How adults best learn online

At university I studied pedagogy and how adults learn. These days, with the extensive learning resources available online and sites such as Wikipedia, we are now acquiring knowledge, skills and new abilities in new ways. Do you agree? I am convinced that I, myself, am not learning much by heart any longer and am not retaining much information and that I am very dependent on finding information online. With new technology come new challenges, both for individuals and organisations.

Many of people use the power of the World Wide Web to share their knowledge. I’ve been interested in how adults learn for years and I recently read a book entitled Teaching and Learning Online: New Models of Learning for a Connected World by Brian Sutton and Anthony Basiel. As the title suggests, this book is about online learning and I would like to share some of the points made by Sutton and Basiel.

One thing that I know by just looking at the world around me is that online learning is set to grow a lot. The industry is worth billions.

One of the issues with online learning

Over the last two years I’ve meet many people who have told me that they signed up to a course online but never finished it. They do look a bit guilty when they tell me that!

As teachers seeking to share our wisdom, we know that it is when people stay with us and commit to the entire learning journey that they benefit the most. Completing only half of an educational programme will not contribute much to your knowledge and skills base. 

I have thought a lot about this and about how teachers can prepare a course that people will sign up to, learn from and finish. We want our students to make it to the end so that we can give them a certificate and say a big ‘congratulations, you’ve made it, well done’.

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Learning through action

On a basic level we are happy to learn by just reading a book and listening to a teacher. Say, for instance, that you take a basic online cooking course for a healthier life. After you have completed the course you feel that you can cook a healthy meal and that this will lead to a healthier life.

That’s great. You’ve made it from being a total beginner to being an advanced beginner. At this level the learner will find it easier to pick up new knowledge and can start being more creative.

For deeper knowledge you need to learn from a peer group and through interaction. This may be online in a forum or through real life meetings. You can reach a certain level of comprehension by learning by yourself online, but deeper knowledge will result when you discuss the topic with other people who are at an advanced level or at least a higher level than you are.

When you are an expert on something you need to be able to collaborate with other experts. Last year I went on a digital marketing conference where I met randomly with other experts. It was well worth spending the entire day there just for these meetings.

This is why a membership club, a conference or other meet ups where you connect with others work so well. This interaction energises us and we learn best this way when we have reached an expert level of knowledge.

When you sell educational products online you must establish expectations and help the people completing your course to understand where they are. Are they beginners, advanced learners or experts?

You can help them by asking questions that define the gap they need to fill to reach a certain level. When you start out this way you are more likely to keep your learners interested for longer. They are entering the process on the right level.

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Use more metaphors

Learning new things can be complex for any student no matter the topic. You as a teacher can use everyday metaphors to describe a new concept. We love it when someone does this. Great teachers are “fluent” in creating metaphors that their students understand. 

As students we stop engaging when we feel that something is being explained abstractly. Metaphors are there to help you explain abstract and complex information in a concise and memorable way.

Metaphors can include all kinds of everyday activities: gardening, flying, preparation for a hiking trip, cooking food or peeling an onion. When you explain your idea by illustrating it with help of an everyday activity, people feel connected. 

An example could be: “You have to keep peeling the onion in order to reach the core of the problem”. Or: “When preparing for a hiking trip you always make sure you have all the equipment you need in your rucksack before you leave the house”. Or: “It’s crucial for a pilot to be calm before take-off and landing; during the flight he will just adjust his course”. These metaphors can be used to describe several business situations.

We all have our own favourite metaphors and you as a teacher should use several of them to explain your ideas and concepts. We can digest a lot of information with the help of metaphors, so use more of them. Some of the best non-fiction books I’ve read and the best online courses I’ve taken are packed with metaphors and everyday stories.

Use objects as support items

When you watch the news and the journalist is explaining a complex story, they use a graphic or video to make the subject easier to understand. Take advantage of this when you explain your subjects and metaphors.

We love it when a good metaphor is connected to an object. Your students will be used to this as they have grown up watching TV. The combination of a complex topic, a metaphor and a graphic might be all that is needed to get your students to reach that ‘eureka’ moment.

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All great TV producers are aware of the power of this combination. That’s why we are gripped by a well-produced documentary; we just want to learn more.

Think about the outcome

When we sign up to an online course that we thoroughly enjoy we don’t care that much about the technology used or in what way our learning is delivered. It may be via email, a membership website or a package sent home to us.

What really matters is how much thought the teacher has put into the course. How did they define the outcome of the course and are you enjoying the journey of learning about the topic?

The power of formulating new thoughts

As adults we learn best when we can talk and discuss a topic, so anyone who is keen to learn about something in your area of expertise will appreciate having conversations and meetings with you and a group of peers. We like to learn from listening to experts and people who are at a more advanced level. Maybe this can be part of your new product. A monthly Q&A? Real life meetings?

My last important point is that if we are keen to explore a new area then we are happy to learn using almost any kind of resource. We are happy to sit down, listen and concentrate if we have the inner drive to learn. But, if that inner drive is lacking, it will be hard for us to finish any course, be it online or offline.

As a keen learner and explorer I hope you have found these points interesting. And you learn something new by just leaving your house and meeting people, learning takes place everywhere.