ERIC Identifier: ED421639
Publication Date: 1998-00-00
Author: Imel, Susan
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult
Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Technology and Adult Learning: Current Perspectives. ERIC
Digest No. 197.
Throughout the 20th century, changes in technology have had social and
economic ramifications. Although each successive wave of technological
innovation has created changes to which adults have had to adjust, "what perhaps
differentiates earlier technological changes from today's is the current
emphasis on educational applications" (Merriam and Brockett 1997, p. 113). The
most pervasive of the technologies with educational applications are the
Internet and World Wide Web, but other technologies can also be used to
facilitate adult learning. In considering the role of technology in adult
learning, adult educators are faced with a number of challenges, including how
to respond to technology and how to exploit it without diminishing the learning
experience (Field 1997). The purpose of this Digest is to review some current
perspectives about technology and adult learning. It begins by describing
approaches for integrating technology into adult learning and then considers how
technology can be used to support and expand adult learning.
INTEGRATING TECHNOLOGY INTO ADULT LEARNING
presents a helpful way to think about integrating technology into adult learning
by proposing four basic approaches: technology as curriculum, delivery
mechanism, complement to instruction, and instructional tool. Each approach is
summarized here, including its benefits and limitations.
TECHNOLOGY AS CURRICULUM
Not only can adults learn content
through technology, they can also learn about technology itself (Merriam and
Brockett 1997) and develop the skills to use it competently. An example of the
technology as curriculum approach is the course, "Exploring the Internet." Offered by the Georgia Center for Continuing Education, the 10-hour, noncredit
evening course is designed to provide adults with the concepts and skills for
using Internet applications such as e-mail and the Web (Cahoon 1998). The
benefits of this approach include the opportunity to address each aspect of the
technology in a clear, structured manner; little or no distraction from
peripheral learning issues or goals beyond those of learning the technology; and
efficiency in acquiring a discrete set of technology skills that can be applied
in different settings. The major limitation of the approach is the narrow focus
on the technology and the skills to use it. When technology skills are acquired
in an isolated environment, they may not be easily transferred and applied by
the learner in meaningful ways. In addition, if the learner lacks an opportunity
for practice, the skills may deteriorate (Ginsburg 1998).
TECHNOLOGY AS A DELIVERY MECHANISM
A second approach for
integrating technology into adult learning is to use it as means for
instructional delivery. In basic skills instruction, an example of this approach
is the individualized learning system (ILS). ILSs are designed to provide
instruction and practice in a set of subskills that together form an entire
curriculum. Other examples include televised instruction and instruction
delivered through video or audiotapes. Although this approach lends itself to
individualizing instruction, for the most part, the learner works in isolation
from other learners and, in some instances, the teacher. Also, few, if any,
technology skills are acquired. For example, ILSs require learners only to
retrieve the software program, identify themselves, and employ a limited number
of keystrokes. They are also costly (ibid.), a limitation that does not extend
to televisions, VCRs, and audiotape players, which are more readily available.
TECHNOLOGY AS A COMPLEMENT TO INSTRUCTION
In adult learning
settings, technology is frequently used to complement instruction and extend
learning. In adult basic education, for example, a learner might use a piece of
software to practice a weak or underdeveloped skill area that has been the focus
of classroom instruction (ibid). Another example of this approach is the use of
Internet activities and assignments to supplement traditional distance learning
(for example, telephone-supported correspondence study) (Eastmond 1998). In this
approach, the instructor remains the primary coordinator of instruction and the
extent to which technology is integrated with traditional instruction depends
upon both the teacher's style and the kind and type of technology available. Use
of technology to complement instruction extends the instruction beyond the
knowledge and experiences of the teacher and can also provide opportunities for
the teacher to learn. The approach also provides learners the opportunity to
practice skills in private, and it can promote self-direction by allowing
learners to supplement instruction in ways that meet their individual needs
(Eastmond 1998; Ginsburg 1998).
A major limitation of this approach is the kind and type of material
available that is suitable for adults and that promotes good adult learning
practices. In the case of software, for example, teachers must take time to
locate, review, and select software packages. Also, drill and practice, which
does not involve the development of high-level cognitive skills such as problem
solving, is the focus of many software programs. The cost of acquiring the most
suitable software may also be a limitation. Finally, to avoid technology simply
becoming an "add-on," teachers need to ensure that the use of technology is
congruent with the primary instruction (Ginsburg 1998).
TECHNOLOGY AS AN INSTRUCTIONAL TOOL
When technology is used
as an instructional tool, it is integrated into instructional activities. The
primary instructional goals and outcomes remain the same, but technology is used
to enrich and extend them. Although acquiring technology-related skills is not
the primary focus in this approach, instructional activities frequently support
their development. In completing writing assignments, for example, learners
develop skills in word processing (ibid). The spread of the Internet and the
World Wide Web has made this approach very common in distance education and in
other education and training settings. Distance education delivered via computer
conferencing is one example (Eastmond 1998). Technology has also been used to
extend adult literacy curricula in a multilevel classroom by enabling learners
to have immediate access to Internet-based resources that provide content of
interest to their life situations and allow for teaching of skills in context
(Cowles 1997). This approach allows learners to develop skills and have
experiences with technology in ways that will benefit them outside the
When compared to the first approach, technology as curriculum, learners may
more readily transfer the technology skills learned to other settings. When used
as an instructional tool, the Internet provides access to information and
resources that might not ordinarily be available (Ginsburg 1998). As will be
discussed more fully in the next section, this approach can also be used to
broaden and enhance adult learning experiences. A limitation of this approach is
the willingness of instructors to adapt or develop instructional activities. In
adult basic education, a shortage of curricular resources that integrate and
benefit from technology exists. Access to technology for either educational
providers or learners can also be a problem. Finally, an instructor's
understanding and ability to use the technology may also be a limitation (ibid).
The four approaches presented here are all currently used for adult learning,
and they are helpful in thinking about how to integrate technology into adult
learning. How technology can be structured to capitalize on the characteristics
of adult learners must be considered as well.
SUPPORTING AND EXTENDING ADULT LEARNING THROUGH
Like any other instructional tool, technology can serve to
perpetuate poor educational practice or it can become a means for transforming
learning. In formal learning settings, leadership for using technology
effectively rests with the instructor. However, "[technologies] are not neutral
tools. Their use will reflect whatever values the educator holds--consciously or
subconsciously--about her/his relationship with learners, and their use will
invariably bring advantages and disadvantages" (Burge and Roberts 1993, p. 35).
Technology can enhance adult learning because it has the potential to
increase flexibility, provide access to expertise, facilitate discussion among
learners who cannot meet face to face, reduce feelings of isolation often
experienced by nontraditional learners, increase learner autonomy, and support
and promote constructivist and collaborative learning (Burge 1994; Cahoon 1998;
Eastmond 1998; Field 1997). However, because "technology in and of itself does
not promote learning" (Burge and Roberts 1993, p. 35), its use does not obviate
the educator's responsibility for structuring the learning to ensure these
Part of using technology effectively is understanding what adults want in the
learning environment when technology is employed. Suggestions for structuring
environments include the following (adapted from Burge and Carter 1997, pp.
a place where learners can collect important ideas, express themselves, and feel
some security that they are going in the right direction.
fast and productive access to help when it is needed.
adults generally have two basic intrinsic motivating drives of autonomy and
affiliation, provide a learning environment that promotes both independent and
interdependent activities with cognitive as well as psychosocial support.
adults value economy of effort (i.e., they don't want to waste time), ensure
that the learning tools are intuitive and essential for the immediate task.
The literature contains a number of examples of how technology is being used
to promote and extend good practice in adult learning. Cowles (1997) uses the
Internet to support her beliefs that skills are learned best when embedded in
context of interest to the learner and when learning is active. She has found
the Internet to be a tool that can be used to individualize instruction but at
the same time keep it in the context of the group and program goals. Pobega
(1996) describes how he was able to use the Internet to involve students more
directly in producing a student newspaper that he had edited for 5 years with
the goal of developing their literacy skills. Work on the newspaper resulted in
students developing writing skills, engaging with technology, and working
collaboratively as an editorial team. Technology enabled Pennsylvania
practitioners to overcome two issues in professional development: isolation and
the effective use of practice-based professional development (Strunk and
Fowler-Frey 1996). The Internet allowed 10 adult basic education practitioners
engaged in action research projects to form a research community that provided
not only support and encouragement but also led to critical reflection on their
practice. As reported by Eastmond (1998), studies of adult learning through
online instruction found that learners engaged in knowledge construction,
collaborative learning, reflection, and interactivity. However, as Eastmond
points out, none of "these elements are inherent in the technology but must be
fostered by the course design, instructor engagement, and student behavior" (p.
Adult educators may once have been able to
ignore the educational applications of technology, but that is no longer the
case. The tools that can support and advance the goals of adult learning are a
part of everyday life and are used by millions of adults on a daily basis.
Unless adult educators become proactive in developing opportunities that will
provide advantages for adult learners, they may end up watching the exploitation
of technologies from the sidelines (Field 1997). Their primary role should be to
ensure that the focus is on the learning and not the technology. "The spotlight
should first fall on the conditions, dynamics and outcomes of learner activity,
in ways that promote learner self-esteem and their competence as proactive
learners" (Burge and Roberts 1993, p. 37).
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