Meeting the Needs of Adult Learners in Developing Courses for the Internet

Linda Stilborne, Ingenia Communications
Lindy Williams, Williams Donaldson and Associates

While the Internet is a relatively new medium for enhancing and delivering distance learning courses, distance learning is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, correspondence courses were first developed by universities in the middle 1800s. In the 1930s, radio broadcast became a prevalent medium for delivering distance education, and institutions dedicated to distance education, such as the Open University in the United Kingdom, have been with us for more than 40 years. The first open university, the University of South Africa, was established in 1951 and the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand dates back to 1946.

What is new is the range of choice around the technologies that can be used to deliver distance learning. At the center of many of these is the Internet. The Internet and related communications technologies, along with political, social and economic changes in our society, have spawned unprecedented growth of interest in distance education and in the number of courses and programs available through distance learning. Today we have the luxury of selecting from an increasingly diverse range of technology options.

Overview of the Internet as a tool for distance educators

As a tool for distance learning, the Internet can both deliver content and serve as a multipurpose communications tool. Increasingly, higher-end technologies, such as videoconferencing, real-time audio and learning experiences involving animation are possible, but the most common technologies currently used to deliver distance learning are

Thomas Fox McManus of the University of Texas at Austin provides additional information on how the World Wide Web can be used for distance learning. His paper, entitled Delivering Instruction on the World Wide Web, includes an analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of using the Web for educational delivery (

As tempting as it is to develop learning applications that make use of the latest technologies, distance educators remind us again and again that learning must be developed around learner needs. While this may be self-evident to many, it is a message that is ignored with surprising frequency. To some extent, this is because our established post-secondary institutions have evolved as teacher- and subject-centered institutions with little emphasis on the student's needs and interests. It is also because--just as anyone can be a publisher on the Internet--on the Internet, anyone can also be a distance educator. Many educators and subject specialists are newly involved in distance education with little or no awareness of some of the important principles that have been developed over the years for developing distance courses.

For example, in the past 30 years, great strides have been made toward understanding how adults learn. Although more remains to be discovered, a good body of knowledge exists to guide in the design and teaching of courses for adult learners. Overall, we know that adults do not learn like children, and therefore that we cannot plan to teach them in the same way children are taught.

While a number of factors play into effective instructional design for a college, university or professional program, central to all of these is the need to understand the characteristics of adult learners. Malcolm Knowles has used the term andragogy to refer to "the art and science of helping adults learn. It is based on students' self-directedness, experience, readiness to learn and problem centeredness." It is particularly in the context of lifelong learning (where student populations are no longer homogeneous and, as in the case of distance education, personal communications are necessarily constrained by the technology) that understanding andragogy is essential to the design of effective learning environments. Here are some of the aspects of adult learning which should be taken into consideration:

This paper looks more specifically at how several of these factors are manifested in specific adult learning preferences and considers course design techniques that might be used to address these factors. The principles presented are based in part on Knowles' work and that of other researchers in this field. They are also based on our own experiences as distance educators. Although some of the points we make are general observations about adult learners, we will emphasize as much as possible what the implications are for delivering distance learning over the Internet.

Adults must want to learn (learner motivation)

Adults learn most effectively when they have an inner motivation to develop a new skill or gain new knowledge. They resist learning material if it is forced on them, or if the only reason given is that the material will, in some vague way, be "good for them to know." Adults need to know why they are being asked to learn something; they want to know what the benefits will be before they begin learning.

One thing to be conscious of in approaching distance learning is that the courses that will be most successful as the whole distance learning arena sorts itself out are the courses that offer immediate and tangible value to the learners. Students involved in distance learning are often taking courses at significant personal cost.

Distance learners include:

Increasingly, financial concerns are an additional stress for students involved in distance education. As students are responsible for a greater and greater percentage of overall costs for education, adult students are looking for a solid educational product that will justify the steadily increasing costs.

A frequent pattern in the development of courses for the Internet has been simply to adopt materials that are already part of a face-to-face classroom learning environment. On-line "lectures" are often a scarcely altered transcription of classroom lectures. The lecture style of teaching, which is arguably only marginally effective even in a classroom setting, becomes even less effective in an online situation where a student is left to read text on a screen and where other elements, like gestures, facial and vocal expression--and even the spontaneous aside--are all lost.

In a Web environment, there is sometimes an attempt to introduce spontaneity and variety in the form of a "hyperlink." Unfortunately, hyperlinked documents have often been created independently from core material. They may, for example, be located on a remote server and have been created for an entirely different purpose. As a result, the links simply distract the learner, rather than enhance learning.

An alternative that can overcome some of the limitations of "lecturing" online is to provide a lecture in the form of an audio file, rather than as text or as material on a Web Page, but producing good quality audio will immediately increase costs and it is not yet a totally practical format for many students.

Implications for designers and developers of content for an online learning environment

Explore options other than presenting text on the screen for large bodies of material to be learned. If you are limited to presenting course content as online text, ensure that the material is designed to accommodate adult learners at a distance. Be honest with yourself about the merits of your material to ensure that you have a solid rationale for what you are including.

Get into the habit of stating the benefits for each course segment as part of the introduction. A complete syllabus establishing the framework for the course and outlining content should be made available at the start of the course.

Another strategy that can be used to ensure that adult learners understand and appreciate the relevance of a course is to identify ways for "graduates" to communicate with current students. Theoretically, graduates can create a link between the material to be mastered and the real-world environment in which it must be applied. In an online environment, there are many options for making such a link, such as inviting a graduate to become involved in a listserver discussion or online conference. Alternatively, some graduates may be willing to serve as mentors to individuals or small groups of students. This can easily be done through electronic mail, and the possibility of obtaining a free electronic mail account at a college or university in exchange for mentoring would likely attract many graduates or interested professionals.

Adults will learn only what they feel they need to learn (learner orientation)

In the work world, adults are expected to evaluate the relative importance of information, to exercise personal judgment in setting priorities and allocating their time. This basic orientation of personal responsibility of also how adults approach the world of learning. Adults must feel the material they are learning is relevant, and that it will have an immediate effect. They want to see how the objectives of the learning relate to authentic situations and real solutions to problems. Knowing who your students are and why they have chosen to take your course will help ensure that the material you're presenting meshes with their learning objectives. You can develop an online form to collect this information or you can ask students to introduce themselves in an electronic mail message. Using an online form is an efficient way to collect a statistical profile of your class.

Implications for designers and developers of content for an online learning environment

In addition to explicitly stating learning goals as a key component in the design of online learning, trainers and course developers need to illustrate the real-world applicability of the material and to provide adult learners with some ability to control their own learning environment.

Include examples and anecdotes that show how other people have used the material. These examples can of course be incorporated into the course material as text, but in an online environment, hyperlinking provides an excellent option for incorporating relevant examples. For example, online businesses provide real- world examples that could relate to courses in such things as marketing, advertising, or graphic design. Online newspapers, magazines and government sites are also rich resources for locating illustrative material for writing/communications courses, or for social sciences courses, such as in environmental studies, psychology, criminology, or law. Also consider how Usenet and listserver discussion groups can provide you with interesting examples that could be incorporated into class material or provide A newsgroup such as soc.culture.bosna-herzgvna, or ca.politics could easily be a primary resource for current examples of political or cultural issues.

Online discussions can also be enriched through the use of real-world examples. Consider how the following quote taken from a Usenet source could be used in a number of contexts to stimulate student ideas and dialogue. "The terms "negro," "oriental," "handicapped" or "chick" for an African, an Asian, a disabled person or a woman originally had no derogatory connotation."Broad" and "chick" were merely the feminine equivalents of "guy," "dude" or "fellow." The negative connotations have been attached to these terms by the activists themselves. Some animal-rights activists have gone so far as to reject the word "pet" and insist on its replacement by "animal companion." (Quoted From: (Voltaire) The Psychology of Modern Leftism talk.politics.miscSat, 06 Apr 1996 19:14:22 GMT).

Using examples from online sources gives course material an immediacy that underscores the relevance of the material. Presenting students with an assignment that has them finding examples on the Internet that illustrate the theoretical ideas under study can provide you with examples that can be incorporated directly into the material that's presented in subsequent courses.

Using a problem-solution approach is another way to engage students and solicit their involvement in the material to be learned. In this instance, the material begins with a common problem and works toward solutions. If you have developed an online form to find out more about your students, use the information you've obtained to identify problems that might interest them, or simply invite them to suggest ideas for problems related to course content that might be addressed.

Build flexible routes through the material, so learners can choose what seems relevant to them as they are ready. While this should be a relatively easy thing to do over the Internet, it is often not done well. Again, hyperlinks are sometimes used indiscriminately--they distract rather than enhance.

The challenge is not to provide "open ended" learning, but rather to develop a set of meaningful paths through the learning--providing the learner with clear choices in terms of examples to study or problems to be worked on and possibly allowing some flexibility in terms of how individual units are covered to the extent that this would not interfere with the overall learning strategies.

In the World Wide Web learning environment, too often links are made just because they can be made. Links are easy to make, and one has the sense that material cannot be other than enriched by the addition of hyperlinks. Moreover, many educators have accepted that open-ended navigational ability will have a positive effect on learning, that learning will be enhanced when learners are allowed to explore as they are inclined.

Unfortunately, the actual experience of reading through a document with hyperlinks means that the reader's thought processes are continually interrupted by the need to make a decision about whether or not to follow a particular link. The indiscriminate use of hyperlinks can obscure the intrinsic logic of document.

When designing Web pages for distance learning courses, it is a good policy to minimize, rather than maximize the number of links and sometimes to have genuinely relevant links at the bottom of a body of text, rather than incorporating them directly into the text. This approach would also favor using shorter blocks of text with two or three associated links, rather than a longer document with a substantial set of links at the end. Alternatively, particularly valuable links can be listed at the end as "Further Reading" or "Related Links."

Adults learn by comparing past experience with new experience (experience)

Every adult learner has a lifetime collection of previous knowledge and experience. When learning something new, most adults need to see how it fits in with (or is different from) what they already know.

Implications for designers and developers of content for an online learning environment

Educators should devise ways to incorporate the learners' previous experiences into new material and build in ways for learners to share their ideas and experiences with one another.

In this regard, the Internet offers a wonderful opportunity for designers and developers of online learning environments. In addition to motivating students by allowing them to draw from their own experiences, the sharing of personal stories and experiences is an ideal way to create a feeling of community among students. A major challenge for distance educators has always been finding ways to help students overcome a sense of isolation. Listservers and online conferencing provide the technological means to give students a feeling of connectedness, but educators also need to encourage adult learners to use this environment to share knowledge and experiences and stories.

A good example of how ideas can be shared online is an existing course on Crime and Media ( that has been developed by Professor Cecil Greek at the University of South Florida. This course uses NetForum (, a Web-based group communication and collaboration system developed through the University of Wisconsin Medical Informatics Group and the Biomedical Computing Group. In the Crime and Media example, topics for discussion are established by the professor and integrated into the online learning modules, which are largely text. Students use the NetForum software to respond to the questions with their views. A separate forum is also offered that allows students to introduce their own topics for discussion.

Adults need immediate feedback concerning their progress (orientation to learning)

Adults want to know how they are doing all along the way. They are not content to continue plugging away at course material without knowing whether they are on the right track. Both kinds of feedback are useful: recognition for work well done and guidance when improvement is needed.

Implications for designers and developers of content for an online learning environment

Develop ways for your learners to track their own progress, so they can reassure themselves they are making headway.

Group progress can be marked by developing a Web site as part of the course. Using this strategy, the site builds gradually as individual topics are presented and explored. In this case, individual lessons could be presented initially in an electronic mail format and afterward posted to a Web site for review or to link to other resources. This technique also allows for student participation in the development of a Web site. Progress is acknowledged as individuals see their own contributions incorporated into a Web resource. Through this technique, a collaborative learning environment is established.

Be sure to put mechanisms in place for them to receive positive feedback at least as often as they receive suggestions for improvement.

Make sure that the answers to test and exercises are available almost without delay so that learners are not kept in suspense. On the Internet, this can be done in the form of an "online" quiz. Test authoring software, such as Question Mark (http://www., in conjunction with the Question Mark Web product QM Web, can be used to readily develop quizzes and facilitate a quick response. To help manage assignments in an open learning environment, develop a log in which you record when assignments are received and when they are returned. You may also want to provide students with a template format that they can use to return assignments to you. Be sure to specify the file format in which assignments should be returned, and--in the case of assignments that are being returned via electronic mail, establish a convention for specifying the subject of a message: e.g., Assignment #1: Patterns of Conformity and Diversity in the Groundhog Population.

Adults want their learning to be practical (orientation to learning)

Adults are willing to learn theories, but only if they can see how those theories apply in real life. Adult interest soars when training is built around a clearly defined challenge or demand, rather than hypothetical problems and solutions.

Implications for designers and developers of content for an online learning environment

Build in useful exercises to give learners the experience of applying new concepts to something realistic. Try to develop exercises that provide opportunities for learners to be involved with the people, issues and activities that are an ongoing part of their own lives.

Practical exercises can also be developed that take advantage of the online environment. Online surveys or interviews could be used or students might be invited to develop a Web page as an information "resource" for a particular topic. A very simple strategy for non Web users would be to provide students with a template for their work such that the material could easily be converted to HTML and posted.

An Introductory Engineering course at Vanderbilt University offers a well-designed set of lab exercises that illustrate how practical learning activities can be integrated into an online course ( These exercises include three basic components that adult learners would value. Each exercise states the objectives, offers a step-by-step procedure and clearly indicates "deliverables." Opportunities for review and hints are sometimes also included.

Adults learn by comparing past experience with new experience (prior learning as a consideration in course development)

Every adult learner has a lifetime collection of previous experience and knowledge. When learning something new, most adults need to see how it fits in with (or is different from) what they already know.

Implications for designers and developers of content for an online learning environment

Devise ways to incorporate your learners' previous experiences into your new material. Build in ways for learners to share ideas and experiences with one another.

One of the most commonly used ways to provide opportunities for learners to share information and ideas is by inviting them to participate in some sort of online discussion group. A possibly more creative approach would be to invite students or student teams to develop material for presentation on a Web server. Introducing the possibility that material could be used by other students or by the broader community of Web users is a strong motivator. "Publishing" on the Web can also boost a student's confidence.

A number of teacher education courses have included the development of a Web resource that draws upon the individual teacher's personal interest or specialty. This is a good example of a strategy that would also work well as part of an Internet distance learning course. In the Vanderbilt example, the students develop personal Web page as one of their lab exercises.

Adults try to avoid failure (dispositional barrier)

Adults are much less open to the trial-and-error approach than children are. Many adult learners will resist trying something new if it involves the risk of making an error and feeling foolish as a result. This is especially true if the person has had problems with learning in the past, or difficulties with the subject area being covered.

Implications for designers and developers of content for an online learning environment

Developers need to be aware of simple techniques, such as making the first exercises or tests so easy that practically anyone can be successful at them. In addition, designers and developers of online learning environments must also be aware that providing distance learning over the Internet incorporates a whole new area of risk for many learners. The technology itself is complicated for many people, and course providers must ensure that sufficient support is available for students as they take on the challenge of learning in this new environment.

Students need to be aware of what technology must be in place for the course and the level of Internet skill they will require to succeed in the course. Many distance educators have had the experience of having an otherwise well-developed course ruined by technical problems. In the Internet environment, students will most often have to resolve these problems for themselves.

It may seems obvious, but it is probably worth mentioning to prospective students that if they are planning to take a course that will make use of electronic mail, they should be reasonably familiar with their own electronic mail software. They may also need to know how to handle word-processed files over the network, how to save files as text, and how to upload and download files. Depending on the student group involved, it may be necessary to provide instruction in the basic use of the network as part of the course. It may be appropriate to include pointers to some online tutorials or helps as part of an introductory module for the course or to provide a printed manual as a way of "easing" students into an online environment.

Developers must also be conscious of what level of connectivity students will have and of other issues related to "technical set-up" such as whether or not students need to pay long-distance charges to connect and whether or not they have a graphical connection.

You can reduce risk for inexperienced Internet users by establishing electronic mail partnerships that team a skilled Internet user with one who is less skilled. Educators should also consider establishing "learning partners" with respect to basic course material as well. Simply putting two learners in touch with each other, so they can see they are not alone with their difficulties, also reduces the sense of risk among adult students.

Adults do not all learn the same way (personal learning styles)

By the time people reach adulthood, they have settled into a learning style that has worked well for them in the past. One person may prefer reading, while another does best by trying out a practical exercise, for example.

Developers need to be conscious of the fact that individuals process, absorb and remember new information in different ways. Many educators are now familiar with some of the more common methods for differentiating learning styles. We recognize that learners can be visual, auditory or kinesthetic. They may use a global or analytic style of processing information, and they may prefer to work cooperatively or independently. Some students like to have material presented in a step-by-step, cumulative, sequential pattern that builds toward a general concept. Others learn best when they are given the concept first and then details.

Genetics, cultural background and personal experience account for some of these differences. We also know that when materials are presented in a way that complements a learner's preferred style, that individual will learn more readily and have a better chance of retaining what is learned. Detailed information about learning styles can be obtained from The Center for the Study of Learning and Teaching Styles (gopher://

Given what we know, it is interesting to note the extent to which learning methodologies--especially in post-secondary institutions--are surprisingly alike. Most of us like to present learning material in the same format in which we ourselves might prefer to learn. Although it may not be possible to accommodate everyone's style of learning, we need to be conscious of what those differences are and attempt to accommodate more than one learning style.

Although we have tended to think of the Internet, with its wealth of information and wealth of technological possibilities, as offering better possibilities for accommodating learning styles than has been the case in the traditional classroom, the Internet is still being used in limited ways. Currently, nearly all of the information that is available on the Internet is made available to us through a filter of text.

Implications for designers and developers of content for an online learning environment

Provide more than one way for people to learn the material. Include global and analytical approaches in developing learning modules. Provide opportunities, suggestions, and resources for independent learning. Make use of techniques such as (online) role playing, simulations, case-studies. Create learning tasks that combine direct instruction with opportunities for students to engage in interviews (online or in their own communities), projects or site visits.

Let learners be part of developing exercises, tests, examples, and so on. Help your students be aware of their own learning styles and offer them ideas for ways to adapt materials to suit their own learning styles. A cooperative learner may, for example, benefit from studying with a partner. This can, of course, be accomplished on line. Students can test one another and compare notes. Introduce them to Mind Maps ( which will help them translate information that is presented in a linear fashion into patterns that are more conducive to whole- brain learning.

In incorporating visual material into an online learning module, ensure that the visuals enhance the concepts that are being presented. Use visual clues--consistent tags, icons and formats. Graphical material should never be purely decorative, but should help to clarify and reinforce the learning. Break up long blocks of text and make use of charts, graphs and diagrams as alternative (or complementary) ways to present concepts.

Experiment--find out for yourself what works and what doesn't. Teaching over the Internet is new territory for all of us. Although the possibilities for delivering distance learning over the Internet are still in their infancy, the limitations that currently exist offer us an opportunity to refine our understanding of distance learners. Recently there have been major breakthroughs in compression technology. As this technology is developed and combined with higher rates of data transmission, we will soon be able to experience real-timestreaming of audio and video on the Web. But from a distance-learning perspective, progress will have been for naught if we do not experience parallel breakthroughs in how we are teaching students.

An important piece of research has been done by Tom Russell of North Carolina State University. Tom has compiled a bibliography of over 200 references to research projects that look at different learning technologies that have been used since the 1940s ( Overwhelmingly the conclusion has been that there is "No significant difference" in learner performance when technology is used rather than traditional classroom instruction. Generally, this research has been used to defend distance education from critics who insist on the superiority of face-to-face instruction.

We believe that this research might also be a kind of "wake-up-call" for distance educators. Why have new technologies made little or no difference over the years? Could it be that we have failed to use the technology intelligently? And could the key factor that is missing here be our failure to understand and appreciate the needs of the learner? Our aim should not be to replicate the classroom on the desktop, but to use the technology available to us through the Internet to significantly improve the teaching/learning process.

"Technology is here to stay. We have to be damn sure we do it right--whatever "right" means. Therein lies the vision--and the challenge." (Quote from: Gray Peterson, Superintendent Learner's Model Technology Project, CA)

April/1996 For comments or questions regarding this paper, please contact Linda Stilborne at


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Willis, Barry (Ed.). Distance Education Strategies and Tools. Englewood Cliffs: Educational Technology Publications, 1994.