Report: How digital literacy skills, lack of access to infrastructure, and COVID-19 affect older mature-age university students


This report was written as part of my university studies. It is intended as a SAMPLE of my writing only. It was not written in an official capacity for any particular person, although the report was aimed at the Minister for Regionalisation, Regional Communications and Regional Education (Federal); the Minister for Education and Youth (Federal); the Minister for Education (State – South Australia); and the Minister for Local Government (State – South Australia).

Executive summary

Many university courses have moved entirely online, particularly in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Technology has adapted and kept pace with the growing need to move online, but older mature-age students are disadvantaged by their lack of digital literacy skills. Many remote and regional areas also have a lack of technology infrastructure, further disadvantaging older adults that want to engage in university studies. This report examines research into the possible causes leading to these circumstances, such as the commercial considerations of technology providers. It also examines the means to support older mature-age students through in-house and outreach programs and access to infrastructure supplied by public library services, and recommends continued funding by federal, state and local governments to enable libraries to continue running those programs.

1. Introduction

Many tertiary learning institutions have moved their curriculums online, either fully or substantially in recent years.1 While this has made it easier for people to access university studies, it also means those without digital literacy skills are left behind. Older students are more likely to rely on recorded lectures than younger students, possibly due to other life and work commitments2, but many older adults don’t have the necessary skills or access to technology they need to participate in online learning.3

There are a myriad of reasons older people haven’t developed digital literacy skills, including their own financial circumstance as well as a lack of appropriate physical infrastructure. Older adults living in rural and remote areas historically haven’t needed to develop their digital skills, but as more services move online, including education, the need for them to gain those skills is increasing.4

This report examines ways older adult learners are disadvantaged in relation to technology and its increasing use in online education and provides recommendations for increased support to ensure those disadvantages are removed. It is limited by the fact there is no data to show how many older adults that are not currently studying online, would choose to do so if they had the skills and resources available.

2. Effects of COVID-19

The global COVID-19 pandemic forced many activities online that were normally conducted face-to-face. University study is one area that has moved to a predominantly online delivery method. Technology has become more relevant and implemented at an accelerated rate to enable this transition.5

2.1 Psychological effects

Although technology has enabled older adults to access online education, there are negative psychological effects associated with the pandemic that will affect their online study goals. Research found that “many students and faculty members felt under duress due to psychological issues caused by social isolation, insecurity, and anxiety”.6

3. Mature-age students

Mature age students are generally accepted to be people aged 25 years and over, correlating with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) use of 15–24 years and 25 years and older when reporting on youth education and older learners respectively.7 This report focuses on older people in the 50 plus age groups. Older mature-age students sometimes have responsibilities younger students don’t have, such as full-time employment and family care.8

3.1 Number of mature-age students

The 2016 Census of Population and Housing (Census) reveals there were 1,156,037 people recorded as studying at university or other tertiary institutions.9 Of those, 473,970 were aged 25 years or older and therefore are considered mature-age students, with 47,672 aged 50 years or older.10

3.2 Success of mature-age students

To succeed, all students need support mechanisms, however for older mature-age students, those support structures can be even more vital.

3.2.1 Peer support through online interaction

Older mature-age students often have conflicting priorities and life commitments other than study. They may have families to support, or full-time jobs that have substantial time commitments11, which means they do not have the time available to socialise or form study groups with other students. Sometimes the only peer support they have is through online interaction. This could be caused by physical distance as well as restrictions imposed due to a global pandemic. Isolation creates an obstacle that is exacerbated when older mature-age students are not able to access online resources in a timely or effective manner.

3.2.2 Support from other sources

When online peer support is not an option, older mature-age students must rely on other sources of support, such as personal interaction. For people living in regional or remote areas, that personal interaction can be limited and may sometimes only include immediate family members living on the same property.

4. Skills

4.1 Digital literacy

To access online peer support, older mature-age students need to be able to successfully navigate their computers and the Internet. Those already engaged in online learning must have at least rudimentary digital skills that enable them to participate, however, a lack of digital literacy is an inhibitor that could prevent some older adults from starting university studies in the first place. Many older adults have a fear of breaking their devices, the online portal or even the Internet. “Anxiety, it seems, is interfering with the learning process itself.”12

4.2 Digital citizenship

Having good digital literacy skills leads to good digital citizenship – an ability for people to engage with society using digital tools and behaving in appropriate ways while conducting business or leisure activities online.13 Good digital citizenship is a fundamental requirement to being an online student.

4.3 Interacting with lecturers

Research shows that during the COVID-19 pandemic, lectures are often more interactive when conducted online with potentially larger numbers of students, than when students attend face-to-face lectures. When attending in-person lectures, students listen passively, whereas in online environments students are more likely to ask questions and seek examples from the lecturer.14

5. Infrastructure

There are also technology related issues to overcome, such as a lack of infrastructure for those older adults living in regional or remote areas.15

5.1 Lack of investment

Telecommunication companies are loathe to invest in expensive infrastructure if they foreshadow a lack of returns on their investment. They are answerable to their shareholders and need to make a profit. Sparsely populated areas are less likely to provide that profit and so the infrastructure is not put in place.16

5.2 Diminishing population

Rural areas often have a diminishing population, which also makes it untenable for private enterprise to invest heavily in technology infrastructure as they see the investment as unsustainable in the long term.17

5.3 Lack of disposable income

People living in remote or rural areas may have less disposable income, which means technology providers would not consider them to be economically viable in terms of a customer relationship.18

6. Support mechanisms

There are many ways to support older mature-age students to study online. Governments can assist through services offered in public libraries.

6.1 Libraries

Libraries can support older mature-age students by providing services and infrastructure that individuals might not have access to and therefore reduce student’s financial and technology roadblocks.

6.1.1 Internet and computer access

Many libraries provide free Internet access through Wi-Fi hotspots and public access computers. This includes all public libraries in South Australia.19

6.1.2 Peer support

Staff and volunteers within the library service can support older mature-age students with their technology problems, enabling them to access online studies. Many older adults have already built relationships with library staff and feel comfortable seeking assistance when needed.20

6.1.3 Outreach programs

Libraries not only provide support and infrastructure within the physical library they also run outreach programs that can be used to support local groups, such as senior citizens clubs, supporting their members by giving them the digital literacy skills required to undertake online study.

7. Conclusion

There are many reasons older mature-age students begin to study at university, just as there are many reasons they don’t. Having access to technology devices and infrastructure is one barrier to study as many more courses are delivered in an online environment. Having the physical means to access online study is not the only barrier though, with many older adults not having sufficient digital literacy skills to enable them to take part in online study.

Having mechanisms in place to support older mature-age students, such as libraries that provide both the physical means and the educational support needed to study online, means that more older adults can enrol in online university courses, which not only enriches the individual’s life, but also turns them into a good digital citizen where they can participate in an increasingly online world.

8. Recommendations

8.1 Federal government support

Federal government continue to support the states and territories in the funding of programs aimed at supporting older mature-age students in digital literacy.

8.2 State government

State and Territory governments continue to support organisations and local government in their support of older adults, particularly in the areas of digital literacy and mature-age students.

8.3 Local government

Continue to fund libraries, together with support from State governments, with particular emphasis on older adults and digital literacy skills, enabling in-house and outreach programs to support patrons in life-long learning.

8.4 Libraries

Employ staff with appropriate skills to support older mature-age students in digital literacy and technology.

  1. O’Brien & Verma, 2019, p. 155
  2. O’Brien & Verma, 2019, p. 166
  3. Strover, Whitacre, Rhinesmith, & Schrubbe, 2020, p. 243
  4. Strover, Whitacre, Rhinesmith, & Schrubbe, 2020, p. 254
  5. Mathew & Chung, 2020, p. 152
  6. Jung, Horta, & Postiglione, 2021, p. 108
  7. Stone & O’Shea, 2019, p. 58
  8. O’Brien & Verma, 2019, p. 166
  9. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016
  10. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016
  11. O’Brien & Verma, 2019, p. 166
  12. Steelman & Wallace, 2017, p. 13
  13. Libraries SA, 2019, pp. 23-24
  14. Jung, Horta, & Postiglione, 2021, p. 112
  15. Strover, Whitacre, Rhinesmith, & Schrubbe, 2020, p. 243
  16. Strover, Whitacre, Rhinesmith, & Schrubbe, 2020, p. 242
  17. Strover, Whitacre, Rhinesmith, & Schrubbe, 2020, p. 242
  18. Strover, Whitacre, Rhinesmith, & Schrubbe, 2020, p. 244
  19. Libraries SA, 2019, p. 23
  20. Lenstra, 2017, p. 72

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