Can we develop e-learning that respects adult learning principles?

Most e-learning doesn’t adhere to Knowles’ adult learning principles. Collaborative and problem-based online workshops (or eWorkshops) provide us with ample more opportunities to abide by the principles than self-paced e-learning modules. It’s much harder to design eWorkshops well, but the depth achieved is much more satisfying. Respect for adult learning principles goes both ways…

Key points

  • We cannot pretend that watered-down definitions of the principles are good enough and therefore our e-learning is just fine.
  • It seems 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.

Have you heard of the term ‘andragogy’ ‒ the theory of adult learning? It assumes several things about how adults learn. It’s a subject I’ve been drawn to since my early uni days. I still do, because to design effective e-learning for adults, I 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.

Many training programmes and packages totally disregard these principles. It’s the same with e-learning.

I pulled off the shelf my all-time favourite book on adult learning —‘Understanding and facilitating adult learning’ by Stephen Brookfield — and examined the principles in more detail. 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 eWorkshops (mostly in Moodle). An interesting exercise.

Note: eWorkshops are structured online-learning events, which are facilitated and collaborative. They’re built on a backbone of problem-based team and whole group activities. eWorkshops are mostly asynchronous and typically require a learner commitment of around four–five hours per week over a period of five to ten weeks.

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.”

We’re giving adults the freedom to do the training in their own time. However, this is also about the way the training process gives a sense of control to the learner. In our self-paced e-learning modules, we do the most obvious: never lock down navigation. It’s a big no-no to do that. 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 as in real life.

However, how far can you really go? I feel for the many adult learners who need to work through ‘packaged’ training modules. It always seems somewhat contrived, regardless of the multiple efforts to respect this adult learning principle. And 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.” 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 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 training.

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 of training such as problem-solving.

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. In self-paced e-learning we should at least try to convince the learners with more than just objectives. This can be done by starting the training with a real-life scenario or a story where most learners would not know what to do. 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 have life application. Why is it then that we still see so many recall quizzes in self-paced e-learning? If we’re taking adult learners seriously we should stay away from short-memory checks.

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.

Up to a certain extent I’m happy with the way well-designed e-learning can replicate real-life decisions. But 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 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. E-facilitator as well as peer feedback is extensive and further enhances the relevance because it directly builds on people’s problem-solving suggestions based on their own situations.

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. Wrong. Interactivity happens in the brain, not the hand. Interaction is a two-way process.

Good self-paced e-learning designers 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 apply the results in the workplace at the same time and report back. Because eWorkshops are facilitated and collaborative, feedback 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 suggesting ideas. Trained e-facilitators show respect for the learners in many ways, including in the way these experiences are then woven into the course. The learning culture established and nurtured by the e-facilitators typically encourages peers to do the same.

eWorkshops provide for many opportunities in which 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 versus self-paced learning. We need to continuously explore many more delivery approaches while staying true to the adult learning principles. Asynchronous eWorkshops based on collaborative problem-based learning methods is one example that offers more opportunities to adhere to these principles.

I would love to hear about how your approaches to learning design are rooted in the way adults learn…

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