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Teaching Adults Technology for Workforce Development

Teaching Adults Technology for Workforce Development

Teaching Adults Technology for Workforce Development: A Literature Review


Many older adults are facing the challenges in the workforce due to their limitations in their technology skills. Studies in the fields of education, distance learning, business management and social sciences with the aim of determining central elements of learning that appeal to an adult workforce. Recent studies in the fields of adult education, workforce development education, distance learning, and social sciences indicate further research to determine the extent of impact on the design of learning for adult workforce education. Evidence from this literature review indicates instructors should consider the needs of adult students in a learning environment, and that several design elements exist to assist instructors in optimizing their learning experience While workforce development instructors face the challenge of designing learning for adult students, several central design elements can enhance communication, social interaction, and learning for all students.

Keywords: technology Baby Boomers, adult education, adult learning process, andragogy, workforce development education, overcoming learning barriers, learning styles



Employment in the U.S. has experienced significant changes, and that individuals are having to adapt to the new realities of the workplace and rethinking the skills they need to compete, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. The study data also finds that older workers are realizing that they will need continuous trainingto keep up with changes in the workplace. Many of these older adults are experiencing difficulty due to the incompatibility between their technological skills and the demands of their employment.  (Lee, Czaja & Sharit, 2009). The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that for many older workers, lack of up-to-date skills with computers and technology put them at a disadvantage in the workplace.

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This literature review will focus on literature that concentrated on adult learning theories and instructional design based on the Malcolm Knowles’ Andragogy Theory. The objective of this review is to provide a foundation for trainers and instructors as they develop training classes for adult learners. By using sound learning theories with good instructional design practices and providing opportunities for social interaction among members of the classroom, instructors and trainers can deliver effective learning experiences to help learners transition their skills to the workforce.

A Literature Review

The Theory of Andragogy

The term “andragogy” was first used in 1833, when German educator Alexander Kapp created the term to refer to adult learning. Kapp developed this term when publishing a book of Plato’s writings about education. It was during his work on this book, that Kapp realized that Plato not only discussed young people and their education, but adults and their education as well. Thus Kapp’s book contains a separate area that deals with adult education, which he calls “andragogy”. Kapp’s did not create the theory of adult learning, but a justification of the necessity of education for adults and elaborates on what qualities are important to develop (Leong, 2017).

It wasn’t until the 1920s when Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a German social philosopher, developed andragogy into the theory of adult education. However it wasn’t until the 1960s that American educator, Malcolm Knowles, brought it to the forefront making it a widespread practice. Knowles used the term, andragogy, to explain his multiple ideas about adult learning. He stated that andragogy, should be differentiated from the more common teaching or term, pedagogy, from the Greek meaning “child-leading” because adults learn differently than children and adolescents (Leong, 2017).

Six Characteristics of the Adult Learner

The Theory of Andragogy focuses on the adult and how they learn. Cochran & Brown (2016) identifies the six characteristics about adult learning that Knowles’ bases his theory on: an adult need to know, prior life or work experiences, self-concept or having a responsibility for their learning, possess readiness to learn, the reason to learn and their motivation toward learning.

The Learners Need to Know

The first assumption states that “adults need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it” (Knowles, 2005, p.64). By explaining the purpose of the assignment and its learning outcome prior to assigning the task, the instructor can increase the chance that the adult learner will be motivated to attempt and complete the task. Assignments that connect the learner with life experiences make their course work more relevant and, thereby, actively engage them in their learn­ing. By implementing the use of real-life case studies, this can test the learners’ skill, and be an effective way to instruction (Khalil & Elkhider, 2016). For example, in City University of Seattle’s Performance-Based Master’s in Teaching Program, candidates are encouraged to use their prior work and life experiences, using and adapting those experiences to demonstrate the understanding and application of lesson outcomes. When adults are proactive in their learning, they will have a vested interest in learning the material. Adult students are more inclined to be motivated when they under­stand what they are expected to learn.

The Learner’s Prior Experiences

Knowledge or experience, including errors made, provides the basis for learning activities and can be a great asset to individuals. But, if prior knowledge is inaccurate, incomplete, or naive, it can interfere with or alter the integration of incoming information, thus becoming a liability (National Research Council, 2000). Encouraging learners to connect their learning to life experiences can help the learner gain a better un­derstanding of the material (Park, 2003). The course content “must be structured in a way that fosters sharing of experiences among learners such as through the use of group projects and interactive discussions” (Blondy, 2007, p. 121). Course content should be flexible in that it can evolve rather than follow a specific script (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004).

Students who actively participate and contribute to their learning will be more engaged and motivated to learn (Harper & Ross, 2011) thus becoming more successful. Instructors should create a learning environment that is encouraging and advantageous to learners to share their experiences, ideas, and opinions (Palloff & Pratt, 2001). Activities may be collaborative in nature, which al­lows for student interaction and conversations that may lead to a better understanding of the course material. Short writing exercises to share and reflect on a learner’s knowledge of a particular topic (Aragon, 2003), which may include their experienc­es, can also be used as an effective assessment tool. When learners share their experiences, the learning environment becomes more enriching (Park, 2003).

The Learner’s Self-Concept

Self-Concept or, one’s perception of themselves, is an important part of the adult learning process. Adults want to be active participants in the development and assessment of their instruction. They need, and want to be, accountable for the decisions on their education; Adults “have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions, for their own lives” (Knowles, 2005, p. 65). They learn effectively only when they are free to direct their own learning and have a stronger motivation to develop a new skill or acquire knowledge. According to Dabbagh (2007), the learner’s self-concept is a key predictor for success, and students who have an internal focus of control tend to be more successful in the learning environment. The instructor must be willing to give up control of the course to allow the learners to be empowered to work on the course content together with the instructor as an equal (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004). The instructor or trainer may consider accessing and incorporating an adult’s life expe­riences into class activities since adult experiences are a valuable resource (Taylor & Kroth, 2009b). Adults need to be viewed as being capable (Knowles, 2005), and col­laborative activities provide the opportunity for adults to demonstrate their capabilities. Encouraging their participation in group projects and collaborative activities also aligns with the assumptions outlined in andragogy.

The Learner’s Readiness to Learn

Adults are most attracted to learning subjects that will have instantaneous impact to their work and/or personal lives, in this review, it is keeping or gaining employment; Adults are practical in their approach to learning; they want to know how it is going to help them immediately and does it assist them meet their goals. The needs of the learner must be addressed quickly to ensure their success (Blondy, 2007). Park (2006) suggests asking the learner about specific experiences with top­ics related to the course content and about expectations for the course- want are they wanting to learn. For example, an instructor could pose a discussion question, and the students would then be required to respond to the discussion question. By using an asynchronous environment, the instructor may use these discussion questions to encourage student engagement with their peers. In an asynchronous environment, the students have time to reflect on the comments of others and organize their thoughts before they respond. The answers the students provide can help an instructor get a better understanding of the learners’ readiness to learn the course content and it would allow the students to get a better under­standing of what they are about to learn.

The Learner’s Orientation to Learning

The fifth assumption is that adult learners are motivated to learn when given authentic learning activities (Knowles, 2005), and as such, the curriculum “should be process based versus content based to allow learn­ers to develop content in accordance with their specific needs” (Blondy, 2007, p. 125). Adults desire learning that is problem-centered, which allows for the development of desirable skills and attributes, rather than content-oriented or the meaning of the message; Adult students tend to start with a problem and then work to find solutions. A meaningful engagement, such as posing and answering realistic questions and problems are necessary for more meaningful learning. It is critical to the success of learners that instructors provide adults with activities that capture their attention and keep them engaged (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004). Authentic, or real-world, learning activities provide “mean­ing beyond the learning environment” (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004, p. 84). Examples of authentic activities include case studies, team problem-solving activities, and conducting interviews (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004). Instructors may consider focusing on creating task-based activities (Blondy, 2007). Task-based activities can be used to help learners get a sense of how to apply practice to their lives (Knowles, 2005).

The Learner’s Motivation

Adults respond better to intrinsic motivation as opposed to extrinsic motivation. They strive toward a goal for personal satisfaction or accomplishment. The sixth assumption is that adult learners are intrinsically motivat­ed to learn (Knowles, 2005). Instructors can support the students’ intrinsic motivation to learn by providing a learning environment that engages the students and encourages them to be active participants (Aragon, 2003). To create a positive learning environment for adults, instructors must be aware of the need of learners to be appreciated, valued, and respected (Blondy, 2007).

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Implementing the learning assumptions outlined above is “invaluable in shaping the learning process to be more conducive to adults” (Knowles, 2005, p. 2), and it should be used as a guide for developing the adult learning environment (Blondy, 2007). Andragogy is a set of assumptions that can “apply to all adult learning situations” (Knowles, 2005, p. 2). A benefit in applying andragogy includes the ability to adapt the assumptions to fit the needs of individual learners and to the learning situation.

Adult Learning Styles

Knowles’ theory educated instructors on the six assumptions about how adults learn, but adults also possess learning styles, or better stated, how they learn, categorize, and process new information. A learning style is not in itself an ability but rather a preferred way of using one’s abilities (Sternberg 1994). Individuals have different learning styles, that is, they differ in their ‘natural, habitual, and preferred way(s) of absorbing, processing, and retaining new information and skills’ (Reid 1995: viii). Each individual may have a preferred learning style and how they perceive, interacts with, and respond to their learning environment. These three primary learning styles are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.

Adults that understand and learn the best when information is presented to them visually, are Visual Learners. Seeing information helps them visualize concepts taught. These learners think in terms of physical space and are very aware of their environments. They like to draw, do jigsaw puzzles and read maps, and can be taught through drawings, and through verbal and physical imagery. Tools include models, graphics, charts, photographs, drawings, 3-D modeling, video, videoconferencing, television, multimedia, and texts with pictures, charts and graphs.

Auditory Learners are individuals that understand and learn best when information is presented to them in an auditory manner. Hearing information helps these students internalize concepts taught depending on listening and speaking as a main way of learning. Auditory learners find conventional studying, such as making notes from a textbook, not effective. They prefer to absorb information through audio or video clips, or by discussing a topic.

Those adults that understand and learn better when information is presented to them through physical engagement are Kinesthetic Learners. These learners communicate through body language and can be taught through physical activity, hands-on learning, acting out role playing. Learning and teaching tools include equipment and real objects.

Designing a training program for older adults

The combination of different learning styles, intelligences and the needs of adult learners, may seem like there is an infinite number of factors to consider when designing a training program or curriculum. When developing the curriculum, remember that adults tend to value practicality and relevance when learning. It’s also important to create different activities and tasks that accommodate different learning styles. Rather than making a sweeping generalization about adult students based on generational perceptions, trainers should rely on needs analysis to develop learning experiences that appeal to their students (Costanza., 2012).

Provide Authentic Learning Experiences

Zorn-Arnold and Conway (2016) suggested adult students benefit from hands-on or problem-solving activities. For example, students could create a slide presentation as a learning activity. The authors noted these types of activities promote a genuine learning experience for adult students. Bonney (2015) concurred, noting that students synthesize and apply what they learn by using discussion forums or by completing real world hands-on activities that relate to the workplace.

Focus on Immediate Feedback

In 2005, Phillips discussed the role of online delivery for CE for nurses. This training is usually modular and delivered in a just-in-time format. Different strategies for delivery include a range of options, from a simple website with slide presentations or hyperlinks to the use of a learning management system (LMS) to house comprehensive just-in-time training or CE. The impact of immediate feedback through the LMS is helpful to self-directed learners. Trainers can use the following course elements to engage students and provide feedback:

  • Discussions, either synchronous or asynchronous. Students and receive feedback from peers or from the instructor.
  • Readings or presentations delivered by links to documents, websites, slides, or videos..
  • Computer-based quizzes or assessments that are graded by the technology or the instructor. Feedback is delivered by the instructor or the technology.
  • E-portfolios, reflective essays, written responses to case studies, or problem-solving assignments that allow students to apply their knowledge. Instructors and peers can deliver feedback on projects and written reflections.
  • Interactive activities, such as gamification or simulation that emulates a realistic environment. For example, a student in a web design class could create a website as an assignment for a peer and instructor feedback (Phillips, 2005).

Incorporate Design Features for All Learning Styles

According to Cercone (2008), instructors should take the limitations of their students into consideration. A clear menu structure with frequent entry and exit points assists with ease of navigation. For older learners, an instructor may want to consider using larger fonts or brighter colors with sufficient contrast. Younger students prefer graphics, images, or tables instead of large blocks of text. From a content perspective, the materials should be free of bias, at an appropriate reading level, and consistent. The author also recommended that instructors consider learning styles and incorporate text, graphs, graphics, videos, or audio to cover the course materials.

Engage the Learner Through Multiple Communication Channels

Trainers and instructors should be aware that there isn’t a specific activity that will magically engage learners in a course. However, the availability of multiple modes of communication appears to be somewhat related to higher engagement in a course. A strong instructor presence and peer-to-peer interaction is also important for learner engagement. Instructors should create opportunities for that interaction and require participation so that students engage with each other (Dixson, 2010).

Koeller (2012) suggested a list of course design elements to provide adequate communication between students and instructors. Some of the elements include:

  • A welcome letter that outlines expectations.
  • Announcements followed by emails at least twice a week to keep students updated.
  • Discussion boards for postings and responses to classmates, with immediate feedback.
  • Sample papers and rubrics to show what the instructor requires in an assignment.
  • Use of graphics, images, small chunks of material.
  • Use of experiential activities, with praise for the correct answer.
  • Note the instructor’s email and cell phone number.

Koeller (2012) further observed that instructors and trainers should attempt to reach all generations with an effective learning environment; however, the students who fall into the digital native category require a variety of communication strategies to meet their learning needs. The elements listed are a step to increase communication channels and provide instant communication and feedback they expect.


Andragogy is an adult learning theory that can be applied to various learning environments. Trainers and instructors who understand the theory of andragogy can apply the assump­tions outlined by Malcolm Knowles when they develop courses, assignments and activities. However, transforming theory to practice can be challenging. Some instructors may struggle with chang­ing their instructional method from using a lecture format to becoming a facilitator. The information presented has shown that adults have special needs as learners and these needs should be taken into consideration when planning training for them. By using Knowles’ Theory of how to reach the adult learner combined with the techniques and strategies of adult learning styles, instructors can create training experiences that will enhance the learning of participants. When adults participate in a positive learning experience, they are more likely to retain what they have learned and apply it in their work environment.


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