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Mobile Apps Make Learning Accessible for Adult Students

This article originally appeared on the Digital Promise website.

JSI/WEI Photo Library Photo
Flickr/Jens Scott Knudsen














Steve Quann is a former adult education instructor who now does professional development on technology integration and designs e-learning projects for World Education. Digital Promise talked to Steve about Words2Learn, a vocabulary app for adult learners, and why innovation in adult education is important.

Q. Explain the Words2Learn approach in a nutshell.

The approach is important, possibly more so than the app itself. The delivery of the content is via mobile apps – and the Web – and it utilizes a learning management system.

Students can download the word lists and exercises onto their phone or tablet and work on them without needing to be connected to the Internet. Once they’re connected, the quiz results are automatically sent back to the learning management system so teachers can view student progress. Teachers found this helped increase homework completion, giving students a leg up in their class work.

Q. How does this type of technology help improve access for adult learners?

It improves access in two major ways. One is that it puts learning in the pocket of the learners. The second way is that it helps teachers teach.

I talked with one of the users and really pressed him on why he liked the app. I asked, “Why do you like to use this app? Why not a piece of paper?” and he said, “I don’t carry around a list of words to a store, waiting in line, or waiting on the bus. With my phone, the words are always there for me to study.”

A lot of teachers said it was an aha moment when students realized they could use their phone as a learning device. Some of them were Certified Nursing Assistants and said, “Hey, I could use this during a break. I could go outside and learn these words.”

This app also helps teachers teach. They can get information on how students are doing on the quizzes via the learning management system, see what words students had difficulty with, and adjust their teaching accordingly.

Q. What should developers consider when designing an app or other tech resource for adult learners?

Focus on how to motivate adult learners. There are many things to consider when doing this, but two really important ones. The first is the experience base. Adults have a great wealth of experience that can be tapped when developing any activity. What we did was try to make the examples related to their life, so the questions would be geared toward going to college, because some of them were in college, or toward their work life.

The second is to create a sense of confidence, so that they find the information kind of like Goldilocks – not too hard, not too easy, and not too much. What tends to happen with vocabulary, for example, but certainly other online content, is students are given too much information and they don’t leave feeling like they’ve mastered the words.

User testing is also important. Many of us don’t know what it is to be an adult learner. We haven’t had to try to learn to read as an adult. Input from actual learners is crucial to developing a product that will be used and useful.

Q. What is the biggest misconception about adult learners?

People wonder if adult learners are capable, but I’ve taught everyone from doctors all the way to students who struggled with reading in school because of a learning disability, but yet can run circles around me in math.

Another misconception is they don’t want to learn. For example, some people think English language learners don’t really want to learn English, but there are huge waiting lists for these programs. They are thirsty to learn how to navigate going to the hospital or using an ATM machine, any of these day-to-day things.

I can see real advantages in using technology in a blended approach to then be able to add more classes and reduce waiting lists.