Virtually There: Making Virtual and Blended Learning Work for Adult Learners

Blended and virtual learning make it easy for the learner to make decisions about when to engage or disengage. It’s the job of the training professional to ensure that the adult learner is motivated to participate.

“Virtually There” is a monthly column addressing the special challenges associated with designing, developing, and implementing virtual and blended learning.

It is generally understood that lecture by itself is not the best way to transfer knowledge to the adult learner. In the 1970s, Malcolm Knowles introduced the basis for modern adult learning theory, focusing on a collaborative approach to learning rather than the traditional schoolhouse lecture (for detailed explanations and information about how make adult learning theory relevant, here is a good place to start:

Learning technologies have become so ubiquitous in the modern workplace that training professionals finally are able to move the focus from a discussion about what technologies to use to a discussion about how to best teach content and how to address learner needs. Virtual and blended learning curricula, when designed to maximize engagement and knowledge transfer, provide vast opportunities to incorporate the tenants of adult learning theory. Let’s take a look at the individual concepts related to adult learning theory, and explore a few ways to accomplish this in your virtual and blended learning designs.

1. Adults are internally motivated and self-directed. Let’s face it: Most people want to do a good job, and when your learners must obtain a new skill to be successful at their job, they will do what they have to do to learn that skill. If formal training is unavailable, they will access help facilities, ask colleagues, and actively seek out the answers they need. We can take advantage of this motivation and blended learning environments by providing learners a formal tool set they can access as needed. Communities of learning and e-learning tutorials that address basic skills, followed up with virtual lessons for those individuals who might need more practice, is a great way to allow motivated learners to select their own path.

Do be aware that this cannot be a fully informal process. Learners need to understand what they need to know and what resources are available to them to obtain that knowledge. We need to take advantage and build upon this internal motivation, instead of taking advantage of it by making content available without guidance on how it should be used.

2. Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences. Whenever you bring learners together in a virtual session, be sure to include ample opportunities to interact and collaborate. A rule of thumb is learners should do something every three to five minutes. It can be as simple as clicking on an emoticon, or a more complex activity such as participating in a virtual breakout room. Minimize lecture during live sessions and allow learners to build upon existing knowledge and experiences.

In a training context, avoid the one-hour “Webinar.” Listening to a lecture for 45 minutes and asking for questions at the end does not support the way adults learn best. Even the most motivated and self-directed learners will find it difficult to remain engaged when they are not an active part of the process.

3. Adults are goal oriented, so every lesson and activity needs an outcome. This is especially important in any type of online environment because it is so easy to lose your learners’ attention. The fact is, online learners have little tolerance for content they perceive to be “nice to know.” And there are so many other priorities calling for their attention while they are learning from their desks that facilitators need to work harder to keep learners engaged.

Keep all lessons, whether self-directed or live, focused and action oriented. Every activity has to have a point that is obvious to the learner, and each activity should be debriefed or summarized to reinforce that point. Assessments and tests can help with this reinforcement. The key is to make sure every moment spent in a virtual environment can be seen as a good investment by the learner.

4. Adults are relevancy oriented. The design of a blended learning program should constantly answer the question, “Why is this important to me?” Just because a new initiative is important to the organization, it does not mean the initiative’s relevance immediately confers to the learner. E-learning lessons should not just teach the how and the why, but the why that reinforces relevance. Life lessons should take the “why” and make it practical and relevant. Case studies, problem-based learning, and-hands on application practice are all ways to drive home relevance.

And be prepared: Some adult learners will make the decision that a particular piece of content is not relevant to them or to the job they need to perform. If they make that decision, they often will opt out of some lessons. Blended learning doesn’t only provide flexibility to training delivery, but provides flexibility for adult learners to make decisions about what is relevant to them.

5. Adults are practical. While theory can provide background, adult learners want opportunities to practice so they can be confident in being able to perform a new skill or exhibit a new behavior back in the workplace. This is an area where training professionals have fallen down; we have mastered the ability to push content via e-learning lessons and Webinar-type lectures, but have minimized—if not eliminated opportunities—to practice skills. And we’re missing out on some fabulous opportunities: Learning technologies such as simulations and virtual classrooms provide great opportunities for practice. Imagine a customer service representative role-playing via application sharing in a virtual classroom. This is even more realistic than an equivalent role-play in a face-to-face environment because this customer service agent will be using this skill when he or she is on the telephone. There is no practical reason to bring people face-to-face to teach them skills they will never use in a face-to-face environment.

Practicality also gets to the idea of making sure learning is available at the right place and at the right time. For example, our workforce is becoming increasingly mobile. Workers travel between home offices and traditional office buildings, they work from coffeehouses and airports, and they expect to be able to learn from wherever they happen to be. As far as what device they use, it comes down to learner choice. People are more comfortable with personal devices they already know how to navigate. We all “tune” our devices to the way that works best for us as individuals. For instance, a left-handed person might have the computer mouse on the opposite side of a keyboard from a right-handed person. Switching computers for a day could lead to frustration for both. We are much more fluent on our own personal devices.

6. Adult learners like to be respected. Instead of focusing on what learners don’t know, facilitators of blended learning need to focus on what learners do know. We need to lose the “sage on the stage” mentality and create more of a collaborative colleague persona. Online learners need to be more than a name and a learning management system. They should be treated as colleagues. The facilitator should strive to use personal names and recall stories and experiences shared by the learners and bring these into future conversations.

It’s easy to lecture in an online learning environment. But long-winded lectures that have not been designed to help learners meet their individual goals do not show respect for the learners. Conversations, meaningful activities, and thoughtful design shows respect for learners.

Ultimately, the learner is the arbiter of what’s important to him or her. Blended and virtual learning make it easy for the learner to make decisions about when to engage or disengage. It’s the job of the training professional to ensure that the adult learner is motivated to participate.

A thought leader in the field of virtual classrooms, Jennifer Hofmann is the president of InSync Training, LLC, a consulting firm that specializes in the design and delivery of virtual and blended learning. Featured in Forbes Most Powerful Women issue (June 16, 2014) as a New England Women Business Leader, she has led InSync Training to the Inc. 5000 as the 10th Fastest Growing Education Company in the U.S. (2013). Hofmann is the author of The Synchronous Trainer’s Survival Guide: Facilitating Successful Live and Online Courses, Meetings and Events (Pfeiffer, 2003), Live and Online! Tips, Techniques, and Ready-To-Use Activities for the Virtual Classroom (Pfeiffer, 2004), and How To Design For The Live Online Classroom: Creating Great Interactive and Collaborative Training Using Web Conferencing (Brandon Hall, 2005). She has co-authored, with Dr. Nanette Miner, Tailored Learning: Designing the Blend That Fits (ASTD, 2009), a book focused on taking advantage of distributed technologies to create the best blended training solution possible. Her most current projects include a monthly Training magazine online series titled “Virtually There” and her newest book, Body Language in the Bandwidth – How Facilitators, Producers, Designers, and Learners Connect, Collaborate & Succeed in the Virtual Classroom (InSync Training, 2015). Follow Jennifer Hofmann at her blog, Body Language In The Bandwidth at or on Twitter @InSyncJennifer.