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Designing the Digital Classroom for Effective Adult Learning

Designing the Digital Classroom for Effective Adult Learning

Effective adult learning goes beyond how adults learn and puts theory into practice in the digital classroom

The shift to the digital classroom promises greater flexibility, the opportunity for more frequent interaction, and works to reduce travel costs. But the approach of simply transferring what used to work for in-person training doesn't create a digital experience that leads to effective adult learning or performance improvements - it simply doesn't fit the virtual space.

Design to Maximize Engagement in the Digital Classroom

Learning technologies have become so ubiquitous in the modern digital workplace that training professionals finally are able to move the focus from:

  • a discussion about what technologies to use

  • to a discussion about how to best teach content and how to address learner needs.

Virtual and blended learning curricula, when designed to maximize intellectual engagement and knowledge transfer, provide vast opportunities to incorporate the tenets of adult learning theory.

No surprise, you need to design the digital learning experience based on strong performance-based objectives – but we need to make sure we aren’t relying on the technology to do the job of engaging learners for us.

First, let’s refresh our memories on how adults learn and then move on to how that impacts intellectual engagement when designing for the digital classroom.

How Adults Learn

Adult learning theory and principles haven’t changed with the introduction of digital learning - we just need to be thoughtful about how we apply them.

There are many options for learning –

  • collaborative knowledge sharing,
  • small group work,
  • self-reflection,
  • reading
  • …the list goes on and on.

You know them as well as I do. Maybe better!

It is generally understood that lecture by itself is not the best way to transfer knowledge to the adult learner. In the 1970s, Malcolm Knowles introduced the basis for modern adult learning theory, focusing on a collaborative approach to learning rather than the traditional schoolhouse lecture. 


As a refresher:

  • Adults are internally motivated and self-directed.

    Let’s face it: Most people want to do a good job, and when your learners must obtain a new skill to be successful at their job, they will do what they have to do to learn that skill.

  • Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences.

    Whenever you bring learners together in a virtual session, be sure to include ample opportunities for knowledge sharing by creating opportunities to interact and collaborate.

  • Adults are goal-oriented, so every lesson and activity needs an outcome.

    This is especially important in any type of online environment because it is so easy to lose your learners’ attention. The fact is, online learners have little tolerance for content they perceive to be “nice to know.”

    And there are so many other priorities calling for their attention while they are learning from their desks that facilitators need to work harder to keep learners engaged.

  • Adults are also relevancy-oriented.

    The design of a digital learning program should constantly answer the question, “Why is this important to me?” Just because a new initiative is important to the organization, it does not mean the initiative’s relevance immediately confers to the learner.

  • Adults are practical.

    While theory can provide background, adult learners want opportunities to practice so they can be confident in being able to perform a new skill or exhibit a new behavior back in the workplace.

    This is an area where training professionals have fallen down; we have mastered the ability to push content via e-learning lessons and webinar-type lectures, but have minimized—if not eliminated opportunities—to practice skills.
  • Adult learners like to be respected. 

    Instead of focusing on what learners don’t know, facilitators of digital learning need to focus on what learners do know.

Adult learning theory – that’s the foundation of Intellectual engagement.

(Intellectual Engagement is a key component of InSync’s InQuire Engagement Framework™ - focused on stimulating curiosity and ensuring learning takes place.)

Basically, learners engage in experiences that respect their existing knowledge and background, include them in the process, and relate directly to their work. Sounds reasonable, but these fundamentals can get lost in the shuffle of intricate instructional design processes.

And with digital learning technologies, it’s easy to fall into the trap of letting the technology do the work of engagement.


Taking Intellectual Engagement from Theory to Practice

When it comes to all things related to the digital classroom, we’ve been largely focusing on the technology and delivery formats, thinking that technology is enough to intellectually engage. We have not been focusing on the application of adult learning theory to maximize engagement and cultivate effective adult learning.

To develop intellectual engagement, the learner intent must be aligned closely to the design intent. As instructional designers, we often identify the business or design intent in the needs analysis or how we make decisions about instructional design.

We are trying to develop some level of mastery, but for the learner to get where they need to be, their intent must be aligned with what the business wants them to do.

This is not to say that all training must be directly relevant to the personal interests of the learner, but the learner has to believe that the instructional design aligns with what they need to do.

This is where modern learning, especially webinar-style events, falls flat.

Generally, the pattern is to design them as if learners just want to get them over with. Sometimes we put content out there to check a box. We’re designing as if the learner just wants to get it over with, and that makes them just want to get it over with.

To move intellectual engagement from a theoretical concept to a practically applied instructional habit, we need to get in the routine of asking:

  • What do we want learners to get out of the content?
  • What do they think they want to get out of the content and align that?
  • Is it possible to achieve these goals in a particular environment?

To generate a high level of intellectual learner engagement, instructional designers will need to not only go back to fundamental models, but also revise the process they’ve used in the past. It takes practice and commitment, but the outcomes for the learners and the organization make it a worthwhile effort.

It’s About People and Learning, Not Technology

To maximize learning, online learners need to be more than a name and a learning management system. They should be treated as colleagues. The design should facilitate that. The different technology applications that you use should support the design.

It’s about successful applications of learning. Not about the technology.

Ultimately, the learner is the arbiter of what’s important to him or her. Blended and virtual learning make it easy for the learner to make decisions about when to engage or disengage.

It’s the job of the training professional to ensure that the adult learner is motivated to participate and intellectually engaged.


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