Information Age Education
   Issue Number 155
February, 2015   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are available: Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This issue of the IAE Newsletter is a continuation of the series on Education for Student’s Futures.

Education for Students' Futures
Part 18: Writing as an Important Challenge in Adult Education

Linda Rappel
Sessional Instructor
Werkland School of Education
University of Calgary

Adult education encompasses a wide range of activities designed to meet many different goals. For example, adults interested in personal growth and enrichment might take a cooking course, attend a lecture, or improve their ballroom dancing skills.

Another group is the many adults with well-established careers who routinely take refresher courses and workshops to update their skills and to meet the requirements of their professions.

A third group, and the primary focus of this article, are those adults who have had a job, but whose job disappears. For example, this may be due to cutbacks or to the changing needs in a company. Advances in technology have eliminated many jobs. Others in this group may be immigrants who are moving into a new culture and learning a new language in hopes of a better life.

Programs for this third group can become an important support in their retraining for a potential career change. Some adults may be hesitant about their ability to learn how to use new educational formats and the new technological modes of delivery. They also may be especially vulnerable to reduced levels of confidence, so restoring confidence becomes a central goal as adult education faculty help such students to shift their thinking to better function within their new vocational realities. Developing or rebuilding confidence in one's communicative ability using recent technological advances is central to 21st century success.

This article will explore one of the most important transitional challenges confronting many adult learners and their instructors, the need to master new communicative technologies and to use them to write effectively.

Adult Students

Adjusting to New Educational Formats

A significant challenge that many adults confront is how much they can adjust to changing educational formats. Young students who grew up with computers adapt easily to technological advances that are changing the organization and delivery of courses (and potential jobs), but navigating websites and writing email messages and reports can confuse adult students. The reality now is that effective writing has become increasingly important in both courses and future jobs.

Online courses are improving in quality and growing in quantity. However, adult learners who take online courses may unfortunately develop feelings of isolation if they can't easily access adequate support to develop competence in using the new technologies.

Learning How to Write Effectively

Writing is the primary form of communication in many vocational settings. Many adults must learn how to express themselves effectively through writing when completing assignments and participating in online student discussions. This may cause concern for adults who haven't been in school for several years. They may worry about the quality of their writing, especially in technological settings.

Helping students to shift from oral language to written text enhances the shift from being a worker to being a student as they re-enter school. I normally facilitate such transition by asking students to write about their previous work and non-work experiences that relate to class topics. This creates class conversations in which a student’s own experience and participation are validated.

I then provide students with questions about other comfortable and familiar issues. They select and write—and then respond to their classmates' written comments during a class conversation about what they wrote. I provide individual feedback on content rather than on grammar. The point in the beginning stages is to develop confidence that what they write is of value.

Students can more easily move into new educational formats by identifying and building on their previous knowledge and skills. Choice in class discussions sparks active participation in learning and a greater chance that student knowledge will be transferred from oral to written form, even if they are initially hesitant to talk about themselves and unsure about their writing abilities. Converting what is known to what is learned is best begun in small steps. Participating in private online communication and progressing into whole class discussion helps students to feel comfortable when beginning online learning. Students can later engage in deeper communication by writing full texts that will get extended feedback and be graded.

Developing Confidence when Returning to School

Adults who consider themselves to be inadequate writers may also be uneasy about their ability to understand and contribute to online virtual course settings. These may include students who are more comfortable in a regular classroom or those who felt more productive in conversational work settings. The difference between face-to-face oral communication and an email-type online conversation is considerable, and it often includes long communication delays.

Adult programs should enhance confidence with new communicative technologies. Providing needed support reduces stressful situations and enhances the confidence that students need to develop their writing skills. My experience in distance education suggests that adult positive reinforcement in learning is best achieved through attending to what students say or write in class settings. One approach is to introduce their ideas into class discussions to illustrate what they're learning in the course.

Inserting student contributions into class discussions also enhances learning by making their ideas relevant and connected to content areas. Similarly, initiating student/teacher dialogue in online courses positively encourages transfer into new formats. Students who note their own weakness in a writing or textual computer format will tend to ask for help rather than struggle through on their own. Instructors must understand that many students need to develop confidence, and so should respond to queries and requests for assistance in a timely and supportive manner.

Adults who have developed a sense of self-confidence tend to ask for help when they need it. This is essential in distance learning programs. Once adults feel accepted and validated in these settings, they are able to more clearly understand the requirements of the jobs they seek, note their own weaknesses, and decide what they still need in order to function successfully in future jobs.

Adult Educators

Many adult education students have had previous difficulty in coping with the traditional educational system. This suggests that adult education faculty need to think very carefully about their own teaching and student interaction techniques. This can help them to identify techniques that are apt to work well with their adult students, and also to be very committed to detecting techniques that are not working.

Many adult educators believe that online teaching is more difficult than traditional teaching because students expect instructors to be available on a twenty-four hour basis. I discovered, however, that a window of one or two days for responding to questions is generally acceptable. A quick response or word of encouragement goes a long way to reduce student anxiety and does not take much time. It also helps to build confidence in the student/teacher relationship.

How to Move into Non-traditional Teaching Modes

Twenty-first century learning must be relevant to context, personalities, and situations. Students who previously had difficulty in school may have found the content and teaching methods irrelevant to their lives back then. They may have rejected the memorize and regurgitate methods of learning, perhaps because they were not particularly good at it and it seemed irrelevant, and also because they didn't expend the energy it required.

The totality of available information is growing very rapidly, and machines are very good at storing and retrieving it. A student's current task is to become more efficient and effective at retrieving information, and to learn to understand, evaluate, and make effective use of information that they retrieve. Students must learn how to sift through somewhat overwhelming amounts of information to identify what is most meaningful for their goals and purposes.

Developing a learner-centered approach to education allows students to explore how different technologies can best be used for specific course purposes and/or to master needed job skills. Centering learning on student needs and interests also allows them to take control of their learning. This strengthens online learning by creating motivational tasks that engage students who aren't working within a traditional classroom.

In order to create active participation, I allow students to experiment with new technologies. As a guide, I try to facilitate independent learning in which they begin to understand how technological tools can contribute to school learning and be applied to future work settings.

As a teacher who tended to work more as a facilitator than as an authoritative figure, I was relieved to discover how online learning could motivate students through their own ideas, goals, and motivations. As a self-directed learner, I recognized how learning is much more meaningful to adults when it is placed into the appropriate contexts of our personal lives, goals, and perspectives.

How to Make Better Use of New Techniques and Technologies

I have found that students benefit from forming groups that are based on individual interest, skill, and life experience categories. Students are able to challenge each other and thereby strengthen their own knowledge. Organizing learning in this way encourages collaboration and meaningful engagement. However, I have also found it quite useful to purposefully violate this approach. A person with little or no job experience can benefit by being in a group of experienced workers who were laid off when their company had to downsize. Such ex-employees are a valuable source of information on what is required to hold a steady job and to “move up the ladder.”

I typically establish working groups at the beginning of online courses so that students develop positive relationships and become more comfortable when offering support and feedback for each other. Small group settings work well for adult students because they're more willing to take risks when fewer people are involved. Further, I structure the small group activities so that each member must actively participate. Group members often form close and long-lasting relationships through their discussions.

Discussion/working groups are normally able to function responsibly once they are given specific direction. As group sessions continue, I monitor their interactions and am able to step in to guide or direct their activities when necessary. This process encourages them to develop a sense of independence.

I place strong emphasis on group members by asking them to identify issues with two characteristics:
  1. The issues are relevant to both the class topics/objectives and also to the previous experiences of the group.

  2. Possible answers can be discovered based on the group’s combined experiences.
I thus provide issues for groups to discuss during initial small group discussions. But, as groups become better at group discussion, I insist that they work on developing question-posing skills. In addition, I frequently change the makeup of groups since I don’t want a group of “old cronies” to form and then live a sheltered life within their own private group.

How to Support Learners in New Educational Formats

School should ideally help students to develop relationships and communicate effectively within those relationships. In an age of global tolerance, distance educators need to focus on the need for respectful behavior that enhances communication and reinforces congenial relationships. Forging connections through getting to know students on a more personal level establishes trust among students and teachers. This also increases student confidence in a teacher's ability to communicate in ways that enhance their own learning. And, it helps students to develop greater global tolerance.

Educators should encourage learning through open, honest, and clear communication in technology-based learning environments. A sense of respect and tolerance recognizes that students may come from a wide variety of backgrounds, interests, and life experiences. These may influence online communication and the interpretation of meaning in course discussions. Educators must therefore ensure that communication is direct and free of colloquialisms and hidden meanings.

Faculty of online learning courses and their students should be careful about their written responses. I therefore carefully reflect on both my comments to the class as a whole and on how best to provide individual feedback. I hope that my students will do the same, thinking carefully about how they interact with the entire class and with individual students.

Even though I normally act as a guide in the learning process, it's essential for instructors to be assertive in directing learners about appropriate online behavior in order to set the tone for learning. I thus outline how written texts and responses to questions should be made through inquiry and clarification of meaning. To establish trust and good learning relationships, a spirit of collaboration and willingness to accept and learn from one another is necessary in both classroom instruction and in future work settings.

Final Remarks

I enjoy adult education because it gives me the opportunity to directly affect the lives of the students I serve. They have an immediate need for the knowledge and skills that I am helping them develop. At the end of the day, I can go home feeling I have contributed a valuable and long-lasting service to the world.


Linda Rappel is a certified teacher in the province of Alberta and a Sessional Instructor in undergraduate and graduate programs in education at the University of Calgary. She has a Doctor of Education degree in Adult and Workplace Learning and has been involved in adult language instruction for over twenty years. Email:

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