Combining Guided and Self-Led Instruction is Key to Effective Adult eLearning

eLearning has transformed education, providing flexibility, accessibility, and convenience to learners of all ages and backgrounds. Increased global connectivity and access to smart phones means that over 100 million people around the world now receive education online. Although online learning has seen a remarkable surge in popularity and accessibility, completion rates for online courses continue to hover around 15%. This  creates a dilemma for course designers on how to effectively engage adult audiences to ensure they complete courses and achieve learning objectives, writes  Nicola Bothma, Divisional Director of Digital Learning Services at Digital Frontiers.

In eLearning, there are multiple  approaches to the design, development and delivery of online courses, with pedagogy and andragogy being two prominent approaches amongst them. While both focus on the art and science of teaching, they cater to different audiences. Pedagogy focuses on the learning needs of children and young adults, while andragogy focuses on purely adult learners. To better understand these approaches, it is worth exploring them further.

The Pedagogical versus Andragogical approach

Pedagogy is a more traditional, instructor-led approach, preferring structured learning environments. It relies on cognitive and social developement to address the learning needs of children and young adults.

Andragogy, on the other hand, emphasizes self-directed learning, experiential and problem-based learning. It assumes an independent, autonomous, self-directed and internally motivated learner, and is thus better suited towards adult learners.

So how does this translate into course design?

A pedagogical approach is centered around guiding learners through the course material in a structured and prescribed manner, often using synchronous elements that encourage interaction between instructors and students. To enhance learning, this approach include opportunities for learners to reflect on and apply new knowledge and skills through various activities such as quizzes, simulations, and gamification.

An andragogical approach, on the other hand, is designed to meet the unique needs of adult learners. The content is delivered asynchronously, allowing learners to engage with the material at their own pace, in the order and manner they choose. This approach provides learners with the flexibility to self-direct their learning, enabling them to accommodate the scheduling constraints of their daily lives. The focus is on practical knowledge and skills that learners can apply to specific real-world problems, making the learning experience more relevant and applicable to their daily lives.

Why these approaches are not mutually exclusive

Effective learning design needs to consider the needs and preferences of the learner, and the assumption that all adult learners are autonomous and self-directed is unrealistic. For example, learners new to specific subject matter, or new to online learning itself, require more support and guidance than pure andragogy would suggest. Incorporating more traditionally pedagogical approaches into adult online learning has proven to be effective and beneficial for adult learners. Better understanding of the learner, their context, constraints and preferences, and the learning outcomes, are key to finding the correct balance between pedagogical and andragogical principles for a given online course.

This integration of pedagogy and andragogy has been shown to be effective through various studies. A 2018 paper from the Bulgarian Journal of Science and Education concluded that using the andragogical principle of giving more control over their learning experience, in combination with a pedagogical instructor support and feedback model, had higher levels of engagement and achievement for learners. At Digital Frontiers, we have also found an integration of approaches to be successful with our blended courses having an average pass rate of above 80%.

The needs of adult online learners differ depending on their context and the learning outcomes for the given online course. Learning designers need to follow a user centered approach to their design to ensure an optimum and engaging learning experience. This involves utilizing a range of instructional strategies from both andragogical and pedagogical approaches to accommodate learners to ensure achievement of outcomes, and to promote learner success. Ultimately it is the integration of these two approaches that ensures a balanced and effective learning environment that meets the needs of all adult learners and ensures completion of online courses.

By Nicola Bothma

Divisional Director of Digital Learning Services at Digital Frontiers


About: Digital Frontiers  

Established in 2015, Digital Frontiers (DF) is a not-for-profit capacity building specialist headquartered in Africa and focused on building human capacity aligned with achieving the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. To date, DF has built and implemented comprehensive capacity building programmes that support the acceleration of global initiatives in digital financial services and financial inclusion, gender equality, digital health, and inclusive digital economies.  

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