Some of the best-known theories about how adults learn have been put forward by Malcolm Knowles, but how might his theories apply to online courses? We've been considering this question in light of two of Knowles's theories—the value of life experiences and the significance of self-directed learning.
In online?courses, we believe the discussion board is the heart of classroom.? It's the place where concepts get introduced, ideas are explored, and text information is elaborated. Through these discussions our students?learn key information and?meet additional course objectives, such as those in required assignments.? So, we've focused on applying Knowles's theories to our use of online discussion.
Using student experiences in online courses:
We have found asking students for examples and experiences related to course topics encourages them to share stories and make connections with the material.? For example, when covering the topic of effective communication, we might ask them to write online about “a specific time you used verbal or written communication in an employment situation to work through a conflict. Be sure to include the situation, the steps taken to resolve the conflict, and the outcome.” Prompts like these make it easier for students to connect with the content and make their learning experience more meaningful.
We have also discovered that sharing our examples and life experiences models this experienced-based approach and helps students learn. As?the discussion progresses,?we continue to ask probing questions?that help students make more and deeper connections between their experiences and what we are asking them to learn. When providing feedback, we've found that asking these kinds of open-ended, experience-based follow-up questions further cements the content to their experiences. Sharing our experiences and probing theirs often?brings?the discussion full circle.?
In addition to including leading and probing questions in the discussion and within feedback, we solicit information about our students. One way to do this is by having each student prepare a welcome biography in which they introduce themselves to us and others in the course. We read these carefully, making notes about their various backgrounds, so we can subsequently relate the course topics to their experiences. For example, if the student has children and works full-time, those experiences can be tied directly to content we teach related to time management.
Encouraging self-directed learning in online courses:
To encourage self-directed learning, when we receive questions answered elsewhere in course material, we offer guidance and direct the students to where the answer can be found. For example, when a student asks how to submit an assignment, we answer with where that information is located in the syllabus. When we take this approach, as the course progresses, we have found that we need to explain less because students are becoming more independent and self-directed. We also want our students to identify the resources they need to complete the assignments and to develop strategies for using those resources. Those skills can be developed with an activity, such as a scavenger hunt, where students are led to resources—but not without having to look for them first.
To further develop self-direction in learning, we recommend including options for students related to assignments and requirements. Because discussion is such a vital part of our online courses, we let students have some say about how they participate in these exchanges. They can write about their experiences related to the topic, reference class materials, or share and explain their opinions. We also give students credit for posting in various discussion areas rather than requiring them to post in specific areas. Finally, our students can select the days they wish to post (as long as they meet the minimum requirements), and they can opt to reply to classmates, reply to the instructor's post, or generate a new message about some course activity. Providing the freedom to choose among these options allows students to make choices. They experience what it means to be a self-directed learner and a partner in the learning process.
In summary, Knowles's theories about the importance of experience and self-direction in adult learning can be adapted for use in online courses. By encouraging students to make content connections with their experiences and allowing them to be self-directed learners, instructors are better able to meet the needs of adult students. In our experience, doing so also helps our adult learners excel in online courses.
Lori Sabatello and Cathleen Mudd are from the University of Phoenix, AZ. Cathleen Mudd can be reached at Cathleen.Hutcheson@phoenix.edu.