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Three Ways to Improve Online Courses for Adult Students

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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