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The Coming Tsunami of Adult Learners: WHO

In a previous post, we interviewed Professor Stephen Higgins in preparation for ABHE 2018, a smaller accrediting body specifically for Bible colleges and seminaries. His unique perspective on adult learners comes from his varied background teaching adult learners and leading schools that appeal to adult learners, but his predictions are of interest to anyone who deals with adult learners. The timing is significant for two reasons:

1) Growing popularity of smaller or “boutique” accrediting bodies (such as ABHE or NCCET) and micro-credentialing vs. regional accrediting bodies (SACS COC or HLC),  and

2) Warning signs that a convergence of outside forces and student-led demands may be loosed on current forms of post-secondary education, affecting not only Higher Education but also corporate learning environments.

We will explore this topic – and how Edvance360 LMS is uniquely poised to assist our clients to serve these adult learners – in the next several blogs.

Over a decade ago, higher education experienced a huge (albeit slower than predicted) shift from wholly traditional methods of course delivery to a full-on acceptance (capitulation?) of online education. This shift was primarily driven by students’ demands for convenience in a technology-enabled world. We believe a shift is coming yet again: a tsunami of adult learners for whom the current methods of online educational program delivery will not be enough. To make our case we will answer the following questions:

  • WHO are these learners? (Characteristics)
  • WHAT are these learners looking for? (Results)
  • WHERE are they going? (outside degree-box)
  • WHY should eLearning Program directors care?
  • HOW can you position your online program to appeal to them?

Let’s answer the question: WHO are these learners?

From many sources on the internet (a Google Search of “adult learner characteristics” brings up a plethora of research options), our own client experience, and our own staff (who fit neatly into the “adult learner” category), we’ve compiled a list of generalized characteristics of the current and coming adult learners:

  • Autonomy: Adults typically prefer a sense of control and self-direction. To meet this need, provide options and choices in the LMS and the programs or “tracks” offered. Provide support for learners who will appreciate this approach, once they’ve tasted it.
    Tool: Use E360 Navigator to ask them what they would like to learn, then provide it.
  • Big Picture: Adults require the big picture view of what they’re learning. They need to know how the small parts fit into the larger landscape. Demonstrate the larger landscape by creating Learning Paths instead of one-off courses.
    Tool: Use Edvance360 Navigator, Learning Paths, and ePortfolios.
  • Competence: Adults like to gain competence in workplace skills, which boosts confidence and improves self-esteem which also leads to promotion. Meet this need by ensuring the skills the course will enable them to acquire are clearly stated up front.
    Tool: Use student feedback surveys to track the skills acquired and how they benefited past students. Share this with potential students.
  • Emotional Barriers: Adults may have acquired wisdom, but also may have acquired negative experiences, resulting in anxiety about a subject, forced changes in job responsibilities or policies, change in general, or even learning in general. These emotions can interfere with the learning process.
    Tool: Use mentors in Edvance360 to help new employees over the initial on-boarding “hump”. Use them for any type of promotion track.
  • Experiential: Most adults (humans?) prefer to learn by doing rather than listening to lectures. Since the average attention span is 8 seconds for an adult, make sure things are bite-sized.
    Tool: Post videos to the Edvance360 calendar so they can consume them daily, versus in large chunks. Make sure to create a library of resources that are accessible when needed.
  • Goal-oriented: Most adults have specific goals they are trying to achieve, so make it obvious in the course description and objectives what goals the course will help them achieve and why it benefits them.
    Tool: Use E360 Navigator to ask them what goals they are shooting for, then map the courses and material to those particular goals.
  • Need Community: Many self-directed adult learners prefer a learning community with whom they can interact and discuss questions and issues, but traveling to a campus is not an option nor convenient.
    Tool: Emphasize Edvance360’s secure social network that matches users up on interests and industries, as well as communities and groups.
  • Outside responsibilities: Most adult learners have numerous responsibilities and commitments to family, friends, community and work – and rightly so. Carving out time for learning and completing assignments is difficult for anyone juggling life. Empower learners by tying assignments directly to the skills (value) they will acquire, remove artificial deadlines, and simplify the burden of assignments (use a “less is more” approach) by choosing quality over quantity.
    Tool: Use Edvance360 Agents to gently and automatically remind and encourage learners in a course. Use peer grading on assignments such as videos, vlogs, etc.
  • Potential physical limitations: Depending on their age and physical condition, adult learners may acquire psychomotor skills more slowly than younger students and have more difficulties reading small fonts and seeing small images on the computer screen. Empower learners of all ages by following good design practices.
    Tool: Inform learners they have the ability to change font size and color for their portal in Edvance360.
  • Practical: Adults in the workplace prefer practical knowledge and experiences that will make work easier, get them a promotion, or provide important skills. To meet this need, provide personal relevance in learning activities.
    Tool: Use collaboration tools in Edvance360, wikis, discussion/debate since they are “real work” tools. Skip papers and ask for succinct writing assignments (since that is more like “real work”). Have them develop videos and other types of assignments to demonstrate knowledge acquired, absorbed, and applied.
  • Purposeful: See above. Adults want to know the purpose of training and the motivation underlying an organization’s training initiative. If you can prove it will benefit them, do so. If you can’t, iterate until you can.
    Tool: Use feedback surveys and competency/skill tracking to provide transparency.
  • Responsible for Self: Adult learners often take responsibility for their own success or failure at learning.
    Tool: Use badges to build a culture of learning and ePortfolios to allow them to build a full picture of their own learning – not just what is happening on the LMS.
  • Wise: Adults obviously bring a depth and breadth of knowledge and experience to the learning culture that students out of high school cannot. Put learning paths in place that respect this already acquired knowledge/experience by not forcing all learners to start at the same spot.
    Tool: Use pre-course tests to enable learners to “skip” topics that they already demonstrate knowledge in. Use post-course tests to demonstrate knowledge actually gained. Provide this as feedback to the learners to reinforce the value of what they just went through. which will bring them back for more. 

Adult learners should not be treated like oversized children. Maturity brings unique characteristics that affect how adults are motivated to learn. Program designers and educators can appeal to the unique qualities of adult learners by designing more effective online courses while using technology to capitalize or mitigate these strengths and weaknesses.