Engaging Low-Skilled Adults in Online Participatory Learning

Special Article - Adult Education

Austin Public Health. 2016; 1(1): 1005.

Engaging Low-Skilled Adults in Online Participatory Learning

Marzano G*, Usca S and Lubkina V

Rezekne Academy of Technology, Latvia

*Corresponding author: Gilberto Marzano, Rezekne Academy of Technology, Latvia

Received: September 06, 2016; Accepted: September 30, 2016; Published: October 03, 2016


Participatory learning and online learning are increasingly appealing as pedagogical approaches that can positively affect learners. Participatory learning engages students as active participants in the full educational program, including homework and exercises, whilst online learning offers tools that facilitate learners’ collaboration and peer evaluation, minimizing student and instructor overhead in the conduction of courses.

This paper reports on EscAlADE, a two-year EU-funded project initiated at the end of 2015, which focuses on the education of low-skilled adults through participatory online non-formal and informal learning.

Some results of the first phase of the project (a survey conducted in the five European countries participating in the project, namely: Latvia, Italy, Poland, Greece, and Spain) are presented. Data confirmed that low-skilled adult learners are not a homogenous class and that professional improvement is the main factor influencing their motivation to learn. These aspects have been useful for the preparation of the online participatory learning experiment that will be realized in the second phase of the project.

The main aspects of the phase two experimental training are also illustrated.

Keywords: Adult education; Adult learning; Participatory learning; Online learning


Many researchers engaged in social philosophical analyze have defined contemporary society as an on-going risk society [1,2] that is increasingly leading to poverty and social exclusion among vulnerable adults [3]. They blame globalization, individualization, privatization, and technological changes for being responsible for the increasing rates of unemployment and poverty and, consequently, the social exclusion of vulnerable adults [4,5]. Two factors are often put in relation: the growing numbers of vulnerable adults and the high level of illiteracy in industrialized countries [6,7].

It is universally argued that education and lifelong learning are the main keys for reducing unemployment, poverty, and social exclusion [8]. In fact, there is a broad consensus that technology heavily impacts on the labor force in the contemporary world, and that the average job is more skilled today than it used to be in the past. Accordingly, investing in education is considered to be crucial for combating unemployment and reversing social inequality.

However, many pessimistic opinions about the threats that are overwhelming our society are based on overly simplistic political assumptions, rather than on empirical evidence. As a consequence, the solutions devised for real problems, e.g. those concerning the education of low-skilled adults, might be unsuitable or even inefficacious. Indeed, low-skilled adult education presents multifarious facets. In this regard, it has been observed that the low basic-skills level of adults is a complex issue, which, at least for now, has neither straightforward causes nor straightforward solutions [9].

Who really are low-skilled adults? We can only affirm that they are an inhomogeneous group encompassing people of different age classes and different backgrounds. These factors make it particularly challenging to design successful educational interventions. In addition, linguistic barriers and national legislation restrictions may lead adults towards a low-skilled status, as well as lead to the diffusion of computer-based applications. In particular, new technologies have created two distinct groups of low-skilled adults. The first is formed by those whose tasks are readily computerized since they follow precise and well-defined procedures, such as bookkeeping, clerical work, repetitive production, and monitoring activities. The second is formed by those who are not able to use computer programs and feel frustrated by this.

Educational interventions cannot be the same for all the different adult groups: different learning approaches are needed for migrant adults and for European adults who lack technical abilities or skills. It has been observed that there is no one definition, model, or theory that can explain how or why adults learn, and that what we know about adult learning has been derived from disparate practices [10].

Furthermore, in order to design effective educational opportunities for low-skilled adults, one ought to take into account that unskilled jobs don’t necessarily require low-skilled people. A lowskilled person is an individual who lacks the education or training necessary in order to become employed, whilst an unskilled job may require basic skills training for the work to be completed successfully.

Globally, low-skilled jobs account for almost 45% of all jobs according to the International Labor Organization [11]. Unskilled labor provides a significant part of the overall labor market, performing daily production tasks that do not depend on technical abilities or skills. In fact, many low-skilled jobs, such as waiters, retail stock clerk, retail cashier, front desk receptionist, etc., require physical abilities and mechanical skills at higher levels than other jobs [12].

In this respect, it is really illuminating to read the observation that Brittany Bronson made in a recent post: The terms “unskilled” and “low-skilled labor” contradict the care and precision with which my co-workers, who have a variety of educational backgrounds and language fluencies, execute their tasks. A newly hired server assistant can learn to, say, “Take these plates from here to there,” but a skilled server assistant can clear a table in one trip versus two, simply with more careful placement of dishes along his forearm or between his knuckles.

In the restaurant business, we call this a “nice carry”.

[…] And although most low-skill work requires a constant interaction with people, because of its low-paying status it is deemed a dead end, rather than a testament to an individual’s ability to acquire, adapt and specialize.

Although our aim is not to investigate issues of unskilled and low skilled labor, all the above considerations are relevant to low-skilled adults learning, which is the basis for the EScAlADE project.

The EScAlADE project

The overall issue that the EScAlADE project addresses is the effectiveness of participatory approaches in an online environment. Our hypothesis was that the “one size fits all” concept doesn’t work for adult education, especially for adult low-skilled learners. More specifically, our project addresses the following questions:

In the context of our project, online learning is assumed to be the delivery of educational content through electronic media, particularly the Internet. Accordingly, participatory online learning is viewed as a collaborative student-centered environment in which students learn from both their peers and teachers using digital media resources. Our hypothesis was that an online participatory learning environment could facilitate adult informal learning. We are persuaded that informal learning is increasingly important because of the rapidly changing knowledge economy [13,14]. It can easily encompass daily life activities closely linked to work, family, community, and any other life-related activities [15]. Furthermore, informal learning can benefit from the huge amount of data available online.

The theoretical background of the EScAlADE project is based on the Participatory Adult Learning Strategy (PALS), an evidence-based approach to adult participatory learning developed by Dust and Trivette, which results from over 20 years of research and practice and, more recently, from the findings of the meta-analyses of adult learning methods and the synthesis of research studies into the most effective adult learning practices [16-18]. PALS is considered to be a strategy that enables the identification of specific practices that are associated with the greatest positive outcomes [19,20].

In the following paragraphs we illustrate phase I of the EScAlADE project that includes the survey conducted to better understand the adult low-skilled context and define the participatory learning experiment.

The EScAlADE survey

A survey, based on the aims of the EScAlADE participatory online learning experiment, has been conducted in the five project participant countries: Latvia (Rezekne), Italy (Rome), Poland (Czestochowa and Katowice), Greece (Athens), and Spain (Malaga). It was aimed at defining the right criteria for selecting the experiment participants and, in accordance with this, also clarifying who are lowskilled adults and what their learning needs and expectations are.

A questionnaire was submitted to adults aged from45-60years old who, in the first months of 2016, requested information from a number of selected educational structures in the project participating countries. Furthermore, structured interviews have been performed with some educational institutions, both public and private, which are strongly involved in adult learning.

The questionnaire was divided into two sections. The first contained questions aimed at verifying the respondents’ level of skills using the new technologies, while the second explored their learning needs and expectations.

In this article, we will only report on the second part of the questionnaire.

A total of 265 responses to the questionnaire (50 form Latvia, 50 from Poland, 50 from Spain, 50 from Greece, and 65 from Italy) and 51 interviews were collected (10 form Latvia, 10 from Poland, 10 from Spain, 10 from Greece, and11 from Italy).

75.5% of respondents lived in urban areas against only 24.5 % in rural areas, whilst the educational institutions interviewed comprised 17 governmental institutions, 25 private educational institutions, and 9 NGOs.

The data processing has been carried out using the IBM SPSS program and the following methods:

  • Descriptive statistical methods (determination of frequency);
  • Conclusive statistical tests for the determination of differences based on the respondents’ profiles (country, gender, marital status, place of residence, level of education) – Mann-Whitney test, Kruskal-Wallis test.
  • Initially, the interpretation of results has been performed through a comparative analysis of all data, and then results from the different countries have been analyzed separately. Figure 1 shows the distribution of respondents by age.