September 2008 Index
Home Page

Editor’s Note: Adult learners are veterans of a traditional education system. Adults have different needs, and different subject matters attract student with different learning styles who are often involved with work, families, travel, and adult responsibilities. Some methods used for younger students may not be appropriate. Adult learning should be “open and flexible” to facilitate the schedules and responsibilities of adult life.

The Role of Adult Learning-Using Technology for Learning

Myra Sellers

Who exactly is considered an adult learner and how does one become a member in this exclusive club? Johnstone and Rivera’s (1926) definition comes to mind: “the adult education participant is just as often a woman as a man, has completed high school or more….and is found in all parts of the country” (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999, p. 47).  One of the most rapidly developing areas within education is the study and practice of education for and about adults. How can education continue to meet the needs and enhance the education process for adults?

The notion of learning through life is hardly new, as a glance at Plato's Republic reveals. Plato's relevance to modern day informal educators can be seen at a number of levels. First, he believed, and demonstrated, that educators must have a deep care for the well-being and future of those they work with. Educating is a moral enterprise and it is the duty of educators to search for truth and virtue, and in so doing guide those they have a responsibility to teach.  

Second, there is the 'Socratic teaching method'. The teacher must know his or her subject, but as a true philosopher he or she also knows the limits of their knowledge. It is here that we see the power of dialogue - the joint exploration of a subject - 'knowledge will not come from teaching but from questioning'.

Third, there is his interpretation of the differing educational requirements associated with various life stages. In his work the classical Greek concern was for body and mind. There was importance of exercise and discipline, of storytelling and games. Children enter school at six where they first learn the three Rs (reading, writing and counting) and then engage with music and sports. Plato's philosopher guardians then follow an educational path until they are 50. At eighteen they are to undergo military and physical training; at 21 they enter higher studies; at 30 they begin to study philosophy and serve the polis in the army or civil service. At 50 they are ready to rule. This is a model for what we now describe as lifelong education (indeed, some nineteenth century German writers described Plato's scheme as 'andragogy'). It is also a model of the 'learning society' - the polis is serviced by educators. It can only exist as a rational form if its members are trained - and continue to grow (Smith, 2001).

Distance learning has become the catalyst for adult learning in the 21st century. Many adults are taking advantage of learning via the Internet. As family obligations and work obligations become more mobile, the technology has advanced and become more mobile. R. D. Waller (1956), in his book A Design for Democracy, describes a report from the Adult Education committee of the British Ministry of Reconstruction: “Adult education must not be regarded as a luxury for a few exceptional persons here and there, nor as a thing which concerns only a short span of early manhood, but that adult education is a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong” (1919: 55). This theme was also broadened in Eduard Lindman’s (1926) The Meaning of Adult Education. Along with his friend and colleague, John Dewey, Lindman argued that:

  1. Education is life: 'not merely preparation for an unknown kind of future living...The whole of life is learning, therefore education can have no endings. This new venture is called adult education not because it is confined to adults but because adulthood, maturity, defines its limits...' (p. 4-5).
  2. Adult education should be non-vocational: 'Education conceived as a process coterminous with life revolves about non-vocational ideals... adult education more accurately defined begins where vocational education leaves off. Its purpose is to put meaning into the whole of life' (ibid.: p. 5).
  3. We should start with situations not subjects: 'The approach... will be via the route of situations, not subjects... In conventional education the student is required to adjust himself to an established curriculum; in adult education the curriculum is built around the student's needs and interests' (ibid.: p. 6).
  4. We must use the learner's experience: 'The resource of highest value in adult education is the learner's experience... all genuine education will keep doing and thinking together' (ibid.: p. 6-7). 

For many adults, learning is an ongoing and important part of their lives. With the development of a self-consciously 'adult education' came the view that education should be lifelong. Experience plays a huge role in whether or not the learning will continue to be important in their life.  The perception of learning in certain groups and individuals has greatly varied. In the past, adults aged fifty or older viewed learning as of little value and working beyond sixty or sixty-five as unwarranted unless finances dictated. Health, environment, ethnic differences all played a part in the viewpoint of whether continued learning was necessary and still plays a part. Many of these attitudes were linked to a study by Moody (as cited in Lowy and O’Connor, 1986) suggesting that adults perceive learning from the vantage point of approximately how much time is left to live. Although never exact, this perspective of time dramatically influences educational goals of the adult.

Though clearly convenient for the learners, Jorgensen (2002) and others have questioned: Is distance learning an effective substitute for face-to-face teaching? Also, does this impersonal mode of teaching deprive students of quality instruction? Online classes demand a different type of approach from a student from the traditional face-to-face classroom. Students must demonstrate a high degree of autonomy and motivation (Ladyshewsky 2004). Using tools that enable both synchronous and asynchronous interactions, the instructor can create learningcontent, and students can participate, communicate, and collaborate. Instructors can deliver automatically scored assessments and surveys, thereby giving students immediate feedback (Blackboard 2004). Technology is important in students’ review of their learning experiences and what is expected from the instructor. The shifting demographics, new technologies, the entrance of commercial organizations into higher education, the changing relationships between colleges and the federal and state governments, and the move from an industrial to an information society. In addition, the convergence of publishing, broadcasting, telecommunications, and education is blurring the distinction between education and entertainment. A variety of knowledge producers will compete to create courses and other educational services, to develop new ways to distribute knowledge, and to engage larger audiences. (Levine, 2003).

The appeal of online learning and e-learning for institutions and policy-makers is that it frees learners from a rigid timetable of attendance at a college or other learning institution; it enables self-paced learning and is purported to be more cost effective (Gatta 2003).

Many adults, aged sixty to seventy, grew up in the pre-World War II era. Learning was taught, to a great extent, by the instructivist method, by a teacher and knowledge was in the possession of the teacher. Lesson plans were put into motion by the teacher and the material was learned and processed by the student. The student was assessed on their remembering the materials and the skills they possessed. Many students in this era by the seventh grade had dropped out of school out of necessity to go to work and help support their families. Many of these same students were called into armed services and went to serve their country during World War II. Some of the knowledge obtained especially the reading and writing skill, was helpful during this time and was used by students in their jobs. But mastery of knowledge and schooling was not the most important thing in many families’ minds. Survival was and many students never returned to the classroom.

Whether based in traditional or virtual settings, higher education is going through a transformation, where the focus is shifting from a teaching environment to one of learning (Levine, 2003). The old model, based on a pedagogical structure, emphasized a commonly shared process where instruction was calculated by “seat time, or the amount of time each student is taught. Students study for a defined number of hours, earn credits for each hour of study, and, after earning a specified number of credits, earn a degree” (p. 21).  Students will come from diverse backgrounds and will have a widening variety of educational needs. New technologies will enable them to receive their education at any time and any place—on campus, in the office, at home, in the car, or on vacation. Each student will be able to choose from a multitude of knowledge providers the form of instruction and courses most consistent with how he or she learns. (Levine, 2003, p. 20)

Adult education is on the rise as is the demand for programs that are beneficial to the adult learner. Adult learners, for the most part, ask themselves self-assessment questions before beginning a task. Adults, typically, set for themselves a strategy of learning. The goal for most adult learners is that they understand and can apply the new information to their present lives. Adult learners will, for the most part, continually ask themselves if they understand the information being given them and whether the information meets their needs and expectations.

Unlike in a traditional course, online students cannot passively listen to a lecture while taking notes. Chad Hanson (2000, 1), a professor of sociology, described a familiar classroom scenario.

When the first discussion date rolled around, I walked into class with genuine enthusiasm. . . . I followed in the footsteps of one of my fondest mentors by issuing a familiar challenge. ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘who would like to begin?’ No one began. There were no hands in the air. I did not hear the cacophony of voices I had come to know so well in graduate school—everyone anxious to support or refute the claims of the author now up for discussion. Instead there was silence.. . . Twenty-nine pairs of eyes pointed in my direction. So I began. I continued, and eventually I finished the discussion myself. Meanwhile while, students wrote in their tablets. They took what looked like detailed notes while I talked, and that was gratifying, but not part of my plan.

“There are two perspectives that educators view with working with adults: the individual and the contextual. Until recently, the individual perspective, driven by the psychological paradigm, was the predominate way we thought about learning in adulthood. Two basic assumptions form the foundation for this perspective. The first is that learning is something that happens internally, primarily inside of our heads. In essence, the outside environment is given little if any attention in the way we think and learn. Second, this perspective is based on the assumption we can construct a set of principles and competencies that can assist all adults to be more effective learners, no matter what their background or current life situation” (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999).

The first assumption—that learning is something that happens internally, primarily inside our heads—was also expressed by Malcolm Knowles in his 1970 book, The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy vs. Pedagogy. He stated:

“there were four assumptions with adults and learning: self-concept, experience, readiness to learn and orientation to learning. The self-concept principle reflects the self-directing character of the adult learner rather than dependent nature of the child. The principle of experience simply acknowledges the need to draw on the adult's rich source of experience. In contrast, the pedagogical framework perceives the child as not possessing sufficient life experience to effectively incorporate into the learning environment. Readiness to learn indicates that adults differ from children in their developmental stage and as a result have special learning needs. The assumption implies that adult learning needs tend to focus more towards their social roles. On the other hand, pedagogy claims that the learning needs of children are geared towards physiological and mental development stages. Orientation to learning assumes that adults put more value on being able to practically apply their learning while pedagogy suggests that children naturally focus on postponing immediate application for future needs. These four sets of assumptions establish significant guidelines for creating adult learning environments” (p.39).

What then is the implication of higher education with respect to adult learning? Patricia Cranton (1994) states: "Perspectives on adult learning have changed dramatically over the decades. Adult learning has been viewed as a process of being freed from the oppression of being illiterate, a means of gaining knowledge and skills, a way to satisfy learner needs, and a process of critical self-reflection that can lead to transformation. The phenomenon of adult learning is complex and difficult to capture in any one definition” (pg. 3).

Successful distance learners share some distinctive features in their mode of study
(Littlefield 2005):

  • They work independently, are self-motivated and persistent, and do better without people giving them constant guidance.

  • They seldom procrastinate, realizing that timelines are important and that neglecting to turn in their work on schedule may end up delaying completion of their studies.

  • They demonstrate good reading and writing skills, which are essential for acquiring most of the course information. Though some distance learning courses offer video recordings and audio clips, these are not sufficient to master the competencies. They are able to remain on task in spite of relentless distractions, such as frequent interruptions while learning at home.

Although students’ primary reasons for choosing their course had not been the online mode of delivery per se, all acknowledged both the importance of developing and using information and communications technology (ICT), e-learning or online learning is one way of overcoming barriers. ICT skills and the advantages of learning in the rich, multi-media environment provided by online learning (Peng et al. 2006). Learning online transcended geographical, physical, visual and temporal barriers to accessing education, and reduced socio-physical discrimination (Debenham 2001).  The adoption of ICT in education is being seen throughout the world as a means of effectively educating students, and orienting and preparing them for employment (Fox 2002, MCEETYA 2007b, US Department of Education 2004).

Research by Matas and Allan (2004) has also indicated the benefits to adult students of using online learning portfolios to develop generic skills, transferable to the workplace. Additionally, ICT is purported to appeal across the social spectrum and age range. Technology has proven to be of great benefit in the teaching of online courses and students choosing to take e-learning classes.

The adult population has become increasingly more visible mainly because of the increasing size of the group. Learning in an aging population has become an afterthought to some in the education field. Programs of study are offered as continuing education in community organizations, some educational institutions, and churches just to name a few. But the diversity of the programs does not compliment what is offered to younger students. Education for adults is seen as an add-on and outside the traditional learning establishment and programs of study offered in traditional institutions do not relate to older non-traditional students in general areas of interest. While some educational institutions try, many fail to reach the masses. Manheimer, Snodgrass, and Moskow-McKenzie (1995) pointed out the lack of a single dominant model of older adult education: "Different groups have a stake in older adult education and related policies but view older adults and their education differently. For example, some educational organizations claim or accept responsibility for education which targets a certain group of citizens, older adults being one of them. Aging organizations, on the other hand, claim or accept responsibility for older adult programs that happen to be educational" (p. 121).

Adults want to contribute to their immediate community and society. They want to be seen as viable individuals and, because of age and experience, want their contributions to be seen as worthwhile. Moody (1976) presented a four-stage model of education for the older adult: (1) rejection, (2) social services, (3) participation, and (4) self-actualization. The first stage, rejection, reflects the isolation of the aged in modern societies, in which "old people are, functionally speaking, nonentities" (p. 3). The second stage, social services, defines older adult education as leisure-time activities. The third stage, participation, prepares older adults for new roles in society through breaking stereotypes of old age. The fourth stage, self-actualization, focuses on the potential of older people to psychologically grow through learning. Moody concluded that the most current educational programs were directed at stages three and four, encouraging educators to respond to the needs of the least needy aged. Throughout the past decades, how has educational programs succeeded? It appears success has not quite happened to the extent some have hoped for.

What can be done to encourage more participation in learning in the adult population? How can educators encourage an adult learner to continue in their learning and development of knowledge? Encouragement—the definition is, according to Encarta Dictionary, “support of a kind that inspires confidence and a will to continue or develop.” The pursuit of an adult learner’s goals is different from a young person. Their learning is often self-directed—learners taking the responsibility to learn on their own, to teach themselves something where there is, in many instances, lack of the pressure of time. Adult learners, most often have sensible and logical abilities for planning and guiding their learning. Charles Hayes (1998) states that “when we fail to take control of our education, we fail to take control of our lives. Self-directed inquiry, the process of taking control of your own education... is the lifeblood of democracy” (xiv). Taking control brings the freedom to choose a path where a person would like to go.

In its broadest meaning, 'self-directed learning' describes, according to Malcolm Knowles (1975) a process:

... “in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes” (p. 18).

Knowles (1975) puts forward three immediate reasons for self-directed learning in adults:

“They enter into learning more purposefully and with greater motivation. They also tend to retain and make use of what they learn better and longer than do the reactive learners”(p. 14);

“An essential aspect of maturing is developing the ability to take increasing responsibility for our own lives - to become increasingly self-directed” (p. 15); and

'Students entering into these programs without having learned the skills of self-directed inquiry will experience anxiety, frustration, and often failure, and so will their teachers”(15). 

As Merriam and Cafferella (1991) comment, this means of conceptualizing the way we learn on our own is very similar to much of the literature on planning and carrying out instruction for adults in formal institutional settings. It is represented as a linear process. Learning then progresses as 'the circumstances created in one episode become the circumstances for the next logical step' (p. 46).

There has been a shift in much of the literature and policy discussions from lifelong education to lifelong learning. There has been an associated tendency to substitute the term adult learning for adult education (Courtney, 1989).  One way is to view learning, as a thought process relating to the learner that can occur 'both incidentally and in planned educational activities', while, 'it is only the planned activities we call…education' (Merriam and Brockett 1997: 6). The shift may, as Courtney suggests, reflect a growing interest in learning, 'however unorganized, episodic or experiential' (ibid.), beyond the classroom. And as stated by Tom Bentley in The Economist (October 9, 1999), “it requires a shift in our thinking about the fundamental organizational unit of education, from the school, an institution where learning is organized, defined and contained, to the learner, an intelligent agent with the potential to learn from any and all of her encounters with the world around her” (pg. 42).

As the population continues to age and longer life expectancy fuels the education market for adults, educators will have to continue to look for new programs and how best to entice the adult to continue in their pursuit of lifelong learning or lifelong education whichever term is applicable. Educators must continue to strive to help students reach their goals because as Mark Smith (1996) states: “Real poverty comes from settling for dreams defined by others while remaining bereft of our own.”

According to Arthur Levine (2003), there are “three basic types of colleges and universities are emerging. They are "brick universities," or traditional residential institutions; "click universities," or new, usually commercial virtual universities, like and Jones International University; and "brick and click" universities, a combination of the first two.  If current research on e-commerce is correct, the most competitive and attractive higher-education institutions willbe "brick and click." While consumers appreciate the convenience, ease, and freedom of services online, they also want a physical space where they can interact with others and obtain expert advice and assistance face-to-face.

Who will control the brick-and-click institutions? Will the for-profit sector buy "bricks" –  build physical plants -- before traditional colleges develop the capacity to operate in the "click" environment? Or will just the opposite occur? And how should each of the nation's colleges determine which of the three categories best meets its goals?” (Levine, 2003). Technology is changing and the role of teaching the adult or non-traditional student must keep up.


Aragon, S. R. (2003). Creating social presence in online environments. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 100, 57-68.

Aslanian, C.B., Brickell, H.M. (1980). Americans in transition: Life changes as reasons for adult Learning. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

Ausburn, L.J. (2004b). Course design elements most valued by adult learners in blended online education environments: An American perspective. Educational Media International, 4(3), 321-331.

Bentley, T. (1998). Labour's learning revolution. The Economist, October 9, 1999, page 42.

Blackboard. 2004. Advanced teaching and learning with technology. Available at:

Courtney, S. (1989) 'Defining adult and continuing education' in S. B. Merriam and P. M. Cunningham (eds.) Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 19.

Cranton, P. (1994). Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 3. 

Gatta, M. (2003). Findings from the field: early findings of the New Jersey Online Learning Project for Single Working-Poor Mothers, A Report of the Rutgers University Centre for Women and Work. Available at:

Fox, S. (2002). Arguments for and against the use of teaching and learning technologies in higher education, Report, Dublin: Dublin City University. Available at:

Hayes, C. (1998) Beyond the American Dream: Lifelong learning and the search for meaning in a postmodern world. Wasilla: Autodidactic Press. 365 + xvii pages.

Johnstone, J.W.C., & Rivera, R.J. (1965).Volunteers for learning: A study of the educational pursuits of adults. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine.

Jorgensen, D. 2002. The challenges and benefits of asynchronous learning networks. Reference Librarian 37(77): 3–17.

Knowles, Malcolm S. (1970). The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy Versus Pedagogy. New York: Association Press. 39.

Knowles, Malcolm S. (1980) The Modern Practice of Adult Education. Revised and Updated. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall Regents.

Ladyshewsky, R. (2004). Online learning versus face to face learning: What is the difference? Paper presented at the 2004 Teaching and Learning Forum, February 9–10, Murdoch University, Murdoch, Western Australia. Available at:

Levine, A. (2003). The Future of Colleges: 9 Inevitable Changes. The Chronical of Higher Education. B10. Available at:

Lindeman, E. C. (1926) The Meaning of Adult Education. New York: New Republic. Republished in a new edition in 1989 by The Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education. 4-7. Lowy, L., & O'Connor, D. (1986). Why education in the later years?. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company.

Manheimer, R. L., Snodgrass, D. D.,& Moskow-McKenzie, D. M.(1995). Older Adult Education. London: Greenwood Press. 121.

Matas, C.P. & Allan, C. (2004). Using learning portfolios to develop generic skills with on-line adult students, Australian Journal of Adult Learning,44(1): 6–26.

Merriam, S., and Brockett, R. (1997) The Profession and Practice of Adult Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 6.

Merriam, S. B. & Caffarella, R. S. (1999). Learning in adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 46-47.

Mills, E. S. (1993). The Story of Elderhostel. Hanover, N. H.: University Press of New England.

Ministry of Reconstruction (1919). Final Report of the Adult Education Committee, London: HMSO. Republished by University of Nottingham Department of Adult Education. 55.

Moody, H. R. (1976). "Philosophical Presuppositions of Education for Old Age." Educational Gerontology. 1(1), 1-16.

Moody, H. R.( 1993). "A Strategy for Productive Aging: Education in Later Life." In S. A. Bass, G. Caro, and Y. P.Chen (eds.), Achieving a Productive Aging Society. Westport, Conn.: Auburn House.

Sheppard, T. (2002). "The learning journey." Navy Supply Corps Newsletter. June-August, 2002. Available: http:/

Smith, M. K. (1996, 2001). 'Lifelong learning', The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. Available:

Waller, R.(1956). A Design for Democracy. London: Max Parrish. 22.

About the Author

Myra W. Sellers prepared this paper for the CSM-582 course taught by Dr. William Alvarez at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, AL



go top
September 2008 Index
Home Page