How can online learning meet the needs of the adult learner?
The whole question of why adult learners are different from children hasn't yet been definitively answered. When the textbooks say that adult learners don’t like being talked down to, for example, the same could be said of children. The difference is simply that adults are more likely to get up and walk away when you talk down to them.
But even though there remains work to be done on this question, the idea of andragogy Malcolm Knowles set out many years ago holds up pretty well today. Andragogy – as opposed to the teaching of children described by pedagogy – is the study of how adults learn and how best to teach them. We’ve talked about the implications of andragogy in this blog before, so this is simply an overview of the reasoning behind it and what it might mean for online learning.
Knowles believed adults were different for four main reasons.
Firstly, they see themselves differently. They fulfil a number of different roles – parent, friend, worker, and so on. As such they regard themselves as autonomous, able to take decisions and deal with the consequences of their own actions.
So they are more likely to figure out what they want to learn on their own, or at least with the right tools. If they’re aiming to attain what Knowles calls a “model of competencies” (for example, a set of skills for a particular job), they’re able to self-diagnose their own needs and see where their learning gaps are.
How can online learning help in this respect? One obvious way is to provide self-assessment tools that adults can use to identify their particular learning needs.
Secondly, they have decades of life experience, and this affects both how they learn and is a resource they can draw on to help their own learning. Knowles viewed experience as something that happens to a child, but in an adult has become part of his or her identity. This suggests that activities such as group discussion, case studies, role playing, simulation and so on will work well.
Online learning is ideally suited to providing this sort of activity. We’ve talked a lot about social learning in this blog, and for good reason: e-learning can bring together learners and give them the opportunity to contribute to courses, help each other, discuss, criticise and bring their own knowledge to the table.
Knowles also suggested that for learning to work, adults have to be ready to learn. By this he meant that a typical adult will study to get a job, then learn to improve at it, but not to supervise. Later in a career, it might mean learning to manage. So a curriculum needs to match the adult’s readiness to learn, and shouldn’t depend on “the logic of the subject matter or the needs of the organisation”.
Technology is very well suited to the personalisation of learning. E-learning offers the opportunity for an adult to pick and mix what they study, choosing when they want to learn and - crucially - following only the curriculum they want. Personalisation has yet to be fully exploited in online learning, but it’s clear that it will soon be an essential aspect.
Finally, adults need to apply learning to problems they face right now. Whereas the learning you do in middle school is intended to get you into high school, and high school learning is focused on getting into university, adults want to learn how to tackle challenges they meet in their daily work. They're interested in skills and competencies they can apply as soon as they leave the classroom or online course. For children, you can teach according to the logic of the subject, gradually building up complexity. But for adults, instructors should focus on helping adults discover what learning they need, showing them how to solve problems and address current concerns.
Learning online is ideal for this approach: it’s agile, in the sense that it can more easily be adapted to evolving working practices than a textbook; it can provide varying levels of instruction, ranging from fundamental theory to practical lessons delivered by video; and when it’s designed well it allows learners to dip in and out of topics, grabbing what they need in as efficient a way as possible.