Posted by: Gillian | March 20, 2009

Adults, online learning, competence and instructional design

While working with the dynamic professionals at ArtsMatrix who act as business advisors to anyone in any of the creative arts (architecture, theatre, sculpture, music, etc) in their region, two very different academic queries were made on LinkedIn and, once again, the pernicious thought that ‘adults are different’ was put into sharp contrast with reality.  Huge thanks are due to Robin Maria Pedrero who blogs, Facebooks and Twitters with ease while also painting amazing picturesShe was the first of a number of art professionals around the world who, by being there and responding to links, helped  illustrate the new business tools now being deployed by ArtsMatrix.  That, in turn,  led to the contrast with the strangely persistent view in some quarters that academic learning using online methods is really for those under 30.

Yes, the expectations of adult learners – who are often part-time – are different from those of 18 year-olds but a lot of other factors need to be taken into account.  Here is a summary of some of the points made in my LinkedIn communications:

  1. Familiarity with the online environment may be a differentiator in learning online and not necessarily in favour of the younger/trad student – see Janet Clarey’s BrandonHall research summarised in her slideshow that shows factors other than age are more important.  In the ArtsMatrix case, access to sufficiently highspeed internet connections for both sender and receiver was a key factor.
  2. Older learners often have a history of self-directed learning (heutagogy) even when they would not necessarily call it such.  This is particularly the case in heavily competence-based formal learning programmes where adults may, of necessity, have considerable experience of ‘just finding out how to…’  There is plentiful academic research on how this affects the learning cycle (e.g. Mezirow).
  3. Regardless of whether it is online or face-to-face, broadly-speaking adults have far less tolerance of professors who do not deliver what they say, when they say or who are only two pages ahead of the class in the textbook. Time is money in a more literal sense.
  4. Networking and use of the prof’s contact list is likely to be seen as a normal activity.
  5. Resentment may be present in a way that it rarely is with those newly liberated from compulsory education.  In entry-level courses, adults may be fearful and/or resentful and that means programs need careful structuring to respect us as adults not treat us as anomolous teenagers. In higher level courses, resentment can arise because professionals have been ‘sent’ on a course or ‘have to’ do a Masters because the career bar has been raised since they left school. In these cases, the program and the prof really must deliver quality content and involve adults as contributing seekers of consensus/knowledge.
  6. Academics’ contact hours tend to come as a bit of a surprise.  EU laws notwithstanding, businesses are expected to respond to customers, if not instantly, then at least within one day, seven days a week.  So, what do you mean, the prof’s on sabbatical and the library is not open now?
  7. Simulations are a great learning tool at all levels.  They are used by major business schools, corporations and NGOs the world over and can be run highly successfully at a distance and asynchronously because, after all, that is how businesses often work.  However, activities that are fun but extraneous to achieving the stated course Outcomes need to be included only after very careful thought.  We like fun but the business won’t run itself and the children need collecting…  Poorly constructed simulations can be more ‘fun’ than learning.
  8. The ability of adult returners (online or not) to write an analytical essay rather than a business proposal can be a major stumbling block. As adults, we ‘know’ what needs doing it is easy to tell without putting in all the alternatives and balancing the arguments. On the plus side, our grasp of referencing and width of reading is often better than that of the 18 year olds – once we start doing it.
  9. Online infrastructure that does not work will lead to drop-outs with letters to the press – or mass migration to a company system that does work but breaks College/University Quality Assurance rules.
  10. Tolerance of rigid “instructional design” and pages that must be completed before continuing will be close to zero.  When the first “programmed learning” courses appeared and I had to review them, some did not even let you close the program until you had got to the end.  I cooked supper while the children were bribed to click through to the end.  Then I could reject the programs.  Today, such extremes are rare but not unknown and learning design that does not allow multiple points of entry and exit is still mostly destined for my ‘delete’ pile.  There are exceptions – mostly where health and safety are involved so competence must be rigorously assessed (e.g. medicine) or building-block skills need to be acquired to allow confident and effective access to higher level courses (e.g. computer programming).  Still, for the most part, learning design and adaptive scaffolding of learning opportunities lead to a richer and more creative experience for all whether student/learner or teacher, 18 or 80, employed or not, on-campus or online.  Adult learners are people, too.


  1. I am glad to be of assistance! Thank you for sharing the links to my site and work. I also want to share that as online markets grow for artists, the aspects of shipping and providing various levels of price points effects our creating. I have added my images to products, like coffee mugs, hats flip video cameras. I teach mini art business classes to local artists who don’t know how to navigate their way to success online and I share basic tools and show them a step by step process to develop their business presence and branding.

    • Robin, it’s a pleasure to have met you in cyberspace and I suspect we may be having more conversations around artists and the Web – as well as your art itself, of course!

  2. […] Read­ m­­ore from­­ th­e original­ sou­rc­e: A­d­ult­s, o­­nline lea­r­ning­, co­­mpet­enc… […]

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