#ocTEL Understanding Learners’ Needs – Week Two in the course

Week Two of the ocTEL course and this week the material is looking at the needs of learners. I find this an interesting yet challenging topic because it is so diverse. It is however, probably the most important aspect of teaching – if I don’t understand what the learning needs are of the individual and collective group of students, who after all, are in a round about way, paying me, then how can I do an effective job?

Most of my work is teaching on a fully online distance learning course at postgraduate level. Most of the students are in full time employment, across a wide spectrum and often very challenging work. Our students also have diverse living and social backgrounds, given that we have students from across the globe. There ages differ from probably around 22 years old through to people in their 50s. Some will be new to the area of public health, some will be extremely experienced. Some will be coming back into education after a significant period of time away from it. Some will be new to online learning, in fact most are probably new to this, yet their range of skills in using and appreciating the social learning benefits of online technology are likely to vary.

So already, just from our student base, there is massive diversity! On top of this, the whole postgraduate programme is diverse, with around 18 different modules, different course unit leaders, different tutors and teaching assistants, through to differences in the way assessments are given.

I’m exhausted just thinking about it!

So what does the theory tell me so far? Perhaps the work of Malcolm Knowles has helped me the most or I have found the most relevant to the teaching I am doing. Knowles made a distinction of adult learners with the term “andragogy,”. Andragogy focuses on special needs of adult learners. Knowles identified six assumptions about adult learning: (1) need to know, (2) self-concept, (3) prior experience, (4) readiness to learn, (5) learning orientation, and (6) motivation to learn.

I think ‘the need to know’ is particularly important for two reasons. Firstly, students coming on the course will have existing ‘need to know’ lists, in their mind, and some will be needing to develop knowledge and skills at that point in time to complete a work activity. There is also what I think as a tutor is ‘their need to know’ – thus those aspects or knowledge areas that I am introducing to them in such a way that they will then want to ‘need to know’. My own learning need is very much based on a need to know as I get older. Time is precious and my concentration is easily taken by other things. Therefore I come to learning more with a set of ‘demands’ rather than ‘tell me everything you want’.

The JISC resources on elearning and their research looking at the learners needs was extremely helpful. I do however find it very difficult at times to navigate through the JISC website – and at times seem to get stuck in a loop. There are clearly or have been, many relevant projects, case studies, research and evaluations – but it takes a lot of time to try and work out the most relevant. I did find their downloadable information sheets easy and simple to read. The JISC work seems to be very student centric, and takes much more of a pragmatic or applied approach which is easy to follow and in reflection to the paragraph above, is very much focused towards what a learner (which after all includes me as a teacher) needs to know.

Finally I am looking forward to working through the OER by the University of Wolverhampton “learning to teach inclusively”. Again this seems to be straight forward and does not contain too much theory. However I do like some theory when it is relevant to my needs (again reflecting some of the points Knowles makes about adult learner).

Following on from this, I am still disappointed in the content of this #ocTEL MOOC. Some of the resources I think are poor, and I am sure there is a wealth of online material from the designers to have selected from. Having said that, I am still learning different aspects each week. The only problem is that I am also building up a lengthy DIIGO account of other pages I find along the way to go back to at some point. But as in the Number One Ladies Detective Agency, ‘someday’ never seems to arrive!



"a technophobic in recovery" . Hello - I'm a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester, England. My subject area is Public Health. I spend most of my time teaching postgraduate students on a fully online distance learning programme in public health and primary care. I have come from a research background in public health and primary in the UK National Health Service. My main research & public health interests include the evaluation and impact assessment of public health interventions. I have published papers on randomised controlled trials, cross sectional studies and systematic reviews. My teaching and learning interests, more recently pursued, include pedagogy for vocational postgraduate students in an international context; the use of web-based technology for learning; Open Learning and MOOCs and the development of critical thinking skills and research training.

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3 comments on “#ocTEL Understanding Learners’ Needs – Week Two in the course
  1. Alex Perrier says:

    Just a remark as I read your post. (via the #ocTEL feed)
    I’m curious to read more about the work of Malcolm Knowles on andragogy. Thank you for bringing that up.
    The “need to know” idea is highly relevant to my own experience. As an adult learner, time is short and the main challenge is to remove the noise in my input. Defining what I need to know is in itself a challenge.

  2. Jo Conlon says:

    Hi Roger. Any key texts to recommend on Malcolm Knowles – I would like to know more. The list has really helped me because I think there is so much more to ‘readiness’. Drive – ie need to know and motivation particularly. Thanks

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