Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen, Faculty Director, School of Arts and Humanities
Online education works very well for many adult learners, but it’s important for online educators to understand how these students are very different than traditional 18-to-25 year old students. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks about andragogy theory and ways educators can adjust assignments to meet the needs and objectives of adult online learners.
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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This is Episode Number 33, Andragogy in Online Education. This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun.
Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.
Welcome to the podcast today. Thank you for joining me for this conversation about andragogy in online education. I attended the Online Learning Consortium’s Accelerate 2020 Conference, and there was a session the very first morning that really piqued my interest.
What is Andragogy?
As an online professional for the past 10 years, I’ve already studied andragogy quite a bit. If you’ve never heard of this term, you might be wondering, “What is andragogy?” This presentation was given by a team from Excelsior College. The title of their presentation was: “Andragogy as a Guide for Serving Adults in the Online Environment.” The presenters were Malcolm Oliver, the Associate Dean; Anna Zendell, Faculty Program Director; Gretchen Schmidt, Faculty Program Director; Candice Ward, Faculty Program Director; Michele Paludi, a Senior Faculty Program Director; Amelia Estwick, National Cybersecurity Institute Director; and then Kevin Moore from the Cybersecurity Department as well. This was a wonderful group of folks. They shared their thoughts about creating assignments in a master’s degree program that were much more relevant for andragogy.
If you think about the word “pedagogy,” this is about the idea or theory of how we teach young people ages 24 and under. Children go through preschool, elementary school, junior high, high school. Before they go through college, they are taught in methods that we might refer to as pedagogy. These are the styles of how we teach, the methods of how we teach, the strategies.
Once we reach age 25 onward, we think of adult learners from the perspective of using andragogy. Andragogy is an approach to the adult learner that is quite different from pedagogy and I’ll cover those differences in this podcast today. I’ll also address why we should care about andragogy, how it helps our students, how it helps us. And then some ideas to apply it; some from the presentation I attended and also some from my own experience.
Why Adult Learners Like Online Education
Now, first of all, I’d like to just tell you a little bit more about adult learners. Those would be the folks from ages 25 onward. Individuals, 25 years old and onward enrolled in higher education, these are the people in the “adult learner” category. I, myself have occasionally run into students as old as 75, 85 years old in my online classes. We could really have a range of people in our courses from 25 years old onward, anywhere in that range of the rest of life.
Now, there was a survey conducted in 2016 that determined the mean age of online undergrad students was 29 years old. That’s a downward trend, it used to be around the age of 34. In American Public University, where I tend to teach my courses, we have an average student age of around 33, but, of course, as I mentioned, that varies, and we do have students in the upper end of that range.
Now, even though there’s a trend toward younger students online and during the pandemic, we certainly have a lot of the typical college student age of 18 to 25 who have moved online, maybe not even by choice. However, even though there’s a trend, the majority of people who enroll in online programs are typically adult learners.
The reason for this is that they work full-time or they work part-time. They have established lifestyles, they might be married with children. Perhaps they don’t even live near a college campus, and online learning is the only way they could pursue this additional education.
One of the reasons adult learners like online education is that it is flexible. It’s a great way for them to get their college education without quitting the full-time job, and while raising their children. I, myself completed one of my degrees entirely online with a residency near the end of the program. And I could not have done that had I had to attend the classes in a live setting.
I’m an advocate for online education. I think it’s a great thing for a lot of people. And it’s also adaptable, flexible, and can meet people wherever they’re at. Online courses are accessible and programs widely available when they’re put online. And this helps adult learners pursue these goals they might otherwise not be able to reach.
Now, adult learners really are a unique population. It would not be appropriate to approach them with pedagogy or those emphases that we give to the 18-to-25 year old population. In many cases, we’re teaching that group how to be academics, how to show up on time, how to format things.
But the real emphasis with adult learners is on self-direction. Helping them to know the “why” behind what they’re doing. This is going to help them be autonomous.
Most of our adult learners are mature, practical, confident, self-directed, and they’re not as open-minded or receptive to change. So they really do need some background and college work that’s going to be relevant to what they’re going to do when they’re finished.
How Adult Learners Differ from Younger Learners
They have specific needs that the younger students might not share. For example, adult learners need to be emotionally connected to their learning so they can remember it and find value in it. They also need to see how it’s going to be relevant to their current situation right now and how it’s going to help them in the future when they’re done with their degree.
Now, when you give adult learners emotional experiences and connections to the content, they’re going to really persevere throughout the course. They’re going to understand the content better, and remember it. Because they have special characteristics, they generally need to be in control of their own learning, but they also need us to give them structure and support right upfront so they can launch into the task.
Above everything else we like applied learning and relevance. These are both very important.
The theory of andragogy was initially emphasized by a researcher, Malcolm Knowles, and this theory applies to online education broadly. And it’s also useful to focus on for Master’s degree programs, which is what this team from Excelsior College was presenting about.
Now, I’m going to share with you some of the ideas that came from this session I attended. They shared some great ideas for adjustments that could be made to typical assignments and applications for those assignments in their master’s degree courses. One of the things I really loved about this team’s presentation is that they shared the difference between pedagogy and andragogy.
Just to highlight, I’ve already explained to you what andragogy is: Self-directed, self-oriented, problem-centered and internally motivated. But I haven’t said much about what pedagogy is. This is more teacher-led and teacher-oriented. We assume that the young learners are fully dependent on their teacher. It’s more centered on the subject matter to be mastered and not the person themselves, and it’s often externally motivated.
Grades are a really big deal to younger students and may not always be for older students. We do see that a lot of people are returning to their education right now. Some of them have stopped working. Maybe they were not able to continue working due to the pandemic. For whatever reason, we do have a large influx of online students just about everywhere right now, and we want to be able to serve them the best we can.
Why Should We Care about Andragogy?
So why should we care about andragogy and not approach things from a pedagogy approach? Well, for one thing, it helps our learners and it meets them where they are and it gives them what they need much more specifically.
We suffer a lot when we control and dominate the instruction. And when we take a step back and treat them the way andragogy suggests, we are going to have a much better experience as the instructor. Furthermore, our students are going to feel empowered to learn. They want to be able to guide around the subject matter and tie it to their own experience.
4 Principles of Andragogy
Now, there are four principles of andragogy that the team shared in their presentation, and I’m going to share them with you now.
- First, adult learners are involved. They need to be involved in the planning and the evaluation of what they’re learning.
- Secondly, adult learners’ experiences need to be connected to the learning activities. In other words, they need to be able to tie their life experiences to their learning as they’re learning things. If you were to teach someone and tell them not to share their experience or opinion as part of an assignment or experience, that would make it more difficult. It’s necessary and essential.
- Third, relevance and impact to the learners’ lives. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their job or personal life. As I mentioned, it needs to be connected.
- And lastly, problem-centered. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.
As we think about these four principles, the team whose presentation I’m sharing with you today talked about how they applied those four principles in their assignments.
Meeting Learning Goals by Getting Learners Involved
For the first assumption, this team shared that they were focused on helping the students establish their own learning goals within the course objectives. The curriculum was focused on the learning process, much more than it was focused on the content itself.
One of the ways that this is possible is when the instructor is helping learners to actually come at it as equal partners. And the instructor is coming in as a subject matter expert to help them, to mentor them, to give them expertise, and definitely to give them wings to fly.
Safety, psychological safety is pretty important. The students need to be able to share their ideas openly without being afraid and connect to their experiences when they’re in the class in front of others.
Some of the things that were suggested by this team, these are some of the great ideas I came away with, were collaborative content creation. Students can actually curate some of the content that comes into the course to be studied. They can also choose projects that matter to them personally.
In giving choice for the assignments, you can use decision trees where they might go down one path and choose this type of assignment or another path and choose a different type. There’s a lot of options in helping students to be self-directed, especially if you’re able to connect the work that they’re doing to industries where the subject matter actually is relevant or would be used.
Help Adults Bring Life Experiences Into the Classroom
For the second assumption that adults bring life experience to the learning environment. Some of the things that the team suggested were to find ways to help students share their personal experiences and knowledge in the course. Help them express their opinions, share their ideas and openly discuss all sides of issues. The more we can give our students the application and the space to apply, the more we’re going to see really great outcomes in their learning.
Now, here are a few more examples of the types of assignments that could be used, especially in a Master’s degree program, but pretty much broadly with adult learners. And those examples that the presenters shared were case analysis, internships, debates, virtual research symposium, national case competitions, organizational consultants to a fictional company, and student organizations.
Now, the more you can bring those experiences into that online classroom, the better it’s going to get. Some of the communications that could leverage real technologies are actually tweets, press releases and videos, journal articles that students are going to create for a fictional journal. There could be some professional projects that would apply in the workplace. And also, we can talk about how students would present to different teams in business settings.
Give Adult Learners Clear Direction to See Relevance and Make Connections
The third assumption that the adult learner really does come to online education ready to go, ready to learn. The truth is they want to learn because they’re going to get something out of this experience. They’re either going to personally grow or develop professionally in a way that will further them in their employment or enhance their position in some way. Maybe they’ll make a rank advancement in the military or be able to promote internally in an organization.
Either way, these learners are ready to learn and eager to do what we ask of them. The best ways to help them are to give them clear steps to get started in the assignment, clear applications, and to break the goals down into smaller things, so they’re more accessible.
It’s possible that we have students that really do need some extra help. And it’s great if we can predict that upfront, let them know what the format is for an assignment and what all the expectations are.
Help Adult Learners See the Real-World Application of Lessons
Lastly, we have adult learners are problem-oriented. And that means that we want to really focus on the process for completing the assignment. During the process of learning or doing the work, your students are going to grow in some way and create content that has to do with what they need out of the course. Whatever reason they’re there, how they’re going to connect it to their professional arena, or maybe apply it in everyday life. Whatever kind of assignments you use that are problem-oriented, these things are going to really help students see the application of ideas.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I was a younger person, some of the subjects I had to learn in school did not have a clear, direct application. I could think of a math class or two. The concepts really did apply, but I did not have teachers that showed me how they applied to real life very often, and I definitely resisted story problems.
If we have concepts that might be on the abstract end of things, the more we can give examples or help them do the work in a way that walks them through the steps of the process to really do something in reality and not just talk about it, that’s going to help learners get a lot more out of the experience.
Create a Mock Journal Assignment
Overall, in the program that was shared from these presenters at Excelsior, there were a lot of great assignment examples such as the case study. But one of the things that really impressed me was that they went through and systematically selected assignments that really did simulate the real-life experience if they weren’t able to actually go to the real-life experience.
And the one that I mentioned earlier that I just want to return to now is this idea of a mock journal. If people write professionally, in a trade, in a field, or academically in adulthood, we have professional journals in pretty much every field that there is.
They created a mock journal where students would practice proposing to the journal and then write for it. What a wonderful way to get them ready for real presentations, real writing experiences, and really go through the steps needed so they’re ready to go for the future.
In closing, these ideas shared about andragogy, how adult learners are essentially different than our typical college-age population of the 18 to 25 year old group, understanding that, we can reach them where they are. We can meet their needs much better, and we can be a lot more creative about the kinds of work that we guide them through so that they walk away with things that are relevant and can apply to their real life and their professional endeavors. They can learn it and use it immediately and keep using it in the future.
Again, thank you for joining me for this recap of a session at the OLC Conference 2020 the discussion about andragogy and assignments that would be helpful in meeting students where they are.
Additional Resources for Teaching Adult Learners
There are a few previous episodes of the Online Teaching Lounge I’d like to recommend in this idea of reaching learners where they’re at and meeting their needs. And the first one is Episode 25 back in September of this year, 2020. That episode is about influence to build community, which can also really help you in meeting the needs of adult students, adult learners.
Another one for yourself as a faculty member is Episode 27, Connecting with a Faculty Peer Community When You Work Online. Not only do our students need connection, application and relevance, but so do we as educators. And the more we teach online, the more important that is.
Thank you again for being here. I wish you all the best in your online teaching this coming week.
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.
Hansen, B. L. (2019). Teaching Music Appreciation Online. Oxford University Press.
Knowles, M. S. (1990). The adult learners: A neglected species. Houstan: Gulf Publishing Co.
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