Designing online learning for adults: Finding the flow

By Deborah Ottman

In her last blog post on creating online learning resources for adults, Associate Director of Professional Development Deborah Ottman discussed three questions to ask before you dive into compiling the content and designing assessments: What is the goal of the course or training? Who is your audience? What do they need to learn?

This series is aimed at subject matter experts: the people who’ll be sharing their knowledge and skills to guide others’ learning. In this follow-up, we’ll explore organizing the course and materials.

Woman working on laptop and taking notes on notepad

Now that you have a well-articulated course goal, a solid idea about who your audience is, and measurable learning objectives, you can start organizing the course. I have found that creating a simple outline of the course—as you would if you were writing an essay in composition 101—is a great first step. In the outline, the broad strokes of the goal and the specifics of learning outcomes start to cohere and a logical sequence for topics may reveal itself.

In the case of a weeks-long course, the main topics can be the focus of weekly modules. A topical outline can be as simple as this:

Week 1: Main Topic 1
Subtopic 1.1
Subtopic 1.2
Subtopic 1.3

Week 2: Main Topic 2
Subtopic 2.1
Subtopic 2.2
Subtopic 2.3

Week 3: Main Topic 3
Subtopic 3.1
Subtopic 3.2
Subtopic 3.3

Keeping your audience engaged

The heart of any learning opportunity is high-quality content. This is subject matter experts’ chance to shine, whether they’re providing online instruction directly to learners or constructing a resource for learners to use independently.

Subject matter experts will probably feel right at home pulling together content. In doing so, think about your answers to the question “who is your audience?” You’ve already thought through what learners likely already know about the topic, what they’ll need to know to succeed, and the conditions under which they’ll be engaging with your course or training, from technology to time constraints. All of these aspects of the learning experience will influence the materials you choose.

Keep your goals and objectives top of mind in this process. Each content item must directly align with and support at least one learning objective. These will be your guide as you consider materials for inclusion. Remember, too, that adult learners are discriminating. If the connection to learning objectives isn’t apparent to them or the utility of the content isn’t clear, they become significantly less engaged.

I also advise subject matter experts to remember that we all learn differently. Honor all learning styles by including resources that deliver the content through a variety of modalities and technologies. Some people learn better through listening, while others prefer to take in information through reading. Kinetic learners will do best if you are able to include an at-home activity where they can use their hands or build. Addressing different learning styles will go a long way towards providing the whole-brain stimulation that makes a physical classroom such a dynamic space.

Consider these different ways of delivering content:

  • Books and articles in hard copy
  • PDFs of book chapters, scholarly articles, newspaper articles, and case studies
  • Images such as photo galleries and infographics
  • Web-based readings such as web pages and blog posts
  • Pre-recorded audio content such as podcasts and radio programs
  • Pre-recorded video content such as lectures, TED Talks, and documentaries
  • Webinars (live or recorded)
  • PowerPoint presentations with audio and/or picture in picture (live or recorded)

Adult learning theory tells us that learner engagement is maximized when we switch up activities every 20 minutes. This is key if you are considering adapting lectures and Powerpoints previously used in a face-to-face teaching environment. You can absolutely use those materials, but it’s best to break them into smaller chunks. In the case of self-study offerings, the content and assessment activities may be more effective if switched up even more frequently and broken down into even smaller units.

So, you’ve drafted an outline and pulled together a variety of materials that offer an immediate, applicable benefit to the learner. An additional consideration in any virtual learning environment is the lack of real-time, face-to-face interaction that we experience in a bricks-and-mortar classroom. Humans are social beings, and the vast majority of adult learners need a social component to stay engaged with the learning, no matter how compelling the content. You’ll want to think through a final aspect of online learning: building community. That’s what we’ll cover in the next installment in this series.

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