Using Knowles to Support ALL Online Learners

Author Information
Renee F Aitken
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Northcentral University
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

Using Knowles Characteristics of Adult Learners in course development, design, and teaching assures all students are served equally well.  In an online environment is it difficult to tell a student's age.  The visual cues in a face to face classroom are not present and students do not normally self-disclose their age during the course.  Most students who choose an online education do so because of life circumstances such as a family, fulltime job, or distance from a university. Online students have to be self-directed regardless of their age. 

The characteristics of all learners have changed significantly since Knowles described the adult learner in 1984. Access to information through the Internet, computer literacy, and changes in the K-12 learning environment have all contributed to changes in the characteristics of students. Outside influences have also changed traditional students - many have held jobs during their high school careers, their expectations of college degree are linked with their ability to earn more, and they are more individual and mature than in the past.  All these factors should influence how online classes are built and taught.

Finally, the skill sets of those over 25 years of age returning to school often mirror those who are under 25 years of age.  The ability to write well, critically think, and express ones ideas and thoughts are often indistinguishable based on age.  These factors should also be considered when building or teaching a class.

Online students should be treated as adult learners regardless of their age because they share many of the characteristics of adult learners.  The adult learning model suggests interaction, problem based activities, and sharing of experiences helps create a dynamic learning environment all students can appreciate.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

To implement the effective practice in an online classroom, the course developer and instructor need to consider all students in the same way.  This includes applying Knowles characteristics to all students.  Knowles characteristics are shown in italics followed by an example implement that practice (Knowles, 1984, p. 12).

Self-concept: As a person matures, self-concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being

Most online environments require students to be self-directed.  Offering time management skills in the orientation course and providing students with direct access to the instructor benefits those, regardless of age, with the skill set needed to continue to be self-directed.

Experience: Maturity brings about a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.

The online environment should be tailored to allow all students the opportunity to share their experiences.  Even traditionally aged students who are attending online classes have outside responsibilities that can be used to support their learning.  In addition, the accessibility of information on the Internet can provide a wealth of information all students can use as a resource.  Most online students are also working students and many are paying their own way, giving them additional resources.


Readiness to learn: As a person matures the readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of social roles.

Online students who are not ready to learn will not survive the course online.  It is extremely difficult to survive the complexity and self-directed nature of online courses, so students, regardless of age must be committed to learning and to contributing to the social environment of the classroom.


Orientation to learning: As a person matures time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and accordingly the orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject-centeredness to one of problem centeredness.

In general, our society has become an immediate society.  The availability of information and the changing economy has created immediacy in many respects, including getting an education.  Most students, regardless of age, are problem focused as many do not have the time or money to focus on the pursuit of a subject for the sake of knowledge. Students in an online class enjoy solving problems, a skill they will carry with them when they graduate.  By providing problem solving and critical thinking exercises in an online class, students learn to be critical thinkers.


Motivation to learn: As a person matures the motivation to learn is internal

Students who attend online education do so from an internal motivation.  Online classwork is done, for the most part, in isolation so without internal motivation to complete the class, the student may drop out.  Recognizing and allowing students to give a voice to their motivation often results in the same responses, regardless of age:  I have always wanted a degree, I need it for my current job (or better job), or I want to change fields.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

My research is mostly anticdotal as I have been teaching online since 2000.  I have always believed all online student should be considered adult learners and have taught and designed for adult learners since I began. My ratings have almost always been excellent for both my online and face to face classes. I attribute my success to my ability to treat all student equally and as adults. I have examples of class designs copied right from a face to face class in a traditional environment without any consideration for the characteristics of adult learners and the redesign of those same classes.  I also have writing samples from online students who disclosed their age to me which indicates the similarities in their writing and critical thinking skills.

I also believe Ken Robinson, Mark Milliron, and George Siemens have provided significant evidence of the changes in K-12 education, higher education, and the acquisition of knowledge respectively, which supports treating all students as adult learners.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

I believe this practice touches on all the pillars:

Learning Effectiveness - by making learning part of life through experiences, students are more effective in applying their education to real life, which makes their learning more effective.

Scale - by eliminating learning knowledge for knowledge's sake and taking an applications based approach, students are learning valuable problem-solving skills applicable to any work environment, thus increasing the value of their education.

Access - increasing the access to faculty online to support students helps assure all students have access to support at the first tier. Treating all students as adults helps create an environment of respect and caring for every student so they feel comfortable in asking questions and receiving support instead of dropping out.

Faculty Satisfaction - it is a pleasure to work with adult learners who are self-directed giving faculty more satisfaction of a job well done.

Student Satisfaction - most students, regardless of age, respond to being treated as a responsible adult and rise to the occasion. They are often most satisfied when they are given an opportunity to showcase their talents, work towards a goal, and solve a problem simultaneously, regardless of the intensity of the work.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

A brain and the willingness to consider a new paradigm for online education.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

There are no additional costs unless one considers the cost of training faculty to treat all students equally.

References, supporting documents: 


Anderson, T. (2008). The theory and practice of online learning. 2nd edition. Edmonton, Canada: Athabasca Press.

Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (1998). The adult learner. 5th edition. Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing Company.

Milliron, M. D. (2011). Success Strategies for Working Students: The ‘Learn and Earn’ Baker’s Dozen. Kronos Workforce Institute's 2011 book "Elements of Successful Organizations.”

Robinson, K. (2009). The Element: How finding your passion changes everything. New York: Penguin Books.

   Siemens, G. (2008). Learning and knowing in networks: Changing roles for educators and designers.  Paper presented to ITForum for discussion, January 27, 2008.

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Renee F Aitken
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