Integrating Technology with Adult Learning Theory

Near the top of a google search for “adult learning theory and education,” I found the article “Andragogy and Technology: Integrating Adult Learning Theory as We Teach with Technology” by Dolores Fidishun, Ed.D., Penn State Great Valley School of Graduate Professional Studies, presented at the 2000 Mid-South Instructional Technology Conference, Middle Tennessee State University.

The article begins with this idea:

The principles of adult learning theory can be used in the design of technology-based instruction to make it more effective.

I share this sentiment and one of the reasons that I have developed this blog is to learn more about adult learning theories and how these ideas can be applied to the development of online educational resources.

Based on the application of adult learning theories, Dr. Fidishun offers several suggestions for the design of an effective online educational resource, including these specific design ideas:

One way to help students see the value of the lessons is to ask the student, either online or in an initial face-to-face meeting, to do some reflection on what they expect to learn, how they might use it in the future or how it will help them to meet their goals.

It becomes extremely important for those who are designing technology-based adult learning to use all of the capabilities of the technology including branching, the ability to skip sections a student already understands, and multiple forms of presentation of material which can assist people with various learning styles.

The instructor must find ways to move [dependent] learners into self-direction by giving them short, directed, concrete online tasks that provide the most “learning for the experience” to make these adults see the relevancy of online learning.

The design of technology-based instruction must include opportunities for learners to use their knowledge and experience. Case studies, reflective activities, group projects that call upon the expertise of group members and lab experiments are examples of the type of learning activities which will facilitate the use of learners’ already acquired expertise.

Following a brief introduction about the historical roots of andragogy, Dr. Fidishun describes “six assumptions of andragogy,” as discussed by Knowles, Holton and Swanson (1998). These six assumptions are as follows:

1) The Learner’s Need to Know

2) The Learner’s Self-concept

3) The Role of the Learner’s Experience

4) A Student’s Readiness to Learn

5) The Student’s Orientation to Learning

6) Students’ Motivation to Learn

The Learner’s Need to Know

Dr. Fidishun writes that adults need to “understand how what they will learn will be of use to them in the future.” This immediately reminded me of a concept about early childhood development that I had seen presented in a Bridges Out of Poverty training for my previous work as an attorney. I need to further research the Bridges Out of Poverty materials to make the proper attributions and articulate the concepts clearly, but for now what I remember of the child development concept is that children need to understand the “why” of what they are learning because it is an important part of their overall development of critical thinking skills.

An example that I remember from the training is about explaining to a child about not touching a hot stove. One parent might only say “Don’t touch the stove!” and another parent might say “Don’t touch the stove because it is hot and could burn you.” According to my recollection of the research presented by the Bridges out of Poverty training, the child who has had the benefit of being told “why” is more likely to enter adulthood equipped with critical thinking skills and a developed ability to consider future consequences of their actions. The child who has only been given orders has essentially not had the benefit of practicing critical thinking and is more likely to enter adulthood with a far less developed ability to consider future consequences of their actions.

I continue to wonder whether it is helpful to draw distinctions in learning theories by the age of the student because in the most simplistic sense, some adults are going to have learning needs typically associated with children, and some children are going to have learning needs typically associated with adults. Each individual learner is going to have needs based on a composite of factors, including age, life experiences and their standard of living. I am starting to see the variation in learners as a spectrum of differences that may not be helpful to strictly categorize by age. Based on what I understand about cognitive development, I do believe that some learning needs are going to be effected by the cognitive development stages associated with the ages of the student. I also think that some students are going to be effected by their immersion in the online environment, and by the same token, some students are going to be effected by their lack of experience on the Internet.

The important lesson from Dr. Fidishun’s article is that when a student understands how the information they are being taught is relevant and important to their lives, adult learning theories suggest that effective learning will occur. Dr. Fidishun writes that “[o]ne way to help students see the value of the lessons is to ask the student, either online or in an initial face-to-face meeting, to do some reflection on what they expect to learn, how they might use it in the future or how it will help them to meet their goals.”

A question for the development of an online educational resource that appears related to this idea is how would this activity look online? In part, the answer is guided by the available technology for the design of the site and the expected level of staff participation for the site during its regular operation. As Dr. Fidishun points out, “[i]t is incumbent upon the instructor to review these reflections and to adjust the technology or suggest an individual lesson structure to more effectively meet student needs.” An online educational resource may be able to accomplish this “choose your own adventure” structure by offering options to the learner for how they would like to learn, and making suggestions based on the articulated goals of the learner. In an online classroom, an involved faculty member could also help tailor this process further to the individual student, adding guidance to the choice of the learning experiences.

The Learner’s Self-concept

Dr. Fidishun describes the impact of technology on the need of the student to be an independent learner:

Technology is a perfect path for the facilitation of self-direction. The ultimate ability of initiatives such as web-based learning to be non-linear allows an adult to follow the path that most appropriately reflects their need to learn. It becomes extremely important for those who are designing technology-based adult learning to use all of the capabilities of the technology including branching, the ability to skip sections a student already understands, and multiple forms of presentation of material which can assist people with various learning styles.

I believe that the technology that is currently accessible, including the Internet in general, is already changing the learning needs of students. Schools used to offer a narrow channel of information and could easily make learners dependent on the schools for information. The learning theory described by Dr. Fidishun suggests that there is a transition from “previous schooling” that “has made them dependent learners,” and that it is a goal of adult education to facilitate adults becoming self-directed learners.

The Internet seems to have already facilitated independent learning habits because self-direction is a part of using the Internet. This is one of the ways that students of all ages start looking like they have adult learning needs, when they arrive at the classroom as independent learners.

I agree with Dr. Fidishun about how “[t]here must be some way to help learners who are still moving into the self-directed mode.” I think that access to the Internet can help a lot because using the Internet calls for self-direction. This fits with Dr. Fidishun’s suggestion that “[t]he instructor must find ways to move these learners into self-direction by giving them short, directed, concrete online tasks that provide the most “learning for the experience” to make these adults see the relevancy of online learning.” Having students complete simple online tasks sounds like a good way to practice self-directed learning because the task would require self-direction to accomplish. For example, a student could start a blog

I believe that the Internet can effectively facilitate the development of new habits of thinking and learning. I also think that teachers are a necessary part of effective education programs, especially during this historical transition as billions of people gain access to the Internet. Dr. Fidishun writes:

It is the job of the adult educator to move adult students away from their old habits and into new patterns of learning where they become self-directed, taking responsibility for their own learning and the direction it takes.

According to Dr. Fidishun, this is related to how “adults resent and resist situations in which they feel others are imposing their wills on them.” (Knowles, Holton, and Swanson, 1998, 65). I wonder how kids feel about it if it is considered so toxic to adult learning.

The Role of the Learner’s Experience

Dr. Fidishun writes:

The design of technology-based instruction must include opportunities for learners to use their knowledge and experience. Case studies, reflective activities, group projects that call upon the expertise of group members and lab experiments are examples of the type of learning activities which will facilitate the use of learners’ already acquired expertise.

This sounds similar to what is described in this clip from the essay “At School, Technology Starts to Turn a Corner,” published by the New York Times on August 16, 2008:

In the classroom, the emphasis can shift to project-based learning, a real break with the textbook-and-lecture model of education. In a high school class, a project might begin with a hypothetical letter from the White House that says oil prices are spiking, the economy is faltering and the president’s poll numbers are falling. The assignment would be to devise a new energy policy in two weeks. The shared Web space for the project, for example, would include the White House letter, the sources the students must consult, their work plan and timetable, assignments for each student, the assessment criteria for their grades and, eventually, the paper the team delivers. Oral presentations would be required.

The project-based approach, some educators say, encourages active learning and produces better performance in class and on standardized tests.

A Student’s Readiness to Learn

Dr. Fidishun writes:

It is important that lessons developed in technology-based opportunities should, where possible, be concrete and relate to students’ needs and future goals.

The Student’s Orientation to Learning

Dr. Fidishun writes:

Technology-based instruction will be more effective if it uses real-life examples or situations that adult learners may encounter in their life or on the job.

Students’ Motivation to Learn

Dr. Fidishun writes:

Incentives such as increased job satisfaction, self-esteem and quality of life are important in giving adults a reason to learn. If any of these can be related as part of technology-based instruction adults will respond more positively.

There is a certain point where the goals of learning that are based on these assumptions start to overlap and support the general idea about having a learning experience relate to a goal, be relevant to “real life” and provide positive reinforcement throughout the learning process.

In my recent post about how the Internet appears to be impacting the news industry, I talked a little about the sense that the Internet provides a lot of positive reinforcement when it rewards the user with a variety of interesting (and credible) links. I also recently critiqued Ian Jukes for a similar sentiment:

Another point that I found surprising is the assertion by Jukes that “[t]he digital culture provides exactly what kids need most – constant affirmation, lots of attention and the ability to distinguish themselves.” This may be the case for the video games Jukes discusses, but this seems like a disconcerting misunderstanding of the internet in general. When it comes to social media sites, there is an anarchy involved that provides constant insult, lots of negative attention and an extreme difficulty distinguishing oneself.

Although, I do continue on to this conclusion:

Social media sites tend to allow voting and commenting, which leads many visitors to make a sport out of being as rude and inflammatory as possible. I think Digital Learners need to understand the features of the digital environment, including the parts that can provide more harassment and negative attention in a day than non-digital environments would provide over a lifetime. Digital Learners have to grow up fast, grow thick skins and understand the general motivation of those that hurl abuse in their direction. There is no way to sanitize the Internet, but in an online school environment, it is possible to instill ‘real world’ values concerning conduct.

Schools in general have the quiet air of authority that sets a tone for the kind of behavior that is expected. In an online environment, it is no different. It does create a clear example for student of a code of conduct that students can then use for comparison as they travel the internet on their own. Then, when they observe conduct that would be unacceptable in an online learning environment, they can immediately recognize it as unacceptable and move on without internalizing it as actual negative feedback or harassment. This seems like a critical feature in the development of online educational environments.

And it all gets back to critical thinking. The Internet can provide a lot of positive reinforcement to critical thinkers, and it facilitates the development of those skills by its very nature and in its coordinated application to a classroom environment.

Adult learning theories suggest that there is going to be a gap between groups that Dr. Fidishun describes as “dependent thinkers” and “independent thinkers.” I am curious about whether the Internet will make independent thinking a habit and offer the kind of skills practice that Dr. Fidishun describes as typically denied by childhood education.

I think that the Internet has the capacity to produce ‘adultified’ learners and that distinctions based on age are less helpful than distinctions based on the development of critical thinking skills and independent learning. In earlier work for my Field Experience this summer, I had noted the following when trying to develop ideas for how to design an online educational resource:

Grow, G.O. (n.d.) The Staged Self-Directed Learning Model, Match and Mismatch between Learner Stages and Teacher Styles, Applying the Staged Self-Direction Model to a Course. Retrieved on July 18, 2008 from CCE 577 Learning in Adulthood (Spring 2006) Course Documents, Week 4 Materials.

These charts present a complication for the design of an online educational resource. Grow outlines four stages of learning, and it provides a useful reference point for describing the intended audiences of an online educational resource. If there is going to be no discussion component, all learners are going to be treated as “Dependent” learners. According to Grow, if the materials come across as “authoritarian,” this will be a “severe mismatch” for the “Self-Directed Learner” and a “mismatch” for the “Involved Learner.” However, a “Dependent” learner is a “match” for materials that do present as an expert authority.

The complication is that all kinds of learners could arrive at an online educational resource, and what may be useful to some learners could alienate others. However, I have been thinking about the site design in terms of how to present options for the visitor. The framework offered by Grow seems to suggest this could be a way to address the issue of diverse learners. For example, a “Delegator” style is a “match” for self-directed learners, so the site can include suggestions about where to find additional information. While Dependent learners may be more likely to stay on the site for the information they are looking for, having a component that includes suggestions and links to additional resources could be well appreciated by Self-Directed and Involved learners.

A slideshow related to Grow’s theories can be seen here.

I think that schools that provide childhood education are going to have difficulty providing an effective education to ‘adultified’ learners if the Internet is not integrated into the classroom. In 2002, The Pew Research Center made this finding:

Many schools and teachers have not yet recognized—much less responded to—the new ways students communicate and access information over the Internet. Students report that there is a substantial disconnect between how they use the Internet for school and how they use the Internet during the school day and under teacher direction. For the most part, students’ educational use of the Internet occurs outside of the school day, outside of the school building, outside the direction of their teachers.

I think that when “educational use of the Internet occurs outside of the school day,” this is a huge failure on the part of the schools. It seems possible that adult learning theory may have substantial application to the future of childhood education, if schools are interested in meeting the new learning needs of their students.

For now, my working conclusion is that the Internet is changing the way that people learn and that a recognition of these apparent changes need to be integrated into adult learning theories. Adult learning theories provide some interesting explanations for the popularity of the Internet, considering how much the Internet has built-in features considered important to adult education in general. The theories also provide the basis for ideas about effective design, essentially providing strategic goals to be kept in mind while working with the technology.

What if there is another stage after ‘independent’? What would that look like? There is something about the community of the Internet and a form of group learning that is taking place that seems too simplistic to describe as simply a group of ‘independent learners.’ Perhaps it might look something like Wikipedia

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