The popularity and ubiquity of smartphones isn’t just affecting young people; older generations also feel the effects of this shift. The Pew Research Center reports that 73% of Americans ages 50 to 64 and 46% of Americans ages 65 and up own smartphones. Therefore, while conversations about millennial and gen-z smartphone use might be more prevalent, it would be an oversight to ignore older adults, especially when it comes to these devices’ role in learning.

A group of researchers conducted a review of recent, relevant literature on older adult learning via smartphones. After identifying 118 articles related to mobile devices and learning appearing in peer-reviewed journals, written in English, and published between 2005 and 2017, the researchers chose 28 publications focusing on the informal learning of people over the age of 50. Informal learning was defined as either self-directed, incidental, or tacit learning. Of the 28 empirical studies chosen, 15 were qualitative, 10 were quantitative, and three used mixed methods. They were published across 20 different journals and represented a variety of disciplines.

After analyzing the publications, the researchers found four theoretical frameworks being used: technology acceptance model (the perceived usefulness, ease, and satisfaction that comes with the use of mobile devices), experiential learning theory (knowledge is created through a transformative personal experience), social cognitive theory (learning occurs through the dynamic interaction of personal, environmental, and behavioral factors), and activity theory (satisfaction comes through the fulfillment of social roles).

Additionally, the researchers identified six themes across the studies’ findings: learning about health or medical topics, affective and emotional dimensions, ambivalent attitudes toward mobile device learning, practical uses, interpersonal and intergenerational communication, and collaborative learning experiences.

These findings make it clear that older adults are using mobile devices for learning in a variety of ways, but that more work needs to be done to make this practice practical and effective for this population. The researchers point out that smartphone user context hasn’t been heavily considered; while cognitive abilities are important to consider, if researchers consistently ignore situational conditions, important trends will be missed. The researchers also point to the need for age-specific curricula to support older adult learning on mobile devices. Particularly when it comes to health-related knowledge-building, which proved to be of great interest to adult learners, more resources and facilitation should be made available.

Jin, B., Kim, J., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2019). Informal learning of older adults in using mobile devices: A review of the literature. Adult Education Quarterly.

Image: Not Only the Millennials by Andreea Popa via Unsplash