Online Adult Learning

Key Concepts

John Dewey found that there are several Key Concepts to consider when preparing to teach adult learners. Some of these concepts are Experience, Democracy, Continuity and Interaction. Knowles states that some of these ideas were distorted or misinterpreted and refers to the original writings for the last three concepts. (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2005, p. 96).


  • Experience
  • Democracy
  • Continuity
  • Interaction

Not only is prior experience one of the principles from Knowles, but experience is the main concept in Dewey's system. The gaining of experience is not the end result of education, but the start of the process by which people are educated. The best way for someone to truly learn a new concept is to not only experience the concept, but to work with it. Adult learners also bring experience into the learning situations, and can build on that experience to enhance that learning (Knowles et al., 2005), which can lead us to the Continuity Concept.

Example with experience
Before creating this workshop in Dreamweaver, I had experience not only with Dreamweaver, but also with teaching adults online. I am using the experience I already have.
Example learning experience
In learning about how adult learners learn online, you are taking an online workshop.
Example getting experience
In learning how to use the various features of Dreamweaver, I am using these features creating this workshop. While the design of the workshop would be okay without them, the use of them makes use of some of the other topics covered as well.



Dewey states in his book Experience and Education (as cited in Knowles et al., 2005, p. 95)

The question I would raise concerns why we prefer democratic and humane arrangements to those which are autocratic and harsh… Can we find any reason that does not ultimately come down to the belief that democratic social arrangements promote a better quality of human experience, one which is more widely accessible and enjoyed, than do nondemocratic and antidemocratic forms of social life?

Dewey states in his book Experience and Education (as cited in Knowles et al., 2005, p. 95)

The principle of continuity of experience means that every experience both takes up something from those which have gone before and modifies in some way the quality of those which come after…. Growth, or growing and developing, not only physically but intellectually and morally, is one exemplification of the principle of continuity.

A primary responsibility of educators is that they not only be aware of the general principle of the shaping of actual experience by environing conditions, but that they also recognize in the concrete what surroundings are conducive to having experiences that lead to growth. Above all, they should know how to utilize the surroundings, physical and social, that exist so as to extract from them all that they have to contribute to building up experiences that are worth while.

For example, when students are learning about sets in a mathematics course, they are already familiar with the concepts, even if they are not familiar with the mathematical terms. The student needs to change the terms used before into the terms used in the course. From this the student can then apply the learning in the course to other situations.

Dewey states in his book Experience and Education (as cited in Knowles et al., 2005, pp. 95 - 96)

The word "interaction" expresses the second chief principle for interpreting an experience in its educational function and force.

The educator is responsible for a knowledge of individuals and for a knowledge of subject matter that will enable activities to be selected which lend themselves to social organization, an organization in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute something, and in which the activities in which all participate are the chief carrier of control…. The principle that development of experience comes about through interaction means that education is essentially a social process…. The teacher loses the position of external boss or dictator but takes on that of leader of group activities.

In online adult education, educators do not stand in front of the classroom and lecture for their time and leave. The educator will facilitate a variety of tasks, each of which will help the students work together and/or with the material to internalize it. For example, in a mathematics course, a student will not only practice the traditional problems, she will also think about how those problems can be used for everyday tasks, discuss ideas on this topic with her classmates, and show how others have used the topic.