Literacy in the Classroom…Effective Education: Online Course Design for Adult Learners

May 25th, 2018 | Category: Columns, Literacy In the Classroom
By Kari Pawl

In recent years, the number of students enrolling in distance education courses in United States degree-granting higher education institutions has significantly increased. In fact, according to the Distance Education Enrollment report (2017) the number of higher-education students taking at least one online course surpassed six million, with significant increases occurring in private non-profit institutions. To meet the growing demands for distance learning, many colleges and universities have made developing online courses a top priority, as is the case with Concordia University Chicago.

The complexity of online course development is an important task that requires expertise, time, and thoughtful planning. Fortunately, there are common themes and patterns between both delivery modes of instruction (face-to-face and online) that propel student success, and can be used as a guide for planning. While the content of the Reading Specialist program offered at Concordia University Chicago is guided by the International Literacy Association’s standards and Illinois State Board of Education learning standards, the structure is influenced by the principles of adult learning and professional development, and research-based best practices for online teaching.

Malcom Shepherd Knowles’ (1980) was an American educator well known for the use of the term andragogy as synonymous to adult education. His model of andragogy is grounded on the following four assumptions of learning:

1. Concept of the learner

2. Role of learners’ experience

3. Readiness to learn and

4. Orientation to learning.

These assumptions are used to describe the characteristics of adult learners as they gain more independence and become self- directed, use their experiences as valuable resources for learning, engage in purposeful and active learning and make practical applications of their learning. Furthermore, Knowles’ (1980) model of andragogy informs the principles of professional development that are used to motivate and engage adult learners. Zepeda (2012) offers strategies that include making the learning active and interactive, providing ample opportunities for learners to apply their knowledge, provide differentiated instruction and a variety of approaches that meet the needs of a diverse group of learners, provide ongoing feedback, and bridge the connection between prior experiences and knowledge.

The Department of Literacy and Early Childhood incorporates the principles of adult learning and professional development in the courses for digital delivery. In order to accomplish this, the subject matter expert (SME) needs to understand teaching and learning online and know effective practices to guide the development and instructional interactions between the instructor and students. A review of the literature about effective online teaching from the work of Barnes (2012), Stephenson (2001) and web publications from higher education institutions (Brown University, & O’Malley, 2017) include the following recommendations:

• Use clear course learning objectives

• Establish performance evaluation criteria and rubrics

• Interact with students frequently

• Provide authentic and effective feedback

• Stay organized/ time management skills, for both the instructor and students

• Chunk lessons vs. long lectures

• Manage small group sizes.

Without a doubt, designing online courses requires a team approach that embraces collegial discussions between professors and instructional designers. The Department considers this to be a fluid process as the professors carefully reflect on successes and determine areas for continued growth and learning. LEJ


Allen, E. &. (2017). Digital Learning Compass: Distance Education Enrollment Report 2017. Babson Survey, e-Literate, and WCET.

Barnes, S. (2013). Socializing The Classroom: Social Networks and Online Learning. Maryland: Lexington Books.

Development, B. U.-S. (n.d.). Best Practices for Teaching Online. From Brown University–School of professional studies:

Knowles, M. (1980). The Modern Practice of Adult Education. Chicago: Association Press: Follett Publishing Company .

O’Malley, S. (2017, July 17). 7 guidelines for effective teaching online. From Inside Higher Ed:

Stephenson, J. (2001). Teaching & Learning Online. Virginia: Stylus Publishing, Inc.

Zepeda, S. (2012). Professional Development–What works (2nd edition). New York, NY: Routledge.