Posted by: Gillian | January 27, 2011

Designing for adult learners as individuals

Typically, adult learners want to know what to do (to pass or to make best use of their time) and simultaneously to be allowed to tackle a course as they themselves see fit because, after all, they are intelligent adults, not children.  This challenge for learning design was brought into focus last night by contrasting the presentations given in the two open courses being run by Stephen Downes ( CCK11 ) and George Siemens ( LAK11 ) – but there may be a way forward and the question is whether that way is driven by the individual or by institutions.

The independent intelligent adult picking and choosing their own learning path has some interesting cognitive science on which to draw to make their case.  George Lakoff‘s work on frameworks and metaphors in language shows how deeply personal context affects meaning. (See part2 of his Commonwealth Club speech.) This work is being developed in the FrameNet project that is familiar to many linguists but to take a simple example, think of the word ‘dinner’: when do you eat dinner, how many courses, what is on the plate, do you even have a plate?  Taking that further, Charles Fillmore has shown that all words are framed in all languages and the context is important so ‘dinner’ in La Paz, Bolivia is unlikely to mean the same as ‘dinner’ in Alicante, Spain.  If you add to that Damasio‘s discovery that people cannot think rationally without involving emotion and his view that, “because personal and social decisions are inextricable from survival, the knowledge also includes facts and mechanisms concerning the regulation of the organism as a whole,”it becomes imperative to see adult learners with their decades of context as individuals.  It is quite simply illogical to present one set of learning materials, one pathway and expect all students to emerge at the end with exactly the same set of knowledge or even the required set of knowledge.

Individualised pathways, however, cost money and learners themselves often want signposts for the quickest route to a given end – usually a qualification. Way back in 1987, Chickering and Gamson came up with seven principles of undergraduate learning design which still underpin many of today’s courses:

1 Encourages contacts between students and faculty
2 Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students
3 Uses active learning techniques
4 Gives prompt feedback
5 Emphasizes time on task
6 Communicates high expectations
7 Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Point5 is certainly open to debate and if ‘ways of learning’ is translated as the need to apply learning styles theory there are plenty of educators who retort that successful graduates need to learn to adapt to contexts and pandering to learning styles is counter-productive as well as expensive. Educators are however looking for what Kim Arnold called ‘actionable intelligence’; the results of learning analytics that allow timely interventions in individual student learning on an institutionally constrained learning pathway.  The Purdue Signals project and work by others (e.g. Assessment Group International) allows both individual students and teachers to see when a combination of performance factors is likely to lead to real difficulties later.  Collecting and analysing this information is not simple and the feedback loop must be short if it is to be relevant to an individual so there are major challenges for widespread implementation but a start has been made.

Is this the dawn of a much more scientifically personalised approach to lifelong learning?  Lakoff states that many cognitive connections are entrenched by the age of 5 but the Orwellian prospect of mapping learning from that age is (fortunately!) unrealistic.  As life unfolds, extra experiences are added and our mental maps adapt.  When we arrive at the start of a course, we are patently not ‘just’ the person we were aged 5.  If the teaching staff have some way of analysing the learner’s cognitive map (e.g. through relevant clearly designed activities in pre-tests and the first few sessions), then the most effective delivery and support mechanisms can be put into place – but that suits the institution’s completion rate data at least as much as it suits the learner.  How much more useful it would be if the learner could take that analysis and own it – rather like a private (non-NHS) medical record – and keep adding to it. It could be a private appendix to a learning portfolio to be shared with mentors, learning counsellors and careers advisors as and when necessary.  Indeed, if this were to happen and feedback loops were kept short enough to adapt to job-market realities, your careers advisor might become as much a part of your life management system as your tax advisor and that can only be good news for careers advisors!


  1. I’m in both LAK11 and CCK11 too (although not keeping up as well as I would like) and am particularly interested in self-regulated learning projects accessible and gently moderated online.

    • Hi Vanessa. Grsshopper seems to be a great tool for the job judging by @downes and @gsiemens comments just now. Decentralised content, powerful networks and content aggregators are much more in keeping with a knowledge economy than many top-down LMSs…

  2. Gillian ~ I’m already using gRaSShopper, plus rss feeds in my reader: I find the combination works better than gRaSShopper alone. If just one for personal learning, I’d probably go with my rss reader as that’s already my information network but still use gRaSShopper and keep it in mind

    It’s more of a TIME thing as I’m doing the two MOOCs at the same time as an online workshop (EVO, TESOL) and teaching. Additionally, I am committed to local community news and networking blogging and managing social media for a national academic advocacy organization and a disaster relief t-shelter provider… among other projects.

    For a learning delivery /open platform, my overburdened learning curve begs me to stick with familiar applications for now. Locals I hope to interest in online self-regulated learning do not take well to the unfamiliar, so best to start by adapting systems in their comfort zones

    • Quite agree on all counts!! I’m impressed with grasshopper’s desire to de-centralise content and that has a huge potential but there are massive practical and emotional hurdles to be overcome before institutions and companies feel comfortable with that.

  3. I too like and feel quite comfortable with G’s de-centeralizing affect, more than in highly (over) structured LMS, but then I’ve been a self-regulated learner most of my life, which means I’ve had a long time to learn how.

    In addition to obvious of tech skills and motivation, many adult (and young adult) learners who would be the natural users of open online ed resources for independent, self paced learning need to learn how to learn. Teaching developmental (non-credit remedial) courses in community colleges drove that home.

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