Random Thoughts on Instructional Design
The vast majority of today’s learners in higher education are not eighteen to twenty-two. The minority is now the majority. Unfortunately, we are still focusing a great deal of our research on what used to be the traditional. What was traditional is now the nontraditional. That is truly a seismic shift.
When designing courses for the new majority we need to think about the different ways we can use scheduling, technology, and communication to be responsive to adult learning. The structure is still mired in the assumptions of traditional and residential. Finally, one thing that K. Patricia Cross (1981) did, decades ago, was to focus on understanding the unique capabilities of the student. You need to design curriculum that is responsive. But what Cross was able to do in the American mind, long before population statistics changed, was to say, We have a variety of learners and nontraditional-aged learners need to be taken into account. Any individual differences — first-generation students, adult students, new learners, etc. cause us to think about all learners. The challenge for the faculty is taking into account the vast experience of adult learners, and putting ourselves into a more dialogic teaching mode. We can’t just assume that we are delivering knowledge in one direction. The students are not vessels to be filled. We are not the font of knowledge – the real challenge is in the interplay. It needs to make the academy not less learned, but more humble and more open to the exchange.
We need to treat adult students as co-learners, and we need to do that for traditional-aged students, too. One of the great notions of John Dewey is that learning is meaningful to the degree that we can connect it to the concrete experiences of our student’s lives. So adult learners bring a rich array of life learning and life experiences to the classroom. And good teaching for adult learners needs to first assess who they are and then needs to connect the classroom material to that rich archive of their life learning. There’s a triad of adult learning: Who the students are – their knowledge and background and situation; what we have to offer them – the knowledge base; and what they are going to use the knowledge for – the job they are going to do.
The adult learner helps remind us that any learner brings something to the table. And we need to see how we can assess who that learner is and what they have experienced and how they learn, and put that into dialogue with what we need to teach and how we teach it. The adult learner is almost the classic example of how we need to match what we are teaching to students’ needs.
One of the challenges in higher education is asking what it means to be thirty-eight and coming back to school. It means asking the fundamental question of who is the student. Answering that question demands changes in pedagogy, scheduling, and other areas – instrumental changes that need to happen on the part of Institutions.