Theories exist in number that concern how adults learn. Despite surface differences, these theories also contain common themes relevant to adult learning. They include self-direction, problem- or need-based motivation to learn, the ability to anchor past experiences to make meaning from current learning, and the skills to self-assess one’s learning experience. Given the prevalence of technology in virtually all areas of personal and professional life, a solid understanding of how to use technology effectively is essential for 21st-century adults. At the same time, these adults are often hampered by anxiety and past negative experiences related to technology use, especially in the learning process itself. How can instructors leverage the best practices of adult learning theory to create meaningful learning experiences for adult learners? In order to address this question, it is important to understand the unique characteristics of adult learners as a first step. Instructors should also self-reflect and consider how their own attitudes and experiences can shape how they use technology with adult learners. With learning theories in mind, designing meaningful learning experiences with technology for adult learners can optimize learning experiences.
Fostering self-direction in students has long been an aim for both educators and parents as they fear the potentially coercive influence of peer pressure and the many sources that compete to influence what we think and what we do. These fears have motivated educational philosophers to explore the contours of what such self-direction or autonomous thought and action entails on the demands of individual thinking and behavior but also on the types of educational environments needed to foster its emergence. Likewise, educational philosophers have also argued the merits of promoting autonomy in public schools out of fears that some forms of autonomy may limit the ranges of conceptions of the good life that are available to students; many are concerned that promoting autonomy may inspire students to reject family and community ways of life. Despite those concerns, drawing upon thought that traces back to the ancient Greeks, contemporary educational philosophers continue to debate the contours of and justifications for an autonomy promoting education.
Adult learning is described as learning undertaken by adults in natural educational settings as opposed to the experimental settings often undertaken in psychological research on learning. As such, the theory and research on adult learning referred to in this article primarily draws on applied educational research reported in adult education journals. Much of this research is informed by psychological and social research and theory, and this is acknowledged in each of six adult learning themes outlined in this article. These themes are self-directed learning, experience and learning, learning styles, the development of identity in the adult years, intellectual and cognitive development, and transformative learning. While these themes focus on adult learning in a general sense, our understanding of adult learning also needs to be seen in relation to the context in question; contexts such as health, the third age, indigenous knowledge, literacy and numeracy, the environment, disability, community education, gender equity, race, and migrant and refugee education. The literature on adult learning offers very few prescriptive bridges linking research, theory, and practice. This is partly because there are competing theories posing different questions and offering opposing interpretations of research findings, but it is also because the purpose and function of education and learning is a contested field. In these circumstances the best approach for practitioners is to interrogate and improve their practice through engaging with research findings, competing models, and competing theories. In this way they are aware of the variables at play and can formulate practices that are consistent with their educational aims and purposes. The link between research, theory and practice is conceptual rather than prescriptive, with practitioners interrogating and improving their practice by engaging with the issues and the competing claims of theory and research.