Professional Development for Adult Learners: Designing Online Learning Based on Real World Expectations

Concurrent Session 2

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Brief Abstract

University of Florida Professional Development will share best practices for online professional development courses for adult learners—an often unexplored area of online learning. Two large-enrollment, asynchronous courses will be used as examples of how to apply learner-centric design for the target audience to meet specific real world expectations.  


Brenda L. R. Such, Ph.D., is an instructional designer and team leader for the Center for Online Innovation and Production at the University of Florida. She and her team focus on course development for UF Online and for UF Distance and Continuing Education. Her research primarily focuses on online collaborative learning methods, as well as active learning and blended learning in STEM courses.

Extended Abstract


In comparison to K-12 and higher education, adult education, especially related to professional development, remains a frontier on many fronts (Donavant, 2015). This proposal presents what would be discussed in an education session concerning current professional development practices for adult learning in an online setting, thereby contributing to the discussion of best practices for this particular population.  

Brief Discussion about the Field of Adult Education

Although the formal field of adult education was founded in the 1920s, historically challenges have included the identification of a theory or model that most accurately depicts the learning contexts and processes (Merriam, 2001). For many years, the traditional adult learner had only two options from which to choose: face to face in a classroom or correspondence through the mail. With the addition of online education, the learning environment and its processes have added another level of complexity for whom some would argue as “digital immigrants” (Prensky, 2001, 2012). Furthermore, online adult education requires continued tailoring and evaluation of course content when developing courses for online adult learners seeking professional development. The knowledge and experience among the learners oftentimes is already rich; however, there remains a critical need to broaden professional acumen within their respective fields. In many instances, the adult learner pursues this type of education in order to achieve an industry license or credential or to fulfill an industry requirement for continuing education.

Online Professional Development at the University of Florida

The instructional design team for University of Florida Professional Development (UFPD) has followed learner-centric designs, particularly in creating meaningful online learning experiences based on authentic situations and tasks the learners would normally encounter (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2015). The majority of UFPD learners are either Boomers (born 1945-1965) or Generation X (born 1965-1980) (Herrmann-Nehdi, 2008), and have a range of experience with technology. All courses are housed in Canvas, the university's official online learning management system, and are asynchronous with open enrollment, which permits prospective students to register and begin a course at any time. Two of the UFPD courses to be discussed are Water Treatment Plant Management and Nutrition and Foodservice Professional Training. Each course discussion will include the target audience, course requirements, prominent assignments, and course challenges and benefits.

Water Treatment Plant Management

The UFPD Water Treatment Plant Management program is a 3-module, 23-lesson course that is one of only a few of its kind offered in an online format. It is intended for professionals working in the field of water treatment plants, and is a prerequisite for the Class B or Class C Drinking Water Operator Exam. Therefore, companies that require their employees to take this course or its equivalent choose the online version because it is self-paced and employees do not have to miss work to attend. The course averages approximately 20 new enrollments per month and learners have a year to complete it. The instructor who developed the course has many years of experience teaching this course to adult learners in the face-to-face format. With the assistance of an instructional designer, he discovered appropriate technology to maintain the quality of course content within an online learning environment.  

The highest level of education for many learners in this course is either a high school diploma or GED, and they have likely been working an entry-level position at a water treatment plant. Not only are they anxious about being required to take an academic course, but many of them are digital immigrants (Prensky, 2001, 2012). Therefore, every aspect of this course is intended to help the learner feel supported and at ease. Special care was taken to provide each learner the opportunity to master the content at his or her own pace. In addition, there is an optional math refresher module at the beginning of the course that draws on the learners' previous experiences by reviewing basic math concepts in the context of the water treatment plant.

Learners are offered multiple opportunities to practice with the course technology before having to perform in a graded situation. Each lesson consists of a practice quiz that mimics the upcoming graded module test and although the quiz can be taken as many times as the learners want, it must be submitted at least once. The questions are pulled from a large question bank, so learners are getting a new quiz each time they take it. In addition, each lesson has an open-ended question assignment that must be submitted; however, it is not graded and serves as a means for the instructor to provide individualized feedback to the learners. At the end of each module there is a graded test structured like the practice quizzes. The tests permits learners multiple attempts, and they must score at least 70% on each before being allowed to move on to the next module. The culminating activity in the course is a high-stakes final exam that can only be taken one time and mimics the state exam that must be taken after the course for licensure.

One of the biggest challenges facing adult learners is finding time to complete the course. Both the instructional designer and instructor made a concerted effort to break the course material and activities into manageable chunks. The thought process behind this course of action was adult learners would not be able to dedicate an extended period of time each day to complete coursework. As a general rule, the course was designed so learners can log on and be able to complete an individual task within 30 minutes.

Nutrition and Foodservice Professional Training

Nutrition and Foodservice Professional Training (NFPT) is a 7-module, 43-lesson course. The University of Florida (UF) has been approved by the Association of Nutrition & Foodservice Professionals (ANFP) to facilitate a training program that offers the course as a first step to help prospective foodservice-related personnel become Certified Dietary Managers. Upon successful completion of the NFPT course, learners are eligible to sit for the national credentialing exam. The course's target audience includes learners who have a high school diploma or GED and have been working in the foodservice industry for more than 10 years. Learners have 15 months to complete the course, and the program averages 65 new enrollments per month.

Based on ANFP-recommended curriculum, UF instructors vetted the course materials and enhanced them with edits and supplementary resources. In addition, there are two instructors who oversee the courses, assisting with grading and answering learners’ questions via email and chat sessions.

The course's only pre-requisite is that learners are required to either have or have access to the necessary technology to complete the online course. The course details have been broken down into Canvas course pages for learners to read while becoming familiar with the learning management system. In general, each module in the course consists of four to eight lessons and each lesson consists of an introduction, access to extra practice and resources, a textbook reading requirement, videos to watch, an assignment to complete, a quiz to take, and a field experience with a preceptor. The course has characteristics for blended learning in that there are required field experiences that force the learner to interact with their preceptors for at least 75 hours.

The biggest challenge has been to present large amounts of complex information about foodservice and nutrition to a less technically astute population, with the ultimate goal of having learners pass a high-stakes credentialing exam. Due to an older learner population, information is shared succinctly without too many multimedia distractions, assignments have room for flexibility, reasons for answers are provided, and an informal style is used in presenting information (Herrmann-Nehdi, 2008). As a result, the major benefit to the course has been that learners have been able to manage the course in coordination with their personal and professional schedules and the schedule of their preceptor to successfully complete assignments. 


When designing online adult education courses, UFPD has found learner-centric practices to enhance the learner experience. As seen in the two example courses, the authentic course content and the application of that content contributed to the learners' professional development. The extensive amount of course materials was broken into multiple lessons, which not only improved the adult learners' knowledge retention but also, practically, assisted in the management of their time. Another factor affecting the learners' time included the flexibility for self-paced learning within a 12- to 15-month period. Because lessons were chunked according to specific topics, learners were accountable to become proficient in understanding in stages, which ultimately prepared them for the end-of-course test and respective credentialing exams.


Herrmann-Nehdi, A. (2008). The learner: What we need to know. In E. Biech (Ed.), American Society for Training & Development handbook for workplace learning professionals. Baltimore, MD: ASTD Press.

Knowles, M. S., Holton III, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2014). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. Routledge.

Merriam, S. B. (2001). Andragogy and self‐directed learning: Pillars of adult learning theory. New directions for adult and continuing education, 2001(89), 3-14.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants part 1. On the horizon,9(5), 1-6.

Prensky, M. R. (2012). From digital natives to digital wisdom: Hopeful essays for 21st century learning. Corwin Press.