Adult Students and Technological Literacy


In their ENG-W682 project, Philip Jones and Tim Conner state, “Ultimately, it is our hope that this project will create awareness among community college, as well as university-level English composition and developmental education instructors of the need to better acknowledge the special literacy needs of their diverse non-traditional student population.” The post and readings they presented rekindled my interest in the technological or digital literacy of adult, returning students.

Jill Castekc, as assistant professor of with Portland State University’s Literacy, Language and Technology Group argues that we actually should be using the term “digital literacies” because the modern information technology actually requires a vast number of skills to be function effectively in work and educational setting. The term must reach beyond simply reading and writing in digital realms to encompass the “multiple opportunities to several digitial texts, tools, and multimodal representation for design, creation, play, and problem solving” (qtd. in Heitin).

As  Stephen Warren explains, our older, returning students bring a wealth of experience to the classroom. He, therefore, recommends that we use that experience to make them see the relevance of our courses by leveraging those experiences: “…a college English teacher can help non-traditional students by letting them use what they already know, by letting various personal experiences–as a coal miner, nurse, mechanic, fire fighter, grandmother–be subjects of their writing” (Warren 4).

Despite those experiences and often some real-life experience using reading and writing, many non-traditional students often lack some threshold digital literacy skills. Their use of word processors, internet searches, or email can be rudimentary. The problem is that we demand a great deal of technological literacy from these nontraditional students.

With this in mind, I decided to interview a colleague, Darryl Mangles, who began attending LCC in 2009 at 34 years old. He went onto earn a bachelor’s degree in Professional Communications from Siena Heights University, and now he works in the Writing Center at Lansing Community College. When he entered LCC, his placement tests put him into our Composition I course, but the computer skills he needed to complete the course work were missing at first. Darryl’s answers to my questions provided some insight into how nontraditional college students overcome deficits in their technological literacy.

Our Interview

Please describe your technology skills when you began college as an adult student?
I had no technology skills. I had never used a computer. I didn’t really understand what the internet was or what email was. I had never heard of a course management system. I did not understand the difference between software and hardware. I knew how to use a cell phone; however, I purchased an iPhone not really understanding that living in Ovid [a rural area about 30 miles north of Lansing, MI] without internet service meant it was basically a handheld paper weight. My technology skills were essentially non-existent as far as anything related to school.

What problems did you encounter with technology when you began college as an adult student?
I had a lot of trouble grasping the simplest of things. I also wasn’t patient, and even though most things were explained in written or video instruction I didn’t take the time to read much. I imagined everything being more complicated. I had an idea that you had to be smart to use technology and didn’t really understand that technology was really there for us to be less smart–to be smart for us if you will. Overcoming my fear of technology to the point I began using it enough to learn to use it better was a challenge.

How did you overcome any issues with technology?
I did not do it by my own will; I was forced to use it for my classes. When I couldn’t figure things out for myself quickly, I sought out people with patience and stuck to them like glue. If I couldn’t find help, I would just keep looking until I could. I’m a bit ashamed to say that I very seldom “played around with it” until I figured it out on my own. I felt that fooling around with things I didn’t understand was a waste of time. Why not save time and find someone who could simply and quickly explain things?

What recommendations would you make for college instructors when it comes to technology and adult students?
Be patient. Understand that they are often afraid and ashamed to admit it, which can manifest itself in many ways: anger,  frustration, attendance issues, and poor participation as well as others I haven’t mentioned or thought of yet.

Do you consider “technology” a literacy skill, similar to reading and writing?
Yes. It needs to be learned, and understanding it opens doorways in a similar way reading and writing does. There are different levels of understanding for different individuals. Some people are better than others; some pick it right up while others need more time a study.

Darryl Mangles in the Writing Center. Photo by Leslie Johnson.


Darryl’s experience was clearly reflected in the literature that I read. Hsu, Wang, and Hamilton state, “While the traditional textbook and blackboard are still being used, the influence of technology is increasingly playing a key role in the teaching and learning process. Thus, ability to effectively use technology, particularly computer and communications technologies, can impact success in college and perhaps more importantly, in one’s career.”  Yet, they also note that “many adult learners also lack basic computer skills” and “may be fearful of using computers.” While this lack of experience may not be true of all non-traditional students, it is a prevalent issue among those who did not grow up surrounded by technology. In fact, Nasah et al. found that only socioeconomic status correlated more highly to a lack of “digital propensity” than did age. In other words, students whose families were unable to afford technology are even less likely to possess the necessary technological literacies than older, returning students.

Darryl’s initiative in seeking out help to acquire the necessary technology skills reflects some basic tenets of adult learning: “taking control of one’s learning, setting goals, and evaluating one’s progress” (Hsu, Wang, and Hamilton). Selfe et al. also describe how those with less than optimal access to and knowledge about technology will adopt a “can do” attitude to acquire the necessary technological literacy, noting “how inventive individual people can be in shaping the conditions under which their access to technology can work most effectively” (107).

Finally, I take Darryl’s reminder to “be patient” with such students very much to heart. I am pretty tech savvy, and I need to keep in mind that my students–even the traditional aged ones–may not have that same in-depth knowledge that I do. For instance, Kaminski, Switzer, and Gloeckner found that while incoming, traditional-aged freshman were fairly proficient in using word processing, browsers, and presentation software (231), they were less skilled in other software they would be asked to use, such as databases and publishing software (232). Instructors clearly need to be aware that ALL students may need some assistance when it comes to using the technology of learning.

Another View

After interviewing Darryl, I also wanted to speak to a former colleague, Ruth Shillair. Ruth was the LCC writing assistant who ended up teaching Darryl most of his technology skills needed to get through his writing classes. Currently, she is a student in Michigan State University’s Information and Media doctoral program. She researches how people approach online safety issues, particularly internet banking. I wanted to know how she approaches working with students in need of technology support.

In your experience in working with students, when did you know to step and actually do some technology instruction? Do you have a certain philosophy in helping those students?

For helping with technological issues, I’m a big fan of scaffolding and proximal development. I believe in first demonstrating the step, then gradually stepping back each time the student does it until they can do it unaided. Adult learners and older adult learners have to see the steps demonstrated more times and if there is a gap in use will have to review it quickly to do it again.

For learners that have learning disabilities, I would assess the major goal of the assignment. If it is to write a paragraph then I would emphasize the actual paragraph structure to make sure they are grasping that concept. There is the danger that they will focus the entire time on a side issue, such as how to set a margin in Word and not learn about the main concept.

Ruth directed me to scholarship published in The Journal of Classroom Interaction. The authors explain that “scaffolding” is cognitive support that teachers, adults, and “more able peers” provide to help a student work through a problem that they are yet unable to solve on their own. The “zone of proximal development” is the difference between what a student could achieve working through the problems on their own and what a student can achieve with support in the problem-solving process ( Fernández, et al. 54-55). In short, it’s a theory of learning based on reciprocity. Students and teachers can talk through a problem so that finding a solution is modeled and experienced, rather than just given. This approach makes a great deal of sense with adult learners. In fact, although I never realized it, this is exactly what I do with faculty who need to learn some basic processes within Desire2Learn. I walk them through the steps until the can do it independently.

I also agree with Ruth that students, especially the non-traditional ones, can too easily become lost in the mechanics of technology and the formatting of their assignments. I think they worry so much about getting the technology right that they are unable to focus on the true learning outcomes. As a result, I want to renew my vigilance on “ignoring” formatting and surface issues until my student reach the very end and are finalizing their portfolio submissions. I want to keep the course’s main learning goals (e.g. effective argumentation and research) constantly in front of them and not allow themselves to get bogged down in relatively unimportant tasks.

Photo courtesy of Ruth Shillair.

And…if you have any brief insights based on your graduate studies,  I’d love to hear them.

Right now I’m working on a paper about the second digital divide and cybersecurity practices. Individuals with lower digital literacy levels often don’t know how to protect themselves and they don’t know the terminology to use to look up information and they don’t know who to trust.

Again, such work points out that those who experience literacy gaps due to any number of issues, including socio-economic status experience difficulties that many of us take for granted. I have been thinking quite a bit about “privilege” lately, and I am beginning to see how the digital information age is actually creating more ways to marginalize people. In a a flood of literacies, more people are bound to drown.


I believe we can no longer ignore or discount digital literacy. Perhaps, we must consider it equal to reading and writing. Especially when it comes to our non-traditional students, we have to find ways to support those digital literacies. It may start with simply teaching them how to perform basic functions on a word processor, but it has to continue until our students can fluently deal with the massive amount of information that comes their way every day.

Works Cited

Fernández, Manual  et al. “Re-conceptualizing ‘Scaffolding’ and the Zone of Proximal Development in the Context of Symmetrical Collaborative Learning.”  Journal of Classroom Interaction, 36. 2/1 (2002): 40-54. ERIC. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

Heitin, Liana. “Digital Literacy: Forging Agreement on a Definition.” Education Week 9 Nov. 2016: n. pag. ERIC. Web. 14 Feb. 2017.

Hsu, Jeffrey, Zhongxian Wang, and Karin Hamilton. “Developing and Managing Digital/Technological Literacy and Effective Learning Skills in Adult Learners.” International Journal of Digital Literacy and Digital Competence 2.1 (2011): n. pag. ERIC. Web. 14 Feb. 2017.

Jones, Philip and Tim Conner. “The Literacy Development of Non-Traditional Students Age 25 and Older: Writing Experiences in the English Composition Classroom.” ENG-W682, Indiana University-East. Web. 11 Feb. 2017.

Kaminski, Karen, Jamie Switzer, and Gene Gloeckner. “Workforce Readiness: A Study of University Students’ Fluency with Information Technology.” Computers & Education 53 (2009): 228-233. ERIC. Web. 14 Feb. 2017.

Mangles, Darryl. Personal interview. 15 Feb. 2017.

Nasah, et al. “The Ditital Literacy Debate: An Investigation of Digital Propensity and information and Communication Technology.” Educational Technology Research and Development 58 (2010): n. pag. ERIC. Web. 14 Feb. 2017.

Selfe, Cynthia L., et al. “Complicting Access: Gateways to Literacies of Technology.” Literate Lives in the Digital Age: Narratives of Literacy from the United States. Cynthia L. Self and Gail E. Hawisher, eds. London: Lauren Erlbaum Assoc., 2004. Print.

Shillair, Ruth. Personal interview. 16 Feb. 2017.

Warren, Stephen. “Grandmothers in the Classroom: How College English Teachers Can Help Those Non-Traditional Students.”  Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the College English Association, March 27-29, 1992. ERIC. Web. 11 Feb. 2017.

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