Week 2: Overview

Online and Adult Learning

Seminal research among adult learning theorists (e.g., Knowles, 1973; Merriam and Caffarella, 1999; Merriam, 1993) revealed that:

  • adults continue to learn after completing their formal education
  • adults learn differently than children
  • adults learn in purposeful, self-directed ways

Malcolm Knowles was a big name in adult education. He argued that adults...

  • need to know why they need to learn something
  • need to learn experientially
  • approach learning as problem-solving
  • learn best when the topic is of immediate value

Although Knowles' research (and others who contributed to ideas about adult learning) caused a paradigm shift in the way courses were designed and how teachers taught, the world of higher education has become increasingly complex.

Due to many changes in society, teachers needs to be sensitive to the learning needs of an increasingly diverse audience; adult learners come from different cultures, are at various stages in their educational path, experience different demands from personal circumstances and work demands, and have far greater access to educational choices due to the development of an increasingly connected world with ubiquitous access and mobile devices.

The array of learning technologies, the pace of change in different academic fields, the possibilities introduced by educational technologies, and a renewed emphasis on experiential, inquiry, project-based and mastery learning approaches, makes the task of teaching adults effectively online one that requires all the creativity and skills that teachers can apply.

We hope that you'll share what you know and have experienced about teaching adults, and explore new ideas around improving your practice in the online environment.

How do we meet the needs of adult learners online?

Certain strategies and approaches seem to work well, including providing choice and inviting adult learners to leverage their experience, using coaching, dialogical models, and team-based learning reinforce a facilitative rather than directive approach to instruction. And meeting adult learners where they are, with active (experiential), relevant, applicable learning experiences will go far to support engagement and ultimately learning.