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What Does Malcolm Knowles Know About Adult Learning Theory?

4 minutes

Well, quite a bit actually. Malcolm Knowles brought to life the term “andragogy”, which means “adult learning”. His theories are uniquely adaptable to the concepts of e-Learning and in this post, we’ll take a look at his theory and how it can be applied to e-Learning course authoring.

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Knowles made five assumptions about the characteristics of adult learners that are unique as compared to the learning characteristics of children (also known as pedagogy):

  1. Self-Concept – Adults are more independent than children, able to self-direct their behavior towards models of self-control and responsibility. How can this be applied to e-Learning? This characteristic is best supported by providing minimal intrusive instruction and maximum guidance and support. Within an e-Learning environment, the course author can guide the student and provide ample resources while still leaving them relatively autonomous to ‘discover’ much of the information and incorporate it as they need to, within their learning requirements.
  2. Adult Learner Experience – An adult has a pool of experience and memory on which to draw during the learning process. Application to e-Learning? Having strong knowledge of the learner and their actual experience and ongoing needs before designing an e-Learning course is imperative. Since adult learning tends to be more goal oriented than child learning, utilizing specific experiences to demonstrate how the information is relevant to the learner is key to their finding use in the course. All the principles of andragogy are included in this assumption.
  3. Readiness to Learn – An adult is more willing and able to learn task-specific materials as they relate to their development socially and professionally. How does this apply to e-Learning? Creating an environment for learning, within the e-Learning course, that is relevant to the learner’s social and professional development will enhance their desire to participate. If the learner sees a social benefit to the learning, they will be far more likely to engage. Goal specific learning isn’t just about learning a new task but can also incorporate things like social networking, group learning, peer reviews and more.
  4. Orientation to Learning – The perspective of an adult towards learning is different in that it is focused on the immediate need for the knowledge, versus a more long term application. An adult’s learning needs are more problem-focused rather than learning an entire subject matter. Example? A child learns algebra; an adult might learn the specific application of certain equations to deal with a financial issue. Application in e-Learning? Ensuring that the students are clear from outset of how the e-Learning module will apply to them and their situations guarantees their buy-in. Real world examples that are specific to them or the organization they work for are the most tangible and effective.
  5. Motivation to Learn – Whereas most children have external motivators to learn (teachers, parents, etc.), adults are, for the most part, self-motivated. How does this apply to e-Learning? If the learner knows why they are doing the e-Learning module and when they will be able to apply the knowledge received, their internal motivation will be engaged easily. Otherwise, it will be easy and likely that they will question why their participation in necessary.

Taking these five assumption into account, Knowles then postulated four principles of andragogy – principles that are more or less essential to understanding what is needed to successfully develop adult learning opportunities, including e-Learning:

  1. Adults need to be involved in the planning of their instruction and overall educational plan.
  2. Actual experiences need to be leveraged as the basis for learning activities. This includes errors as well as successes.
  3. In order to be effective, learning modules need to be immediately relevant to the learner’s job or life.
  4. The material being taught needs to be focused on a specific issue rather than a general topic.

Knowles’ adult learning theory is important in that it clearly outlines the difference in learning characteristics between children and adults and seems particularly inclined to be useful to authors of e-Learning modules.

Does your e-Learning course for adults follow the above mentioned principles? Do you have any personal rules for e-teaching adults effectively? Feel free to share your experience in the comments below.

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