Linda Dale Bloomberg holds the positions of Associate Director of faculty support and development, and full professor of education in the Sanford College of Education, National University. Dr. Bloomberg received her doctorate in 2006 from Teachers College, Columbia University, where she completed the AEGIS Program in Adult and Organizational Learning. Her book is Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners.
The focus of my book, Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners, is on how to facilitate and support deep and significant (as opposed to surface) learning within the online learning context. As I wrote in my previous blog Charting the Path to Success: The Non-Traditional Adult Student is the New Normal!, the demographic profile of higher education students is shifting from traditional-aged to adult learners, with more than half of today’s students are adult learners, pursuing higher education, including reskilling or upskilling for a new career or to fit their learning around family commitments and responsibilities (NCES, 2021). In that blog I also wrote how the core learning principles encompassed in both Andragogy and Transformative Learning Theory, can provide insights regarding pedagogical approaches and strategies. Moreover, traditional-aged students are emerging into adulthood and many aspects of both of these theories can apply to them too. By linking adult learning theory to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines, I now go some steps further to offer suggestions for how faculty–as transformative educators– can address and indeed advance adult learning capacity. In adopting a transformative learning approach you will be transforming yourself to become the kind of educator that can help your students develop as humans who demonstrate the motivation and skills to work with others to address (and hopefully solve) the many challenges confronting our global communities today.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Framework
Understanding by Design (UbD), developed by instructional designers and educators Wiggins and McTighe (1998), is a curriculum planning approach that employs a “backward design”; that is, the practice of beginning with the end in mind and focused on teaching to achieve understanding. Selecting appropriate and relevant learning outcomes (what the learner should know and/or be able to do) is the starting point for course design; following which you determine how learners will demonstrate that learning (e.g., create assessments) and then develop teaching materials and course activities to achieve that learning. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) developed an increased awareness of the challenges faced by those with disabilities which resulted in a greater understanding of the need for learning accommodations. This increased awareness resulted in the Framework of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
A key idea inherent in this framework is that variability in how learners engage with curriculum is a strength to be leveraged in course design and instruction. Course designers and instructors can implement UDL with specific strategies in order to provide: (1) multiple means of representation (the what of learning); (2) multiple means of action and expression (the how of learning); and (3) multiple means for engagement (the why of learning). Multiple means of engagement that make learners (1) interested in learning, (2) focused and persistent even when it gets tough, and (3) self-motivated and reflective in their learning (CAST, 2018, 2022). Utilizing these guidelines can help educators and course designers reduce the barriers their learners might face in mastering learning, while also ensuring that they are all meeting the same high standards for learning.
The UDL framework increases learner well-being by providing choice and a sense of student control, autonomy, and empowerment, thus providing instructors a powerful opportunity to create learning environments that effectively support all learners and minimizing stress, without sacrificing academic rigor. Instructors who develop and deliver courses with evidence-based principles of teaching and learning ease course-related student stress, and maximize both student mastery and well-being (Kaler, et al, 2021). The UDL framework indicates that supports will benefit all learners, not just those with disabilities (CAST, 2018). While the framework considers the variabilities of all learners, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed, and indeed highlighted, vast inequalities in higher education for both institutions and learners, with many learners from minority or underrepresented groups dropping classes during the online rush because they did not have reliable Internet or a personal computer or tablet. To leverage learner engagement, instructors and curriculum designers therefore need to consider the diversity of their learners, and how online environments can create both barriers and opportunities for engagement.
The main points of this theory are that adult learners have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions and of being able to direct their own learning. This key principle of andragogy (Knowles 1984a, 1984b, Knowles et al, 2000) relates to “self-regulation” in UDL (Cast, 2018). Adults have typically moved beyond being dependent toward greater self-direction (Knowles, 1984b). Adults seek guidance and consideration as equal partners in the process, and seek to choose options based on their individual needs. The idea of self-directed learning relates closely to the UDL guidelines where options are provided so learners are able to demonstrate their mastery of the course content (CAST, 2018). Varying the ways that individuals can demonstrate their learning with an emphasis on authentic assessment and working toward meeting goals by monitoring progress and managing information and resources, is important as it relates to real-life problem solving. The more flexibility that educators can provide learners in how they approach the learning experience, in what format the instruction is provided, and the appropriate ways they can assess their own learning, the more likely they can choose the path that best works for them.
Andragogy directly supports adults’ focus on the need to know. This relates to the engagement component of UDL through the “recruiting interest” strategy (CAST, 2018). Options for nurturing interest involve offering learners opportunities for choice and autonomy so that choice increases the relevance, value, and authenticity of their learning. Understanding the goals of learning and how these can benefit one’s life are also critical. Educators should make learning outcomes clear, but also provide a broader context for how those outcomes relate to the world outside of the classroom. Andragogy’s “need to know” can be addressed by helping learners see how their learning is sequential, and what is being covered now will help them learn additional content in the future. As such, recognizing the negative impact of not achieving the required learning helps reinforce the need for the learning. By taking the approach of a “guide on the side” as opposed to “sage on the stage”, educators can encourage their learners to identify for themselves why they need to know the course content and in turn serves to create a deeper connection to their learning.
A further Andragogical principle is to engage the prior experience of the learner (Knowles, 1984), also relates to “recruiting interest” in UDL (CAST, 2018). Adults enter the learning experience with a great wealth of life experience, and that experience is a resource that can be drawn upon to provide meaning to new ideas and skills. Experience is also a source of an adult’s self-identify. As opposed to children who are subject-centered, adults are life-centered, and so they seek to draw on their own knowledge and life experiences. The richest resource for learning, therefore, lies within the learners themselves, and therefore the learning content must of necessity be relevant so as to tap into learners’ “readiness to learn”. Providing them with choices in how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning, connecting their learning to prior experiences, and providing a safe space to take risks with learning all serve to support engaging with and drawing upon prior experience. Because adults thrive on solving problems as part of the learning process, building problem-solving activities into coursework is important. In UDL, multiple means of representation and action and expression provide opportunities to make learning life-centered and problem-centered (CAST, 2018). Course material must of necessity demonstrate the relevance to real-world application so that learners can connect what they are learning with their current and past experiences, and also be able to see possible future implications.
Perspective transformation, a core element of transformative learning theory (Kegan , 2000; Mezirow, 1991, 1994, 2000), involves (a) an empowered sense of self, (b) a more critical understanding of how assumptions and experiences shape and influence one’s beliefs and knowledge, and (c) more functional strategies and resources for moving forward. In sum, learning is essentially about making meaning of our experiences, transforming what we know, which in turn influences the way we think and behave. In my book, Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners, I discuss that the importance of striving to achieve the kind of “deep learning” that arises from dialogue, reflection, and critical reflection. What sets apart the transformative learning approach—and what indeed makes it unique—is the strong focus on critical self-reflection as integral to developing your own and your students’ transformative learning. Critical self-reflection is precisely the skill students must develop to overcome limiting beliefs and mindsets that compromise their effectiveness as citizens, family members, and employees. Critical self-reflection is the key to helping develop your own and your students’ meta-cognitive ability (i.e., the ability to self-assess their own learning). Critical self-reflection is also foundational for students’ development as more self-aware individuals who possess the skills and desire to contribute to the social good, including their families, and their local and global communities (Brookfield, 1995, 2015; Dewey, 1933).
A key idea inherent in the UDL framework is that variability in how learners engage with curriculum is a strength to be leveraged in both course design and instructional approach. One feature that makes transformative learning theory applicable to teaching adults, and a significant point of connection to the core premise of the UDL framework, is the idea that the most significant learning arising from critical reflection, and to achieve deep learning, ongoing critical thinking is key. This key concept of transformative learning relates to “self-regulation” in UDL (Cast, 2018). Some ways that educators can help promote the UDL concept of self-regulation include encouraging learners to set goals for themselves, promoting strategies for promoting and facilitating critical thinking and reflection to learn from mistakes and thereby appreciate teachable moments.
It is therefore essential to build critical thinking opportunities into your course content by asking questions and posing content that prompts deeper thinking. Critical thinking occurs through reflection and dialogue, commonly referred to as discourse, and so the implication is to provide opportunities for learners to fully participate in dialogue and reflection. Active engagement, problem-solving, and solution exploration places learners as the focal point, allowing them to construct personal knowledge rather than passively absorb it. Instructional materials that target these strategies promote higher mental-order skills, such as evaluation, synthesis, and critical analysis, and transform learning tasks and information into engaging, meaningful, and deep learning experiences. This relates closely to the UDL guidelines where options are provided so learners are able to demonstrate their mastery of the course content (CAST, 2018, 2022). Research also increasingly points to the effectiveness of contextually and culturally authentic learning activities that provide adult learners with opportunities for problem-solving in order to develop and apply critical thinking skills. In UDL, multiple means of representation and expression provide opportunities to make learning life-centered and problem-centered (CAST, 2018, 2022). Adult learning is more effective when learners solve problems and address tasks using complex reasoning, and so task-oriented educational tools will be more effective than standard passive teaching methods when teaching adult learners.
Activities and tasks that require learners to reflect on what they have learned and share their reflections with their instructors and peers extend and enrich their reflection. For instance, blogs and journaling, whether used as group exercises or as individual activities, have evolved into appropriate tools for learners to engage in critical reflection, dialogue, and ongoing learning. Encouraging learners to explain and describe their progress helps them to stay focused on their goals. Helping them think about what they have accomplished and learned also ensures that they are aware of their own progress and what they have yet to complete. Finding ways for learners to collaborate with each other and integrate feedback deepens their learning and helps move them toward mastery. Encouraging students to share their experiences with each other validates these experiences and creates valuable collaborative learning opportunities. The concept of active learning, where learners actively participate in and contribute to discussion, and engage in critical thinking, essentially places the learner at the center of the learning experience, and has significant applicability to engagement and empowerment in the context of online learning.
Some Final Words
Intrinsic motivation to learn has broader implications with regard to learners performing better at work, having a greater sense of self-worth, and striving to improve their quality of life in general. When learners “see themselves” in the course content they can identify more readily with the learning activities and relate their assignments to their real-world career paths and experiences. This has implications for the concept of “usable knowledge”; that is, knowledge that is directly relevant and useful with regard application to real-life experiences.
Indeed life-centered, problem-solving, collaborative, and self-reflective approaches can support motivation, and enhance ongoing learner engagement and empowerment. Thoughtfully considering how the learning opportunities we provide our learners significantly affect their learning is an important theme that runs through the principles of Andragogy as well as Transformative Learning. Recognizing that everyone learns differently is the foundation of UDL, and the goal is to offer multiple means of engagement to reduce the barriers that learners might face in mastering learning, while also ensuring that all learners are meeting the same high standards for learning. Leveraging these ideas into your teaching practice can indeed create a significantly more meaningful and successful learning experience for all adult learners. These words ring true for me not only since I completed my own doctoral program under Jack Mezirow, founder of Transformative Learning theory, but my recent completing of the Transformative Educator program offered by #QEDEX also served to reinforce the critical role played by educators in ensuring that we provide a deep and significant learning experience for all of our learners. As transformative educators we strive to meet the needs of all learners, offering them the ownership, agency and autonomy to actively engage in the learning experience, so that they are empowered to implement changes in their own personal and professional lives, and ultimately in the lives of others. Be that transformative educator!
Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction
How to Engage Adult Learners
Linda Dale Bloomberg
Bloomberg, L. D. (2021). Designing and delivering effective online instruction: How to engage adult learners. Teachers College Press, Columbia University. https://www.tcpress.com/designing-and-delivering-effective-online-instruction-9780807765289
This publication was nominated for the 2021 and 2022 Division of Distance Learning (DDL) for the Association of Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), one of the premier international organizations for instructional design and ed-tech.
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