Adult Learning with Technology: a Market Ripe for Innovation


Interest from investors in education technology startups has reached an all-time high. Venture and private equity funding in the segment reached $1.87 billion in 2014, up 55 percent over the previous year, according to CB Insights, a venture capital database.

But, if we dig a little deeper, we find that the bulk of spending was on technology solutions to transform learning for children and youth. Investors have not yet capitalized on the adult learning and continuing education market, which is estimated at $55 billion in the United States alone. This sector is ripe for innovation through technology, and demand continues to grow.

Demand exceeds supply

A subset of that market includes adults who require basic literacy and numeracy skills, and job training. Based on survey data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a picture emerges of this underserved market:

  • 36 million (one in six) U.S. adults have less than basic literacy skills
  • Nearly one in three U.S. adults lack basic numeracy skills
  • Hispanics and blacks are three to four times more likely to have low literacy skills than whites
  • Nearly 35 percent of U.S. adults with learning disabilities scored at the lowest levels in literacy and 50 percent scored at the lowest levels in math
  • Many have a high school diploma and 63 percent are employed, but most are underemployed, earn low wages, and lack the skills necessary to go to college or advance their careers

From the same survey:

  • 7 million of these adults indicated interest in improving their skills
  • While many are enrolled in community colleges and public or private adult education programs, nearly three million seek these opportunities but cannot enroll due to a lack of space available in these programs

Bottom line, with demand far outweighing supply, adult learning is a market long overdue for an infusion of inspired innovation. But entrepreneurs and developers seeking to enter the adult learning space must pay close attention to its unique characteristics.

 The many faces of adult learning

As part of the adult learning initiative at Digital Promise, we capture the stories of adult learners to help those who want to design innovative learning tools better understand the end users they are designing for. We work to raise awareness of the many and varied circumstances of adult learners.

Many low-skilled adults may have faced challenges in a K-12 setting or lack confidence in themselves as learners. Many are immigrants (some educated) and face language barriers. They may have families to support or challenges with finances. Those who are employed may have long commutes or inflexible schedules. While a significant number of these learners have access to the Internet, many lack the computer skills needed to work in today’s economy.

Their learning is mostly by choice, not compulsory by federal or state law as it is with school-age children. Therefore, adult learners must be self-motivated, and seek out opportunities to advance their skills on their own.

Exciting opportunity, but not without its challenges

Recently, Digital Promise gathered together 60 experts in adult learning – researchers, entrepreneurs, teachers, and policy makers – to explore how new digital learning opportunities could be designed for lower skilled, underserved adults. The meeting was held in conjunction with the annual conference of the Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE).

Over the course of the day, participants identified challenges to designing a technology-powered learning ecosystem for this population. Participants envisioned what this ecosystem might look like, and recommended actionable steps to make it a reality. Here are just three of the “big ideas” that came out of the discussion.

1. Because many adults can’t always access formal programs, they need learning opportunities outside of them. 

For entrepreneurs, this creates an opportunity to develop “direct-to-consumer” learning solutions that don’t require schools, classrooms, and educators running formal programs. This frees developers from the burden of complex sales cycles and procurement processes, but demands that they create accessible, engaging, and easy to understand learning experiences that can be delivered online wherever the learner might be.

One idea involves the development of a learner GPS, a kind of positioning system that helps adults understand themselves as learners and keep track of their own learning, regardless of where it happens. It could also help learners identify educational programs and resources online or close to where they live or work, so they can more easily find the support they need.

2. While some of these adults have computers, almost all of them have a mobile phone. 

Whether developing direct-to-consumer experiences or learning resources for classrooms, entrepreneurs would be well-advised to design for mobile, and perhaps even design for “mobile-first.” Learning experiences that are flexible and can be completed in short bursts of time would be most helpful.

For example, an early prototype of a phone-based solution is an English as a Second Language curriculum for Spanish speakers developed by Cell-Ed that can be accessed through any basic cell phone. Students dial a number and listen to pre-recorded lessons. They receive text messages with questions, and can text answers back for immediate feedback.

3. Adult learners need a way to demonstrate what they’ve learned and earn recognition for it from prospective employers. 

Adults have learned and developed skills, whether in the military, in another language, in formal schooling, or in everyday life. Adult learning would benefit from asystem of micro-credentials that each focus on mastery of a singular competency. Micro-credentials are much more flexible than diplomas, degrees or certificates and can provide a more detailed and personal picture of an individual’s skill set. They also provide motivation based on small successes, which would be beneficial for the often unconfident adult learner. Ideally, employers would partner with education agencies and developers to support a well-designed, rigorous system that emphasizes the skills needed for adults to succeed in the workplace.

 Now is the time to support adult learners

Adult learning presents a tremendous new opportunity for entrepreneurs and investors. Clearly, success in this space will require empathy around the unique challenges of this population. Developers who create technology tools built formobile use, flexible for anytime, anywhere learning, and personalized to the individual goals of adult learners will have the best chance at leading the market by creating truly effective products.

Progress will ultimately allow more people to gain the skills needed to fully participate in society and build our economy – and this would benefit us all. And, while the adult learning market presents an economic opportunity, most importantly, it presents an opportunity to improve the lives of so many people in our communities. We’ve been inspired by the adult learners we’ve met who tenaciously pursue learning opportunities, despite tremendous obstacles. Imagine what it would be like if all adults had access to quality programs and effective learning tools to help them reach their goals. Imagine the positive ripple effect this could have on their children and families, and our communities. Let’s get started.

[Photo Credit: Phil Sexton on Flickr via Creative Commons 2.0]

This article appeared on LinkedIn on May 7th, 2015 and can be viewed there by clicking here.
Karen Cator is President and CEO of Digital Promise, a non-profit whose mission is to vastly improve the opportunity for all Americans to learn by accelerating innovation in education through technology and research. From 2009-2013, Cator was Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.