into it. She’s in her early 70s and has had some exposure to technology, purely based myself and my brother patiently taking her through various technologies over the past few years. She’s now on an iPad®, which is great, but ask her to download a PDF and she’ll throw you a look that included “A wha?”, all with an Irish twang. She may get emails with PDFs as attachments, but does she know what it is? Not being exposed to what is common technology today, that we may take for granted, can have an impact on adult learners.
There is a genuine fear of losing data, losing photos, breaking things, or losing all their personal details when it comes to technology, especially with adults. Adults that have not been exposed to technology would only hear the “scary stories” from the media or family where something has happened, be it hacked or scammed in some way. Relating this back to learning, if an adult learner has a real fear of technology, they most likely won’t be able to use any form of eLearning tool. Alerts and messages popping up and a lack of digital literacy can cause unwanted stress to an adult that already has a fear of technology. This could also lead to them giving up. My mother-in-law needed to complete a survey of 10 questions before completing an online course for her work. Seems simple enough, but the way the survey was designed, meant she struggled to complete it. Messages and bad user design created a bad user experience. Her fear of the unknown kicked-in, and she could not progress.
5. Social and culture exposure.
Finally, there is the social and cultural exposure to technology. I don’t wish to discriminate here, however, depending on the environment of the adult learner, they may not be able to afford the latest and greatest technology. This could also aide to a Digital Divide. If the adult learner’s background is of a low social economic environment, there is greater chance that they are less likely to understand how to use technology. This can also be family related. Without discriminating, if parents have a low digital literacy, there is a high chance the children will also have a low digital literacy. Not having the technology can and will impact the learning process.
To summarize, adult learners gain knowledge in different ways. They are very self-directed and less open minded. They have higher expectations of themselves and if they lack the technological skills to learn with today’s tools, they will struggle to complete their training. As educators, we need to consider these challenges when developing online learning tools and courses.