Emerging Theories and Online Learning Environments for Adults

By Debbie J. Wicks



        Social constructivist, connectivism, and transformative learning theories all have components of building communities through dialoguing, discussing, and reflecting to allow learners to develop deeper understandings and gain knowledge. Online learning has grown rapidly in the past few years in colleges requiring instructors to learn effective ways to build online communities of learners. There are barriers to avoid, as well as key components to include, when creating online learning environments. There are many technology options to choose from to deliver course material, but instructors must keep in mind the adult learners’ unique needs.
Creating Online Learning Environments for Adults
        As our world embraces technology, the way instruction is delivered to students is evolving from face-to-face instruction to online formats. Creating effective interactive learning environments for adult online courses is important to the success of students. Online learning is a relatively new format for teaching, but as a growing field, it is important for educators to understand the best methods for creating learning environments with available technology. Technology can enhance or defeat the building of community learning environments. Social constructivists understand that learning takes place in a community setting, where instructors and students interact to construct meaning. Connectivists realize knowledge is increasing at such fast speeds that it is important for learners to know how to find pertinent information. Transformative learning theory is also grounded in communication, with reflection as a key component. Instructors must incorporate these key components when creating their online courses.
Learning Theories Reviewed
        Many learning theories have similar components and can be blended together to provide the best online learning environment. Online learning communities should help students feel more connected to their peers and instructors (Snyder, 2009).
        Social constructivist learning environments create opportunities for students to develop meaning by dialoguing, discussing, and debating with other learners. This social interaction creates meaning from current and prior knowledge, thus deepening understanding and extending knowledge for the students. The learning activities are authentic. Learners are actively involved in constructing knowledge of a topic using communication and social interactions with peers (Conole, Dyke, Oliver, & Seale, 2004; Neo, 2008; Siemens, 2004; Snyder, 2009).
        Connectivism starts with an individual’s personal knowledge that is organized and used as needed. The speed at which information is doubling and becoming obsolete has created the need for new ways of providing instruction. George Siemens (2005) discusses how the acquisition of knowledge is changing from what is known to how to find the information when it is needed. This leads to continual learning for an individual based on one’s ability to find the correct information, to connect it with past and current information, thus increase his or her knowledge.
        Transformative learning theory has been around more than 25 years. Edward Taylor (2007) looks at the data available from 1999 to 2005 on the subject of transformative learning theory. Taylor states it is a theory that is “uniquely adult, abstract and idealized, grounded in the nature of human communications” (p. 174). Reflection is a big part of the transformative theory. Some researchers say that transformative learning is the adult constructivist theory.
Creating Online Learning Environments
        Loyens and Gijbels (2008) state a key component of a constructivist learning environment is self-regulation. Students will not be successful in a constructivist learning environment if they are unable to set goals, develop a plan of action, and complete necessary steps to solve the problem. Problems should be complex with the possibility of multiple solutions. Students need opportunities to build deeper understandings when taking an online course. Learners build deeper understandings of the subject while working through a problem.
        Dede (2008) discusses the changing epistemology of online interactions with the advent of Web 2.0 tools. These tools have changed learning from one right answer, which traditionally comes from experts via textbooks, to the creations by and interactions of learners using Web 2.0 tools like Wikipedias. This new media requires teaching learners how to be smart consumers who, for example, can discern whether the information is from a credible or non-credible resource. This shift of learning from traditional materials to using Web 2.0 tools should cause teachers to rethink how they deliver content, and to seek ways to incorporate the tools students use for recreation to further their interest and education. In a perfect world, educators would be able to take the best from traditional and online formats to create a superior system for building understanding and knowledge (Dede, 2008).
        According to Dr. Ruth Brown (2001) there are three stages to building community in online courses. First, students become acquainted. Second, students begin, through longer interactions, to discover similarities and differences between themselves and their classmates and begin to interact with the course content.  In the third stage, students begin supporting one another and taking their friendship outside the course requirements. Some even begin to plan the courses they will take together in future semesters. Students new to online classes will need more support from the instructor than veteran students. Beginning students are happiest with short assignment and timelines. They also prefer frequent feedback from their professor. Veteran online students do not need as much hand-holding by their professor and quickly make connections with past classmates. Their conversations show connections from shared past points of view and from courses they have taken together (Brown, 2001).
        The effectiveness of the learning community can be seen when all members share ideas and reflect on the process together. Online communities work best when members enter into relationships by getting to know each other, by participating in online discussions about the learning material, and by supporting one another’s learning and understanding (Silvers, P., O’Connell, J., & Fewell, M.,2007). Silvers, O’Connell, and Fewell (2007) identified several strategies for building community. Some of the strategies are journaling, responding to discussions, emailing, creating digital presentations, and collaborating. The above formats, along with blogs and Wikipedias, provide places for adult learners to reflect on what they learn, to make connections with past knowledge, and to construct meaning.
Barriers to Constructivist Online Learning
        According to Huang (2002) there are seven barriers facing online educators trying to provide a constructivist learning environment to distance learners. The first barrier is the learner’s isolation from classmates. Adult learners learn from their peers as well as their instructor. Second, the instructor must understand their learners’ characteristics and their individual situations. Adult learners come from a variety of backgrounds, living situations, jobs, family situations, and have different reasons for taking an online course. All of these differences will influence their online interactions. Accommodating these differences can be difficult when all interaction takes place online. Fourth, instructors must not pre-authenticate learning. This conflicts with the constructivist learning theory, which asserts that learners need to construct their own learning. A fifth barrier is the extensive time required to evaluate online learning activities. Sixth, adults are used to learner-centered teaching. Online formats will be new to some of the learners. The seventh barrier is the ability of instructors to effectively create and evaluate collaborative learning opportunities for adult learners. These barriers can cause social isolation in opposition to what social constructivism learning environments should be providing its learners.
Teaching and Design of Online Learning
        When instructors are aware of the barriers online students face, they can take steps to address them when designing their course materials. According to Heinecka, Dawson, and Willis (2001) the following six principles can be used with constructivist-focused, online teaching: interactive learning, collaborative learning, facilitating learning, authentic learning, learner-centered learning, and high quality learning. Petraglia (1998) acknowledges learners draw on prior knowledge and experiences when approaching learning tasks. Since individuals learn and work collaboratively in their everyday lives, instructors can use similar interactions between learners to build knowledge of content. Students may enter into either synchronous or asynchronous discussions throughout the course via chats, blogs, wikis, threaded discussions, or email. This collaboration leads to shared knowledge and higher critical thinking skills. The instructor of the course must maintain the accuracy of the learning. The instructor’s role is to facilitate learning, support learners, monitor their learning, and to provide directions and guidelines for learners. Adult learners need authenticity in activities that directly relate to their work experiences and real life. This authenticity creates meaningful knowledge and adults value the learning process. Huang (2002) stresses adult learning must be learner-centered. Adults need to take ownership of their learning, but not all adults know how to do this, as they have grown up in an era where instruction came from the “sage on the stage” (Cercone, 2008, p. 138). As Cercone (2008) points out some adults need help learning to be self-directed (p. 144). Instructors can support adult learners by providing assignments early in the course that are short and directed to help the reluctant learner see the value of an online course. The sixth learning principle is high quality learning. Huang (2002) states “online learning should involve high-order thinking skills to learn how to determine the authenticity and quality of information by assessing the authority of the source and validating it from other sources” (p. 34). Constructivism and connectivism encourage high quality learning by having learners engage in constructing knowledge from multiple sources while using their life experiences. Reflecting on what is learned is used in transformative learning theory to develop higher order thinking skills.
Students Role in Building Communities
        How students approach learning is changing due to the explosion of technology. Technology increases the speed at which we obtain knowledge and how fast it becomes obsolete, making it even more important for instructors to provide opportunities for learners to make connections with their prior knowledge using available technology tools. Siemens (2004) discusses how learning has changed in the last twenty years. Just a couple of decades ago, people learned a trade and remained in their chosen field for the rest of their lives. This is not true anymore. Today learning is a continual need as most individuals will hold more than one job in their lifetimes, not all of which may be in the same field as their original training.
        Ultimately, learning is constructed by the learner based on their past knowledge and experiences. Rikers, Gog, and Pass (2008) state “an important goal of constructivist learning environments is to engage students in deep and meaningful learning” (p. 464). Teachers may need to help students understand how to learn and how to become comfortable within the online learning community. Many students come from traditional classroom settings where assessments are based on the reading of the chapter in the textbook, completing a couple assignments, and then taking a test; therefore, they find it difficult to embrace the different kinds of assessments associated with social constructivist teaching (Rikers et al., 2008). Adult learners will need support and extended opportunities to practice different assessment methods that are new to them before they are comfortable and before instructors see changes in students’ assessment behavior.
Training of Instructors
        Online instruction should not look the same as instruction in a traditional course on campus. It can be helpful for instructors to experience online learning before teaching a course. Sanford Gold (2001) analyzed a two-week workshop taken by professors who were beginning the transformation from teaching in a traditional classroom to teaching an online course. The workshop was based on constructivist teaching methods. The creators of the workshop felt that an effective online teacher needed to experience an online course first lest they continue teaching the same way online as in their traditional face-to-face courses. One result of taking the workshop was that professors shifted to more of a constructivist learning environment approach and reported feeling the online environment was actually more interactive than their traditional classrooms.
        Instructors are moderators in online courses. Gold (2001) identified three key fundamental roles that online instructors have as they serve as organization, social, and intellectual moderators. Instructors organize the course materials, create the timeline, provide social interaction opportunities, and ensure high quality instruction.
        As in a traditional classroom, the online instructor’s role is to provide an environment that is friendly and welcoming to students. It is essential that instructors provide time in the beginning of a course to set up the format for discussions. Gold (2001) states, “good moderators often send out welcome messages, using a personal tone, and seeding their feedback with specific examples and references” (p. 43).
        The effort in the beginning of a course to build the social aspect of a class leads to deeper understandings through interactions with peers and instructor for students later in the course. Huang (2002) identified the importance for instructors to address the problem of social isolation of the online learner to ensure quality learning environments.
        The third role of the instructors is to maintain high intellectual content of course materials. The instructor doesn’t disappear from the scene, leaving instruction to students, but rather, effective instructors monitor what is happening online, clarify important points, ask questions to help students move toward a deeper understanding, and provide ways for students to synthesize and summarize key points. Instructors may summarize information for the students (Gold, 2001).
        The effectiveness of a learning community is seen when all members participate together to share ideas and reflect on the process. Silvers, O’Connell, and Fewell (2007) found online communities work best when members enter into relationships by getting to know each other, participating in online discussions about the learning material, and supporting one another’s learning and understanding.
        Individuals have different learning styles; therefore, it is important to create online learning communities that include a variety of learning activities. Snyder (2009) presents ways to help create an online environment that take into consideration adults’ need to be active learners. She reminds readers that all adult learners come to a course with different backgrounds, needs, and goals. Adult learners have different learning styles, so instructors should develop courses to include multiple learning styles thus giving learners an opportunity to learn in their preferred style and the opportunity to experience other learning styles. Effective instructors provide ways for learners to share their work publicly. Public sharing helps all community members gain deeper understandings. Some formats for public sharing include wikis, blogs, and peer reviews.
        Petraglia (1998) states “most educators easily accept constructivism’s central premise that learners approach tasks with prior knowledge and expectations based on their knowledge of the world around them, leading educators to attempt to create authentic learning environments” (p.53). Authentic learning environments must correspond to what the learner needs versus what the teacher has predetermined is the need of the learner (Silvers, O’Connell and Fewell, 2007). Adult learners especially want to know the value in completing requested tasks. Online communities should take input from learners to help determine the direction of the activity. Learners will be more engaged in activities when they feel it has some connection to their job or is what they want to learn.
Delivery of Course Materials
        Course Management Systems (CMS) in higher education and the tools within the systems are growing and becoming more robust each year. With the advent of open source systems such as Moodle, course management systems are offering more flexibility for instructors when designing their online curriculum. The perfect system does not exist yet, but CMS are evolving each year better meeting the needs of teachers and students (Papastergiou, 2006; Rikers et. al 2008).
        Another unique characteristic of the adult learner is their reduced memory (Cercone, 2008). Providing charts and graphic organizers help adult learners organize the content and retain information. Use easily read fonts and use bold colors to promote the readability of online course materials. Consistency in menus on the course management system will help adults navigate easily within the course material.
        Appalachian State University professors Bronack, Riedl, and Tashner (2006) developed a 3-dimensional virtual world, AET Zone, for their courses. Although many colleges were offering distance education at the time they wrote their paper, very few instructors were utilizing virtual worlds for student learning and for interactions with their peers and instructor. Virtual worlds allow opportunities for students and instructors to interact synchronously, providing a richer social interaction for learning. The authors state, “learning environments are most effective when they reflect the nature of the community in which they occur” (p. 224). Learners should be encouraged to participate in creating the learning community, drawing on their experiences to create new meaning from their current studies. AET Zone helps students feel as if they are in a class interacting with their peers and instructor. AET Zone has students select an avatar to travel within the virtual world at the student’s direction, while using other tools in the virtual world to interact with other students and instructors. Virtual worlds are becoming more common in educational settings.
        Understanding different ways of creating online learning environments is necessary to support adult learners in their quest for knowledge. Online learning has grown rapidly in the past few years, requiring instructors to learn effective ways of building online communities of learners. While the technology software will change, the need to support learners in online courses will continue to be important. Instructors become more facilitative when aligning instruction with social constructivist, connectivism, and transformative learning theories. Their job is to create learning environments that help learners make connections between their past and currently acquired knowledge, while remembering that learners come to their course with different objectives, skills, and comfort levels. Adult learners will be successful in online courses when instructors utilize the tools available to create effective online learning communities that promote dialogue, discussion, and reflection, all of which allow learners to develop deeper understandings and to gain knowledge.


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