James J. Barney


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

This is the first 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.

The COVID-19 crisis has reignited a fierce debate over the nature of online education and best practices. As I discussed in a previous article, there is a widespread misunderstanding among the general public about the difference between a properly constructed and delivered online course and the stopgap measures — collectively referred to as remote learning — adopted by some brick-and-mortar schools faced with COVID-19 closures. Left unchecked, this confusion has the potential to do reputational harm to online education.

Start a legal studies degree at American Public University.

In recent months, as many brick-and-mortar institutions have struggled to roll out thousands of online and remote classes in an extremely short time, some discussions dating from the 1990s regarding the nature of online education have re-emerged. Moreover, academic debates on the methods used as well as on the effectiveness of online education have been the focus of a massive amount of popular media attention. This was exemplified by a New York Times article entitled, “What We are Learning About Online Learning.”

In a recent article, Wally Boston, president emeritus of APUS, spoke of adult learners’ different motivations for enrolling in higher education. Similarly, the methods used to educate adult learners differ significantly from those used to educate youngsters.

In addition to the sources cited, this article draws heavily upon a collection of ideas and best practices outlined in The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Tips, 2nd Edition (2016) by Judith V. Boettcher and Rita-Marie Conrad as well as the years of scholarship by The Foundation for Critical Thinking. I also highly recommend LinkedIn’s short training video entitled “Instructional Design: Adult Learners” by Jeff Toister, a certified training professional. The video provides many valuable tips on creating engaging training material for adult learners.

Adult Learners Are Unique and Require Special Methods of Instruction

Over the past decade, most of the students in my online courses have been working adults, both civilians and military servicemembers. Many of them are also first-generation, career changers, and minority students in their late twenties or early thirties who might not be able to continue their education but for online instruction. As such, the methods I use to teach reflect the best practices of “andragogy,” i.e., the study of how adults learn and the most effective methods for teaching them.

When teaching adults, educators cannot employ the late 19th and early 20th-century processes and structures or those developed for teaching students under 18 years old. Instead, educators must use methods that reflect the most recent scholarship and the experience gained from the realities of teaching adults in the 21st-century online classroom.

In his 1973 classic work, “The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species,” Malcolm S. Knowles outlines several keys to successfully educating adults. Knowles said educators must:

  • Provide students with continuous and robust feedback
  • Create relevant assignments
  • Focus on social interaction
  • Articulate how each task offers students useful knowledge
  • Allow students to experiment
  • Provide students with a high degree of flexibility

Knowles noted that some of these practices used to teach children and teenagers are not effective with adults. He expanded on his ideas in subsequent books with co-author scholars, including The Adult Learner, which are canons in andragogy.

A Properly Constructed Online Course for Adult Learners Can Take Many Forms 

To accomplish Knowles’s goals, educators who find themselves predominately teaching adult learners can create an online classroom using various formats. There is no one-size-fits-all method or magic course design.

In the past, I have advocated for forum-centric online classes. However, there are numerous equally acceptable methods for educating adult learners, including the incorporation of high-tech simulations, video training and a combination of other formats. That said, andragogy scholarship strongly disfavors resorting to a lecture method in an online course or a course that transforms adult learners into passive recipients of knowledge.

I have been afforded a high degree of creative freedom in course creation and delivery over the years. As part of this experience, I learned that applying a rigid formula in designing a course is dangerous.

Instead, an online educator who is teaching adults should focus on 1) the individual and unique needs of adult learners and 2) whether course design and delivery reflect recent scholarship. The best interests of students, as well as the scholarship into best practices for teaching adults, should guide the design of any online course rather than a prescribed design formula.

Small Design Changes in the Online Classroom Can Have Big Impacts

While there are many acceptable online course designs, current research urges educators teaching adults to move away from comprehensive exams and large research tasks like lengthy term papers.

For example, Flower Darby and James M. Lang outline some ideas in their excellent 2019 book, “Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes.” Rather than reinventing the wheel, Darby and Lang persuasively argue that small changes in the online classroom can create a sense of community and a robust online learning environment not achieved via the large exam and research paper format. These small changes include breaking exams into smaller assignments or creating some interactive assessments like presentations, team projects, and use of debates or discussions.

Following Darby and Lang’s guidance, minor revisions to an online course can significantly improve the learning environment without a tremendous investment of time or a large budget. For example, rather than requiring the traditional midterm, final exam and research paper, a creative online instructor can assign a series of smaller assignments that foster teamwork among students. The instructor also might ask students to apply skills and knowledge from their readings to accomplish certain prescribed tasks.

If these projects and assignments are linked to real-life tasks, they are not only relevant, but they also provide adult students with a means of understanding the linkage of student work, academic rigor, and future professional and academic success. Similarly, the use of a host of high-tech and low-tech methods to incorporate experiential learning that asks students to apply the readings and knowledge to real-world situations or topics ripped from the headlines can accomplish the same goals.

These assignments do not have to be lengthy or time-consuming for the student or instructor. For example, instructors in the social sciences and liberal arts can incorporate debates and student presentations into their online classrooms. These debates or presentations can make learning fun and enjoyable.

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.