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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



How is digital learning impacting adult learner environments?

by Simon BROEK
Language: EN


The digital domain is increasingly becoming used in learning provision. The emergence of MOOCs is a global phenomenon, online learning management systems are used in classroom settings, and blended forms of learning are practiced in work-based learning.

Not only is the digital domain being used more and more in intended learning trajectories, people use the digital domain as an enormous learning resource as well. Everybody searches online to learn how to fix a tyre, find pancake recipes, learn about a country he or she wishes to visit, learn about Malcolm Knowles or find information on the history of the European Union (ok, not everybody does this).

So, digital learning impacts how adult education is organised by learning providers, but also how adults learn.

Impact on learning providers

Digital learning is not something new. Adult learning providers have traditionally offered different kinds of distance learning opportunities; initially with the intention to reach out to non-traditional learners (for instance the Open Universities).

Further incorporating the digital domain in their learning offer has consequences for adult learning providers. For them to organise effective online learning environments and use online learning tools, a number of issues are important to take into consideration, such as:

  • The instructional design and engagement of learners
  • Target groups and outreach strategies
  • The institutional strategy, policies and the funding opportunities
  • Change from ‘providers’ to ‘content developers’
  • Timing of courses and institutional flexibility
  • Human resources personnel having the right sets of skills and competences
  • Infrastructure and resources that relate to IT systems
  • Communication with learners and the tone of voice
  • Assessment of learning outcomes
  • Quality assurance
  • Privacy and (possibly) the use of ‘big data’ to enhance study results

Each issue presents considerable challenges that should be addressed at the level of learners, providers and policy makers.

Impact on the way adults learn

People work online, communicate online, engage online. All in all, they live online. It comes as no surprise then, that they also learn online. In the digital domain, when compared to how learning takes place in other domains, some interesting shifts are noticeable in relation to learning:

  • The role of learners is changing; they increasingly take the role of organisers
  • The learning itself is more related to instruction (how to) instead of obtaining knowledge (understanding how things work)
  • Content is available at all times (for instance through mobile devices) and so memorising information in less important.

As a result of these shifts, a number of uncertainties can be flagged:

  • Are adults equipped to be critical learners in the digital domain?
  • In what way can adults be supported in making a lifelong use of digital learning content?
  • How do we make sure no-one is left behind in the digital divide and that all people have access online learning resources?

Each question here also raises issues that can be discussed by learners, providers (content developers) and policy makers.

Our own thematic learning environment

In this first blog on learning environments, taking the question on the impact of the digital domain on adult learning as reference, I discussed the broadness of the theme: how providers organise learning and how every environment could be used as learning environment.

As the issues raised affect all of us (both as professionals and learners), I invite you to reflect on them and start discussions with your peers on how you see learning environments, so that this thematic website turns into a learning environment in its own right!


Simon Broek has been involved in several European research projects on education, labour market issues and insurance business. He advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and European Agencies on issues related to education policies, lifelong learning, and labour market issues, and is Managing Partner at Ockham Institute of Policy Support.


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  • Simon BROEK's picture

    Thanks Sayeda and Graciela for reflecting on my blog and sharing your thoughts on online learning and why having IT skills important. Sayeda's practical reflections are at policy level captured by the European Commission policies as well: Digital competencess are considered basic skills and are included as one of the key competences for lifelong learning (European Commission).

    I agree with you Sayeda that digital learning is cost-effective, however, the economic model is different as the investments prelude the potential savings, making it difficult to generate quality offer. In addition, to answer to Graciela's remark on 'a few shaky steps are better than no steps at all', I cannot disagree, but developing quality online learning is not easy and learners notice pretty fast when the quality is not what they expect causing drop out and disaffaction with online learning, which is something to avoid at all times.

    It hence comes down to the quality of the learning environment (be it digital or not), a topic I will touch upon in my next blog.

    I am following with interest development on the topic of quality assurance. This applies of course to the main question in relation to MOOCs: if any formal rights are associated with completing a MOOC, how is it quality assured that the learner actually acquired the learning outcomes as stated?

    Maybe someone has a view on this?

  • Graciela Sbertoli's picture

    Thank you for your reply, Simon! Just a very short comment back: of course it is very important to ensure the quality of whatever we use on-line platforms for. I hope, however, that we can make a clear distinction between 100% on-line courses (like MOOCs), which are indeed extremely demanding in terms of design and quality assurance, and using OERs, on-line platforms, devices, etc. as additional components in otherwise more traditional frames. It is in the second category I think institutions can start taking their small and shaky steps. Small steps can also be quality steps...
    Regarding your question about quality in MOOCs: the fact that MOOCs don't necessarily lead to an exam, does not mean knowledge cannot be tested in self-evaluation tests, for instance? Also: quality will surely be connected with several other parameters than knowledge acquisition? I'm thinking of userfriendliness, attractiveness, soundness of the information presented, etc... A complex issue indeed.

  • Sayeda Zain's picture

    A thought provoking article by Simon. We are living in a era of digital environment but we are not fully utilising it for education purpose, it is mostly used for entertainment. The place where I work we have adult learners who are over 50, a few got redundant from jobs and want to improve their education and a few never got a chance to improve their education before therefore, they have started studying now. The main issue of these people is poor IT skills and lack of time due to their family commitments. They need training in using computers and a flexible mode of learning. I think to make this part of the society productive it is very important to help them in improving the IT skills. With IT skills online learing will become very easy for them.
    The institutions also need to be educated with regard to online learning because still people are in favour of traditional way of learning.
    Online learning is not only cost effective but is also flexible and can cater majority of audience. This is something possible with a little effort and can create a revolution in the area of education.
    The most important part to be considered is the Quality Assurance which is still a debatable issue. When I was in the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) annual conference in July it was mentioned that they are developing a framework for the Quality Assurance of MOOC. So hopefully the things will become clear gradually. MOOC's have given a hope in the area of online learning. Educational institutions have started exploring this new medium. Hopefully things will improve further from the platforms of Coursera, Edex, Futurelearn etc and we will be able to launch a better version of online education.

  • Graciela Sbertoli's picture
    Thank you very much for a very well written and thought provoking first entry, Simon. I thoroughly agree with most of what you have written, but got a bit concerned when I read the long list of bullet points on the issues providers have to consider before adopting ICT-based environments. Although you are perfectly right, I am wary of making the issue too daunting. In my opinion, we don't really have a choice: we need to start making better use of online arenas. And a few shaky steps may be better than no step at all... :-)