Adult Learners: How IT Can Support “New” Students

min read

By Sean Cordes

  • Growth of adult student enrollments will outpace that of traditional student enrollments through 2016.
  • All students need technology skills to succeed in the workplace and technology support to succeed in higher education.
  • IT staff can train and support faculty and students who use distributed learning environments, increasing their chances for success.
  • IT can further support adult learners by building partnerships with data service providers, providing resources for low-income learners, and recommending optimal mixes of hardware, software, and connections.

As unemployment rises, along with employer concerns about worker skills, adult learners are returning to higher education in droves. According to the Center for National Education Statistics, students enrolling in two-year colleges offering workforce development skills are the fastest growing higher education population, and growth of enrollment in higher education for people over 25 is expected to outpace that of younger students through 2016.1 With these adult students come new challenges for institutional IT programs and personnel. Given their already limited resources, how can campus IT departments support these students and their specialized needs?

IT and the Adult Learner: Understanding the Issue

Providing the infrastructure and support needed to enable adult learners in a technology-driven environment is complicated. Addressing the following questions helps frame the issues specific to this group:

  • Who are these adult students?
  • What do they hope to gain from continuing education?
  • Why do they need to learn IT skills for job success?
  • What challenges do they bring to the IT environment?

Who They Are

The growth of the adult student population reflects a shift in social demographics. Adult students represent a diverse mix of ages, ethnicities, educational attainment, and income. Many are graduate students; more are undergraduates. But a large number will be pursuing two-year programs or certification in specific areas. (For more background on adult students, see Recommended Resources: Putting a Face on the “New” Students.)

Why They Are Returning to School

The majority of adult students seek new or enhanced skills related to technology in the workplace. Often these students want to attain skills to enhance their employability in fields where technology is changing job requirements. Others are professionals planning to improve their technology skills to advance from entry and mid-level positions to management and administrative jobs.

Why They Need IT Skills

IT lies at the heart of the modern organization. Most jobs today require the skills needed to access, organize, and evaluate information using technology. Whether the person works on a construction site, drives an 18-wheeler, or processes payroll at the local convenience store, technology skills can mean the difference between having a job and seeking one, especially for older workers.

Challenges to IT in Higher Education

Many adult students will be working as well as attending class, and some will have other outside responsibilities such as caring for families. Some will attend class on campus; many will not. Many adult students will have some technology experience gained from the workplace or personal life. The oldest students will often have less experience with current technology and less confidence about their ability to learn. Those with lower socioeconomic status will likely have less technology experience and fewer resources.

Adult Learners on Campus

Adult learners can require specialized support, both on campus and at a distance. In the campus environment,they sometimes lack the technology skills and motivaton required to perform a task, or lack understanding of computing policies. Of course, students of any age may need support, and adults of all ages can and do learn to use technology effectively While age is not a factor, practical experience, confidence, and motivation to use technology are. Formal computer training, practical experience, and the confidence gained from extensive use over time are critical to effectively performing academic tasks. Many younger students who have grown up digitally have this experience. Most adult learners do not, and so often lack the practical knowedge, feelings of competence, and desire to use technology younger learners possess.

For instance, adult students can become frustrated when assignments require software features secured on campus machines. This requires patience from support staff to explain the policy, and then attempt a workaround. On the positive side, IT ability is more a matter of experience than age. Screening adult students for basic computing skills, providing training when needed, and orienting them to campus computing policies, including networked and wireless service, can clarify and ease these types of support issues.

Adult Learners at a Distance

Many adult students take distance courses. Because online learning often lacks direct contact with faculty and staff on campus, supporting these students can be challenging. In-house systems provide a controlled environment — at the very least we know what systems are in place and can engage students directly. In the world of the online adult learner, this is rarely the case.

The shift to online learning impacts students, instructors, and the information professionals who support them. Even today, many instructors have difficulty developing and managing online courses. Adult students often have little experience working online and need help navigating content and performing learning tasks. Successful learning often depends on the ability of IT workers to mediate these processes for instructors and students, as well as ensuring the functionality of the learning management system (LMS).

On the other hand, some instructors are online innovators, and some adult students are Internet savvy. This can be a blessing and curse for technologists. Courses using wikis, blogs, and Google Docs provide adult students the opportunity to learn in real-life contexts using a variety of work-related tools and skills. But the experience can come at the cost of lost structure and control. A centralized LMS helps adult learners with limited skills get up to speed quickly and gives IT workers insight into problems so that they can efficiently troubleshoot support issues. The centralized system also allows establishment and control of policies relating to authentication, privacy, freedom of speech, and copyright issues. Campus IT can help create balance in the online environment by:

  • Establishing required proficiencies for the development and teaching of online courses.
  • Organizing working groups to pilot and establish best practices for open-Internet and Web 2.0 technologies.
  • Mandating comprehensive basic computing skill requirements for adult learners.
  • Developing timely support methods using a variety of audio, video, or direct control components.
  • Investigating and establishing policies that address the shift of the student role from information consumer to information creator.

Across the IT Universe

Like any students, adult learners can access the campus from home, work, or while mobile. But the computing resources available, especially to low-income students, may not meet recommended requirements for hardware, software, and connections. What’s more, institutions have little or no control over the speed or reliability of off-campus Internet services. Moreoever, the myriad of mobile devices used by learners is daunting.

Many students will need technical support for one or more of these elements, even though the sheer variety of devices can make support policies and services difficult to develop. Some devices, like BlackBerry smart phones, require intermediary support to access services on campus. This means additional charges for IT departments.

A number of ways exist to provide distance support, including e-mail, phone, and remote desktop, each with its own strengths and shortcomings. Individual IT departments will need to determine which method best suits adult students based on their skills and use patterns. To support technology needs for adult learners, institutions should:

  • Build partnerships with local, regional, and national data service providers.
  • Develop programs to provide computing resources for low-income learners.
  • Form working groups to investigate penetration, costs, and support issues related to Internet learning and mobile devices.
  • Establish and provide recommendations to adult learners regarding hardware, software, and connections.

Meeting the needs of adult students requires more robust infrastructures, distributed learning environments, and the ability to support new technologies and devices. These learners bring with them specialized needs that require additional IT support and training. Although the steps to success will be many and long, we must invest now in our adult students to avoid paying later.


  1. National Center for Education Statistics Fast Facts,

Sean Cordes ([email protected]) is Assistant Professor and Instructional Services Coordinator at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois.