Andragogy and Technology: Integrating Adult Learning Theory As We Teach With Technology
Dolores Fidishun, Ed.D.
Penn State Great Valley School of Graduate Professional Studies
30 E. Swedesford Rd.
Malvern, PA 19355
Introducing technology into the curriculum means more than just “making it
work.” The principles of adult learning theory can be used in the design of technology-
based instruction to make it more effective. Malcolm Knowles’ theory of andragogy
allows teacher/facilitators to structure lessons which are part of a relevant learning
environment for adults students.
Higher education has given priority to the integration of technology into the
curriculum. As this has occurred, institutions are faced with the many issues that
surround making the lessons succeed technologically. Faculty must spend time learning
how to use the technology and ensuring that adequate institutional support is present to
make the technology work. It is, therefore, easy for the instructional design of such
curricula to be put on the side while we get technology issues “under control.” Faculty
need to focus on learning theory in the design of instructional technology so that they can
create lessons that are not only technology-effective but that are meaningful from the
learner’s standpoint. Malcolm Knowles’ theory of andragogy outlines effective
methodologies for adult learning. When this theory is integrated into the design of
technology-based learning environments it is possible to create lessons that not only serve
the needs of students to use the latest technology but also focus on their requirements as
an adult. Andragogy includes ideas such as an adult’s readiness to learn, the role of the
learner’s experiences, the faculty member as a facilitator of learning, an adult’s
orientation to learning, and the learner’s self concept.
What is Andragogy?
Andragogy is a set of assumptions about how adults learn. Its roots can be traced
back to Alexander Kapp, a German grammar teacher who used it to describe Plato’s
educational theory (Knowles, Holton, and Swanson 1998, 59). It appeared again in 1921
when another German, Social Scientist, Eugen Rosenstock claimed that “adult education
required special teachers, special methods, and a special philosophy.” (Knowles, Holton,
and Swanson 1998, 59) There is evidence that discussion of andragogy continued in
Europe until Dusan Savicevic, a Yugoslavian adult educator, first discussed the concept
in the United States. Malcolm Knowles heard about the term and in 1968 used it in an
article in Adult Leadership. From that point on, Knowles has become known as the
principle expert on andragogy although numerous adult educators including Brookfield
(1986), Mezirow (1991), Lawler (1991) and Merriam (1999) have addressed the concept
and/or discussed how it can be used to facilitate adult learning.
Technology and the Assumptions of Andragogy
Knowles, Holton and Swanson (1998) discuss six assumptions of andragogy.
Following are expanded definitions of those assumptions with their implications for
• The Learner’s Need to Know
Adults need to know why they should learn something. Under the more standard
pedagogical model it is assumed that the student will simply learn what they are told.
Adults, however, are used to understanding what they do in life. They want to know the
reason they need to learn something or how it will benefit them. This may be
accomplished before students even engage technology, such as if a Spanish class is
required to fill a language elective to complete a degree, however, it is wise for the
faculty member to help students understand how what they will learn will be of use to
them in the future. The required Spanish language lessons will be more affective if the
student feels that it will increase her/his ability to understand a bilingual colleague on the
One way to help students see the value of the lessons is to ask the student, either
online or in an initial face-to-face meeting, to do some reflection on what they expect to
learn, how they might use it in the future or how it will help them to meet their goals.
Patricia Lawler (1991, 36) suggests that these goals and expectations can be used
throughout the program to reinforce the importance of learning activities. The design of
technology-based lessons can incorporate not only the students’ original reflections but
can solicit feedback about the relevance of the ongoing learning process throughout the
course. It is incumbent upon the instructor to review these reflections and to adjust the
technology or suggest an individual lesson structure to more effectively meet student
• The Learner’s Self-concept
Knowles, Holton, and Swanson emphasize that “adults resent and resist situations
in which they feel others are imposing their wills on them.” (1998, 65) In spite of their
need for autonomy, previous schooling has made them dependent learners. It is the job of
the adult educator to move adult students away from their old habits and into new
patterns of learning where they become self-directed, taking responsibility for their own
learning and the direction it takes. Technology is a perfect path for the facilitation of self-
direction. The ultimate ability of initiatives such as web-based learning to be non-linear
allows an adult to follow the path that most appropriately reflects their need to learn. It
becomes extremely important for those who are designing technology-based adult
learning to use all of the capabilities of the technology including branching, the ability to
skip sections a student already understands, and multiple forms of presentation of
material which can assist people with various learning styles. All of these can be used to
permit students to follow a path of learning that most appropriately suits them.
There is, however, one final piece that needs to be added when students are
learning with technology. There must be some way to help learners who are still moving
into the self-directed mode. Those learners who are new to adult education or who for
some reason have not experienced the ability to be self-directed learners in the past need
a structure which will help them to grow. Particular attention should be given to students
who may not want to spend time outside of a classroom situation; who prefer to be
spoon-fed material during a regularly scheduled session. This type of student may exhibit
negative opinions of having to use technology as the only means of learning as they will
need to take responsibility and direct their own learning. The instructor must find ways to
move these learners into self-direction by giving them short, directed, concrete online
tasks that provide the most “learning for the experience” to make these adults see the
relevancy of online learning.
It is also important that self-directedness not be confused with self-motivation.
Although a student may be motivated to take a course, they may not be self-directed
enough to feel comfortable choosing instructional modules in an online course or creating
their own structured environment to learn in a web-based course.
Encouraging self-directedness may also take the form of additional instructor
contact in the beginning stages of the class or could be facilitated by having students do
technology-based modules within a traditional class before they move to a complete
course based in technology.
• The Role of the Learner’s Experience
Adults have had a lifetime of experiences. These make adult learners more
heterogeneous than younger learners and also provides an additional base of knowledge
that can and should be used in the classroom or technology-based learning experience.
Adults want to use what they know and want to be acknowledged for having that
knowledge. The design of technology-based instruction must include opportunities for
learners to use their knowledge and experience. Case studies, reflective activities, group
projects that call upon the expertise of group members and lab experiments are examples
of the type of learning activities which will facilitate the use of learners’ already acquired
An important corollary to the experience that adults bring with them is the
association of their experiences with who they are. Their self-identity including habits
and biases are determined from their experience. It is for this reason that those
developing technology-based instruction for adult learners need to create opportunities
for what Jack Mezirow calls “reflective learning.” (1991, 6) As Mezirow states,
“reflective learning involves assessment or reassessment of assumptions” (1991, 6) and
“reflective learning becomes transformative whenever assumptions or premises are found
to be distorting, inauthentic or otherwise invalid.” (1991, 6) Reflective learning activities
can assist students in examining their biases and habits and move them toward a new
understanding of information presented. Using web-based or other technologies to have
students reflect on learning activities or to put themselves in a different character in a
case study or scenario may cause adults to reevaluate already learned information or
• A Student’s Readiness to Learn
Adults become ready to learn something when, as Knowles explained, “they
experience a need to learn it in order to cope more satisfyingly with real-life tasks or
problems.” (1980, 44) It is important that lessons developed in technology-based
opportunities should, where possible, be concrete and relate to students’ needs and future
goals. These may be adapted from the goals of the course or learning program but can
also grow out to the requests for student expectations that were mentioned earlier. In
addition, an instructor can encourage students’ readiness by designing experiences which
simulate situations where the student will encounter a need for the knowledge or skill
presented. Students in a personnel management course may not see the need for learning
about the Family and Medical Leave Act but an interactive role play that puts students in
the place of a manager who must deal with an employee’s request for leave due to a
child’s illness will help them see how an understanding of the topic will benefit them in
• The Student’s Orientation to Learning
Adults are life, task or problem-centered in their orientation to learning. They
want to see how what they are learning will apply to their life, a task they need to
perform, or to solving a problem. Technology-based instruction will be more effective if
it uses real-life examples or situations that adult learners may encounter in their life or on
the job. Allowing flexibility in the design of a lesson will permit student input on issues
that need to be addressed in a class. If students can bring real-life examples of school
discipline challenges to a chat session in an online course on behavior management they
will be anxious to participate and gain the practical experience which will help them to
do better at their job.
• Students’ Motivation to Learn
While adult learners may respond to external motivators, internal priorities are
more important. Incentives such as increased job satisfaction, self-esteem and quality of
life are important in giving adults a reason to learn. If any of these can be related as part
of technology-based instruction adults will respond more positively. Activities that build
students’ self-esteem, or sense of accomplishment through, for example, the completion
of goals or modules that can be checked off in a sequence, may help motivate completion
of a longer lesson. In addition, student’s input into the development of lessons or in the
prioritization of topics covered can help students to take ownership of the learning
To facilitate the use of andragogy while teaching with technology we must use
technology to its fullest. Arguments for the use of technology many times include
statements about its flexibility and the ability of the learner to move through lessons any
time, anywhere, and at their own pace. These arguments also include logical explanations
of how a learner may adapt the lessons or material to cover what they need to learn and
eliminate the material that is not appropriate or that they have already learned. To adapt
to the needs of adult students, these definitions of technology-based learning must be
utilized to make its design interactive, learner-centered and to facilitate self-direction in
Educators who are using adult education concepts in the development of their
lessons must also become facilitators of learning. They must structure student input into
their design and create technology-based lessons which can easily be adapted to make the
presentation of topics relevant to those they teach.
If these guidelines are followed, the instruction that is developed will be not only
technologically workable but also effective from a learner’s perspective.
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Merriam, Sharan B. and Rosemary S. Caffarella. 1999. Learning in Adulthood: A
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