Developing an e-learning course is a pricy and time-consuming endeavor and therefore you need to be well aware of its specifications, the elements it should include and the approach to be used before you embark on it. Is is also important to identify who your target audience is as this determines the tools you are going to use.

The simplest differentiation between e-learning participants can be drawn on the basis of their age – children and adults. Since adults and children learn in different ways and are motivated to take a course for different reasons, this should be reflected in the e-learning modules developed for them. The principles and ideas of andragogy – the concept of adult learning – could be very useful in the creation of engaging e-learning modules.

Below, you can find some details about the origin of andragogy and how it can be applied in the modern setting of e-learning.

Andragogy vs. Pedagogy

The Oxford Dictionary defines the term andragogy as “the method and practice of teaching adult learners; adult education.” The word itself is of Greek origin and combines andr– meaning man and agogos, meaning leader of or it translates as leader of man. In comparison, the word pedagogy, is also of Greek origin but means leading children. So the difference in the two concepts – the first focuses on the theory of adult learning, while the latter addresses the way children learn or should be taught.

The term andragogy was first used by Alexander Kapp in 1833 but actually gained popularity due to US educator Malcolm Knowles. He proposed the theory of adult learning in 1968. In 1980 he coined four assumptions about the characteristics of adult learning and added a fifth one later in 1984. Based on these assumptions, he also came up with four principles that need to be observed when teaching adults.

The differences between pedagogy and andragogy can be divided into five main categories:

  1. Learner – In pedagogy, the learner depends on the teacher to schedule the activities, decide what and how to learn and give an evaluation, while the adult learners are seen as self-directed and responsible for the learning process, there is also some form of self-evaluation;
  2. Learner’s experience – the pedagogical methods are didactic and there is little experience to be gained from this kind of learning;
  3. Readiness to learn – children are faced with standardized curriculum, while the subject matter of adult courses focuses on skills and applications needed in life;
  4. Orientation to learning – in pedagogy it is a question of acquiring the subject matter, while in andragogy learning is for performing tasks and solving problems;
  5. Motivation – the motivation of children is mainly external and based on getting higher grades, while adults are driven by internal motivation.

What Motivates Adult Learners?

Even though disputed, Malcolm Knowles’ five assumptions and four principles can be good guidance when developing an adult-oriented e-learning course. Here is what you need to keep in mind according to Learning theories:

  • Self-Concept – Because adults are at a mature developmental stage, they have a more secure self-concept than children. This allows them to take part in directing their own learning.
  • Past Learning Experience – Adults have a vast array of experiences to draw on as they learn, as opposed to children who are in the process of gaining new experiences.
  • Readiness to Learn – Many adults have reached a point in which they see the value of education and are ready to be serious about and focused on learning.
  • Practical Reasons to Learn – Adults are looking for practical, problem-centered approaches to learning. Many adults return to continuing education for specific practical reasons, such as entering a new field.
  • Driven by Internal Motivation – While many children are driven by external motivators – such as punishment if they get bad grades or rewards if they get good grades – adults are more internally motivated.

These are the five assumptions, while the four principles suggested in 1984 by the US educator sound reasonable even today:

  • Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
  • Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for the learning activities.
  • Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their job or personal life.
  • Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.

Now, here are three ways how you can develop an engaging e-learning course for adults, following the tips given in Effective Adult Learning, developed by Northwest Center for Public Health Practice, School of Public Health, University of Washington.

Key questions to ask before developing the course

  1. Who is my target audience?
  2. What are their needs?
  3. What are the learning objectives of the course?
  4. What kind of e-learning should I use?

The five characteristics of an attractive adult course

We have listed out the specific drivers that make adults learn. If you want to make your e-learning modules attractive, no matter if we are talking about a company training or any other type of course, make sure that they contain the following characteristics:

  1. Immediately useful
  2. Relevant
  3. Welcoming
  4. Engaging
  5. Respectful

Apply the SMART approach to e-learning

One of the trickiest steps in developing an efficient e-learning course is to determine the right learning objectives so that you can achieve the objectives of your training. The right approach is to set the objectives from the learners’ point of view – what do they need, what do they want to achieve, which skills do they want to acquire at the end of the course. There are several different models that can help you set the objectives and one of the most appropriate for adult learners is the SMART principle. The SMART model is used to build practical objectives.

S is for specific – specify what to achieve

M is for measurable

A is for achievable

R is for relevant

T is for timebound – make sure that the concepts, information, and skills presented are appropriate and updated

If you know your target group, then it is not such a challenge to create a course that can incorporate the above elements. Make sure to include plenty of interactive elements that allow the learners to feel that they are in charge of the learning process. This can be done through scenario-based learning that allows testing of different solutions for real-life situations in a safe environment. Microlearning is yet another approach very suitable for adult learners since it doesn’t engage them in long sessions and gives the freedom to learn a small bit of new information while sipping coffee.


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