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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
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
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
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
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.
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
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:
- The issues are relevant to both the class topics/objectives and also to the previous experiences of the group.
- 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
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
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.
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: email@example.com.
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