Digital Darwinism and Adult Education

Digital Darwinism at risk of dividing society. It’s a big issue for adult education and for us all.

MOOCs, massive open online courses, are flourishing at one end of the spectrum. Futurelearn is the UK’s largest platform for open online courses. Over 50 partner universities are involved as well as institutions such as the British Museum. Futurelearn’s biggest course has a staggering 370,000 students enrolled so far, with a significant percentage from the Middle East. The mega-popular option is a British Council course preparing students for an English language test. Other MOOC providers include Coursera and edX. The possibilities are exciting for people who are already digitally proficient and connected and who have reasonably well-developed study skills but it would be interesting to see the findings of random street interviews about public knowledge of MOOCs.

Alongside the MOOC options, committed and enthusiastic members of a FELTAG coalition are working to realise the ambitions of a Report by the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group.

Partners in the FELTAG Coalition

Partners in the FELTAG Coalition

This is a summary of the coalition’s ambitions:

  • Learners to be empowered to fully exploit their own understanding of, and familiarity with digital technology for their own learning
  • Capability and capacity of FE and Skills Providers – the entire workforce being brought up to speed to fully understand the potential of learning technology
  • Employers – relationships between the Further Education community and employers should become closer and richer, and enhanced by learning technology inside and outside the workplace
  • English, Maths and ESOL – exploring how innovative uses of learning technology can be used to help people develop these functional skills
  • Investment – Providers should aim to provide industry-standard technological infrastructure (including broadband resilience) to maximise the effective use of learning technology working with employers and their communities to help prepare learners for work

Meanwhile, evidence and experience suggests that assumptions about access, ability and inclination to use technology might not take enough account of many people’s lack of broadband connection, skills or desire to adapt and keep up. People who can’t, don’t or won’t use digital communication are at risk of being left behind those who are more technologically savvy and engaged.

There is a mounting tension for adult educators as we respond and contribute to digital development but make sure that we aren’t abandoning people as we evolve. This tension is heightened in times of limited funding. There is also a balance to be struck between the advantages of online learning, the undeniable benefits of face-to-face, collective education and the increased focus on learning that blends the best of both approaches.

The digital divide is an increasingly serious issue when so much public, commercial, work-related and social interaction depends on online access and, crucially, public services are based on the expectation of digital literacy.

The UK government has made a commitment that all new or redesigned transactional government services going live after April 2014 have to be ‘digital by default‘.

According to Ofcom statistics for 2014, 77% of adults in the UK had either fixed or mobile broadband in the UK – meaning that a third of adults were without broadband. The digitally excluded, inexperienced or reluctant will be at a serious disadvantage as implementation of this ‘digital by default’ approach becomes the norm.

Those Ofcom figures for the UK hide the light and shade. Data in a chart from a 2013 Carnegie Trust report, Across the Divide by Douglas White shows a scale of (literal) disconnection in Glasgow and similar local authorities.


When lack of household internet access is coupled with lower levels of literacy, exclusion becomes inevitable unless something positive is done to connect people and to support their learning.

A recent RSA blog written by Anthony Painter defines various tribes in a digital learning age. He talks of ‘confident creators’, the ‘held back’, the ‘safety firsters’, the ‘comfortable’ and the ‘connected retired’. Do these tribes include the ‘disconnected’? You can read the blog here and check whether you agree with his analysis. However they are categorised, it’s likely that the fittest tribes will survive and thrive. The current situation gives several challenges for adult education and, in turn, for society.

Questions include;

  • How do we balance traditional face-to-face learning with online learning?
  • How do we maintain quality in online teaching, learning and assessment?
  • How do we engage with people who don’t have internet access, especially if they have low literacy levels, when there are fewer community education workers, libraries and neighbourhood adult education centres?
  • How can we support disconnected adults so they can access services that are ‘digital by default’?