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Getting the Most Value from Technology

While adults are less likely to be immediately receptive to new technologies, if you take the time to explain how the technology will be beneficial to their learning experience you will have your huckleberry. Photo by Waferboard.

How to determine whether a technology will be useful for an adult student in higher education

Technology options are often touted as solutions to learning retention issues of adults, but that may not always be the case when the selected technologies are not appropriate in meeting the need: retaining what has been learned. One could blame the technology, but in reality, identifying the variables of the retention equation is a moving target. Technology advances, and people are aware and unaware seemingly at the same. Identifying and optimizing the combination of people, places, topics, technology and timing is a teachable moment in itself.

Identifying Impact Variables

The impact technology has on adult retention in higher education varies depending on the mode and delivery of educating. One could ask, is the education instructor-led (IL) and is that instructor in the classroom physically, virtually, and does that class meet synchronously or asynchronous? Or is the education self-paced, accessed online, and are there books, e-books? Is it blended learning in a blended environment? And one more thing, in any of these scenarios, does the adult student have access to other students, communities-of-interest, and resources easily, conveniently and economically? These are just some of the variables that make measuring the impact technology has on retention in adult learners, so hard to capture and compare.

For example, yesterday if you were to ask 100 adults whether they think Twitter®, Facebook® and LinkedIn® should be included in adult education, the majority may tell you ‘yes and maybe’, because they already use social media, are familiar with at least one of them, and it’s convenient in daily life.

Today, if you take the same technology, call it Edmodo®, Penzu®, or PBWorks®[1], make it available in a curriculum, course or classroom to those same adults, fewer than half would sign-up, engage and optimize the tools simply because:

  1. They are not familiar with the names of the tools,
  2. They would need the physical classroom for learning, and
  3. No time, family, travel, cost, etc.; these are all major constraints.

However, next week if you were to demonstrate to those same adults how the aforementioned tools can make learning experiences seem more like one-on-one tutoring while socializing, doing homework while commuting, and attending class at the coffee shop—there’s an app for that—then I’d say, you’ve got your huckleberry with more than half of those polled.

Aligning Impact Variables

As a developer and publisher of learning products a lot of the thought process that goes into developing products focuses on, ‘what is the goal of the learning and what are the objectives’. Running neck-n-neck with these thoughts is, ‘how much is known about the audience demographics’. Aligning these key elements helps the decision making process when selecting the type of technology, tools and techniques that are integrated and recommended, to support the goals of the learning and can be supported by the audience capabilities. Selecting technology is a critical process that is not an afterthought, can not be taken lightly and should follow the need and ability to enhance, expand, increase and facilitate change to current learning and experiences.

The approach toward integrating technology with educating still needs to be tweaked to recognize that technology has transcended boundaries in knowledge acquisition, distance, storage, validity, and even need-to-know information.

However, for adult learners, technology is sometimes the friendly stranger in the room. It’s great to see it, but they’re not quite sure what to do with it. My admonition to educators is an old saying, “ just because you have a hammer, doesn’t mean that everything is a nail”. Are the objectives nails or screws and will the applied technological tools make them turn in a way that matters. Oh, and by the way – is that tool autonomous or does it come with an attached arm? Translated – technology as a tool in education, should support the intended learning purpose and enable the learners’ assimilation processes in order to retain more; as a vehicle, it should enable the learner to get from point A to point C and beyond; and as the object of learning in the form of features and devices, it should strengthen the skills needed to use it.

Oh, one more thing, promoting experimentation and use of unknown tools, technologies and techniques comes with its own unique challenges, but that’s a topic for another time.

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