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Steve Quann is a former adult education instructor who now does training on technology integration and designs e-learning projects for World Education. Digital Promise talked to Steve about Words2Learn, a vocabulary app for adult learners he developed with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, and why innovation in adult education is important.

Q. Explain the Words2Learn approach in a nutshell.

It’s a hybrid approach where students can download the word lists and exercises onto their phone or tablet and work on them without needing to be connected to the Internet. Once they’re connected, the quiz results are automatically sent back to the learning management system so teachers can view student progress. Teachers found this helped increase homework completion, giving students a leg up in their class work.

Q. How does this type of technology help improve access for adult learners?

It improves access in two major ways. One way is that it puts learning in the pocket of the learners. The second way is that it helps teachers teach.

I talked with one of the users and really pressed him on why he liked the app. I asked, “Why do you like to use this app? Why not a piece of paper?” and he said, “I don’t carry around a list of words to a store, waiting in line, or waiting on the bus. With my phone, the words are always there for me to study.”

I think the learning in the pocket idea, really caught on. A lot of teachers said it was an aha moment when students realized they could use their phone as a learning device. Some of them were Certified Nursing Assistants and said, “Hey, I could use this during a break. I could go outside and learn these words”

The second thing it does is help teachers teach. They can get information on how students are doing on the quizzes via the learning management system, see what words students had difficulty with, and adjust their teaching accordingly.

Q. What should developers consider when designing an app or other tech resource for adult learners?

There are many things to consider, but two really important ones. The first is the experience base. Adults have a great wealth of experience that should be tapped when developing any activity. Whenever possible, I try to use technology to both access and assess that prior knowledge through introductory activities.

The second is to create a sense of confidence, so that they find the information kind of like Goldilocks – not too hard, not too easy, and not too much. What tends to happen with vocabulary, for example, but certainly other online content, is that there is just too much information, so students don’t gain mastery.

User testing is also important. Getting the feedback from the actual user often doesn’t happen, especially with adult education. Many of us don’t know what it is to be an adult learner. We haven’t had to try to learn to read as an adult. Input from actual learners is crucial to developing a product that will be used and useful.

Q. What is the biggest misconception about adult learners?

People wonder if adult learners are capable, but I’ve taught everyone from doctors all the way to students who struggled with reading in school because of a learning disability, but yet can run circles around me in math.

Another misconception is they don’t want to learn. For example, a lot of people think English language learners don’t really want to learn English, but there are huge waiting lists for these programs. They are thirsty to learn how to navigate going to the hospital or using an ATM machine, any of these day-to-day things. I can see real advantages in using technology in a blended approach to then be able to add more classes and reduce waiting lists.


Category: Adult Learning, Blog

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