Adult Learning In 15 Years

The Future Of Adult Learning  

In the next 15 years, college students, military trainees, and other adult learners will be engaged in learning that has the following capabilities:

  • Leverages research results from learning science and brain science.
  • Includes adaptive and immersive technologies.
  • Offers quality instructor content.

This adult learning will be all integrated into a cohesive system at an affordable price.


We already have a lot of the individual learning capabilities required for this transformation. The task will be to integrate them and distribute them cost effectively to learners everywhere.

Learning Science

We have learning science and brain science capabilities. We know how the brain processes working memory, the impact of distractions, and when a student should pause to reflect. We know that effective instruction requires: Individualized feedback, communications for collaborating with students and instructors, and dozens more features.

The US Army Research Lab, along with many leaders from academia and from industry, has published over 400 pages of recommendations each year for the past three years. Many current training systems implement multiple learning science features from that list of recommendations, but none take advantage of all of the best practices to create a robust and re-usable system.

Adaptive And Immersive Technology

We have technology capabilities. I work with simulators that provide adaptive and immersive training for our nation’s war fighters. The adaptive learning experience comes from using streaming simulator data of student motions to immediately determine when and where the next obstacle should be for maximum learning. An adaptive system ensures that the learner stays within the zone of proximal development or, simply, the “Goldilocks zone”. Not too easy and not too hard. Adaptive learning works well when the student is immersed in a virtual environment.

A virtual environment can encompass flying a fighter jet over enemy territory or practicing contract negotiation skills with a pedagogical agent (virtual instructor) and a group of other students. Adaptive and immersive training with virtual reality technology currently exists, and some have incorporated some of the learning sciences best practices I mentioned earlier, but no training system currently has the capacity to embrace all of them.

Quality Instructor Content

We have quality content capabilities. For any given subject at any university half of the instructors that teach that subject are, by definition, below average. A current success story for expanding the reach of quality content is Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). MOOCs, including Coursera and edX, feature world-class professors for classes comprised of over 30,000 students worldwide and they are free. MOOCs are innovative, but immature and generally not accredited.

Putting It All Together Within 15 Years

By 2030 adult learners will be using training systems that have been transformed to incorporate all of these capabilities and more. The 15 year timeframe is reasonable by analogy. I had the privilege to be part of the early work in speech recognition and participated in the Message Understanding Conference /Natural Language Processing Workshop in 1989. Only 20 years later, speech recognition was ubiquitous on cell phones. Given the faster pace of the world, 15 years is completely reasonable for a learning system transformation.

By 2030, we should expect that adult learners will enroll in low-cost classes that align with their goals; stay engaged with an adaptive system that responds to their actions; and listen to world-class human experts - all as one seamless experience. This integration of learning science, adaptive technology, and quality content will transform the learning experience to enhance decision-making and ultimately our survival.