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Preparing Adult Learners for Success in Blended Learning through Onboarding: A pilot study

By Anita Samuel, Steven Durning, Holly Meyer / September 2021

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Blended learning combines traditional face-to-face instruction and online instruction [1]. Advances in technology have broadened the scope of defining blended learning wherein traditional face-to-face interaction can be conducted via videoconferencing technologies. Blended learning can also be defined as a combination of synchronous (same time, same or different place) and asynchronous (different time, different place) learning activities. This technologically enhanced version of blended learning is increasingly popular with adult learners. It capitalizes on the strengths and minimizes the drawbacks of synchronous and asynchronous teaching and interaction. For example, in blended learning, access is flexible, and feelings of isolation are reduced.

Adult learners are a growing educational demographic. In 2016, the largest group of adult learners gaining certificates or licenses were those with a graduate or professional degree [2]. These practicing professionals are challenged by work and personal commitments as they re-enter the educational environment. Practicing professionals, accomplished in their work environments, can find transitioning back to the academic setting stressful [3]. Furthermore, the online learning environment may be foreign to them, adding to their stress and discomfort as returning learners.

Blended learning mitigates but does not eliminate the challenges of online learning. Technology frequently challenges adult learners participating in blended learning programs. They are also confronted with differing levels of interaction with peers and the instructor since interaction works differently in an asynchronous environment. Orientation for online learning can help prepare learners to work more effectively in the online learning environment. This paper outlines the design and implementation of an innovative longitudinal orientation process for adult learners in a blended learning program.

Literature Review: Orientation and Onboarding

Most institutions of higher education in North America offer some form of orientation for new learners. These orientation programs transition learners into the “educational, intellectual, and social climate” [4] of the institution. In addition to institutional climate and educational expectations, orientations for online learners typically address three competency areas: technological skills, interaction skills, and self-directed learning skills. Learners in blended learning programs also need to be successful in these competency areas.

Technological skills. Providing learners with the skills to effectively use technology is a crucial aspect of orientation [5]. Expectations of technological expertise usually include using the institution’s learning management system [5, 6, 7] and familiarity with technologies learners will be using most often such as email [5], word processing programs, and presentation programs [7].

Interaction skills. The online environment has three types of interaction: learner-learner interaction, learner-instructor interaction, and learner-content interaction [8]. New learners need to engage effectively in these interactions. For example, a large portion of asynchronous communications occurs via email or the learning management system (LMS). These interactions are time delayed and require expertise in reading and writing [9,10]. Orientations should help learners understand the need to reach out for help proactively, interact without real-time feedback [6], and use online etiquette [11]. Orientations are safe spaces to practice these skills.

Self-directed learning skills. While online learning provides flexibility, it also means that learners need to be self-directed and skilled in time management [5, 9,12]. Furthermore, they need to be self-motivated and able to work collaboratively [13]. Therefore, orientation needs to clarify these core competencies for learners to ensure their success and retention in the program.

Orientations typically occur before the start of the academic year and can be a series of week-long events. Online orientations are usually self-paced [6], incorporating specific activities [13] and/or just-in-time resources. Onboarding is a corporate version of orientation. During onboarding, new employees are acculturated into the organizational culture. Through collaborative and interactive activities, they are introduced to peers, organizational requirements, and the culture. Like orientation, onboarding aims to increase satisfaction and retention [3]. However, unlike orientation, onboarding can continue through the first year of the employees’ term [14].

Innovation Context

In 2016, the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences launched the blended online

Health Professions Education program to serve a niche population of practicing health professionals (e.g., physicians, dentists, nurses) in the U.S. military. The program offers various certificates in health professions education (HPE), two master’s degrees, and one doctoral degree in HPE. The ages of learners in the program range from 23 to 64 and they are returning adult learners balancing family and work responsibilities. The courses in the program are offered primarily asynchronously, with two mandatory synchronous sessions conducted via video conferencing technologies. The Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences refers to this format as blended learning. The program is a combination of face-to-face and computer-mediated instruction, which is a university requirement for degree-seeking individuals.

The Health Professions Education program implemented a longitudinal onboarding intervention to provide robust support as learners transition back to the educational environment to address the challenges of a blended program. Onboarding spans the first six months of a learner’s time in the program.

Onboarding aims to:

  1. familiarize learners with the blended learning environment and technologies,
  2. introduce institutional support services,
  3. explain programmatic expectations,
  4. provide strategies for success in the blended learning environment [15], and
  5. create a sense of community between learners and between learners and faculty [3].

Conceptual Framework

Onboarding was designed based on adult learning principles of andragogy and self-directed learning (SDL) framed by Moore’s three levels of interaction [8]. Onboarding includes activities at all three interaction levels (see Table 1). Onboarding involves interaction between the learner and their academic advisor who assumes the role of instructor. 

Table 1. Alignment of activities and theories.

[click to enlarge]

Knowles’ andragogical framework [16] includes five assumptions: (1) adult learners direct their learning, (2) they are internally motivated, (3) have personal experiences that influence their learning, (4) are problem-centered and want to put their learning to practice immediately, and (5) are guided by their social roles [17]. Drawing on these assumptions, during onboarding, learners complete a series of programmatic requirements using technologies they will use in the program. The onboarding activities are, therefore, problem-centered and serve a specific purpose. For example, learners provide a personal introduction where they share some of their life experiences. This introduction enables learner-learner interaction and is conducted on the LMS that learners will be using in the program.

The theory of SDL posits that adult learners take the initiative in their learning journey, including identifying resources, choosing their learning path and learning strategies, and evaluating outcomes [16]. Guided by these principles, the tasks in onboarding are not linear, and learners can select the order in which to complete the tasks. Moreover, learners have access to several resources as a part of onboarding, and they can select and use the resources as needed. Finally, a checklist is given to learners to track their progress and evaluate their outcomes in onboarding.

Innovation Design

Onboarding is a longitudinal process of integrating new learners into the program and its culture. When a learner enters the program, they are assigned an academic advisor who is a faculty member. The academic advisor initiates onboarding, which begins at least a month before learners take their first blended course in the program. Since blended learning courses incorporate synchronous and asynchronous activities, onboarding was designed to familiarize learners with both environments.

Onboarding comprises of five main activities:

  1. welcome email
  2. self-paced online module (SOM)
  3. community building synchronous session
  4. one-to-one meetings
  5. regular check-ins (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Model of HPE onboarding process.

[click to enlarge]

Each activity in onboarding is designed from an adult learning perspective, as shown in Table 1.

1.     Welcome email
Onboarding (see Figure 1) begins with a personal welcome email that the academic advisor sends to each learner. This email can help mitigate feelings of isolation and distance that new learners can experience [6]. The welcome email also provides information about the SOM that learners are required to complete. Upon entering a new program, learners may feel lost, and these activities help provide a structure [6].

2. Self-paced online module (SOM)
The SOM presents a series of activities that learners complete over 30 days. Upon entering a new blended learning environment, learners must navigate the online platform and understand the course layout. Therefore, the SOM is located on the institution’s LMS and uses a layout similar to the layout of all courses in the program. Hence, learners gain a sense of how materials are organized in course sites and can practice navigating the LMS in a low-risk environment. 

Learners might not be familiar with all the technological tools they need to use. They might also encounter technical difficulties when using these tools. To provide hands-on experience with the different technologies, a series of task-oriented activities are presented in the SOM. Every activity serves multiple objectives. For example, all new learners to the programs have to submit an educational philosophy statement. In the SOM, learners receive guidance on creating their philosophy statement in a Google Doc and uploading it via Google Drive. Through this, they learn how to use these essential technologies in the programs.

When entering a new program, learners need to gain an understanding of the program structure and requirements. The SOM includes various documents such as the program handbook and program of study. Learners review these documents to later discuss in detail with their academic advisor during one-to-one meetings. To be self-directed and self-motivated [3], learners are introduced to the program’s Student Support Resources website, a one-stop resource for institutional support services and strategies for success in blended learning.

Starting a new educational program can create a sense of isolation in the learners which is exacerbated in the blended learning environment. Therefore, learners post a personal introduction on the LMS discussion board, which helps them test out the technology while getting to know their peers and hopefully build a sense of community [18].

3. Synchronous community meeting
Within the first 30 days in the program, new learners are invited to participate in a synchronous session with other learners in the program. The session, called “Chat with the Director,” is led by the center director accompanied by several academic advisors. This session helps learners continue building connections with their peers and also conveys the culture of the program. This session is conducted via Google Meet or Zoom, and learners can test out the technologies used by the program.

4. One-to-one meeting with the advisor
At the end of the first 30 days, academic advisors schedule synchronous one-to-one meetings with their advisees to check in, discuss programmatic requirements in detail, and clarify any questions learners might have. These meetings are conducted in-person, over the phone, or via video conferencing, depending on the learners’ preference, thereby offering learners flexibility [19] and choice.

5. Regular check-ins
Over the next six months, advisors regularly check in with their advisees. These check-ins help ensure that learner needs are being met, they feel comfortable and included in the program, and are able to cope with their courses.


Learners provided feedback about their experiences with onboarding via a short anonymous questionnaire distributed at the end of the first month of onboarding. Since these responses were collected for evaluation purposes, the institution deemed that this protocol (DBS.2020.171) does not require Institutional Review Board (IRB) review.

The questionnaire posed three questions:

  1. Which activity(ies) have helped you feel most engaged in the program? (Multiple choice with the following options)
    1. One-on-one meeting with advisor
    2. Email(s) from advisor
    3. Reviewing program of study
    4. Reviewing the HPE Handbook
    5. Chat with Director
    6. Posting in discussion board (e.g., personal introductions)
    7. Completing the competency survey
    8. Writing philosophy statement
    9. Other
  2. What about the HPE onboarding process was most confusing/puzzling?
  3. Is there anything that you need/would appreciate further clarification on?

There were 88 respondents from three cohorts in the program. Question 1 had a 100 percent response rate while Questions 2 and 3 had response rates of 96.6 percent (n=85) and 86.21 percent (n=76) respectively.

Engagement with the program. For question one, 62.5 percent of the responses identified one-to-one meetings with the academic advisor as the activity that engaged them with the program. This was followed by emails from the advisor (36 percent) and “Reviewing the HPE Handbook” (29.55 percent). While the “Chat with Director” activity was designed to build community and engage learners with the program, learners selected the shared introductions on the LMS discussion board as more engaging (27 percent). See Table 2 for a breakdown of responses.

Table 2. Responses for survey Question 1.

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Response to the onboarding process. Question two was open-ended and asked, “What about the HPE onboarding process was most confusing/puzzling?” The data in this question was independently coded by authors AS and HM for thematic patterns. The themes that emerged are listed in Table 3.

Table 3. Responses for survey Question 2.

[click to enlarge]

Forty-one percent (n=36) of the respondents did not find anything confusing about the onboarding process. The primary challenges with onboarding were related to “Unclear instructions on how to complete tasks and navigate technology” (18 percent) and “Issues encountered with using the technologies” (18 percent).

Question 3 asked, “Is there anything that you need/would appreciate further clarification on?” and 69 percent (n=60) of respondents did not need further clarification on any issue; 18 percent of the respondents encountered technical problems; and another 18 percent noted the instructions on technology use were insufficient, thereby causing confusion. Ten percent of the respondents wanted further clarification on specific programmatic requirements. Table 4 provides a breakdown of the themes that emerged from Question 3. 

Table 4. Responses for survey Question 3.

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Upon completing onboarding, only 20 percent of respondents were confused about certain elements such as technology and program expectations. All respondents found the various activities helped them engage with the program.


This longitudinal onboarding process was developed to help adult learners transition successfully into a blended learning environment while preparing them for success in the HPE program. Success in a blended learning program typically depends on various factors, including robust academic advising, technology training, and using a cohort model [7]. The onboarding at the Health Professions Education program combines all these elements as each cohort of new learners participates in onboarding. In addition, the learners are supported by one-to-one interactions with their academic advisors as they learn the technologies in use at the program.

The combination of personal attention balanced with the flexibility of self-paced activities provides adult learners with the support they need while respecting their schedules and workload. This also allows for individualization as those who are less comfortable with technology can request assistance, and others who are more comfortable can proceed at their own pace. All onboarding activities are conducted using technologies that learners will be using throughout the program.

While instructional videos and how-to documents are provided, onboarding moves beyond passive didactics to real-life scenarios and hands-on experience. All the activities fulfill a programmatic purpose. This task-oriented contextualization of activities respects the time commitment of learners while also enabling them to develop their technical skills in contexts they will be experiencing in their blended courses [5].

This onboarding is constantly evolving in response to learner needs. For example, noting the feedback about vague instructions, new materials that provide better instructions are being developed. In addition, to address the technology challenges faced during onboarding, a 90-minute synchronous Zoom session that will provide a technology overview and discuss strategies for being a successful online learner, such as time management and netiquette, is being designed.

Onboarding can be adapted to various blended learning educational contexts. The critical aspects of this model are one-to-one personalized interaction, building community, and tracking programmatic requirements. These elements can be tailored to suit the needs of any institution or program. For example, if a program does not use discussion boards on the LMS, the activity can be removed and replaced with another, more relevant, community-building activity.

While onboarding can be modified to suit any blended learning program involving adult learners, it does pose a few challenges. Primarily, it needs an investment of resources of time and personnel. Personnel with technical skills are needed to develop and maintain the self-paced online module. In addition, a meaningful time commitment is required to create a comprehensive onboarding process. We recommend using the Rapid Prototyping Model to design the onboarding process [20]. Rapid prototyping will allow for a shorter timeline and engages constant evaluation and improvement of the process. Finally, an ongoing time commitment from academic advisors is needed to maintain regular one-to-one interactions with their advisees.

As a pilot study, the evaluation questions only focused on learner perceptions of the activities included in onboarding. A more robust evaluation of this onboarding innovation should survey learners at the end of six months to assess if the activities effectively prepared them for the program. We continue to adapt and refine our process keeping in mind the unique needs of our learners.


Onboarding is an effective way to engage learners within a blended learning environment. As more adults enroll in blended learning programs, an orientation to technology and institutional culture is vital to increase retention and create a positive learning experience. Onboarding requires a longer time commitment, but it ensures that learners feel fully integrated into a program. A holistic approach to onboarding for blended learning programs should integrate synchronous and asynchronous activities to prepare learners for the courses effectively. An online, self-paced module provides flexibility and agency for adult learners. Establishing one-to-one interactions between advisors and learners is appreciated by learners and worth the time commitment. Finally, clear instructions are important for learners.


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About the Authors

Anita Samuel, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and Assistant Director of Distance Learning at the Center for Health Professions Education, Uniformed Services University and Henry M. Jackson Foundation for Military Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland. 

Steven J. Durning, M.D., Ph.D., is Professor and Director of the Center for Health Professions Education, Uniformed Services University, Bethesda, Maryland.

Holly S. Meyer, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and Associate Director of Student Affairs at the Center for Health Professions Education, Uniformed Services University, Bethesda, Maryland.

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