Monday, October 25, 2010

eLearning and an Aging Workforce

By Shelley A. Gable

It seems like every major news outlet runs the occasional story about how the United States workforce is aging. Between baby boomers approaching retirement and retirees reentering the workforce to supplement their income, statistics from a variety of sources indicate that a large proportion of our workforce is 50+.

So what does this mean for eLearning?

Interestingly, in the past two years, I’ve known two instructional designers, in two different organizations, who were a part of teams that were tasked with answering this question for their companies. In both instances, my colleagues found literature that described what eLearning should look like for older learners. However, they also found inconsistent research results on the topic.

In the end, each team concluded that it wasn’t necessary to design eLearning differently based on the age distribution of a particular population. Instead, they suggested that the proper application of sound instructional design principles would ensure that all age groups received appropriate training.

Let’s take a look at some of the considerations that emerged for both teams…

A common stereotype of older generations is that they struggle with technology. Clearly this is a broad generalization that isn’t true for many, but we have to admit that it is true for some. I have several friends who, like myself, regularly receive phone calls from our not-yet-retired parents seeking troubleshooting for something seemingly basic on the computer.

That said, well-designed eLearning should feel intuitive and guide learners on where to click if a particular screen is somehow different from the rest. If your organization regularly deploys eLearning, templates that offer a consistent look and feel across courses can also make eLearning easier to use. And of course, an instructions page at the start of each eLearning course (with an “instructions” or “help” button available throughout the course) can also help everyone start with confidence.

A common theme in the literature addressing generations and learning preferences is that older generations tend to prefer a linear learning structure while younger generations prefer a more exploratory structure. Maybe this is true, maybe it’s not. Regardless, this is an area where instructional design principles can guide us.

For designers who consider learning style differences (and I realize that there’s debate in the field around the significance of learning styles), the preferences expressed by older and younger learners are consistent with a common dichotomy found in several learning style and personality type models. Many of these models include four types, where a couple of these types tend toward linear thinking and a couple prefer random or non-sequential thinking. Therefore, those in the habit of designing in a way that caters to varying styles are likely already accommodating these generational differences as well.

To consider this from another angle, we know that we should sequence instruction to build from simple to complex content. We also know that adult learners enter training with experience and knowledge that we must acknowledge. If we linger too long in teaching familiar basics, we risk losing learners’ attention and the course’s credibility. But yet, those unfamiliar with the basics may struggle with more advanced content without ample time in the “simple” end of the continuum. So surely, even the more linear learners would appreciate bypassing familiar content in favor of focusing on what they need to know. Again, the key here is clear instructions for the learner and a logical, even intuitive, interface.

In the design phase of a training project, we should consider what types of flexibility might be designed into the course. For instance, I recently took an online compliance course that suggested a linear flow for working through the content, but also allowed learners to skip around. In the end, I had to correctly resolve five scenarios in the course in order to successfully complete it. I could either complete a series of lessons that led up to each scenario, or I could jump to the scenario and the feedback would tell me what lessons I should complete based on my incorrect answers. As one who likes to jump around and explore, I was satisfied with this design. And the linear path that was suggested at the beginning of the course would likely satisfy those with a sequential preference.

What do you think?

Using the insights my colleagues discussed with me, I’ve attempted to build a case here suggesting that we don’t need to design eLearning differently to accommodate our aging workforce, as long as we’re basing our design on sound instructional principles anyway. But I don’t doubt that there are compelling arguments to suggest otherwise that I might not have considered yet. So if some of those opposing arguments come to mind for you, please share!


  1. Interesting article. I believe there are real differences, some requiring accommodation and others allowing a more robust presentation format. There is a literature on the topic, that while scant, suggests there are cognitive differences, ergonomic needs, and differing learner expectations. Our group has developed several large e-learning projects for older adults (55+) and our eval work seems to reinforce these needs are real. I have a manuscript in to a journal on the topic. Let me know if you might be interested and I can send you a copy. Thanks for the post.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Chris! I am interested in your perspective on this topic. If you're willing to share your manuscript, or the citation once published, you can send it to me at shelley.gable [at]

    Out of curiosity, would you be willing to share a short blurb here about specific things you designed differently for your 55+ audience?

  3. great post,
    well i think the young people are more energetic them the aging people. we should give them chance, we should trained them under these aging and well experienced people. These experience people must train the young people, help them and make their assessment like 360 degree feedback time by time.


Thank you for your comments.