Home Original Teaching Adult Learners in the Online Environment (Part II)
Teaching Adult Learners in the Online Environment (Part II)

Teaching Adult Learners in the Online Environment (Part II)


By James J. Barney
Professor of Legal Studies, School of Security and Global Studies, American Public University

This is the second article in a two-part series that discusses ways to teach adult learners in an online education platform.

Note: The opinions and comments stated in the following article do not represent the views of American Public University, American Public University System, its management, or its employees. This blog article, written by a licensed lawyer, is intended solely for educational purposes, not to provide any legal advice or to solicit clients in any U.S. or foreign jurisdiction.

In the first article of this two-part series, I discussed how adult learners require different teaching methods and how online instructors can utilize various design methods in their online courses to meet the learning needs of adult online students. In this article, I will explore multiple delivery tips.

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Regardless of the construction of a course or the elements of an online class, instructors who are teaching adults must recognize that success depends largely on their talents at course delivery. A well-thought-out and constructed online course might fail because of a host of delivery defects. These include a lack of feedback, inflexibility and an inattentive instructor.

Often, instructors will lash out at a course’s design or the students’ perceived deficiencies, ignoring common delivery errors they may have committed that result in the failure of the class to achieve the course objectives. Therefore, instructors must engage in careful self-reflection and evaluation before imprudently casting blame on perceived course design defects or on their students’ perceived failings.

Teaching Adult Learners Requires Flexibility, Constant Instructor Engagement and Feedback

When teaching adults, the essential delivery components include a combination of flexibility, constant engagement and robust feedback. First, instructors should understand that adult learners often juggle many tasks and responsibilities in addition to their academic work. Requiring tight deadlines and ironclad rules may be useful when teaching college students or high school teenagers who need to develop time management skills.

But working adults, for the most part, have already mastered such time management skills. Therefore, scheduling mandatory synchronistic lectures or fixed meetings makes little sense — or is impossible — especially now in the midst of the pandemic.

In the past, I have advocated for a professor’s constant online engagement via forum and discussion board engagement. I did so because I believed that a forum-centric class addresses one of the main criticisms of online education, i.e., the lack of social interaction among students and between professors and students. However, a forum-centric course is only one of many acceptable design techniques, and a creative online instructor can use many different techniques to foster student-to-student and instructor-to-student interactions.

Regardless of whether discussion boards or forums are used, online education also requires an instructor’s constant engagement. However, engagement necessary for a successful student experience does not require an instructor being online 24 hours a day.

Instead, skillful online professors utilize the full range of tools at their disposal to effectively maximize the effect of the time spent inside the online class. This includes the skillful use of emails, announcements, and recorded materials, as well as other training and course-related materials. Many of these tools can be written or recorded in advance; others can be incorporated into the classroom based on recent events or the instructor’s research interests.

In addition to flexibility and constant engagement, it is also necessary to provide robust and quality online class feedback. A Lifehacker article entitled “The Six Qualities of Good Feedback” offers helpful advice that applies not only to day-to-day situations, but also to teaching adult learners in an online course.

“The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Tips, 2nd Edition (2016)” emphasizes that an educator must be student-centric and consider students’ best interests when constructing and delivering an online course, including when giving feedback. As such, in their interactions — including when providing personalized and collective feedback to students — online instructors must provide constructive, actionable, positive, student-centric, and future-oriented feedback. The Online Teaching Survival Guide describes the attributes of effective feedback as:

  • Feedback is constructive if an instructor provides students with instructions on how to improve their work.
  • Feedback is actionable if it provides students with ideas on how to improve their work.
  • Feedback from instructors should also aim at being positive, emphasizing the positive attributes of the student work rather than formatting or citation issues.
  • Feedback must be student-centric. Instructors should place themselves in the student’s shoes when giving feedback and consider how they would react if they were the recipients of such feedback as students.

Most importantly, student feedback must focus on how the feedback can help students improve their work in future. Online instructors must describe how improving certain aspects of their students’ work is relevant both to the course objectives and to their professional aspirations.

As stated in one of my prior articles, the online classroom discussion boards provide an excellent forum for giving individual and collective feedback. Students can monitor instructor questions and feedback in the forums to learn valuable lessons.

While feedback and other delivery techniques should be flexible and focus on the student, online instructors do not have to sacrifice academic rigor. Instead, they must articulate how an online course’s academic rigor and feedback serve a student-centric purpose.

No instructor assigns work because he or she enjoys spending a massive amount of her days and weekends grading student work. Instead, student work is assigned because it serves a student-centric purpose. Rigorous coursework ensures that students achieve competency in the course’s subject matter, and that there are links between students’ competency and their life and career goals.

Every Student Deserves a Passionate and Joyful Instructor  

An instructor must demonstrate a passion for the subject matter and move beyond being a mere grader of midterms, finals, and research papers. An online instructor who largely transforms himself or herself into an anonymous grader is doing adult learners no favors. Specifically, such an instructor robs students of their ability to collectively see the instructor’s passion for the subject matter.

Berit Gordon persuasively argues in “The Joyful Teacher: Strategies for Becoming the Teacher Every Student Deserves” that instructors at all levels can illustrate their love for their subject by providing robust feedback in multiple ways, via their active involvement in the class and their mastery of subject matter as reflected by their exchanges with students. These varied intellectual exchanges form the essence of a meaningful educational experience.

Online discussion boards provide a site for an online instructor to shine, but they are not the only tool in a creative instructor’s toolbox. For example, short recorded videos can provide students with feedback. Likewise, providing students with recommended readings, podcasts, or videos produced by third parties — and creating assignments that ask students to express their creativity and mastery of the subject matter — are extremely useful.

Online Education Will Continue to Thrive If Online Instructors Protect Student Interests

Online education has created opportunities for working adults to pursue their goals when they might otherwise not be able to do so. While well-intentioned, the hurried adoption of “remote learning” and the creation of thousands of online courses by brick-and-mortar institutions in response to COVID-19 risk the introduction of flawed methods and shortcuts. Certain flawed methods such as the lecture-model classroom, synchronistic meetings, and high-stage episodic assessments (the mid-term, final, and research paper format) can do potential long-term damage to the online education of adult learners.

By focusing on the best interests of adult students and advocating for best practices for teaching adults in an online environment, online education will not only survive but thrive in the face of COVID-19. In this changing educational landscape where online and hybrid education are increasingly assuming a more prominent role, adult learners will largely be the beneficiaries. However, these favorable results are possible only if best practices, based on scholarship and years of online experience, are maintained during the current public health and educational crises and the best interests and educational needs of adult learners are prioritized.

About the Author

James Barney is a Professor of Legal Studies in the School of Security and Global Studies. In addition to possessing a J.D., James possesses several master’s degrees, including one in U.S. foreign policy. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in History. James serves as one of the faculty advisors of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity as well as the Model United Nations Club and is the pre-law advisor at APU.



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