Published on 2013/08/22
Three Ways to Improve Online Courses for Adult Students
Gamification of a course can improve student interaction and learning, but there are other strategies instructional designers and educators can put into place to vastly improve adult student success in online courses.

The more learning changes, the more it stays the same …

Technology changes, methods of delivery change and even learning theories are modified; however, the more things change, the more they stay the same. When it comes to adult learning, you could sum up the most critical point by quoting Woody Allen: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

The question for the instructional designer is, “How do I get a student to show up?”

Here are three approaches that could help solve this dilemma:

1. Use Course Design to Motivate Students

Motivation should lead to engagement and, hopefully, learning. Course designs need to motivate engagement. This means creating a relaxed environment where the help is easily accessible so adults feel safe to engage. Resources also need to be made available at the point of learning in a highly visible, non-threatening way.

Games can accomplish this, because in a game you work towards the objectives as you create connections, thereby building competency. After all, isn’t a game just a test by another name? A test uses multiple choices, word problems, short answer questions, essays or some way to challenge a learner to recall knowledge to demonstrate competence or possibly memory. A game is about advances that are in some way dependent heavily on competence. Games come with resources and help for progression; they build competency. A test, on the other hand, is about memorizing and regurgitating, which is not always the same as learning.

Adult learners are looking to become competent by learning. As such, it’s important for educators to break out of the box and gamify sections of the course where possible.

Key takeaway: Make resources easily accessible in the design. Build connections in modules for alignment with course objectives. Use game-based thinking to build competency.

2. Create Open Communication Channels for Students

Gamification alone will make a design successful, but communication is critical. Adult learners want to achieve at a very high level. Adult e-learners often take a new technology and frame it within previous experiences. For example, when adults run into problems with their studies, rather than sending an email to their professor at 3 a.m. when studying, they wait to 9 a.m. and try to call — or they send an email to schedule a call — and by the time they get that call, they are unable to frame their question.

The big advantage to online learning is 24/7 communication. Course designs need to open up by building in resources for help through instant messaging, live chats and quick response times, creating a safety net for adult e-learners integrating the resources in the instruction.

Alignment is critical; often, alignment does not provide clear learning resource maps. For example, if research is required, the resources for research should be clearly stated and mapped. To engage students, build into the instruction options to initiate engagement and build rubrics and feedback in conversational but informative tones. Adult students need to see the help, the path to get the help and, more importantly, be motivated to get the help.

Key takeaway: Provide a variety of options for student contact. Use instant messaging, email or live chats, and always respond to students in 24 hours or less.

3. Make and Encourage Use of New Resources

Along with technology, there are also incredible advances in resources, such as electronic libraries, 24/7 tutoring services such as Smarthinking, game-based curriculum and the recent advances in adaptive learning. Resources are vastly improved from what was available even five years ago. Electronic libraries have resources that improve the access to and experience of research. Many electronic libraries also offer tutors, writing labs, tutorials on how to research, citation engines and more. Finding new ways to integrate the resource with the learning and assessing both could improve course design. One idea is to build into the instruction the requirement that a student submit, along with the final writing assignment, the copy received from the electronic writing center.

Key takeaway: There is more help for e-learners today than there ever was for on-campus learning. Use announcements, feedback and other methods to direct students to resources. Build the path to resources into the design of instruction and align resources with assessment.

Before e-learning, we had to raise our hand and ask questions or meet in the office with the instructor. We can now communicate the moment the question comes to mind, we can use resources 24/7, we no longer have to wait for the library to open and we can visit electronic libraries in the middle of the night. What has not changed is attendance or the need to ask questions. What has changed is the ability to get the same old-fashioned help in new ways.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. To successfully design an e-learning class, you need to build a structure that motivates engagement, offers resources at the point of instruction, with maps to the resources needed for learning, and assesses for competence rather than a test of memory. When we design for e-learning, we have to be cognizant that contact is still prime, instructors are critical and our designs, whether they are gamified, adaptive or engaging, need to use technology to make that old-fashioned connection to improve the learning experience.

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Readers Comments

Quincy Adams 2013/08/22 at 10:03 am

I agree with most of what Dull suggests, but respectfully take issue with the suggestion that one way to improve the online experience for adult students is for instructors to respond to queries in less than 24 hours. Instructors have a lot on their plate, and many are also teaching in-person courses with even more students. As long as instructors are clear at the beginning of the course about their communication timelines, I believe that’s still providing good service — with more realistic service targets.

Glenda Cullen 2013/08/22 at 2:54 pm

Great idea to build the use of resources right into the assessment for online students, as many students would otherwise not take advantage of valuable e-library resources. It is also an effective way of getting students to practice their research skills, which can be useful outside of the course.

Seems like a very efficient move toward competency-based examination.

Dr. Tom Phelan 2013/08/26 at 8:14 pm

There are many tools to enhance learning and communication with adult students. Insisting that “too many” be used is frustrating to all involved. The 24-hour response time sounds great if you are the one waiting for a response. But if you are the instructor, possibly an adjunct with a full time job and 100-120 students, the demand is too much. Using the most appropriate online tools should be an instructor decision, not a mandate from middle managers or the dean and provost. I’ve had 120 students at a time in an online environment, with students in 9 or 10 time zones. My Blackberry nearly ruined my family life. I was too conscientious to turn it off. I’m no longer teaching in an online setting, just advising one student at a time. Get real instructional designers. Choose your tools sparingly. Imagine playing Monopoly with 120 players. It may be entertaining, but adult learners need to be given more credit for being able to attend upon instruction without such “gaming.”

    Dr. Charles Dull 2013/08/29 at 9:38 am

    When we use the term gaming in instructional design it is not in terms of board games, we are discussing serious games, which is becoming the new term. Serious games engage students, not in rolling dice and moving pieces but in immersive learning environments that engage and build toward competency. Serious Games are objective and are built to achieve course objectives not entertain. They are much more immersive that sitting though a lecture being non-responsive. Using your example you could put 120 students in an immersive game environment and have very positive outcomes since you would use technology to assist. Real instructional designers are using these tools and new instructional designers are learning how to build them into new designs. ID theories are also changing as the old models are often not agile enough. Test were not much more than a game if you used multiple choice, a 50/50 guess if it was T/F and essay test often extremely subjective.

Kamal Bouskri 2013/08/27 at 7:58 am

As information seems to transmit much faster than ever before, thanks to the internet, traditional learning might not be as effective as it used to be. For one, traditional learning would require one to spend time on books, which might no longer be updated, and discussions therefore become irrelevant. With online education, access to information and resource materials are readily available. Updates are also current which make the discussion relevant.

Sachit Dhal 2014/12/01 at 5:45 am

A nice article. The gamification idea is really good. Not only does it motivate learners but also keeps learning more intuitive and less boring.
I feel its very important that the design of the tool be such that the interaction of a learner within the community is very easy. By this I mean that he/she can easily use the motivational or interactive features such as chat or online library.
Many people have commented about the problems with 24/7 help. I think the help is not just constrained with the instructor. A peer learner can help solve your doubt too. So it maybe tough for a single instructor to help 120 students within 24 hours but its highly probable and 1 student can be helped by someone from the other 119 students.

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