Virtual training: Adult learning principles still apply

Andragogy: The art and science of adult learning

Malcolm Knowles was an American educator who between 1980-1984 identified the characteristics of adult learners (andragogy) in comparison to those of child-learners (pedagogy).

Even if you are already familiar with andragogy, it is worth taking time periodically to re-familiarize yourself with the principles.  This is especially true, if as a facilitator, you are being challenged to adapt to a different learning environment, e.g. the virtual classroom.

The adult learner and the virtual classroom

As adults, learners tend to be more:

1. Purposeful – specific needs and goals they want to meet. Their motivation to learn is internally driven rather than imposed, and they want to feel more control over its planning and evaluation.

Given the relatively brief time frame allowed for most virtual classes, their design must be very well crafted.  There is not a lot of room for spontaneous design-as-you-go initiatives.  During the virtual session, chat boxes and whiteboards can be used to gather learner objectives or modify pre-defined ones. The input can be kept on the screen and referred to periodically.  This enables participants to feel a greater sense of control.

Adults also like to know their progress toward learning goals, so build some brief ‘tests’ into the session.  Individuals will know their own scores, and the facilitator can share group results.

2. Experienced – accumulated knowledge gained over time. This becomes a resource for further learning and development.  Using their experiences, adults want to participate fully, share, and collaborate.

The facilitator can use virtual classroom tools like chat boxes to have participants express their thoughts on a topic or task (particularly in relation to their own work).  A small number of class participants (perhaps two) could be asked to look at the inputs and respond.  A whole group discussion could follow, although those wanting to contribute should be asked to raise their ‘online hands’ otherwise people will be talking over one another.  It is important for the virtual facilitator to manage discussions.

The ideal online site for sharing experiences and collaborating is the virtual breakout room. Some learners may be more comfortable contributing in these smaller groups. The input can be brought back to the main group and discussed.  Role-playing is also possible in small breakout groups.  Imagine a group of three participants practicing giving feedback to one another, with a different participant acting as the observer/coach in each round.  As facilitator, you can visit each group and see how they are doing, answer questions, and give further guidance.  Back in the main group, participants can share what worked and what didn’t work.

3. Problem-centered – a focus on real (non-academic) challenges and tasks, with a strong preference for how-to information.  Content should be need-to-know information rather than nice-to-know.

Many adult learners will think their time is being wasted if they don’t see an immediate connection to their real-world challenges. Chat boxes and short breakouts can be used to identify current issues.  Analysis of a small number of real-world scenarios from participants is much more valuable than having many hypotheticals (although be ready with hypotheticals).

Breakouts are particularly useful for enabling participants to ‘teach-back’.  When some problems have been identified, create a breakout group for each one.  Ask each group to analyze the problem and present (teach-back) a solution to the rest of the group.  In this way, the problem is real, and the solution is reality-based.

Virtual Training

4. Now-Focused – concern with impact in the short-term rather than future relevance, i.e. learning is a means-to-an-end, rather than an end-in-itself.

Without clear relevance to their jobs, learners can easily become distracted and disengaged (e.g. start answering their emails or even taking phone calls).  Information, therefore, should be clearly aligned with learner (and organizational) objectives.  As facilitators, we know that training sessions are sometimes used to support organizational change initiatives.  If this is the case, we must make sure we can clearly articulate the benefits of the session to participants (benefits that may not be immediately apparent).

To keep virtual participants engaged, we should also ensure that our information is as concrete and concise as possible.  If some concepts and abstract models are necessary to understanding the topic or task, the material should be broken down into small chunks.  Each chunk of content should be explained with its immediate practical application.  Forget lectures lasting over three minutes.

5. Safety-Concerned– need to maintain their self-esteem; they have something of great value to lose.

Sometimes it is useful to call upon individuals to give their input, especially when you think they might be disengaged.  The purpose of asking a participant directly for their contribution should never be to scold or embarrass them.

As facilitator, you can say upfront that the power of the session will be greatly increased if everyone contributes their knowledge and experience.  The virtual space can be intimidating and make some learners reluctant to get fully involved.  Create the feeling of a disciplined team meeting rather than a classroom.

You can help create a safe environment by having people contribute to easy or small things initially, and build up to greater complexity.  You can also forewarn people: “I’m going to introduce the first step in giving feedback, and Tim I’d like to ask for your thoughts afterwards if that’s OK.”  You can also ask open-ended questions first to give someone a little thinking space.

These principles are, of course, relevant to face-to-face training.  In virtual training, we sometimes have to be a little more creative and adventurous in applying them.

[Note: There are variations of the adult learner assumptions and principles.  The five listed above are my own synthesis.]

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About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

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