Arresting the digital tundra- a study in adult digital skills evolution

Northampton College


This project focuses on adults returning to study a digital curriculum; a new learning ‘space’, the Essential Digital Skills qualification (EDQS) where achievement depends on success in a digital examination. Our job is to navigate through the wasteland of adults’ negative experiences of education past (but not forgotten) and to inspire digital courage, confidence to experiment, and competence to master new skills. We found that spending time discussing learning at the outset led to learners increasing their confidence in learning and taking risks, and improving retention.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


For the purposes of this study, we focused on Entry 3 of the EDS qualifications, as for most of our learners, this represents their starting point. Typically, learners demonstrate learning behaviours that are intensely inhibited, hindered by anxieties about being unable to learn to use a computer, of decoding the digital language or simply about ‘breaking the internet’. We set out to better understand the anxieties of our learners and to use this insight to develop learners’ skills so they can use them to solve real life problems whilst at the same time support them to pass the exam.

We also aimed to get learners to reflect about returning to learn, support them to consider further study or acquire meaningful employment. We wanted to empower our learners to use newly acquired digital skills to open up new and uncharted territories in their personal and working lives.

Other Contextual Information

Our provision is a roll-on/roll-off Skills Centre where adult learners have bespoke programmes of study; for some this is an intense 6-week course, for others it may be studies that span several academic years. Learners are supported by highly skilled trainers to acquire knowledge and skills in preparation for exams at Entry 3 and level 1, as well as other digital qualifications.

Learners enrol on the course throughout the year and attend at times/days that are convenient to them. Learning resources are provided in a variety of mediums; narrated power point, video, workbooks are just some examples which enable learners to select their medium of choice.


In light of the anxieties of many adults as they return to study after several years, we decided to produce an initial assessment framework conversation for EDS courses which would help teachers to assess their learners’ needs, preferences and aspirations. We started by reviewing the research on learning preferences to see if there were any recent studies that would not just debunk the myth of learning styles but provide some useful insights to explore our understanding of how adults learn and how teachers can respond to their needs in adapting their teaching approaches. In this respect we were influenced by two pieces of literature; firstly, Brookfield’s ideas on the significance of critical thinking in teaching (Brookfield, (2017) and also Chaves’ work on ‘mathetics’ – the study of how adult learners learn to learn (Chaves, 2019). Fundamental to Chaves’ work was the significance of connection in adult learning and that crucially, ‘learning takes place best when learners are able to connect what they are trying to learn with things they already know’ (Chaves, 2019).

Using these ideas as a basis, our teaching team discussed how we could improve our induction. We developed and began to trial a questionnaire to frame initial and ongoing conversations with learners that provided us with valuable insights into their approach to learning (see Appendix 4 for a transcript of one conversation). From the results of our trials of the questionnaire we began to put together some ‘Preparation for Learning’ sessions incorporating the ideas from Chaves’ work. We noted that learners who had not been in an education setting for a number of years only used the techniques for learning that they had learned at school and did not know how to introduce new ones. Learners typically queried why they should try new strategies often citing ‘but I haven’t done that before’ as a reason to stay with traditional methods for notetaking. We therefore discussed how we could gently introduce learners to using other learning methods such as mind maps, revision strategies, flash cards and self-testing without alienating and over-challenging. The pre-learning sessions became routinely used and we began to collate feedback and examples of learner voice.

We visited New City College campus in Tower Hamlets to discuss their provision. We explored how adults were engaging with the course and focussed our time looking at the classroom experience and particularly the challenge of supporting ESOL learners with the course. The visit helped to galvanise our efforts to inspire our learners to experiment with new learning strategies. We were able to recognise the benefits of a cohort-based approach (rather than roll on/roll off) to delivery, in particular how readily learners were to try new approaches when studying alongside others. We are now planning to adopt this approach for integrating our EDSQ with our adult ESOL learners and we plan to incorporate the most successful techniques recognised by our participating learners.

Throughout this project, we captured the learner experience and found a positive impact. As one learner stated:

“I didn’t particularly think that I would enjoy learning to use the computer but now I can say that I don’t want to stop – it is making me think about what else I want to do after this. I realise that I now enjoy learning in a way that I definitely didn’t at school and it just makes me want to go on”

Outcomes and Impact

This action research project has confirmed our belief that it is important to build closer, trusting relationships with students at the outset of their EDS programmes, focusing on delivering sessions that are in line with their needs. It is important to alleviate the many anxieties they felt in enrolling on a course that would challenge them to explore a new area of skills and knowledge. One learner in particular shows this in her statement:

“…but now I have come and the weeks going down, I am calming down I am not thinking of other people, I am not rushing I write down, instead of trying to scribble, I now put a headline of what I am learning, and this is what I am doing.”

We were influenced in our thinking and practice by Chaves and Brookfield in their work on ‘mathetics’ and the nature of adult learning respectively. In refining the sessions of our Preparation for Learning sessions we aimed to:

  • build relationships between trainer and the learner to form a nurturing bond
  • explore different learning approaches
  • explore different knowledge retention strategies
  • establish notetaking and organisational skills
  • improve learner’s confidence to talk about themselves
  • set a tone of ‘friendly challenge’ so that learners will be encouraged to step outside their tried and tested learning/retention strategies

One student in her feedback reported that the sessions ‘helped her to think differently about learning’ and that increased her confidence to ‘learn new things’. Other learners were less explicit but made clear indications that they enjoyed their learning and that this was contrary to their expectations. Another learner indicated that, ‘this is the best thing I have done’ – a statement indeed! Other feedback includes:

My learning this skill it made me want to know more about this digital world we live in […] I shied away from using computers which I now realise was the wrong thing to do.”

“I’ve learnt so much since I started […] now feel confident to fiddle and click on parts of the screen.”

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

We began to realise just how important it is to have appropriate and supportive induction sessions, even for relatively short courses. We recognised that the pre-learning session helped learners to re-envisage their capacity to learn; it created a real synergy between learner and practitioner. We now think of the pre learning sessions as springboards which require the investment of time but ultimately pay dividends. This is captured well by one of our learners:

“I have gained confidence in myself using computers, with the help of my teachers who are very understanding.”

“I actually enjoy learning again […] I am the only person stopping me from learning […] I felt at ease coming in and knowing that if I ask you, that’s fine […] I feel with a lot of things I am moving forward, being a bit braver.”

This sort of self-awareness in learning and an increase in self-confidence are transformative, particularly for adults and we have found that the pre learning session makes this a much more likely outcome.

Organisational Development

It enabled us to focus on the skills learners arrive with…Our practice has evolved through the project to become increasingly learner focussed and attuned to their experience of learning. Our team at Northampton College now better understands the psychology of adults returning to study and just how entrenched adults often become in learning-related anxieties. Our project has also helped us to recognise the transformative capacity of digital teaching. Many adults have never studied a digital curriculum so, unlike maths and English tuition, where most adults feel that they return to a subject with which they have some existing schema; they fear the unknown. Our research has helped us to recognise the value of personalised consultation and tuition, particularly at the very start of the learning journey and that through gentle ‘friendly challenge’ learners can transcend their own expectations for themselves rapidly. Our delivery team now approach learning in a different way and are more empathetic. One trainer reflected, ‘although we always looked to spend quality time with individual learners, we never structured this in a formal way. The research has enabled us to focus on the learning skills students arrive with and has given us the opportunity to explore learning strategies and methods with them. Throughout our project it has become clear that the greater the focus on the individual (particularly at the start of the learner journey) the quicker the learner is ready to experiment with new learning strategies and the greater their aptitude to take control and shape their learning.

Learning from this project

We have also been enthused to continue to build a reflective practitioner culture within our adult provision. Our work has focussed on the point of re-engagement in learning but has also been impactful with regards to collaboration. We are encouraged by the communities of practice that we now engage within, and our reflective work enables us to develop a more outward-looking mindset. As a team we have become more adept at experimenting with new ideas in delivery and being unafraid to abandon them and/or adapt to suit circumstance- without doubt we have become more resilient as practitioners and as learners ourselves.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 4. Be creative and innovative in selecting and adapting strategies to help learners to learn.

    The learner-focussed approach of our project enabled us to focus on individual strategies to support learners. This meant that we experimented with quiz creation, summary cards, matching exercises, and mind maps- all of which we have not previously used for Entry IT. The project also helped us to recognise the role of the trainer to prompt learners to adopt new learning strategies and that once prompted, learners reacted well.

  • 9. Apply theoretical understanding of effective practice in teaching, learning and assessment drawing on research and other evidence

    We have enjoyed the opportunity and encouragement to draw on the ideas of other practitioners. We took a fresh look at a number of different learning theories and thought about how each in turn could enhance the impact of learning. The change in assessment, to digital examination, prompted us to review our approach to how knowledge is acquired and retained by learners.

  • 13. Motivate and inspire learners to promote achievement and develop their skills to enable progression

    Our project helped us to better understand our strengths as a provision and how these can be harnessed to address the growing market for adult education – particularly for IT. It has inspired us to experiment with new approaches to learning in this roll on/roll off learning environment. This project has led to conversations with the aim to inspire learners to consider learning other disciplines.


Appendix 1: The project team

Appendix 2: Learner case studies

Appendix 3: Transcript of learner conversation


Brookfield, S, (2017) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher [ 2nd edt.], Jossey-Bass; San Francisco, US.

Brookfiled, S (1986) Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning, Jossey-Bass; San Francisco, US.

Chaves, P.E.M.C (2019), Mathetics: The Art of Learning, Re-inventing Education! July 12-13, 2019 Conference Proceedings, Pan-PBL Association, Virtual international Conference.

Comenius, J. A. (1680). Spicilegium Didacticum. Amsterdam: Typis Christophori Cunradi. Cousinet, R. (1976). Educação Nova (3rd ed.). (M. E. F. Moura, Trans.). Lisboa: Moraes

Kantar Public and Learning and Work Institute, (2018) Decisions of adult learners, Department for Education.