Designing Technology for Adult Learners: Support and Scaffolding

This brief discusses five research-based principles for product developers to consider when designing digital learning tools for adult learners.

Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Digital Promise
Publication Year
Resource Type
Informational Material
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Product Type

To effectively learn online, students must be active learners, but adult learners, particularly low-skilled adults, are often not prepared for this kind of learning. As a result, adult learners will achieve the most when using digital learning tools if they have additional support and help moving progressively toward stronger understanding (i.e., scaffolding). Research on instructional strategies that provide this support suggests five principles for product developers to consider when designing for the adult basic learner. Taken separately, each principle can help enrich the learning experience but incorporating all five will provide the richest support for learners.

  • Break instruction and activities into short modules with opportunities for feedback, checks for understanding, and encouragement. Cognitive research has shown students process more efficiently and learn more effectively with short lessons followed by focused activities that require them to apply and reflect on what they have learned. Not only do adults learn more with short lessons, they are also more engaged because short lessons provide regular feedback and a sense of success.
  • Build in tools and opportunities to help adult learners visualize information and concepts. Just as short lessons take advantage of how the brain learns best, visual, or graphic, organizers mimic how the brain records and organizes information. Learning is the process of creating or strengthening connections between neurons that form the map that is the brain. Visual organizers replicate this map for learners, helping them understand and therefore strengthen the patterns being formed between old and new information. The more learners can manipulate the visuals themselves, the more effective the tool or activity will be for cognitive development.
  • Provide clear, simple ways for adult learners to access a large bank of resources for practice. The more resources and activities available, the more opportunities there are for adult learners to deepen their learning. Adult learners need access to resources of many types. Digital products are the perfect vehicle for support resources because they can store all types of content (documents, PDFs, videos, sound files, etc.). The more resources and activities available, the more opportunities there are for multiple ways of learning. In addition, adult learners need easy ways to access these resources. Research has shown that students who feel they have strong support when learning online are more likely to stick with it.
  • Design in multiple ways for learners and instructors to communicate outside of class time. The more support adult learners have from their teachers, the more they believe they can overcome obstacles and succeed as learners. Technology can provide multiple modes of learner-teacher communication: reflective activities (blogs, emails, videos), regular feedback (emails, discussion threads, videos), and “office hour” chats (written, video). Technology can also help deepen connections between learners and teachers by happening outside of class time, in turn building learners’ confidence and helping them progress more quickly. technology can provide anytime communication. Learners have control over time with digital learning, as they can use the learning tool whenever they want.
  • Design in tools and opportunities for peer-to-peer interactions as well. By learning from and with peers, adult learners not only deepen their learning but also develop an additional support system for managing their learning. Working with others increases the social-emotional memories of a learning experience, thus increases the learning. For adult learners, these social and emotional connections also add to their confidence because they are learning with and from others who are also managing all that comes with being an adult learner. As with learner-instructor connections, digital tools are a perfect match for providing peer-to- peer interaction that goes beyond face-to-face.

Product designers who create new technology products tailored to adults’ unique support and scaffolding needs will have the best chance of meeting one of our nation’s great learning challenges

What the experts say

Designing Technology for Adult Learners: Support and Scaffolding clearly sets out helpful principles on which the scaffolding for the successful expansion and integration of technology resources into adult classrooms can be built. The principles clearly build on the most promising and prominent theories of adult education and create practice-based applications of those theories. The examples of the principles in action are particularly helpful and exciting in terms of how well and how much they can create opportunities for further learning. The five scaffolding principles are the most useful resource features and provide the foundations for the expansion and implementation of technology into adult classrooms.

This description of five design principles for online learning apps should be very useful for software developers for the adult basic skills market, its primary audience. It should also be of interest and use to teachers, curriculum developers and professional developers in adult basic skills education who integrate online learning (e.g. apps, instructional software, and learning resources such as video and audio files) with face-to-face learning, and for those who create distance learning curricula and lessons. The descriptions of the five design principles are the heart of this paper and are the useful resource features.

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