Are employees ready for eLearning? Simply providing access to tools and training might not be enough to spur participation in eLearning, according to a study by Pew Research Center.

Managers often turn to eLearning to train new hires, temporary or seasonal workers, or employees in high-turnover jobs, like fast food, retail, and customer service. Using eLearning is especially appealing when the objective is to teach employees processes—how to do the basic tasks of their jobs.

But, although growing numbers of American adults have access to—and regularly use—digital tools like smartphones and Internet connections, many are not “digitally ready” to learn online, according to the study. Just 16 percent of American adults have taken an online course—for personal or professional learning—in the past year. Only 12 percent of those earning less than $30,000 per year, the very employees likely to be in high-turnover or seasonal jobs, have done so.

A new look at the digital divide

The Pew Research Center study, Digital Readiness Gaps, which was published in September 2016, looked specifically at who does and does not use technology for learning. It provides a new window on the “digital divide,” showing that access is not everything. According to the study, access to technology, and even comfort with some tools, such as smartphones, does not necessarily translate to readiness or willingness to use those tools for personal or professional eLearning.

The study found digital readiness gaps that might surprise those who hire and train employees. For instance, the “digitally ready” grouping—which describes adults who are confident in their online skills, familiar with the world of educational technology, and who “display little hesitation about finding information online that they trust”—includes only 17 percent of US adults, according to the weighted sample. Of that small group, only a quarter are aged 18 to 29, individuals who are generally regarded as “digital natives,” since they grew up in a world of ubiquitous technology. Nearly twice as many of the digitally ready—48 percent—are in their 30s and 40s.

Defining digital readiness

Pew researchers looked at five factors to assess digital readiness:

  • Confidence in using computers
  • Ability and comfort in getting new technology to work without help
  • Use of digital tools for learning
  • Ability to determine whether online information is trustworthy
  • Familiarity with contemporary “education technology” or “ed-tech” terms

For each factor, they placed respondents on a continuum from very confident or familiar to not at all confident.

The digital readiness study did not address the full range of ways that people use technology or online resources, although Pew has studied other aspects of digital skills and usage. It focused narrowly on readiness for and use of eLearning. The operational definition of digital readiness that the researchers used included assessment of each participant’s:

  • Digital skills—ability to get online, surf the Internet, and share online content
  • Trust—respondents’ belief about whether they could decide whether content they found online could be trusted and their ability to safeguard personal information online
  • Use—the degree to which respondents use digital tools to carry out tasks online

The respondents were also asked to describe their interest in learning and personal growth by characterizing how well certain statements, like “I think of myself as a lifelong learner” or “I am not the type of person who feels the need to probe deeply into new situations or things,” describe them.

Researchers used a technique called “cluster analysis” to place each respondent into one of five groups, based on similarities in their answers to key questions.

Of the five groups, two were considered “relatively prepared” to engage in digital learning. In addition to the “digitally ready” group described above, those who were described as “cautious clickers” are also confident in their digital skills. They are less familiar than the digitally ready with ed-tech terms and less likely to use online tools for learning; they are also less likely than the digitally ready to seek out learning offline, such as reading, joining a book club, or taking courses.

Researchers categorized three additional groups as “relatively hesitant” and less likely to use digital tools for learning. Of these:

  • A small group, only about 5 percent of American adults, are labeled “traditional learners.” These individuals actively pursue learning activities, but are unlikely to do so online because they do not fully trust online information.
  • Members of the group least likely to engage in online learning, the “unprepared,” have poor digital skills and limited willingness to trust online information.
  • Finally, members of a group that includes about a third of American adults, the “reluctant” group, have some digital skills but little awareness of ed-tech concepts and low propensity to seek any type of personal learning. “Reluctant” adults are unlikely to use digital tools for learning.

Two groups at the middle of the preparedness spectrum, the “reluctant” and the “cautious clickers,” together comprise nearly two-thirds of adults (64 percent). These individuals do have solid digital skills, but they are unfamiliar with educational technology concepts; in addition, they might lack confidence in online information and they tend to have little desire to learn.

Could familiarity breed engagement?

Researchers identified five ed-tech concepts that they considered “key resources that are becoming available thanks to innovation online.” They asked respondents whether they were familiar with each concept; while respondents had varying degrees of familiarity with the concepts, no individual concept was familiar to a majority of those polled. The five concepts or resources are:

  • Common Core standards—57 percent had little or no awareness of these education standards for math and English K-12 education
  • Distance learning—61 percent had little or no awareness of learning activities conducted in places other than physical classrooms
  • Khan Academy—79 percent were unfamiliar with or not very aware of this online learning resource that offers free video lessons in math, science, humanities, and language
  • MOOCs—80 percent lacked awareness of massive open online courses
  • Digital badges—83 percent were unfamiliar with the concept of digital badges that certify mastery of a skill or an idea

The study’s authors acknowledge that a person’s familiarity with digital education terms in general—or with these specific terms and concepts—might not correlate with that individual’s level of digital skills. However, familiarity did seem to indicate whether a person was likely to have used the Internet for personal learning.

Not surprisingly, those who were more confident in their digital skills and who had smartphones or high-speed Internet connections at home were more likely to have used the Internet for personal learning activities. A more interesting finding, though, was that respondents who were familiar with at least one ed-tech concept were far more likely to have engaged in eLearning: Of this group, 32 percent had taken at least one online course, versus 16 percent of all adults. And 64 percent of adults who engaged in any personal learning (online or off) and were familiar with at least one ed-tech concept had used the Internet for some type of personal learning. Online courses were counted separately from other online learning, such as seeking out and reading how-to or hobby-related magazines and articles.

Many adults who indicated that they do not use the Internet for personal learning had done some professional learning activities online, though they were more likely to have engaged in eLearning activities other than taking an online course—reading professional journals online or watching an instructional video, for example.

A gap in digital readiness can have important consequences for managers and eLearning designers and developers. The study suggests that access to and comfort with technology, while essential, is not sufficient to induce engagement in eLearning, except in individuals who are strongly motivated to learn for their own personal development. For the reluctant and unprepared—individuals who lack digital skills and also mistrust the information they find on the Internet—more is needed. This is where the familiarity with ed-tech concepts might be significant. Cautious clickers, who are less motivated to learn, also lack exposure to ed-tech concepts.

The study results also suggest that improving exposure to relevant ed-tech concepts among these groups of learners could be a way to boost their confidence in their skills, as well as offer them a means to evaluate the trustworthiness of information. Without that level of comfort and confidence, engaging those groups of learners in any online learning could be a steep challenge.


Horrigan, John B. Digital Readiness Gaps. Pew Research Center. 20 September 2016.