Malcolm S. Knowles (1913-1997) was the most prominent expert on adult education in the United States during the second half of the 20th century. During the 1950s, he was Executive Director of the Adult Education Association of the United States and a champion of adult self-directed learning.
A pioneer in adult education
Malcolm Knowles wrote the first major accounts of the history of adult education, but his greatest contribution was to the concept that adults do not need to be taught; they just need help in learning. The technical term is andragogy.
The concept of andragogy
Andragogy relies on the assumption that adults take responsibility for their own decisions and that any adult learning program has to accommodate the following principles:
- Adults eventually evolve from a self-concept of dependency on others to independence, and that concept carries over into learning.
- As adults mature, they accumulate a reservoir of experience, which evolves into an ever-growing learning resource. Adult learners connect the dots between new concepts and their past. The more relevant the new concept to past experiences, the quicker the adult learner absorbs the learning.
- Adults are more ready to learn because the mastery of new tasks contributes to their social roles, occupational advancement and self-esteem.
- The adult orientation to learning involves a change in perspective. Younger learners accept the notion that what they learn now will or might be useful at some time in the future. Adults view learning as a tool to solve some problem or achieve some immediate goal.
- Adult learning motivation is largely internal. Adults do not require external motivators or the pressures experienced by younger learners.
Its applicability to online learners
Malcolm Knowles passed on before he could see his concepts and teaching applied to online adult learners, but his principles remain intact, despite–or perhaps because of–the explosive growth of the Internet as a learning platform.
The heart of the matter
Adult students, either in a live or virtual learning environment, have a crucial requirement: the subject matter must be immediately relevant to their job or personal life. Again, the adult approach to learning is that of problem solving. The subject matter is less important than the process.
The instructor’s new role
Pedagogy relies more on lecture and a dominant role of the authoritarian teacher. Andragogy makes a totally different assumption: Adults have a strong desire to know why they need to learn something.
When dealing with adult learners, the instructor has to let go of the authoritarian, grader role and be a facilitator and resource. Either in person or online, the instructor must, according to one westga.edu piece: "…encourage a continual stream of dialogue concerning the subject matter…’where meaning is created in relation to students’ prior experience and knowledge.’"
Taking adult online learning to the workplace
Applying the five principles of andragogy, eLearning and instructional design implies a deeper respect for the adult learner. Adult learners are ideal subjects for online learning and actually learn better when:
- The online experience allows the adult to learn at a comfortable pace and promotes a feeling of independence and empowerment.
- The learning platform design is similar to the familiar user interface of the learner’s previous online experiences.
- The instructional design is customized to their professional niche and is seen as relevant to improving their job performance.
- The eLearning involves an immediate relevance to the adult learner in terms of job status and qualifications.
- The instruction employs positive feedback as the learner progresses.
The bottom line is that adults not only make better learners because of their experience and motivation, but they also make better online learners. They make better online learners because eLearning relies less on an instructor and more on what Malcolm Knowles knew back in the 1950s about adult self-direction and motivation.
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