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What I Learned from Teaching Adult Learners Online

By Denise A. Blake / December 2009

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One summer, I was asked to take over an online course (in a master of education program) that had already begun. I accepted the job, but with hesitation. I knew the course material because it was within my field of expertise, but I had never taught an online course or taught masters-level students.

I asked a colleague for help in determining what course material to use. Since my colleague had originally designed the course and had taught online for many years, I figured she would be the logical contact.

My colleague was a tremendous resource in determining both the amount and type of material to use. After spending a week sorting through and updating the materials, I posted the course requirements online. I had already contacted the students to let them know that they were not behind (seeing as I had taken over a course that was already in progress), and that I would be the new instructor. After that initial point of contact, I used email to correspond with the students and Blackboard to post assignments and the syllabus, and for discussions between students.

Because the class was a skills course on how to evaluate articles for a literature review, I had the students read articles of their choice (related to their thesis topics) and evaluate them according to specific criteria. They posted the articles and evaluations on Blackboard. Additionally, the students were asked to read other students' articles and evaluations, and then comment on at least two postings.

I found that I had to be explicit in explaining what I expected for each assignment and in drafting the syllabus. I made certain that the students understood what was expected of them, such as what time the assignments were due and when their feedback on other articles were to be posted. This was one of the most challenging academic activities I have ever tried to do.

I was curious: What experiences have others had teaching online, and are they similar to my own? What did I need to know about masters-level students? And what exactly would I need to do to teach a quality online course?

In this article, I share my findings. In the end, I will reflect on how well my first online teaching experience went.

Adult Learners in the U.S.
Back when I was an undergraduate at Auburn University, the students were in their late teens and early 20s. The graduate students were in their late 20s and early 30s. It's interesting how a few decades have changed the education landscape.

Today, the vast majority of students seeking a higher education are working adults who balance families and jobs. As early as the year 2000, 43 percent of postsecondary students in the U.S. were adult learners (age 25 years and older), and about 60 percent of all U.S. higher education students were classified as non-traditional (Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, 2000, citing in part the National Center for Educational Statistics).

It's estimated that by 2014, there could be a shortage of 9 million qualified workers because many future jobs will require a postsecondary degree—that's the main reason adults are now studying for a postsecondary degree (Chao, DeRocca, & Flynn, 2007).

Adults have not only gone back to school, but are also active computer and Internet users, which makes it easy for them to consider an online course of study a viable option.

I remember taking my first online course in graduate school. It was an interesting experience, but I can see why it's not for everybody, and why it's not a good idea with certain types of courses. Online learners have to be motivated and able to work independently. Since my course was being taught to teachers, I figured they were all self-starters and motivated. And being actively employed teachers, the students did not have a lot of spare time to be sitting in a formal classroom.

The Reality of Adult Learners Online
I was somewhat concerned about the students and the lack of personal attention they would be receiving through my online course. Since I did not know them, I didn't know their learning styles or cultural differences.

Adult learners in particular have different learning styles and cultural backgrounds, and they may feel they are being left out of learning activities (Baloglu, 2007). Thus, distance learning may cause a psychological, as well as a physical, gap (Durrington, Berryhill, & Swafford, 2006). Students may feel lonely, and a lack of face-to-face communication and competition can affect their motivation.

Barriers for adult learners are categorized as situational, institutional, and dispositional. A person's circumstances in life at any given time are considered potential situational barriers. Different policies and practices may make course participation more difficult are considered institutional barriers. Students' attitudes about their own abilities to succeed are considered dispositional barriers. These barriers present additional obstacles for adult learners who attempt to obtain an advanced degree (Spellman, 2007).

I found these adult learners, who were teachers, to be motivated and very timely in turning in their assignments and posting on Blackboard. Having them complete assignments that benefited their theses made them even more enthusiastic about completing the work. They all asked questions and sought clarification about things they didn't understand. They also did an excellent job commenting on the other students' posts.

By the end of the course, I could see a definite improvement in the content of their article evaluations. I think they were learning from one another.

The adult learners I taught were clearly self-directed and able to be autonomous. They had life knowledge and were goal-oriented. It seems they wanted to see the relevance and application of their education, were practical, needed respect, needed feedback, and had to be interested in the subject matter (Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, 2000; Henick, 1994).

The reasons adult learners obtain a post-secondary degree tend to differ from those of traditional students. Adult learners typically want to advance in an organization. An additional degree also makes them more marketable and competitive in the job market and allows them to change careers (Milheim, 2005).

The Reality of Online Instructors
Experts tell us that to be effective at online instruction, a professor needs to establish a student-centered learning environment. Students need to feel as if they are connected to others by establishing dialogue and interacting with other students and the professor. By interacting with others, adult learners become more collaborative, judgmental, reflective, and integrative (Spellman, 2007).

Student-centered instruction also acknowledges the real-life experiences and knowledge adult learners bring to class. Using more methods of learning, such as teamwork, group discussions, skills practices, technologies, and case studies, allows adult learners to benefit from active engagement in learning because these methods draw on their experiences from work and life (Chao et al., 2007).

Most online instructors have learned by trial and error. To improve, instructors have to put themselves in the role of the learner. An instructor needs to focus on connecting with the students and creating a learning environment that helps them overcome any worries they might have.

From One to Another
Since adult students learn from past experiences, the online instructor should institute a teaching-learning process that includes a high degree of interaction between the adult learners themselves as well as between the adult learners and the instructor.

Adult learners should be considered co-creators of knowledge. The instructor should design the learning experience and projects with the assistance of adult learners and related to the adult learners work and personal lives.

Since people have different learning styles, multiple instructional methods should be used. Assessing the learning process will enhance the learners' competency and self-confidence. Present material in a way that incorporates issues that the adult learner understands. Develop a collaborative learning experience (Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, 2000). The adult learners and online instructors interact in different ways because the instructional activities—lectures, discussions, workshops, assignments, projects, socialization and assessments—are presented in an open fashion. Online delivery can provide instant feedback, opening an opportunity for horizontal or peer learning. This leads to greater motivation and support (Guilbaud, 2008).

Online instructors should increase student interactivity and enhance learning experiences. They can do this if they provide learning environments that are supportive, open and respectful, use clear and detailed syllabus, create a frequently asked questions area, respond to student inquiries in a timely manner, communicate explicitly the tone of response, use asynchronous instructor mediated discussions, use student moderated discussions, and use problem-based learning. Thus, the goal of online instruction is to create a stimulating, interactive learning environment (Durrington, Berryhill, & Swafford, 2006).

Creating highly hands-on totally participatory and high impact learning situations provides a higher degree of satisfaction for both the adult learner and the online instructor.

Learning can be designed in a targeted fashion because of technology. Learners are at the center of all educational activities and programs. Online instruction should implement courses and facilitate strategies to overcome the barriers adult learners face. They should encourage personal contact, discussing differences and similarities of the different students and allow students to get to know one another (Milheim, 2005). Online instructors can customize a curriculum by discussing adult learner interests. Instructors should consider a wide range of topics and learning approaches, activities and experiences (Hunt, 2008).

For online instructors the greatest obstacle is time. It takes more time to manage online courses than classroom courses. Also, instructors need to be trained not only in the technology for online instruction, but in effectively teaching online courses (Dempsey et al., 2008).

Providing timely feedback, in the proper tone, to adult learners influences the atmosphere of online learning. Asynchronous instructor-mediated discussions help students become interactive which in turn enhances individual performance and satisfaction.

The instructor needs to set minimum guidelines for contributions to discussions. To encourage more in-depth participation, students can be asked questions directly related to their postings. It is as important for students to have exchanges among themselves as it is for students to have exchanges with their instructor.

Another way to foster student interaction is problem-based learning. For example, the instructor can present a real world scenario to small groups and have each group develop solutions to the problem (Durrington et al., 2006).

Online instructors should plan by finding out what is salient and worthwhile to the students. They should also find out how traditional course content can be transformed to an online format and how that content can be distributed evenly over the semester.

Online instructors also need to know what online instruction is and how it is effectively delivered. The instructors need to know their students' backgrounds, and learning styles as well as the students' technology knowledge. By knowing these factors, online instructors can tailor the course to the needs of the students.

Other questions instructors should address include what instructional materials and resources are relevant for online instructors and how will the format look online. Are the assignments appropriate? How much time will be devoted to online instruction? The online course needs to be designed to cover the content students need and give them opportunities to practice applying the content to real life situations. (Inyega & Ratliff, 2007).

The syllabus needs to be very specific with no details left out, including the exact time assignments are due. Also, in the syllabus, be clear about how students have an online discussion. Remind students how their postings might be perceived by others.

In discussion forums, the online instructor becomes a facilitator, moderating and learning. This encourages cooperative learning among students, too. Provide conversational techniques modeled postings and interaction formats to encourage students to take ownership of the learning activities. Select and filter information for student consideration by asking probing and thought-provoking questions. This helps students develop reasoning skills and promotes the learner-centered approach (Inyega & Ratliff, 2007).

Online courses should support instruction, collaboration, socialization, and informal exchange. A successful learning environment must stress collaboration. Students perform at higher intellectual levels when they work collaboratively. By providing give-and-take tasks, online instructors can help learners be active in constructing knowledge. Instructor support helps motivate and retain learners. Socialization and informal exchange enhances the interaction among learners and between learners and instructors. By being active learners, students work more effectively with the instructor to create a partnership in learning subjects (Nehme, 2008).

To provide for a quality online learning experience, the instructor needs to obtain as much training on the technology to be used as possible as well as practice and hone these skills before starting the online course.

Instructors should start by using the basic technologies and tools and have the students learn or review the basics also. After everyone is comfortable with these technologies and tools, more advanced techniques can be used.

Instructors must be prepared for technology problems, be organized, and have a well thought out and specific syllabus and assignments (Nehme, 2008). A quality online course should specify educational objectives, put student tasks into manageable components, and identify the learning process involved. By using different teaching methods the instructor can have tasks combined to end in an integrated whole as well as provide feedback, validation, and assessment (Gujjar & Malik, 2007).

Personal Reflection
After reading what I should have done and reflecting on what I did do, I feel as though I actually did a good job at teaching my first online course. I was explicit in giving assignments. I told students what was expected of them and the timeline for their projects. I prepared a syllabus that was clear on the course expectations and how the assignments would be graded. By having the students respond to each other's assignments, the students learned in a collaborative environment.

I immediately responded to each student after an assignment was turned in just to let the student know I had received the work. I returned assignments within three days so that the student could take what was learned on each assignment and apply it to the very next assignment. And all the work led up to the students preparing a mini literature review.

This was also a learning experience for me. It takes a lot of time to teach an online course. I was constantly checking Blackboard and responding to email. In the future, I will go over each assignment and make a test run with someone to make sure each requirement, assignment, and point on the syllabus are understandable and everything that I need to convey is posted. I will use more interactive technology to increase the interest in the course and the interaction among students. I will also make sure each assignment has meaning to the students and is not just busy work.

It was very rewarding and humbling to me when I received an email from the head of the education department that told of one student whose advisor had given me a big kudos for helping her student write a great literature review. I cherish that email.

Online courses are challenging for both the students as well as the professors. Students are faced with having to develop a sense of community among their classmates and instructor, while professors grapple with the amount of time it takes to prepare and deliver their materials online, especially if it is the first time they are teaching online.

Finding the right connection between these two components makes for a quality learning experience for both parties.


  • Tue, 08 Dec 2015
    Post by Damon Garn

    So I realize this is an older article and thread, but I found it helpful. I teach adults in a 1 week format (35 hours) online. My courses are technical computer courses rather than university-style classes. I'm curious what changes any of you may have seen in the past years since this article was published.

    Regardless, this was great information and I appreciate it. And the article led me to this (very useful) web site.

  • Wed, 10 Nov 2010
    Post by Tamara Korenman

    I too believe that on-line teaching and learning requires much more independent thinking from instructors and students that traditional (on-site) learning.

  • Wed, 13 Jan 2010
    Post by Katrina

    Good article!

    Katrina DigitalChalk

  • Wed, 06 Jan 2010
    Post by Judith McDaniel

    I concur with most of Denise's discoveries as she has reported them after teaching her first online course--and as she demonstrates, the literature and research about online learning supports her conclusions. I wish all first time online instructors were as careful as Denise seems to have been to learn about the environment of an online class before jumping in! For some of us, as she says, that has not been possible--and there has been a great deal of "seat of the pants" learning in this field.

    One area that is still be researched is the question of whether, as a result of learning styles, some students are not "able" to learn online or are not well-served by learning online. I was interested to read the recently published research by psychologist Harold Pashler, writing in an article published this month in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Pashler and his colleagues have found that the important factor in learning is that the method of teaching match the subject matter being taught. In my own experience (and articles published about it)I concur. I have not found a student who cannot benefit from online learning. Some subject matter, however, is still best taught face to face.