How Technology can Shape Adult Education

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Technology facilitates learning among all ages, even adults. Research from PEW found adults who owned smartphones and had home access to broadband internet were significantly more likely to engage in personal learning experiences than those who lacked either one or both options. This is especially true among adults who wanted to participate in professional learning opportunities: 69 percent of adults with both technological options enrolled in a class or training session for work-related reasons compared to 41 percent of those with neither.

Just as technology revolutionized the K-12 and college classroom, so too is it starting to change the landscape of adult education. Use of computers and the internet is already prevalent in this area; however, there are several more opportunities that can be explored.


Gamification refers to the concept of adding game-like elements to other activities. Consider the popular running mobile application Zombies, Run! This app turns physical fitness into a game, immersing the runner into a world where he or she must run to collect virtual items and “win”. By transforming the tedious act of exercise into a game, Zombies, Run! claims to make the act of running fun for beginners.

Writing for Chief Learning Officer magazine, Heather MacNeill, head of communications for the learning platform BlueBottleBiz, said she believes gamification can provide the same benefits to corporate learning programs. MacNeill detailed four critical ideas tech designers should keep in mind when creating adult learning tools that use gamification:

  • Learners should have the different format options that match the various learning styles
  • Gamification should be integrated to the organization’s learning program and provide social experiences
  • Learners should have the freedom to explore and learn through gamification in a way that feels natural to them
  • Learners should be able to quickly and easily access additional resources

Virtual and augmented reality

In part because of its novelty, virtual and augmented reality can make content much more engaging. The concepts have already taken hold of the world of video games. Tools like the Oculus Rift and the Playstation VR chip add new experiences to what some could argue was becoming a standard, if not outright stale, medium. By virtue of simply being different, virtual or augmented reality can create a more memorable experience.

This idea can be applied to the classroom, and companies have already begun designing augmented learning opportunities for children. For example, Curiscope has a Virtuali-Tee product that, when viewed through the app, allows the observer to view a 3-D model of the inner structure of the human body.

Shlomy Kattan, Senior Director of the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE, argued virtual reality can help make up the investment gap in adult education. Kattan claimed the U.S. Department of Education spends 50 times more on preschool education than it does on adult literacy. However, because most low-literacy adults own a smartphone, they can easily download an educational virtual reality app without significant financial commitment on their part or the part of the federal government.

The future of technology and adult education

Unfortunately, technology has yet to take hold of adult education the way it has for K-12 students. As Kattan indicated, the field of childhood education receives more attention and funding than that of adults.

Thankfully, adult educators are perfectly primed to help shape this new field. There are plenty of tech companies, both established and emerging, with the resources to create tools for adult learning. MEACE graduates can partner with these organizations, bringing their knowledge of educational theory and technique to the table.

As the educational priorities and best practices differ between children and adults, coding experts in Silicon Valley may not know the best way to design tools for older learners. Adult educators can therefore become consultants, using their knowledge of the way adults learn to help create effective learning tools.

The curriculum for a Master of Education in Adult and Continuing Education degree is designed to teach students how to create courses and training materials for adult learners. Students in this degree program will also study how to measure their class’ mastery of the topics covered. In addition, MEACE students who specialize in educational technology will be taught how advances in tech translate into the classroom – whether that room is in a traditional school setting or an office building. These studies can provide MEACE graduates with the ability to guide developers and programmers to create strong educational applications.

Digital Promise, a nonprofit established as part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, identified several principles that must drive the way tech companies create adult education solutions:

  • Adults face more educational barriers than others. Not only do adults have fewer learning resources than children, but they also have complex obligations and backgrounds. Learning technology needs to be able to impart the same lessons on adults with different goals and experiences
  • Adults learn differently than children and young adults. The former rely on their past experiences when absorbing new information. This can make it harder to accept knowledge that contradicts with a previously held belief. New educational tools must find creative ways to challenge these assumptions if and when necessary
  • Adults learn to improve their situation. Adult-education technology must support a tangible, real-world outcome, whether the objective is training in a corporate setting, English as a foreign language or to obtain a GED

The intersection of technology and education is still in its infancy, but it has the potential to revolutionize the way adults learn. Gamification and virtual reality present exciting opportunities to improve the educational experience, and adult educators will likely pair with tech companies to create new, effective tools to use in the classroom and the workplace.