Blog Post

Exploring Adult Learning Theories Through the Lens of Two Online Courses

Written by: Glenn Taylor, Malia Uhatafe, Paulena Webb, Maurice Williams


For many, formal education ends after college.  That being said, adults continue to learn outside of formal education, such as how to manage their finances, cook, drive, and build a successful career.  Adults pick up new skills at their jobs, and often take courses as part of their professional development.  Despite the aforementioned, there also comes a critical point in one's life when learning becomes optional rather than necessary.  Adults can either make a commitment to learn something new or carry on with what they already know.   Learning as an adult is a choice.

Once an adult decides to pursue learning, the degree to which they learn can be greatly affected by the learning environment and approach.  This is especially the case given that each person learns differently, and responds to different types of communication.  For some adults, learning can be successful when the information is presented in a lecture format.  For others, learning is best presented in an interactive setting.

            Our team had the chance to examine the importance of learning approaches when tasked with analyzing two different online courses.  The team selected Delivering Exceptional Customer Service, presented by SoundviewPro, and Result-Based Project Management: Monitoring and Evaluating, presented by EdX.

Course Choice Rationale

The project management course was selected for its overall relevance to all of our respective roles and careers.  In other words, each team member thought they could learn something from taking this class that could be applied to our professional lives.  The course also appeared to be fairly in depth, and involved various ways of learning and interacting.  The customer service course also appealed to our interest, as the topic can be broadly applied to many jobs and situations.  Additionally, this course seemed to be presented very differently from the other, and would provide a good opportunity for comparing and contrasting.  It looked less in-depth, more streamlined, and was shorter in length.

Course Summaries

In the Result-Based Project Management: Monitoring and Evaluating course, students can learn the basics of results-based management, including the use of the results framework and its associated performance indicators.  Students learn how the use of monitoring systems and evaluations provide a crucial source of evidence for management decision-making.  It is designed to address the growing demand for managers who can use results-based approaches when designing, implementing and managing an ever-growing range of programs and projects. Monitoring and evaluation are being increasingly called upon, especially within the public service, non-governmental sectors and multi-lateral development agencies.  These entities are receiving increased pressure to ensure that resources are put to optimum use, and that citizens and beneficiaries are assured of receiving the benefits that are promised to them.

In the Delivering Exceptional Customer Service course, instructor Steve Curtain offers seven market-tested keys to exceptional service.  Curtin describes the steps to help service professionals connect to the deeper purpose behind offering exceptional customer service.  He explains a process for enabling employees to recognize and pursue the essence of their jobs, rather than simply go through the motions.  The course continues by describing a method for creating genuine interactions with customers, rather than the robotic responses that mask contempt for customers.  The course emphasizes that exceptional customer service is a choice that needs to be made by employees.  Curtin gives the subtle ways a person can establish a culture of service.  The course concludes with a lesson in what Curtin considers the highest priority of your organization: the creation of customers who spread the word about your company’s exceptional service.

Comparing & Contrasting the Two Courses

Both the customer service and project management course seemed to be designed with the adult learner in mind.  Although both courses shared the common goal of educating an individual on a topic, the delivery of the two courses differed in a number of ways.

The customer service course was very direct and to the point.  The presenter was an individual with years of experience in the customer service and the hospitality field, and thus attempted to engage the audience by sharing personal and relatable stories.  The training appeared to be designed specifically for individuals working in customer service.

In addition to the presenter, the only other visual was a display of the definition of customer service.  The same definition was displayed each time a new segment began, with emphasis on the word that would be the main focus of that particular segment.  After completing three or four course segments, each between three and six minutes in length, the training required participants to take a quiz to test their knowledge of the material learned.  Other than two such quizzes, the course did not include any interactive activities for the learner.  

In fact, the training actually appeared to be a marketing tool in addition to a course.  The presenter made reference to other training tools offered by the company, including books and other videos. Following completion of the course the participant was able to download a certificate of evidence that the course was successfully completed.

The project management course was more like a traditional online education course offered by a college or university.  The instructor is a Professor at a university in South Africa, and the format was much like the one used on the Black Board portal.  The course was separated into several different weeks, which included course reading, videos, quizzes and discussions boards.  The professor encouraged participation in the course by asking individuals to introduce themselves and share their experiences.  Learners were also asked to engage by relating course work to their own current profession.  Compared to the customer service training, the project management course seemed to be designed for individuals seeking more in-depth learning that could be applied to their academic knowledge and professional expertise.

Connection to Adult Learning Theories

Self Directed and Narrative Learning were two major adult learning theories that emerged while viewing Delivering Exceptional Customer Service and Result-Based Project Management: Monitoring and Evaluating.  Using Garrison’s model, learners “integrate self-management, self-monitoring, and motivational dimensions to reflect a meaningful and worthwhile approach to self directing learning” (Baumgartner, Caffarella & Merriam 2007, 114).  The two courses are available online and accessible at any given time, meaning that learners are in control of completing the courses.  The open availability allows participants to begin, stop, and resume these courses according to their schedule.  In addition, participants are able to monitor their progress through weekly exams provided by each webinar.  Both online classes grant attendees the opportunity to learn on their own terms.

Within the context of each course, there were several examples in which both instructors used Narrative Learning theory to demonstrate their objective.  Narrative Learning theory is a “powerful means of making connections not only with ideas but with other learners, perhaps ultimately creating a learning community” (Baumgartner, Caffarella & Merriam 2007, 210).  In Result-Based Project Management: Monitoring and Evaluating, instructor Kieron Crawley dedicated one of his lectures to interviewing several government officials in African countries. Government workers were asked about the benefits of using results-based monitoring and evaluation for policy and program decision-making.  From this question, officials were able to effectively answer the question using their own professional experiences.  Crawely’s course also provided participants the opportunity to meet each other through weekly discussion boards.  Each week, the discussion boards had a different topic, which allowed learners the space to reflect and connect the materials with their own professional experience. 

            Throughout Delivering Exceptional Customer Service, instructor Steve Curtin drew from his own personal experience in stating the importance of providing above and beyond customer satisfaction.  Curtin shared a story about the tennis pro who took the initiative to proactively suggest different methods to Curtin for easing his tendonitis problem.  The initiation and expertise by the tennis pro prompted Steve Curtin to pay this person to re-string his racquets.  Curtin shared a second story about his challenge in finding a collar extender before an important presentation.  In his search, two stores did not carry a collar extender.  On his visit to the third clothing store, after being told that they did not carry the desired item, the sales clerk acknowledged Curtin’s disappointment and offered an alternative: a new shirt.  The sales clerk measured Steve Curtin and quickly found him a new shirt.  In these ways, the Delivering Exceptional Customer Service course drew on narrative learning because the teaching moments were based largely on one’s own personal experiences.  Steve Curtin was able to adequately use his own situations in reaffirming the importance of providing exceptional customer service.


            Upon examination of both online courses, several qualities stand out as keys to creating the most effective adult learning experiences:

Facilitated Self-Direction: Both courses were self-directed, which allowed ownership and freedom to the student.  However, the project management course did a little more to facilitate this process, providing a ‘progress map’ and tracker tool for a student to easily evaluate where they were within the context of the larger process.  This may have been due to the fact that the project management course involved more modules and content that the customer service course, which necessitated a clearer roadmap for the student.

Interactivity:  The project management course provided the opportunity for students to interact with each other through a discussion board.  Communication wasn’t only coming from the teacher to the students, but was encouraged among students.  This created more of a sense of community, and enabled peer-to-peer sharing.  The customer service course, on the other hand, seemed less potent in its one-way communication approach (teacher to student only).   

Personal Storytelling:  Especially present in the customer service course, the instructor shared personal stories and testimonials that really brought concepts to life.  We believe this helped the learner to bridge theory to practice in a more powerful way.  This method might also hit home more deeply for experiential types of learners.   
Transparency, Credibility and Intent of Content Delivery:  As was pointed out earlier, the customer service course seemed to be somewhat promotional in nature.  It was given by an individual rather than a larger institution, and appeared to have a hidden agenda related to marketing and sales of the instructor’s brand and products.  This doesn’t mean the content wasn’t valuable to some extent.  At the same time, we believe that less transparency about intent, combined with the lack of depth and credibility, could lead to lower levels of engagement and learning from students.

Diversity of Delivery Methods: The project management course involved the most diversity in delivery, featuring multitude of videos (with associated subtitles in some cases), transcripts, readings, quizzes and discussion board prompts. Due to the variety of materials and communication styles, we believe the broadest swath of learners could be impacted, as each person has a different learning preference.  The customer service course, on the other hand, was primarily delivered via videos, with only one PDF download of notes, and a couple of quiz opportunities. 


Merriam S.B., Caffarella R.S., & Baumgartner L.M. (2007). Learning in Adulthood. San Francisco, CA, Jossey-Bass.




I loved how you thoroughly wove an understanding of adult learning theory into this comparison and how you highlighted the importance of accessibility and varied ways of reaching the learner.  Thanks for this thorough discussion!