Blog Post

My Adult Learning Principles for the 21st Century


New technology has dramatically changed the way we learn in the 21st century. I am fortunate to have grown up in this digital age with technology as second nature to me. Technology and education go hand in hand for my generation, but my top three learning principles apply in any era: self-confidence, experience and adaptability.


          As a millennial, I am a member of the world’s first generation raised on new technology—computers, the Internet, cell phones, and video games. Marc Prensky (2001) called my peers and I digital natives and the 21st century’s language of technology is our native tongue (p. 1). But long before Prensky coined the term in his 2001 article "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants", baby boomers across the country experienced this phenomenon first hand as parents of this new generation. My own parents will agree: I could program my family’s VCR by the age of 4. Digital natives embrace technology in all aspects of life—school, work, and play. Alternatively, the new technology of the 21st century is like a foreign language to preceding generations. Although learning has dramatically changed since the “good old days” reminiscent of the digital immigrants, the adult learning principles most important to me apply for either generation. My top three principles of adult learning are: Self-Confidence, Experience and Adaptability.


          The adult learning principle of self-confidence had the greatest impact on my decision to return to school to obtain my master’s degree. I was confident that I was ready to make the commitment to myself. I was confident that I could handle the work load in addition to my full-time job and other social obligations. For the first time in my life, I was the director of my own education path. Although I am only in my first semester, this autonomous journey has significantly altered the outlook of my future and my personal development.

          Effective learning comes from “confidence in their abilities, good self-esteem, support from others, and trust in others” (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, p. 165). Confidence is a major factor for success. Cathy Davidson (2011) referenced this idea in her book Now You See It. She described a study led by Margie Lachman and funded by the National Institute of Aging that compared participants’ age and sense of control. The study suggested that those who showed greater confidence scored better than those who showed less confidence, regardless of age (Davidson, 2011, p. 259). This study reminded me of a situation at work. In 2013, my company implemented a new software program that transformed business operations for all employees. Several older employees refused to learn the new technology. Some retreated to their old habits, as Prensky (2001) would call their “digital immigrant accents” (p. 2). Some surrendered and left the company. They claimed they were too old to learn the new processes. They avoided change, but to survive in the 21st century digital age is to embrace change. As Davidson (2011) pointed out “all we do when we use aging as our excuse is reinforce our sense of ourselves as losing control” (p. 258). I became a resource for the older employees who stuck it out and committed themselves to learning the new technology. As a diverging learner, I am able to effectively communicate and build trust with others while remaining sensitive to their feelings in times of uncertainty. They accepted the change and overtime their confidence returned.


          One of my initial understandings of adult learning is that adults learn best by sharing their experiences with others. A major reason I delayed graduate school until now was so that I would have valuable life and work experiences to draw from. Adults have more experience and a different quality of experience than adolescences (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 161). An adult learner with 5 or 10 years’ experience in the real world brings more value to group discussions than a student fresh out of college.

          Twenty-first century adult learners must be autonomous learners. My experience with online education has proven this fact. ODL 600 is modeled around the theory of connectivism. Connectivism is an emerging adult learning theory that fits with the 21st century adult learner. Connectivism attempts to alter the state of the learner to promote development, personal growth and active engagement (Downes, 2009). There is no formal curriculum. There are no facts to memorize. The professor is more of a facilitator. It is about connecting people, ideas and experiences. Downes (2009) referred to these as nodes. He said teachers, students and ideas are all nodes, and teaching and learning are the same process. This was evident through the leadership learning group host assignments. Each week a different group hosts a discussion board topic. The host assignments encouraged active engagement, critical thinking and reflection on past experiences. Rita Kop (2011) agreed, “for people to take an active, participative, and critical role in connectivist learning, they need communication and collaboration with and feedback from others, the same as in classroom-based learning” (p. 22).

          People draw from their experiences in all aspects of their life—not just in the formal education setting. I use the knowledge from my past experiences every day. As a property manager, I am required to interact with all different personality types. Dealing with people in the customer service field is difficult, and when a situation does not go the way I want it to, I learn from my mistakes and know what to do different the next time.


          Adult learners seek out educational opportunities because they want to learn- they’re self-directed. With 21st century technology, the opportunities for learning are everywhere. They can be in the form of an app, a podcast, a MOOC- massive open online course, a YouTube video, an online discussion board, or a video game. The internet has made it possible for me to obtain my master’s degree without ever stepping foot on campus. I learn and collaborate with students from across the country. Before beginning my graduate school journey, I was worried that I wouldn’t get the same quality of education from an online course that I would from a brick and mortar school. I had never taken an online class before and had no idea what to expect, but I was open-minded about it. I adapted to a virtual classroom setting and embraced the new experience. I think my generation is better able to adapt to new concepts and ideas because the technology we use is always changing. New updates to our smartphones or new versions of our favorite apps are constant. With each new release, we are forced to learn, unlearn and relearn the functionality.

          There is a debate over how much technology should be utilized in the classroom. Some people see it as a distraction. Prensky (2001) described how digital immigrants do not have appreciation for new technology in the same way that digital natives do. Digital natives developed and mastered technology skills over the course of their whole lives. “These skills are almost totally foreign to the Immigrants, who themselves learned – and so choose to teach – slowly, step-by-step, one thing at a time, individually, and above all, seriously” (Prensky, 2001, p. 2). Davidson (2011) also touched on this topic in Now You See It. The method of teaching 21st century students is the same as it was before the digital age. Educators need to accept that technology is here to stay and it must be incorporated into classrooms and curriculums. They must adapt to the 21st century learner.


          Growing up in the age of new technology has afforded my peers and I educational opportunities never before available to past generations. All of the information in the world is accessible to us at the touch of a button. Although the way we learn has changed, my learning principles apply just as much now as they would have in the 20th century. Self-confidence, experience and adaptability are my top three learning principles. I will use these principles for the rest of my life because learning never ends.



Davidson, C. N. (2011). Now you see it: How technology and brain science will transform schools and business for the 21st century. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Downes, S. (2009). New tools for personal learning. MEFANET 2009 Conference, Brno, Czech Republic, via MVU Videoconference. Retrieved from

Kop, R. (2011). The challenges to connectivist learning on open online networks: Learning experiences during a massive open online course. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3), 19-38.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., Baumgartner, L. M., (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1-6.,%20Dig...



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