What is the proper role of learning software in the adult ed classroom? Should it be used for just drill and practice? Can it carry the weight of instruction for all students? How effective can it be at actually teaching new concepts and filling the gaps of understanding of adult learners? And is it equally appropriate for all levels of learners?
Learning software cannot replace a good teacher. But it seems that teaching adults often requires a teacher with super powers. The adult ed teacher has to be part educator, social worker, motivational speaker, and family counselor. And this role is made even more challenging because of the complexity of academic needs of the adult learner. Each student not only learns at different speeds and modalities, but comes to the classroom with a range of academic gaps in their understanding of basic skills. The adult ed classroom is not a homogeneous group of students at a particular academic level like a high school classroom. These challenges are why learning technology is absolutely necessary in the adult ed classroom. But not all learning technology is equally effective at teaching adults.
There are three types of learning software being used in adult ed classrooms: Text Driven, Interactive, and Simulation. Let’s look at examples of how each of these teaches and whether they are appropriate for all adult learners.
This is the simplest type of learning software and has been around the longest. It is also the cheapest to build. It looks and feels like a PowerPoint presentation. It is a series of slides that use text and simple graphics to teach. There is little interaction and engagement with the content because it is text-based and relies heavily on the learner’s ability to process the written word.
Adult learners, especially those who struggle with reading comprehension, do not learn well with Text Driven learning software. There are two reasons for this. First, learners with reading difficulties are not processing all of the written content equally. Second, Text Driven software requires the learner to self-manage the learning process. Learners need to not only understand the content, but then find a way to remember it. Essentially they are being asked to create an internal organization of the content, and many adult learners do not have the educational experience to do this.
Harvard’s Decision Science Laboratory compared the effectiveness of PowerPoint slideshow presentations with animated and oral presentations. The study evaluated the presentation medium on criteria of persuasiveness, engagement, and how they helped the viewer organize the content in their minds. Clearly, the animation style of presentation software was far superior. It was described as “dynamic, visually compelling and distinctive.” The study was done in an academic setting and demonstrated that the way content is presented has a huge impact on the learner’s ability to understand and remember it. While the study did not specifically compare Text Driven learning software with Simulation learning software, the findings support the premise that animated presentations which engage the viewer cognitively and emotionally are more powerful ways of teaching.
Here is an example of Text Driven learning software. Imagine what this experience is like for an adult learner who has reading difficulties.
In the current environment where adult ed programs are being asked to do more with less, Text Driven software is rapidly being replaced with more advanced learning technologies.
Interactive learning technology is very similar to Text Driven software, with the exception that there has been more consideration placed on interactive components to enhance the learning. There is greater use of visuals. For example, Interactive learning software might use drag and drop activities instead of multiple choice, or it might use videos of teachers presenting materials. But while Interactive learning software is more suited for to the adult learner, it still relies on text and talking heads to deliver the learning. Again, for many adult learners this produces frustration and low engagement because of the weight it puts on their shoulders to make sense of and retain the material. It promotes passive learning because it feels like they are watching TV.
Simulation learning technology is highly interactive and relies on graphics, video, animation, and some level of gamification. Simulation learning software doesn't need all the bells and whistles of a flight simulator or racing game, but it does need to connect with students through images and audio in a way that feels more like speaking with a person than reading a book. Simulation learning software teaches concepts by putting the learner into situations or simulations in which the concept to be learned will be actually used in their lives. This improves learning because it allows the learner to enter into a situation where they actually have to process the information directly in their own minds. To understand why that is so important to learning, we need to digress a bit into learning theory.
The most accepted theory of learning is Constructivism. It posits that learning requires learners to ‘construct’ their own understanding by relating the new knowledge to what they already know. One of its main principles is that learning is a search for meaning, and therefore, to be effective, a teacher must help the student to discover his or her own meaning. This process of constructing meaning is inherent in Simulation software because the learner is immersed into situations which connect the meaning of the concepts to existing schema through circumstances or ideas relevant to their own lives and understanding. The difference in learning between Text Driven and Simulation software is the difference between handing a student a dictionary and expecting them to learn how to read and speak, or asking them to participate in learning situations where they hear and understand language in the context of their own lives.
Here’s an example of Simulation learning technology. Imagine you are an adult learner who has struggled with learning all your life.
Lastly, let’s focus on the appropriateness of learning software for low-literacy learners. Some believe that because low-literacy learners struggle with reading and/or learning disabilities they cannot learn on a computer. This is true if the software is Text Driven because it places the onus on the learner to learn and relies so heavily on the written word.
However, low-level learners thrive with simulation learning software because it allows them to learn at their own pace and in the context of real-life. To understand why this happens, let’s consider the research on mastery learning done by Benjamin Bloome. By melding the best attributes of traditional classroom learning with one-on-one tutoring, he and his colleagues discovered that learning is dependent on two elements. The first is time. Learning is not dependent on aptitude or intelligence, but rather on the amount of time the student spends on understanding. Basically, most people can learn anything if given enough time. The second thing they discovered was that learning is highly dependent on how things are presented and explained. Taking time to explain ideas in the context of real-life situations makes it accessible to all learners.
In summary, all learning software is not equal. Outdated Text Driven software is being being replaced by Simulation learning software because it shows dramatic improvements in engagement, interest, and effectiveness among all adult learners.