Incorporating Microcomputer Technology into Adult Learning Environments

(Judith K. DeJoy)

Chapter Four in

Creating Environments for Effective Adult Learning

Roger Hiemstra (Editor)

New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education

Number 50, Summer 1991

Ralph B. Brockett, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Alan B. Knox, University of Wisconsin, Madison, CONSULTING EDITOR


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To see microcomputer technology from the adult learner's point of view requires adult educators to understand how learners' emotions, perceptions, and self-concepts affect the learning process and to deal with instructional design and delivery issues.

Incorporating Microcomputer Technology into Adult Learning Environments

Judith K. DeJoy

With rapid technological improvements in the past ten years and a shift toward "personal" computer power (Smart and Reinhardt, 1990), micro-computer technology is now becoming part of adult learning environments. In this chapter, the term microcomputer technology is used to describe micro-computers and related peripherals in the service of specific instructional goals, with a focus on microcomputers and supporting equipment rather than a concern with the entire range of telecommunications technology.

Both in the business and educational communities, "The new . . . computers bring many necessary features of a powerful and sophisticated computer to the desk of the individual" (Mis, 1990, p. 83). The developments put such "power" on an individual user's desk have also shifted the focus of adult education from learning about computers in order to program, to learning the skills necessary to work with computers (Heermann, 1986a). Adult educators and professional trainers are keenly aware of the accelerating pace of new information in all areas of adult life and how micro-computer technology is involved in access to that information. To truly work with computers, however, adults must first understand the basic concepts, be comfortable using software, and be able to critically analyze computer-based outcomes (Gerver, 1984).

The microcomputer is also recognized ''as an educational delivery system . . . of particular value in continuing education because it provides a very flexible learning approach" (Bork, 1980, p. 79). In this context, the

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issues involved in incorporating microcomputer technology into adult learning environments take on a special priority.

Thinking About the Issues

The issues discussed here relate both to the "nuts and bolts" involved in building microcomputer technology into adult learning environments and to what can be called the "human element" in microcomputer-assisted learning processes. These two categories include generic issues in the microcomputer-based learning environment, such as software, hardware, and staff, and core issues involved in the adult teaching and learning process. These core issues represent an internal structure, the sociopsychological context of adult learners, which must be recognized in order to create effective learning environments.

Generic Issues. These nuts-and-bolts issues include the following: (1) learning objectives appropriate to the technology, (2) suitable instructional materials, (3) equipment (hardware) requirements, (4) design and furnishings, (5) policies and daily procedures, and (6) staffing. The exciting pace of computer-technology development encourages the application of this technology to all learning experiences. Heermann (1986b), however, has suggested that the microcomputer as a teaching machine is best equipped to deliver information that is clear and well defined. Content areas such as management skills and interpersonal relations skills continue to require additional instructional components such as opportunity for interaction, guidance from instructors, and opportunity to practice. Technical skills training can incorporate microcomputer technology at the level of drills, tutorials, in-depth teaching programs, assessments, and testing (the concept of the "teaching machine"), as well as provide professional software for particular purposes (the concept of the "computer as a tool"), as Heermann (1986b, p. 9) also has discussed.

While a typing class, for example, could depend almost exclusively on computer-assisted instruction for skills training, work with self-instructional software programs in an ethics course would need to be incorporated into group discussions with an instructor's guidance. For example, individual student assessments and feedback from work with a software program on ethics case studies could be used as a basis for group discussion of ethical complexities and of various perspectives on ethical decision making.

Identification of suitable instructional materials is at the heart of these nuts-and-bolts considerations. While good self-instructional software programs cannot, alone, create appropriate learning environments, poor software programs can sabotage an otherwise excellent learning experience. Methods for locating and evaluating instructional software have been the topic of countess articles and many books during the past fifteen years. Not all recommendations, however, include the critical step of identifying

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characteristics of the target student populations. This identification is important to the selection of potential instructional materials that match learners' interests, levels of knowledge, and degrees of computer experience.

The next phase, evaluating these potential materials, entails exploration of the materials on a preview basis and use of objective criteria for evaluation. Based on experiences with adult learners using microcomputer-based instruction, DeJoy and Mills (1989) developed a set of evaluation criteria that now guide software purchases for the University of Georgia Personal Adult learning Lab. These five evaluation categories include the following: accuracy and applicability of content, instructional strategies, instructional presentation, documentation of operation steps, and technical aspects, each with a set of specific guidelines. Any evaluation tool, however, can only serve as a general guide for decision making; a more definitive strategy is to solicit adult student volunteers who are representative of the target student population to work with a particular instructional program and help identify potential problems. Small details can make a difference. For example, adult learners with even limited computer experience respond to a self-paced software program differently from adult learners who have never seen a keyboard of any kind.

Reality often dictates the purchase of microcomputer equipment before instructional software programs are acquired; therefore, instructional software must be carefully evaluated for compatibility with existing technology. The importance of evaluation extends to the subsequent management of these instructional materials once they have been incorporated into the learning environment. This extra evaluation is needed because software documentation is not standardized and many differences exist in the operation of software programs.

Typically, choices in microcomputer equipment are guided by several factors, such as available funding, requirements of current instructional software (if any), and availability of similar hardware in the future (Hollowood, 1986). In addition, microcomputer hardware purchased today should be compatible with future refinements in databases and distance education communications. It is also increasingly more difficult to become, and remain, a microcomputer "expert," in the strict sense of the word; but it is possible to become knowledgeable about the fundamental characteristics of microcomputer-based instructional delivery. In making decisions about whether to network microcomputers and how many printers to purchase, educators need to consider whether there is a need for learners to communicate with each other and the instructor, to work individually or as teams, and to have access to printed feedback. Once this level of planning has been completed, adult educators should use a computer expert (homegrown or imported) who can understand the specific educational goals and translate them into hardware requirements within the constraints of budget and available space.

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The incorporation of microcomputer technology into the physical design of learning environments is usually subject to available funding, physical space limitations, and existing facilities. The number of computer systems required depends on the characteristics of the learning environment; for example, the extent to which adult learners will work with self-instructional programs or work as a group using class demonstrations will dictate the minimum number of computer systems required. Flexible arrangements using movable partitions and furniture will permit the physical design to be modified to meet specific instructional objectives. This will permit each learning station (desk, chair, microcomputer system) to vary in size, from a minimum of about fourteen to sixteen square feet to an optimal thirty-two to thirty-six square feet (Hollowood, 1986), depending on the need for writing spaces and for students to work in teams.

More important than the sheer number of computer systems is the scheduling of access to these instructional systems. Fewer systems are needed when access is very flexible, including evening and, perhaps, weekend hours. Hollowood (1986) has suggested that there is no single pattern of scheduling for adult student populations, which supports the need for flexible hours and the use of scheduled appointments in order to predict staffing needs. Permanent loading of software programs on individual microcomputers can also facilitate the daily operation and assist the staff.

The role of the staff, including the instructor, in bringing microcomputer technology into adult learning environments is critical because individual staff members manipulate instructional materials, hardware, the physical environment, and individual schedules to support successful learning experiences. Moreover, to be effective, these professional staff must possess a well-developed perspective on the adult learner in a computer-based learning environment and sensitivity to some of the psychological and emotional components involved in the teaching and learning process, as discussed elsewhere in this volume.

Core Issues. These issues deal with the variables critical to "bridging the gap" between microcomputer technology and the individual adult learner. They include the learners' past experiences, emotions, perceptions, motivations, and self-concepts and their emotional responses to technology-oriented learning environments.

The issue of past experiences refers not only to the type of prior exposure the adult learner has had to microcomputers but also to the much more significant lack of any experience with microcomputer technology. When there is no prior experience with microcomputers, the learning experience is without precedent for adult learners, that is, individuals do not have personal images of themselves as successful learners with microcomputers. In addition, adult learners often bring to such a situation myths and half-truths about microcomputer technology that interfere with their initial learning, including notions about power and control in computer

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operations that more reflect science fiction than reality. An adult student wondering "which key balances my checkbook?" will need help in learning about the structure of basic computer commands and operations. Many software programs are described as "requiring little, if any, experience with computers." This description ignores the fact that an adult learner's relative (or absolute) lack of computer experience often represents a set of expectations, half-truths, fears, and so on that, if left unchecked, can sabotage the learning experience with even the "friendliest" software programs and computer systems.

Initial contact with the novel experience of working with computers can result in a variety of emotional responses, primarily negative. In addition, many adults pursuing new learning are also engaged in some type of transition (change in life events or experiences) that evokes emotional responses (Schlossberg, Lynch, and Chickering, 1989). These kinds of significant life changes include such experiences as the death of a spouse, divorce, job displacement, and job promotion. Learning objectives are often characterized by the need to learn and change quickly, in response to such real-life pressures. For example, one adult learner, Ellen, age forty-five, needed to learn about word processing to keep up with the others in the office; Harriet, a new widow at sixty-two, wanted to "do something easier than manual labor"; and George, retired at fifty-four due to ill health, planned to learn about desktop publishing in order to help advertise his wife's new business. The teaching and learning process for many adults in a microcomputer-based learning environment is thus intimately influenced by personal composites of past experiences, perceptions, and self-concepts, as well as by individual emotional responses at the two levels of personal life transitions and of demands for new or different learning skills necessary for learning success.

The importance of adult emotions has been underrepresented in our understanding of adult learning processes. Taylor (1988) has called this deficiency one of the "missing pieces" in our analyses of adult learning. Hiemstra and Sisco (1990, p. 31), in discussing barriers to educational participation, suggest a reason for this deficiency. They list three barriers--situational, institutional, and dispositional--and point out that while the first two are most often given as reasons for not participating in adult education programs, the real importance of dispositional factors [such as attitude or self-image limitations] is probably underestimated in that it is far more acceptable to say we are too busy to participate . . .than . . .to say we are too old to learn or lack the ability." The combined experience of life transitions and a completely unfamiliar learning environment demands significant coping skills for adult learners and specific facilitation skills for instructors.

The emphasis of this section is not on the technical and organizational skills of professional staff but rather on the role of the "educator as facilitator."

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In order to successfully facilitate the teaching and learning process in a microcomputer-based learning environment, staff need to be sensitive to the strong psychological and emotional components at work and to utilize the following skills in their interactions with learners: (1) acknowledgment of and respect for the learners' perceptions, emotions, self-images, and motivations, (2) sensitivity to the "spoken" and the "unspoken," and (3) authentic encouragement and support of the individual learning process, including changes in self-awareness. Moreover, no single microcomputer-based teaching strategy and no single self-paced software program can meet the needs of all adult learners in the same way. Rather, different delivery formats are required for different learners and, possibly, for the same learners at different times during the teaching and learning process.

Incorporating Microcomputer Technology into Adult Learning Environments

The actual development of microcomputer-supported adult learning environments can take a wide variety of forms, depending on particular instructional objectives, administrative constraints, funding, the range of instructional materials available, the degree of technical support, and the instructor's personal commitment. One of the most realistic approaches entails a combination of group and individual instruction options, which provides needed support to individual learners through microcomputer-based technology while learners continue to interact through group exercises and discussion.

Sheckley (1986) talks about the incorporation of microcomputer technology into adult learning environments in terms of innovative teaching and learning concepts, attitudes of trust toward adult learners, and the blending of high-technology and high-touch approaches involving significant instructor support and attention. Examples of how microcomputer technology can be blended into effective learning environments are the following: (1) skills instruction, using peer teams at the computer, (2) individual practice sessions following skill training, (3) demonstrations to large groups, (4) specific course content tutorials to supplement classroom activities, (5) work with specific application programs in developing projects, creating data bases, and developing graphics presentations, (6) access to online data base resources for individual projects, (7) individual learner study tracks, based on sets of self-paced instructional software programs, and (8) use of self-assessment materials for personal learning.

A checklist can serve as a guide for adult educators who are considering ways of integrating microcomputer technology into adult learning environments. The following directives are pertinent to generic issues: (1) Carefully consider those program learning objectives that can be better achieved with microcomputer-based instruction. Is the curriculum involved

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clearly defined? Could students benefit from individualized practice or decision making? Can appropriate software be identified? (2) Identify and evaluate instructional materials for potential use. Is appropriate software available? Does the content meet documented learning needs? Is the degree of difficulty matched to target students? Does the software meet objective evaluation criteria? Is the software compatible with current hardware? (3) Identify the microcomputer hardware necessary to support delivery of instructional software. Is the hardware compatible with available instructional software? Can the hardware be upgraded? Is the computer hardware competitively priced? Are maintenance and technical support provided? (4) Plan for the physical design and daily operation of microcomputer-based instruction programs. Are learning stations available for individual learning activities? Are there sufficient numbers of microcomputers? Is there a scheduling plan? Are instructions for operating instructional programs available to staff? Are sufficient staff available to provide individualized assistance? Are all staff adequately trained in the software and hardware operations? The following directives are pertinent to core issues: (1) Ensure that all staff can help adult learners develop accurate perceptions of the learning process and appropriate learning skills. Do all learners appreciate that there is no age limit on learning? Do all learners believe that anxiety is normal? Do all learners appreciate that individual learning styles are positive? Do learners have basic reading, writing, and math skills? Do learners possess a degree of self-awareness about their personal biases, strengths, and attitudes? (2) Ensure that all staff possess the critical facilitation skills required to identify, acknowledge, and support the adult learner's past experiences and emotional responses during the teaching and learning process. Do staff practice active listening skills, such as paying attention, empathy, and reflection? Are staff able to encourage learners' efforts by using genuine praise, providing acceptance, and encouraging independent problem solving? Can staff adequately discriminate learners' feelings and respond appropriately?


If microcomputer-based instruction and the various innovative educational strategies that it supports are actually changing the nature of the teaching and learning process, interactions between adult learners and computers will require new learning perspectives. Lewis (1989, p. 626) has developed a lengthy "to do" list for adult educators trying to integrate microcomputers into learning environments; no single educator could implement all of these recommendations. However, the final one, "meeting the needs of individuals while . . . seeing to it that learners are central to the process," is critical to the field and best implemented by adult educators because it

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embraces the "educational relationship" between technology and adult learners. What is required is a commitment to mediate these interactions with adult learners as the starting point.


Bork, A. "Computers in Continuing Education." In M. N. Chamberlain (ed.), Providing Continuing Education by Media and Technology. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 5. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1980.

DeJoy, J. K., and Mills, H. H. "Criteria for Evaluating Interactive Instructional Materials for Adult Self-Directed Learners." Educational Technology, 1989, 29(2), 39-41.

Gerver, E. Computers and Adult Learning. Milton Keynes, England: Open University Press, 1984.

Heermann, B. (ed.). Personal Computers and the Adult Learner. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 29. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986a.

Heermann, B. "Strategies for Adult Computer Learning." In B. Heermann (ed.), Personal Computers and the Adult Learner. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 29. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986b.

Hiemstra, R., and Sisco, B. Individualizing Instruction: Making Learning Personal, Empowering, and Successful. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

Hollowood, J. R. "Designing Microcomputer Facilities for Continuing Education." In B. Heermann (ed.), Personal Computers and the Adult Learner. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 29. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986.

Lewis, L. H. "New Educational Technologies for the Future." In S. B. Merriam and P. M. Cunningham (eds.), Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.

Mis, F. W. "Computer-Assisted Instruction." In I. M. Hefzallah (ed.), The New Learning and Telecommunications Technologies. Springfield, Ill.: Thomas, 1990.

Schlossberg, N. K., Lynch, A. Q., and Chickering, A. W. Improving Higher Education Environments for Adults: Responsive Programs and Services from Entry to Departure. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.

Sheckley, B. G. "Microcomputers and Adult Learning: Maximizing Potentials." In B. Heermann (ed.), Personal Computers and the Adult Learner. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 29. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986.

Smart, G., and Reinhardt, A. "1975-1990: 15 Years of Bits, Bytes, and Other Great Moments." Byte, 1990, 15(9), 369-400.

Taylor, M. "Self-Directed Learning: More than Meets the Observer's Eye." In D. Boud and Y. Griffin (eds.), Appreciating Adults Learning: From the Learners' Perspective. London: Kogan Page, 1988.


Judith K. DeJoy is coordinator of the Personal Adult Learning Lab, a microcomputer-based adult learning environment, at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education, University of Georgia, Athens.

July, 2001

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-- Go to Editor's Notes, Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine, Chapter Ten, or The Index.