Monthly Archives: January 2020

How is digital technology influencing adult education and how could adult education address the ‘digital divide’ (exclusion and inequality caused by services moving online)?

Recently, the British Society of Gerontology held a joint meeting for two Special Interest Groups; ‘Educational Gerontology’ and ‘Technology and Ageing’. The event was organised to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the commission on Adult Education.

Sharon Clancy kicked off the event with a presentation: ‘Celebrating adult education – 100th anniversary of the commission’. This was about the 1919 commission on adult education which was part of the reconstruction after World War 1, aiming to support education of the population who had recently been given the right to vote. The commission called for education ‘throughout the life of the adult’. Sharon noted that the commission reflected the changing nature of work and had a ‘civic rhetoric’. The hundred-year anniversary report calls for a renewal of these values, perhaps addressing modern concerns about automation in the workplace and commercialisation of education.  Furthermore, the anniversary report included a theme about online learning and an aim to develop an online platform for adult education. This will be led by Melissa Highton, based at University of Edinburgh.

The next presentation was about older people’s concerns about digital technology and online search engines etc. Elvira Perez-Vallejos and Helen Creswick presented their recent research on this topic which can become a barrier to accessing online information or services. It was found that older people have little trust in online platforms or companies because they feel that they do not have a framework for establishing trust. For example: the ‘bricks and mortar’ of the high street bank gives a validity in the bank which supports trust; however, it is not possible to validate an online bank in the same way. Learning digital skills may build confidence and familiarity with using online resources; but the other side of ‘digital literacy’ is to improve the design of technology including websites to better accommodate the needs of older users.

We then held two workshops with contrasting themes. The first explored the ongoing relevance of more conventional learning, whereas the second explored drop-in sessions to build computer skills for older people. Katherine Brown talked about her experience with running local history cafés and how these facilitate learning as well as building local ‘assets’. This approach may be important in reaching a broader audience and addressing inequalities in access.  In the second workshop, Peter Wearn talked about how their drop-in computer skills group developed in response to local needs. The group meets in venues that are accessible and familiar (library and local education centre). The sessions teach the basics of how to use a computer and the internet, then most time is reserved for trouble-shooting problems. The group have developed resources to ‘get people started’ on different platforms.

John Miles led the final discussion session by offering a ‘provocation’ – if the Government were to introduce new funding for adult education, how would our local computer skills group respond? How would they develop governance and outreach within the community to make best use of the funding? Could this investment lead to a renewal of adult education, fit for our ‘digital age’? In response the group discussed the importance of ‘starting small’ – welcoming new members and creating a welcoming relaxed atmosphere. One view was that the group should develop with a participatory approach – acknowledging that everyone is an expert in their own lives; creating time for reflection would be important for development and future expansion of the group. Key points appeared to be that the group should maintain accountability, have a strong social purpose and aim to reinforce the civic through collective dialogue.


Dr Sharon Clancy is at School of Education, University of Nottingham

Dr Elvira Perez-Vallejos and Dr Helen Creswick are from HORIZON Digital Economy Research, University of Nottingham

Katherine Brown is director of Crafting Relationships

Peter Wearn is chairperson for Long Eaton 50+ Forum Website

‘Adult Education in a Digital World’ event was jointly coordinated by John Miles, BSG Educational Gerontology SIG and Dr Neil Chadborn, BSG Technology and Ageing SIG. Neil is at School of Medicine, University of Nottingham. It was hosted by Centre for Social Futures at Institute of Mental Health and was supported by Journal of Ageing and Society.

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