Skip to main content

The Digital Learning Mindset

How to get started online in adult education

By Joey Lehrman

“What is the last video you watched on YouTube to teach yourself something?” Since 2014, I’ve asked this question to thousands of people in classrooms and at conferences around the country. And everytime I ask, it yields an engaging conversation. Every group has fun answers to that question, and it’s because so many of us are using the internet to drive new learning. For all its pros and cons, I think YouTube is one of the best schools in history. 

I use that question to explore what I consider a fundamental 21st century theme: we are all teachers and we are all students. As adult basic education and workforce development agencies work to bring learning online, I want to share a few reflections from the past six years of helping to build a free, fully online distance learning program for adult education students across Louisiana.

Start with the (technology) mindsets

When welcoming students and teachers online, we’ve found it’s important to place mindsets and program culture at the center of all conversations. Learning new technical skills can be fun - and challenging - and filled with pain points. Think about the last time a meeting was derailed by internet connection issues, or someone talked for a few minutes before realizing their microphone was muted.

The challenges and frustrations associated with learning new technology are often especially felt by our adult learners, many of whom are not digital natives and are balancing the demands of being working adults with families. Similarly, our teachers, many of whom are also not digital natives, are largely part-time instructors with limited paid time for professional development.

To be successful with any technology initiative, it’s imperative that staff and students are ready to be challenged and prepared with the mindset to successfully navigate those experiences. In our program, we have found that a growth mindset provides for an excellent launching point for building an open and innovative culture that addresses these challenges head-on.

Key takeaway

- Spend time reading about and discussing the growth mindset (Share an article with students, ask students to reflect about the growth mindset when they are struggling with a new app).

- Celebrate when mistakes are made. 

- Remind staff and students regularly that they should flag something that isn’t working or could be better. 

- Success is much more likely for organizations that embrace an always-learning culture.

Coach instead of teach

High quality learning opportunities already exist on the internet. Whether they’re found through Khan Academy, Newsela, Google’s Applied Digital Skills, or Crash Course, we don’t have to duplicate these efforts. Rather, our adult learners can potentially benefit more from support in building the soft skills needed for 21st century success.

When transitioning to online instruction, think about supporting learning instead of providing learning. How can we help students build skills like setting and monitoring goals, managing time, and developing new digital literacy skills? 

The table below highlights some ways that I differentiate the coaching role from a more traditional teacher role.

Table showing differences between teaching and coaching


Note that the definition of a teacher and coach is fluid as there are many examples of teachers providing socio-emotional support and coaches serving as content area tutors. For now and in adult education, I only mean to emphasize that when technology is present in the classroom, our staff can focus less on content delivery and more on content support through engaging students in a 21st century learning process.

Key takeaway:

Teachers can serve as coaches that spend time on the phone (or in a video chat) with students (individual and small group) reflecting about what’s going well and what can be improved, and then building a personalized learning pathway together using high quality online resources. If your team is struggling with distance learning, a great starting place can be to get online with students and curate learning together. Teachers can become coaches that co-create a YouTube playlist alongside students. Use a collaborative Google Doc to organize research about COVID-19 and its impacts on different parts of society.

Co-learning as an opportunity to model 21st century learning

Another question I like to ask at presentations is: “Who used Google Maps to navigate to this conference?” Typically 80% or more raise their hand. “And who taught you how to use Google Maps?” The reality is we are all learning new technologies and we seldom receive direct instruction in how to do so. 

We need to help our adult learners overcome technology anxiety by modeling a learning mindset. If a student asks a question about a feature in Google Docs, and we’re not sure, let’s be comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” and use classroom (or online) time to figure it out together. In doing so, we are modeling what digital age learning can look like.

As noted, students and coaches can collaborate to build a custom learning pathway that leverages already-established resources (like Crash Course and Newsela). Coaches can then model 21st century learning by asking questions, persisting through mistakes, and using the internet to connect with free learning opportunities.

Key takeaway:

Let’s show our students how to be 21st century learners by modeling how to use the internet to ask questions, get help, and connect with a global community of students and teachers. 

Concluding thoughts

Although we are clearly in the midst of a tragedy that touches every corner of the planet, this time can be a learning opportunity for our community of adult learners and educators.

I’d like to pose a final question:

Can we name a job today that doesn't require digital skills? 

I similarly ask this question as part of conference presentations, and we usually brainstorm a similar list (e.g. lawn care). There are probably still some jobs that don’t really require significant technology skills, but as we look to the future of work, it’s important to recognize that 80% of jobs or more do require digital skills, a number that seems likely to increase.

And that’s just at work. How many K-12 schools require digital skills from parents to be partners in their children’s education? Or how about our civic, social, and financial institutions that continue to move services online?

If we are to take our roles as adult educators seriously, digital literacy must be core to that conversation. Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funded programs are already stretched thin trying to provide a wide range of instructional support, including English language learning, adult basic education, and career pathway programming. Digital literacy instruction needs to be core to our WIOA identity if we want to truly prepare students to find family-sustaining wages and participate equally in our modern social and political systems.

While our transition to online learning may not go perfectly at the outset, let’s remember that we are building invaluable new digital skills and we can all grow through these challenges. That includes both students and staff, and these are skills that will serve us well both now and as we hopefully return to our campuses in the coming months.


Joey Lehrman is a SkillRise Project Manager with ISTE and the Program Effectiveness Coordinator for the Adult Education Program at Delgado Community College, where he brings over 10 years of experience as a classroom teacher and administrator in adult education and career pathway programming. Find Joey on Twitter or LinkedIn.