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E-Learning attracts the ’usual suspects’


Despite Government efforts to promote ‘lifelong learning’ and a more equitable and inclusive ‘learning society’ there is little special or new about adult learning in the digital age, according to research at Cardiff University.

The Adult Learning@Home project, which was funded by ESRC, concluded that ICT has not increased participation and achievement rates in adult education. Instead, e-learning tends to be associated with the same factors that determine school-leaving age, such as sex and socio-economic background. “It would seem that patterns of participation in adult education are not being changed for the better by changes in education policy,” says Dr Neil Selwyn.

The study, which was one of the first large-scale research projects to focus specifically on information and communications technologies and adult learning, shows that despite ‘universal’ levels of access to computers and the internet, actual use is limited to just over half of the adult population. Using the internet to learn a language or other new skill was secondary to communicating with family and friends, producing documents and searching for specific information and general knowledge.

The report shows that E-learning was most often concerned with the technology itself, rather than a means to learn something else. ‘We met pensioners who had learned to turn spreadsheets into pie-charts then never used them,’ says Neil Selwyn. The researchers concluded that ICTs appear to reinforce existing patterns of learning and were mainly of benefit to people who were already learners, or who would have become learners without the availability of ICT.

The findings were based on a large-scale door-to-door survey of 1,001 adults and semi-structured interviews with 100 respondents, followed by a year-long, in-depth ethnographic study of 25 ICT users, their friends and families. The research covered a broad cross-section of populations in Cardiff, Bath and North Somerset, the ex-mining and steel community of Blaenau Gwent and the rural community of the Forest of Dean.

The findings show that adult learning through ICTs was largely informal and unstructured, even when it took place at work or in educational institutions. It was often augmented by books, television programmes and help and advice from others. Most adults seem to create a use for the technology rather than the technology solving some existing problem or lack in their lives. This was most obvious in hobby and leisure use, such as adults producing greetings cards.

Other findings include:

  • Only 38% of the 1001 adults survey had continued with any form of formal learning directly after reaching compulsory school-leaving age.
  • The key determinant of learning in later life is experience of work and family life as an adult, rather than access to ICTs.
  • Only 8% of the survey could be classed as excluded from computers and the internet, but 48% had not used a computer during the past 12 months.
  • Only 11% of respondents reported using a computer in a public location such as a library, compared to 44% using one at home and 32% in the workplace.
  • The key factor underlying the success of ICT-based learning is an individual’s motivation and self-discipline.

    Becky Gammon | alfa
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