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Key issues in Adult Non Formal Participatory e-Learning


This paper was supported by the European project EScAlADE “Education Strategies adult education”, and reflects the views only of the authors, and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained there in. This paper has been published on SOCIETY. INTEGRATION. EDUCATION. Proceedings of the International Scientific Conference May 27th-28th, 2016, Volume IV (paper web link, pdf)


World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that the number of older adults will be nearly 1.5 billion in 2050 (2011). The world demography is now at a turning point: it is moving towards an era of ageing population and this circumstance is impacting on the cost of social security systems. In many European countries, the increasing cost of retirement benefits has been faced moving forward the people retirement age according to the life expectancy. The most noticeable consequence of this is that more people must work later in their life.

At the same time, at present, technology is boosting continuous changes in every aspect of society, including the professional sphere and, consequently, the labor world is in a permanent changing process.

The necessity of working later in life and learning new skills many times until retirement are both critical aspects of the workers’ situation today.

Lifelong learning is usually seen as a means to tackling the issues of preserving the employability, while flexible learning is invoked by insiders as a solution to the profound transformations of the contemporary society. Adult education, especially that of low-skilled adults, is deemed more and more strategic since it can aid to meet the needs for new skills, and keep ageing workforce productive. Moreover, lifelong learning is essential for people social inclusion and active citizenship that are topical issues for dealing with the wave of refugees and immigrants who are arriving in European countries.

The Education and Training 2020 (ET 2020),[1] the new strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training, underlines that, in these days, people cannot just rely on the skills they acquired at school till the end of their working life. 

On the technology site, literature emphasizes the relevance of Web 2.0 applications claiming that they have spread a renewed participating mindset: user is not a simple consumer of information but has become a producer of web contents.

In the last few years, many researchers have begun to investigate on how the expanding new forms of Web interactions can be exploited in adult non-formal education in order to facilitate and enhance the learning capability.

This paper is concerned with the integration of participatory practices into an on-line learning environment (see figure 1). It focuses on the issues that may arise with the application of  participating approaches in adult on-line learning programs. Assumptions  from participatory learning theories are analysed, discussing the actual portability of participative adult learning practices in an on-line environment.

Figure1. Integration of participatory practices into an on-line learning environment

Advantages and barriers are illustrated, taking into account the available literature on participatory adult learning.


Participatory adult learning

Participatory learning is grounded on the Dewey’s idea that students reach better results if the learning process “reproduces, or runs parallel to, some form of work carried on in social life”.[2] At a philosophical level, the participatory learning can be seen as the natural consequence of two Deweyan concepts: that learning is a problem solving process and that there isn’t any dualism between the subject matter and method (Dupuis & Gordon, 2010).

Participatory learning is a family of approaches, methods, attitudes, behaviours and relationships which have their theoretical basis in the behaviourism as well in the constructivism (Rodrigues, 2014). Constructivist theories of learning argue that knowledge is constructed by learners who better learn by actively applying their know-how to meaningful problems (Brown & Palincsar, 1989).

 Participatory learning methods include a wide range of activities which share a student-centred view aimed at enabling learners to play an active and influential part in the learning process. This means that learners are not just listened to, but also collaborate to acquire knowledge and skills: participatory learning focuses on student participation. 

In ‘90 years participation was one of the most popular buzzwords and the participation concept was also extended to the education field. Participatory learning was often experimented to support the sustainable development, especially the agriculture of developing countries (Coldevin, 2002), as well as a means to aid the democratic progress of emerging countries since participatory learning is by its nature collaborative and so directly fosters democracy.

Some adult participatory learning techniques are very popular and are usually used for training managers (especially project manager and supervisors), such as brainstorming, problem solving, project work and critical incident.

Participatory learning need facilitators. They interact with learners, e.g. providing discussion subjects, presenting case studies, giving tasks that allow participants to work together in small groups, and so on. Facilitators aim at the active involvement of learners in the learning process, stimulating them to think through their mind and share with other trainees their experience and knowledge as well as their values and beliefs. Although facilitators and coaches have many overlapping skills and functions their role is different: a coach provides individual attention, addresses personal development with emphasis on a specific task, whilst a facilitator provides a group for meaningful dialogue and broadens perspectives allowing the entire group to participate and increase their ability to operate effectively on their own.


Figure 2- The main difference between learning and e-learning


Participatory Adult Learning Strategy (PALS)

Participatory Adult Learning Strategy (PALS) is an evidence-based approach to adults participatory learning which results from over 20 years of research and practice and, more recently, from findings of meta-analyses of adult learning methods and research synthesis of studies that focused on those practices that are esteemed to be adult learning effective (Trivette, Dunst, Hamby & O’herin, 2009; Dunst & Trivette, 2009; Dunst, Trivette & Hamby, 2010).

PALS authors analyzed and measured the positive affect of four adult learning methods: accelerated learning (Meier, 2000), coaching (Hargreaves & Dawe, 1990), guided design (Hancock, Coscarelli, & White, 1983), and just-in-time training (Beckett, 2000). From their research emerged the relative importance of the active learner participation in learning new knowledge or practices and on this result a procedure was designed for using evidence-based practices on adult learning.

The PALS model encompasses a 4-phase process which includes:

  1. Introduction –The learning topic and related information are preliminary provided to learners as well as in-class/workshop warm-up exercises and application illustration/demonstration.

  2. Application – Trainees apply information learned; the instructor/facilitator observe trainee activity, gives feedback and evaluate the use of knowledge.

  3. Informed Understanding – Trainees are engaged in in self-assessment, reflection, and group discussions.

  4. Repeat Learning Process – next steps in the learning process are planned in order to provide further learner understanding, knowledge use and mastery.

The PALS model, as the result of an empirical analysis of best practices in adult education, is obviously consistent with the most effective adult learning approaches.

However a question arises: how participatory practices work in an on-line learning environment? This question is a part of a more general issue that concerns the portability of participatory approaches and techniques in on-line Web-based learning contexts.

At present, rethinking and evolving the vast legacy of traditional training courses appears as a crucial business since educators ever emphasize the advantages of training opportunities via distance education, arguing that the modern digital technology and Web 2.0 tools can revitalize learning.

Synchronous distance learning sessions, with the use of a virtual classroom including e-whiteboard have passed the experimental phase, while asynchronous learning sessions and Web 2.0 tools (podcasts, wikis, chat, forum, blogs) and a virtual world environment (namely OpenSim) are largely used.

Meanwhile, new forms of informal learning at a lower cost, such as learning through blogs (Downes, 2004; Farmer & Bartlett-Bragg, 2005), podcasts and videocasts (Ractham & Zhang, 2006), have since attracted the interest of researchers and now are spreading.

To understand the actual portability of participatory approaches in an on-line learning environment is useful to turn to the 4 phases PALS model, after a quick examination of some key factors influencing adult participatory e-learning.


Adult non-formal participatory e-learning

The literature on adult non-formal participatory e-learning shows that there is a broad consensus about the positive correlation between educational goal achievement and personal learners’ satisfaction (Kidd, 2009). Moreover, many researchers share the opinion that adult e-learning courses developed without a careful analysis of the trainees’ needs are condemned to failure. In fact, adult learners represent a multiple facet category that is also sensitive to the socio-economic situation.

Regarding participatory e-learning, there are some assumptions that generally are agreed on. One of these is that the success of participatory e-learning  depends on the interaction of learners since they are bringers of knowledge and skills (Kok, 2015).

Another important  aspect is that active learning is fundamental for participatory e-learning (see figure 3): learners are involved in practices that require actively constructing new knowledge and understanding.

Figure 3- Active learning in EScAlADE project


Many e-learning systems offer collaborative functions which allow cooperation and facilitate communication among learners, teachers, mentors, tutors and administrators. These collaborative functions result from the revolution of Web 2.0 that in the last few years has swept away the old paradigm of digital communication.[3] Web 2.0 encompasses a variety of websites and applications that allow anyone to create and share online information and materials they have created.  The key difference between Web 2.0 and the traditional types of websites is that it does not require any web design or publishing skills to create and publish materials on the Web.

There is a variety of Web 2.0 applications including wikis, blogs, social networking, folksonomies, podcasting, and so on. Many of the most popular websites are Web 2.0 sites such as Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Instagram.

The Web 2.0 revolution also affected the learning field with the e-learning 2.0 that has expanded the concept of learning community focusing on supporting the development and solving educational problems through online collaboration.[4]

The principal aims of e-learning Web 2.0 are:

  • to do learning collaborative, easy, and simple;

  • to allow learning materials to be used at the world level;

  • to allow a real interactivity between teacher and learners and among learners;

  • to allow developing practices, sharing of educational content and teaching methods.

    At the moment, despite its topicality, the portability of adult learning participatory approaches in an on-line environment represents a challenging issue as demonstrated by the few available experimental data on this subject.

    However, from the first outcomes of a research conducted within EScAlADE,[5] it is quite evident that e-learning Web 2.0 applications not necessarily cover all the 4-phases of the PALS model.

    Some reflections emerged in the EScAlADE ongoing research are reported as follow.


Some issues in adult non-formal participatory e-learning

It has been observed that e-learning 2.0 is based on synchronous and asynchronous Web 2.0 tools mixing classical e-learning tools and social services of Web 2.0 (Greenhow, Robelia & Hughes, 2009). For this reason, despite e-learning Web 2.0 applications offer a wide range of collaborative tools, many of them derived from groupware software, it is not easy the implementation and delivery of effective participatory e-learning courses, especially for adults. Much of the effectiveness participatory e-learning depends on the educational context (teachers, facilitators, learners, available resources) and on the level of integration of e-learning tools and social services.

From the analysis of the current literature, two main problems appear in adult participatory e-learning. First, there are different learning styles or characteristic ways in which adults prefer to learn (Caffarella & Barnett, 1994; Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2012) and not all are portable in a participatory e-learning environment. Second, the digital divide, both cultural and physical, can represent a barrier and reduce the applicability of participatory approaches in the e-learning environment.

Table 1 shows the e-tools that are usable within the 4 phases of the PALS model; of course their effectiveness depends on the context.






Classical e-learning tools




Classical e-learning tools, social Web 2.0 services (e.g. chat, on-line forum, Skype, video conference, etc.), work cooperative tools (word processor, spreadsheet, shared agenda, etc.)

 synchronous and synchronous

Need to plan participatory activities between teachers and learners and among learners

Informed Understanding

Classical Web services and virtual forums


Use of electronic form, self-evaluation tests

Repeat Learning Process (mastery)

Classical Web services (planner, word processor, shared agenda, etc.



Table 1. PALS model and electronic tools

In adult participatory e-learning some context variable play and important role in addiction to course climate, personal interest and motivation, career aspiration, etc.  Adult participatory e-learning appears affected by technological factors such as skills in new technologies, availability of hardware and software equipment, and reliable connectivity.

Another important element is the different ways that teachers and facilitators have of interacting with learners. This entails the design of customizable applications.

Finally, an important question concerns the cost. Participatory learning requires the presence of facilitators and this increases the cost of courses designed with a participatory approach. The cost evaluation of participatory e-learning is not easy. Participatory learning in an on-line environment is still a novelty and  experimental analysis are needed to obtain effective elements for evaluating its cost.



As it has been mentioned above, Web 2.0 has introduced a new participating mindset: user is not only a simple consumer of information but has become a producer of contents.

At the same time, adult learners who are fully engaged in learning activities with their peers seem to be more likely to participate in other effective educational practices and have more positive views of the educational process. They will become knowledge creators, produce work for a wider audience, employ both non-formal and informal learning, see that what they will learn will serve them elsewhere and is transferable to other contexts and develop a sense of a learning community.

It is well know that people remember more if they are actively involved in their own learning. For this reason expanding new forms of Web interactions in adult non-formal education can facilitate and enhance learning capability.

However, one cannot take for granted the full portability of face-to-face adult participatory learning approaches in an on-line environment.

Our opinion, which emerges from the ongoing research within the EScAlADE project, is that the participatory concept ought to be rethought at the light of the opportunity offered by the new technologies. This will conduct to design new learning approaches, that will be more likely a hybrid combination of classical e-learning, Web 2.0 services and face-to-face activities. We are persuaded that new technologies can enhance the mainstream learning in adult education, but it is necessary to collect experiences and conduct experiments.

This is that we are doing with the EScAlADE project. On the basis of the analysis of data of a transnational survey we will prepare a participatory experiment on a group of adult learners. This experiment will be designed taking into account the PALS model and is aimed at obtaining evidences about the portability of participatory approaches in an on-line learning environment. 


[2] p. 92 in:  Dewey, J.(aut.), & Boydston, J. A.(ed.) (1983). The middle works, 1899-1924 (Vol. 13). SIU Press.

[3] The term "Web 2.0" was first used in January 1999 by an expert in information architecture,Darcy Di Nucci, but it began its rise in popularity in 2004 when O'Reilly Media and MediaLive hosted the first Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco.

[4] The debate over what is a learning community is still open since learning occurs in a variety of settings.

[5] EScAlADE is an EU funded project started at the end of 2015, that focuses on adult non-formal participatory learning and involves five partner from five European countries (Italy, Latvia, Poland, Greece and Spain).



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Resource Details
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Gilberto Marzano, Rezekne Academy of Technologies - Latvia
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