How can we develop e-learning that respects adult learning principles?

Repost and update from ’Can we develop e-learning that respects adult learning principles?’ (November, 2013)

Many adult learners consider the packaged e-learning modules offered by their organisations a necessary pain. Why? Because most e-learning doesn’t adhere to adult learning principles.

There are three reasons for this: (1) it requires skill and experience to translate the principles into online learning design; (2) the sector’s focus on tick-the-box completions and data collection has not prioritised the application of the principles; and (3) people tend to be stuck with what they know and have experienced themselves, i.e. self-paced e-learning modules and webinars, and lack exposure to different models.

The most common e-learning ‘solution’ is the self-paced module, yet it is the approach that gives us very few opportunities to adhere to adult learning principles. Webinars could potentially do this better, but those that really apply the principles are rare.  Immersive experiences adhere to some of the principles but lack on others. Collaborative/cooperative online learning events, especially when built on problem-based learning (PBL) design approaches and facilitated by a guide-on-the side (eWorkshops) are more likely to adhere to the principles.

Key points:
We cannot pretend that watered-down definitions of the adult learning principles are good enough and therefore our e-learning is just fine.
It is impossible to fully adhere to all principles in self-paced e-learning.
E-learning based on problem-based collaborative methods, like eWorkshops, are more likely to adhere to the principles.

Let’s explore the principles first. They are a key component of what we call ‘andragogy’ ‒ the theory of adult learning. Learning designers study andragogy because to design effective e-learning for adults, they need to understand how adults learn best.

Andragogy promotes approaching learning using problem-based and collaborative methods rather than didactic or instructive techniques. It also emphasises more equality between the facilitator and learner.

Malcolm Knowles is considered the ‘father’ of andragogy. He identified the six principles of adult learning:

  1. Adults are internally motivated and self-directed.
  2. Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences.
  3. Adults are goal oriented.
  4. Adults are relevancy oriented.
  5. Adults are practical.
  6. Adult learners like to be respected.

My all-time favourite book on adult learning, ‘Understanding and facilitating adult learning’ by Stephen Brookfield, examines the principles in detail. The book was written before e-learning became mainstream, but regardless of its face-to-face focus, it is a very useful guide because of its depth, which is unfortunately often lacking in e-learning books – perhaps because of the typical focus on tech tools and graphic features?

With Brookfield as a guide, I explored how we can (or can’t) abide by these principles when we design self-paced e-learning modules (we mostly use Articulate StoryLine and Rise) and eWorkshops (mostly in Moodle because of its linearity). An interesting exercise.

1. Adults are internally motivated and self-directed
Fidishun (an andragogy expert) says this means that “adult learners resist learning when they feel others are imposing information, ideas or actions on them.”

This is about the way the training provides a sense of control to the learner. What does that look like practically? In our self-paced e-learning modules, we – like many others – do the most obvious: never lock down navigation. It’s a big no-no. People need to be able to explore at their own pace and go backwards through the modules if they wish (if that doesn’t make sense, they will do it chronologically, don’t worry, but who are we to tell them?).

But that’s only a tiny part of what gives more sense of control and motivation to the learner. We build self-paced training on a backbone of mini-scenarios so the focus is on doing and inquiry rather than information. And if learners want to skip parts of the training because they already know it, we let them. We make sure the results show the effects of skipping steps or making errors, just like real life.

But does all of this go deep enough? Let’s not forget that Knowles defined self-directed learning as, “a process in which individuals take the initiative in designing learning experiences, diagnosing needs, locating resources, and evaluating learning.” That’s not happening in any of our self-paced e-learning and I haven’t seen evidence of this principle in any of the modules I have been exposed to. So, the sector is not doing too well on this principle. And we cannot pretend that a watered-down definition is good enough and therefore our e-learning is just fine.

I’m much more satisfied with the way our eWorkshops abide by the principle that adults are internally motivated and self-directed. It’s still a structured learning event but the design and technology allow for much more self-directedness than the standard self-paced e-learning module.

2. Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences
The most common way in which designers of self-paced e-learning try to draw on this experience is by asking a few ‘reflection’ questions, along the lines of ‘what does this mean for you?’ or ‘have you experienced this before or do you know of someone who did?’ These questions typically pop up in a box, usually titled ‘Reflection’.

Who are we kidding? Few (if any?) people actually do stop and think about their own experiences when the reflection box appears. Why? Because there is no acknowledgement of this experience. The experience does not impact on the training and people know that. Why bother?

Acknowledging reflection and thus showing respect for what adults bring to the learning process requires a conversation and the opportunity to truly integrate life experiences into the online learning event. This is an important aspect of learner-centredness.

Well-designed team and whole group activities in eWorkshops potentially support this adult learning principle. When learners solve complex real-life problems together, they share their own experiences in the process. It’s a natural thing ‒ people just do.  Adults learn more effectively through experiential techniques such as problem-solving (and we mean ‘solving’ a problem, not ‘talking about a problem’).

3. Adults are goal oriented
Many e-learning designers seem to think that all they need to do to comply with this principle, is to put the learning objectives upfront and give learners a certificate at the end. Yet, a list of objectives will never convince a learner of the value of what’s coming next. This can be done by starting the training with a real-life scenario or a story where most learners get stuck. This will help motivate the learner to do the training.

We should support the principle of goal orientation by providing meaningful learning experiences, preferably problems that are very similar to those they face in the workplace. That way the incentive for doing well (and reaching the goal) is much broader than what happens in the course. The goal is to do better at work.

Providing immediate feedback further facilitates goal orientation in self-paced e-learning. In eWorkshops we can take this a step further by actively assisting the learner in the application of the newly learned skills in the workplace. The ability to provide ‘after-care’ is an important aspect of eWorkshops and one that increases considerably the learners’ readiness to learn.

4. Adults are relevancy oriented
All learning activities should be relevant to what learners are doing in the workplace. Why is it then that we still see so many recall quizzes in self-paced e-learning? When did we ever do quizzes in the workplace? If we’re taking adult learners seriously we should stay away from short-memory tests. They have no place in adult learning. Most training topics shouldn’t be packaged anyway.

It is essential that learners can make decisions in realistic situations and that they are confronted with the consequences as well. Show, don’t tell. Cathy Moore’s blog is a gold mine of practical advice on how to make self-paced e-learning relevant.

Well-designed e-learning can replicate real-life decisions, but let’s keep an eye on its limitations. I’m always concerned about simplifying the decision-making to just a couple of options. This works for the most straight forward compliance training, but most learning needs don’t fit in that category. Real-life is so much more complex.

Problem-based learning tasks in eWorkshops can make a considerable difference and increase the relevance of e-learning. In these tasks, there isn’t a right or wrong solution. The problems are typically solved differently by every team. This is because each team member offers with their own perspectives and experience, and the collaboration shapes the suggested solution. Good e-facilitation (guide-on-the side) further enhances the relevance.

5. Adults are practical
Adult learners are keen to learn things they can apply immediately. They prefer to be active participants in the learning experience.

Interactivity is tricky. A lot of e-learning modules claim to be interactive yet there’s no more than clicking on next buttons and opening boxes here and there. Yet, interactivity happens in the brain, not the hand. Interaction is a two-way process.

Good designers of self-paced e-learning will design activities that help learners perform their jobs more effectively. They make training practical by the choice of language, quick-tips and most importantly, by designing tasks that resemble closely what is happening in the workplace. They don’t ‘talk about’ the topic; they ‘do’ the topic.

eWorkshops can take this much deeper. How? By engineering the problem-based tasks in such a way that learners need to work on a fictional problem first and then apply the skills in the workplace and report back. Moreover, because eWorkshops are facilitated and collaborative, participants receive valuable feedback that acknowledges the personal stories that grow from such experiences.

6. Adult learners like to be respected
We demonstrate respect by showing interest and acknowledging the wealth of experiences which learners bring to the training. Respect requires that we incorporate these experiences in the training.

In self-paced e-learning the designer can ask questions about the learners’ own knowledge and experience, but does that sound genuine to the learner? I don’t think so. There is no-one on the other side to listen. There is no-one to show genuine respect for these experiences and ideas, let alone an opportunity to integrate these into the learning event.

eWorkshops have the flexibility to do exactly that. The tasks are designed to provoke in-depth conversations in the process of developing a solution for a problem scenario. People share and use their experience when making suggestions on how to solve a problem. Guide-on-the-side (as opposed to sage-on-stage) e-facilitators show respect for the learners in many ways, including in the way these experiences are then woven into the course. The use of the right adult learning vocabulary is paramount, yet often overlooked. The learning culture established and nurtured by the e-facilitators typically encourages peers to do the same.

eWorkshops with strong problem-based learning (PBL) tasks and excellent e-facilitators are learning events where learners can truly feel acknowledged and respected. Adult learning principle #6 taken seriously…

So what’s the verdict?
E-learning is so much more than webinars, self-paced learning, immersive games and university-type ‘discussion/assignment’ models. We need to continuously explore delivery approaches that stay true to the adult learning principles. Asynchronous eWorkshops based on collaborative problem-based learning methods is one example that offers many opportunities to adhere to these principles.

How do you change from being a sage-on-stage to a guide-on-the side?


4 Comments. Leave new

  • Very insightful article. I teach in a dual-system university (Full Time and Distance learning programmes). We admit both inservice and direct entry learners. There is no distinct separation in teaching this ‘mix’ of students and this compromises individual student achievement.

  • Now I understand why in all trainings of adults I always see respect and consideration. It is one of the six principles of adult learning

  • Romana Hoque Mukta
    April 16, 2021 9:57 pm

    This training is good

  • Romana Hoque Mukta
    April 16, 2021 10:01 pm

    This training is very important in o all staff


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