reflections and ideas on open and distance learning - by irwin devries


In our online learning course activity, two of us were responsible for a wiki-development activity where the class brainstormed ideas about adult learners and the barriers and affordances of online learning. This is the final page that was developed by the class.

Good enough to keep I think! Here it is.

Adult learners have identified needs in a learning context, and a few of them are having clear directions and timelines that can prevent anxiety for learners. The tasks that are set out should be very specific and very easy to understand to support the confidence of learners right from the very beginning. An environment that provides an avenue for engagement by relating material to real life so that personal connections can be made. The keys to adult leaning are:

  • “Why?” should I learn this and what value does it offer me?
  • Learning by experience
  • Problem-solving approach

When learning online, some of these adult needs can be met by:

  • carefully selecting from the body of knowledge that needs to be addressed in a class to find materials that relate directly to the life world of the learners;
  • facilitating interaction among learners to assist learners to learn from each other and to identify learning needs that should be seen as learning opportunities;
  • ideally having content in a class that can directly be applied to a work or personal issue a learner is presently dealing with;

Online learning offers certain affordances for adult learners such as the flexibility to manage their time – they might need to be online late at night for example. The freedom to work somewhat according to your own schedule is necessary for people balancing work,family and other responsibilities. It offers more introverted students a chance to participate in a way that may fit their personality style better than f2f learning. The asynchronous nature of online learning allows for deep reflection and slower processing than some f2f situations. Even extroverts can get time to work out their thoughts prior to officially posting their thoughts, whereas in a classroom they might blurt out ideas until they clarify their thought or point. More clear, focused and succinct discussion.

These affordances can address adult needs by:

  • having tasks with sufficient long periods to complete (assignments that should be around 5-7 days) — this allows students to incorporate their learning time within their other responsibilities;
  • allowing students to explore their motivational profiles and their learning styles with enough chance in a class to use them effectively for their individual learning journeys;
  • being available for advice or coaching — on-line learning can be very lonely and can provide for a challenge for the most secure person (being insecure can easily lead to the impression that one might not be good enough, smart enough, etc.)
  • teaching from the start the principle of charitable interpretation because misreadings are easy in the on-line environment. Also, it is very advisable to have conflict resolution skills as instructor and use them whenever there are frictions in the class or in teams. Labelling on-line is so prevalent and easy to do … so, we need to deal with it and we have the tools to deal with it

The challenges we need to keep in mind are important, and both instructors and learners need to grapple with them. For example, adult learners are often busy with families, professional lives etc, and are attracted to online learning for its scheduling flexibility. However, online group work of any kind for a deadline can immediately impose much more rigidity in scheduling, because students are suddenly being forced to accommodate each other’s schedules and work habits. Again, this comes back to very clear guidelines and expectations early on.

Also, group members and instructors need to be clear about when they are accessible or online. It is also good to teach sensitivity for each other and to be very transparent about one’s preferences: this facilitates understanding and compassion so necessary for successful learning (yes, I think my learning depends greatly on the response I get from my other learners and from my instructor)


  1. Elizabeth Wellburn

    Really good stuff and I particularly like that you've decided to make it a "keeper" via the blog. One reason for external blogging to be included in ISWO is that the blogs (PLN/community) will be available after the course is over. Another reason is that voices outside of ISWO (like mine) could be heard :-)And of course it is one more social media tool for experimentation.

  2. B.J.

    What a great idea to post the product, here! Nice example of bringing ideas from one medium to another.

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