Designing Learning for all Adults

Designing for all Adults– Not just for Particular Generations

One question that may arise for some adult educators is when does a student become an adult student. In other words, when do the principles of andragogy, rather than those of pedagogy apply? In recent years, studies have found that that is is quite hard to pinpoint a definite point for transition into adulthood, and that for some people adulthood may not be reached until as late as the age of thirty (Arboine, N. 2019. When does adulthood scientifically begin?).

A disadvantage of eLearning is that curriculum designers will often have little information about learners as individuals and they don’t generally have the one-one/face-face contact necessary for getting to know their students well. Indeed, designers are often creating material that will be used by students from multiple different generations and many different backgrounds, served up on an electronic platform that allows minimal interactive learning. 

It is my contention that educators should not be wasting their time targeting specific generations/subcultures with their learning materials, but instead focusing their attention on borrowing ideas from the principles of Universal Design while also paying attention to Adult Learning Theories. Since terms such as Millennial, Generation Y, etc. are artificial constructs that can’t really be defined accurately (see my notes on Teaching Across Generations for research on this), it doesn’t make much sense to design courses targeted at these ill-defined targets.

The 7 Principles of Universal Design, developed in the late late 1990’s by Ronald Mace and other design professionals at North Carolina State University, apply not only to architecture, physical product design, engineering and, environmental design, but also to communications. They are are intended to ensure that products are design to serve everyone well, not just subsections of the population. In more recent times these ideas have been extended to include UDL (Universal Design for Learning). See Universal Design for Education for more details.

UDL Universal Design for Learning

Durham College’s (Oshawa, Ont.) UDL Home Page encourages its curriculum designers to use UDL principles in their courses and provides access to appropriate resources.

UDL example: Importance of heading types for accessibility

I was recently (on Aug,. 8, 2019) made aware of of a UDL-related consideration during a session on design of curriculum within Langara College’s LMS, Brightspace/D2L. Our instructor, Langara EdTech Advisor Sarah Bower, reminded our class of instructors of some of the characteristics of typical screen reader software, which is often used by students who require assistive technology to help them read and comprehend digital text. An important thing I was reminded of was that screen readers enunciate some of the metadata associated with text elements as a screen is read to a user. For example, if a text element is marked as “H3/Heading 3” in a passage, not only will the text altered in appearance on the screen/page, but the tag “Heading 3” will be enunciated by the screen reader. This is not a problem for the screen reader’s use if the document’s author uses a logical structure in selection of heading types, but becomes very confusing otherwise. For example, if the author uses H1 at the top of the page, and then uses H4 for a subsection under the H1 heading, the logical inconsistency may not look bad visually, but will be quite jarring and confusing to the screen reader users. For more information on this topic see Li, A (n.d.) Web accessibility: An editor’s guide .

UDL and accessibility Laws

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, long before the use of the Internet became commonplace, this act has had many repercussions on the requirements for organizations to make their websites accessible. The article What you can learn from major accessibility lawsuits (Sauld, S., 2018) outlines numerous successful accessibility lawsuits against educational institutions, including Harvard & MIT, Miami University, and UC Berkeley.

The Accessible Canada Act recently received Royal Assent (Canada’s first federal accessibility legislation receives Royal Assent, Employment and Social Development Canada, 2019). Although education is generally under provincial jurisdiction in Canada, this Act is likely to be very influential in setting standards for web development (and therefore online curriculum) across the country. Indeed, British Columbia and other provinces are creating similar legislation such as the British Columbia Accessibility Act (Exley, C., 2018), which had its first reading in May of 2018. Reading between the lines, it is easy to see that implementing at least some aspects of UDL will be soon be required, not optional in our educational institutions.

The purpose of this Act is to
(a) achieve accessibility by preventing and removing barriers that disable people with respect to
(i) the delivery and receipt of goods and services,
(ii) information and communication,
(iii) public transportation and transportation infrastructure,
(iv) employment,
(v) the built environment, so that all new construction is accessible,
(vi) education, and
(vii) a prescribed activity or undertaking;
(b) facilitate the timely implementation of accessibility standards with a goal of achieving an accessible British Columbia by 2024.

BILL M 219 – 2018 BRITISH COLUMBIA ACCESSIBILITY ACT, 2018 (Queen’s Printer, 2018)

Adult learning theories

A few Adult Learning theories are explained briefly by Karla Gutierrez in her article Adult learning theories every e-learning designer must know (2018, Association for Talent Development [repost from the Shift eLearning blog]). Whether they decide to pick and choose from ideas proposed by theorists such as Knowles (Andragogy Theory), Mezirow (Transformational Learning Theory), Kolb (Experiential Learning Theory), or others, I feel it is important for curriculum developers to have some well-considered type of theoretical basis for their practice. These ideas don’t need to be fixed or static, but can be adapted to suit particular learning situations and audiences.

The AGES model for engaging adult learners

Attention, Generation, Emotion, Spacing and spacing are the elements of the AGES model (attributed to Lila Davachi in a PageUp People white paper The neuroscience of learning & development, Vorhauser-Smith, S., n.d.).


Learning something new requires focused attention. To learn new information, it must be of interest or meaningful and there must be limited distractions.


Learner[s need] to have direct interaction with the learning task to generate their own thinking.


Emotions bind memory. Like adding fuel to a flame, an emotional cue ignites more neuronal activity in more brain centers and, consequently, burns a deeper pathway.


The limitations to prefrontal cortex capacity come into direct play when we are learning, as new information must take this route to be embedded as acquired skills and knowledge. … We need to respect our biology more and work with, not against, its limitations. … program designers should consider staging learning content – within and across days.

Vorhauser-Smith, S., n.d. The neuroscience of learning & development . PageUp People white paper.

Assistive Technology

Since this is a big topic by itself, I’ll provide just a single reference as a starting point for additional research. Halden Ingwersen provides 17 tips/tools for making eLearning more accessible. Some examples include methods for ensuring media players are set up for compatibility with a mouse stick, avoid flashing graphics that might trigger seizures in some individuals, making links long enough so that students with fine motor skills challenges are able to click them easily, etc.

Teaching across all barriers to communication

Looking at the big picture, it appears that the presence of multiple generations of learners in our courses and programs is just one of the challenges to educators. Not only must we teach across generations, we must also teach across many barriers to communication.

Education is essentially communication of ideas. In my opinion it is incumbent upon educators to find ways to communicate effectively with everyone who attends their courses. This is a big challenge, which is not helped in the least by efforts to slice and dice the student population into ill-defined (and perhaps imaginary) cohorts. 

Fortunately, the principles of Universal Design (and extensions of this line of thinking) and frameworks such as the AGES model provide some guidance on how to design for all adult learners. Creating multiple ways to access educational materials, making thoughtful design choices, as well as use of brain-based teaching techniques requires skills that programs such Vancouver Community College’s Certificate in Online/eLearning Instruction and the Provincial Instructor Diploma attempt to pass on to educators.

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