Designing Technology for Adult Learners: Support and Scaffolding

This week we are pleased to welcome Susanne Nobles, Ph.D., Senior Manager, Digital Promise Adult Learning Initiative as our guest blogger.  Digital Promise is an independent, bipartisan nonprofit organization that works at the intersection of education leaders, researchers, and entrepreneurs and developers to improve learning with the power of technology.  


Much has been said about technology and its potential for improving learning opportunities for underserved, low-skilled adults. Mobile products can support adults who cannot attend education programs because of geography or busy lives. Adaptive technologies can help create personalized pathways for learners with special needs and mixed profiles. And, digital literacy skills can open a world of information and resources that form the gateway to today’s job market.

However, online learning puts a tremendous responsibility on the student. To effectively learn online, students must use self-regulating learning strategies – that is, they must be active learners.1

Adult learners, particularly low-skilled adults, are often not prepared for this kind of learning. Many do not have practice in active learning skills, such as organizing, and controlling their own learning environments and the amount of instruction needed.2 They often have had past negative experiences in school and, as a result, have fewer learning skills than traditional students.3 They also face many barriers, from managing multiple jobs and family responsibilities to issues with transportation and digital access, that make learning particularly challenging.4 Finally, many adult learners are not native English speakers, thus need support learning English before they can pursue further learning opportunities.5

As a result, when using digital learning tools, adult learners will achieve the most if they have additional support and scaffolding. Research on instructional strategies that provide this support suggests five principles for product developers to consider when designing for the adult basic learner.

  • Focused lessons: Break instruction and activities into short modules with opportunities for feedback, checks for understanding, and encouragement.
  • Visual learning: Build in tools and opportunities to help adult learners visualize information and concepts. The more learners can manipulate the visuals themselves, the more effective the tool or activity will be for cognitive development.
  • Easily accessible resources: Provide clear, simple ways for adult learners to access a large bank of resources for practice. The more resources and activities available, the more opportunities there are for adult learners to deepen their learning.
  • Learner-instructor communication: Design in multiple ways for learners and instructors to communicate outside of class time. The more support adult learners have from their teachers, the more they believe they can overcome obstacles and succeed as learners.
  • Peer-to-peer interaction: Design in tools and opportunities for peer-to-peer interactions as well. By learning from and with peers, adult learners not only deepen their learning but also develop an additional support system for managing their learning.

These principles are critical for designing ed-tech products that create supportive learning environments to help adult learners acquire the skills they need for advancement. To dive into these design principles in depth, read our full brief in which we explore the research behind each principle as well as offer examples of how ed-tech products can incorporate them.

Taken separately, each principle can help enrich the learning experience. But rather than choosing one or two principles to incorporate, we encourage product designers to consider ways of incorporating all five to provide the richest support and scaffolding possible for these vulnerable learners. Designers who create new technology products tailored to adults’ unique support and scaffolding needs will have the best chance of meeting one of our nation’s great learning challenges — while capitalizing on an untapped market opportunity.

Endnotes

  1. Moore, M.G., & Kearsley, G., (2012). Distance education: A systems view of online learning, 3rd edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  2. Yukselturk, E., & Yildirim, Z. (2008). Investigation of interaction, online support, course structure and flexibility as the contributing factors to students’ satisfaction in an online certificate program. Educational Technology & Society, 11(4), 51-65.
  3. Carpentieri, J.D. (2014). Improving basic skills in adulthood: Participation and motivation. Literature Review prepared for the European Commission Working Group on Adult Learning. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/education/policy/strategic-framework/expert-groups/documents/adult-basic-skills_en.pdf
  4. Digital Promise. (2016). Adult Learner Landscape: A Quick Guide. Retrieved from http://digitalpromise.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/quick-start-guide-adult-learner-landscape.pdf
  5. Snow, C. E., & Biancarosa, G. (2003). Adolescent literacy and the achievement gap: What do we know and where do we go from here? New York, NY: Carnegie Corporation. Retrieved from https://www.carnegie.org/media/filer_public/2a/92/2a924f5b-8130-4dc8-86c4-86ad71d2f08f/ccny_meeting_2003_gap.pdf
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