Unified Learning Design Studio: Adult Learners and eLearning

on-demand-unified-learning-design-studio_Guest Contributor: Amanda D. Batson, Ph.D., Education Architect & Consultant, ADB Partners, LLC

Our second session of Unified Learning Design Studio covers the principles of adult learning and tactics for matching eLearning with adult learner preferences.

Session two recap:

When developing an eLearning program for adult learners, always keep best practices in adult learning top of mind.  One of the most practical yet grounded resources for today’s best practices in adult learning is the work of Harold Stolovitch and Erica Keeps.   In their book Telling Ain’t Training[i],  four common terms used with adult learning design are defined.  In ULD Studio, these terms are explored through the lens of eLearning, because these terms shape the intent of the instructional design.

Adult Learning – Key Terms


Training is when learners implement a task or procedures automatically. For example, completing activities exactly the same way on a large scale, such as a fire drill at a public school. In this case, there is a protocol that is followed and there are many steps that go into the protocol.

TIP:   If training is the intent of eLearning, then design should reflect “practice makes perfect.”


Instruction is where the content is generalized and adaptable. We want our colleagues to take away general procedures and adapt them to their particular situations. For example, with a legal update for a regulated industry, an organization would train its members and the members would apply the new laws and regulations to their respective work settings.

TIP:  If instruction is the eLearning intent, case studies can be quite helpful.  The “what ifs” of legal requirements can expand learning and strengthen appropriate application. 


With education, learners build general, mental models and value systems.  Education is a lifetime of experiences and knowledge gathering, or a collection of time and experience that generates an education. Education is very broad and should be very deep.

TIP:  If education is the eLearning intent, building the body of knowledge, models, and value systems is required.  These educational experiences must occur over time — even years of professional development. 


Simply put learning means change. For the respective learners, there will be everything from incremental mental changes to huge modifications. If we want to foster the greatest change, we need deep knowledge of our learners and multiple options for learning – from narrow to broad – so that the learner can adapt the experience to meet his/her needs.

TIP:  If learning – aka change– is the eLearning intent (and isn’t that the goal every time?), design experiences with various options.  Such options will build in opportunities for learning in diverse ways:  discussion boards, user-generated content, rich resource libraries, levels of the same course, etc.  As instructional designers, we cannot make a learner change, but we can design experiences that encourage and support change. 

The terms above are important because they define the intent of an eLearning program and intent drives and shapes instructional design. The reason ‘WHY’ we are providing eLearning shapes the type of learning experiences we develop.

Once again, we turn to Stolovitch and Keeps and delve into four principles of adult learning.  These principles reflect how we live and work.  These principles are reflex actions for virtually every adult on the planet.  When we recognize and incorporate them in eLearning, we increase the likelihood of successful learning…change in the learner.

Four Principles of Adult Learning


As adults, we first decide to participate, then we commit, then we arrive to the program, and most importantly and depending on the design of the program, we engage or we check out.

TIP:  To apply readiness to eLearning, provide learners with the tools and resources they need to be ready to participate. Examples include a welcome video, introduction to the program with important aspects highlighted, or a detailed curriculum. 


In our eLearning design, we need to offer opportunities to acknowledge our learners’ experiences, tap into their expertise whenever we can, and offer opportunities for our learners’ to share and contribute. Focusing on these areas will move learners toward engagement versus resistance.

TIP:  To apply experience in eLearning, create a safe professional space and opportunities where learners can share their experiences and expertise.   Examples include chat rooms and discussion boards.


On average, each adult makes 35,000 decisions every day. When adult learners enter a learning experience, there are many other things occupying their attention. Adults are very self-directed, and we want to set up a program where they can take charge, where we respect their autonomy, and this again encourages learners to engage and not resist.

TIP:  To apply autonomy in eLearning, design the program to provide the audience with options.  Adults know their preferences. Give them options as to where, when, how, how long, synchronous or asynchronous.  These options provide different modes of learning to accommodate today’s busy professionals.  Offer the course 24/7 access, small bits of content versus long content, and ensure it is responsive to laptops, smartphones, and tablets.  As much as possible, let adult learners take charge of their learning.


Learning programs must be focused, practical, applicable and produce relevant results. When you design your program, ensure there are tools and tips learners can take away today and apply immediately.

TIP: To apply action in eLearning, create experiences, programs of study, and materials that learners can apply today. Examples include a resource center, templates, case studies, or processes they can use immediately in their work setting.

Engagement is key to adult eLearning success.   We asked participants in the Unified Learning Design Studio how they engage learners in their eLearning program. Here’s what they had to say.

Tips from Colleagues:

  • I build the opportunity to practice into the just in time trainings that are created.
  • I think the key to engagement is to understand the needs of the learner; what does he/she want to do that he/she can’t currently do because a crucial piece of knowledge or skill is missing.
  • We are still working on this piece, but I will say that the chat room for us is a HUGE part of engagement for our attendees. They love talking to each other, offering resources, and they also police themselves when some attendees get out of hand!
  • Ask them what they want to learn! We regularly survey our members to understand what topics they want to learn about. This has worked well for us. We’ve also found that pre-and in-between segment work helps to keep them engaged between sessions.

Unified Learning Design Tool and Other Resources

As part of this session, we’ve added another tool to the resource center. Use the Unified Learning Design Tool to apply the principles of adult learning to your eLearning design.

Design Tool


[i] See Stolovitch, H. and Keeps, E.J.  TELLING AIN’T TRAINING 2nd Edition.  Association for Talent Development (formerly American Society for Training & Development), 2011.  https://www.td.org/Publications/Books/Telling-Aint-Training

About the Author:
Amanda Batson, Ph.DDr. Amanda Batson, education architect and consultant, founded ADB Partners in 2004 specializing in Education on Demand.  A major focus is quality hybrid learning and helping organizations achieve dynamic balance between face-to-face (f2f) and online experiences.  Her consultant services include organizational planning, education design, speaking, research, writing, and facilitation of both in-person and virtual events, communities and courses. She is the course instructor for Unified Learning Design Studio.

This post was written in collaboration with Jo Lynn Deal, myMarketing Cafe.

Register here for free to see Dr. Batson’s complete webinar on ‘Adult Learners and eLearning’, and you also automatically gain access to the entire series of webinars, and all tools & templates.

After registration:
Logon to the ‘iCohere Academy’
Select ‘ULD Studio’.
Select ‘ Session 2’
*You may have to download ‘WebEx’ to view this. Don’t worry, it is fast and free.

Join Lance Simon, EVP, of iCohere and me (Dr. Amanda Batson, ADB Partners, LLC) in Unified Learning Design Studio. Our free 10-part webinar series will expand your curriculum horizons and take your organization’s eLearning to even greater heights.  See you in ULD Studio!

This post first appeared on the Peak 8 Learning Blog on adbpartners.net.

This entry was posted in Concepts of Unified Learning, eLearning Best Practices and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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