Designing Technology for Adult Learners: Support and Scaffolding
Much has been said about technology and its potential to be a powerful tool 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. 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. They often have had past negative experiences in school and, as a result, have fewer learning skills than traditional students. They also face many barriers, from managing multiple jobs and family responsibilities to issues with transportation and digital access, that make learning particularly challenging. Finally, many adult learners are not native English speakers, thus need support learning English before they can pursue further learning opportunities.
As a result, adult learners will achieve the most when using digital learning tools if they have additional support and scaffolding (a method of helping students move progressively toward stronger understanding). Research on instructional strategies that provide this support suggests five principles for product developers to consider when designing for the adult basic learner. Taken separately, each principle can help enrich the learning experience. But rather than choosing one or two principles to incorporate, we encourage designers to consider ways of incorporating all five to provide the richest support and scaffolding possible for these vulnerable learners.