I have found that what really works with adults (or any learner for that matter) is to make the activities as collaborative as possible. I rely heavily on threaded discussions and using Wikis to promote the creation of a dynamic and shared artefact(s) around which anchors discussions and negociation of meaning. I try to setup assigned discussions that encourage participants to respond to one another, rather than simply broadcast their own views. Every course I have has a Social forum where participants are encouraged to engage in any off-topic discussions. The Social forum allows participants to express their ideas and interests outside of the context of the course. For many courses, this has been the most active discussion area. It not only fosters community building but promotes a more personal online identity. To that end, I encourage learners to introduce themselves by linking to their Personal Profile under the Participants section of Moodle and to make a statement or two about what they hope to achieve here as an opening discussion/orientation in the course. I love that feature of Moodle.
Everyone is encouraged to contribute to sharing their expertise and to express any difficutlites they may encounter. It's a great idea to create a 'Help Desk' forum where everyone is invited to respond to posts where and when they can. This really cuts down on the number of personal email and messages requesting help from the instructor. When course participants respond to each other's posts for clarification and help, it gives them a greater sense of membership in their online course; this also instils the idea that the instructor is not the sole voice of authority in the course, rather expertise is spread across the collective experiences and knowledge of all the participants. Here's an image of how I introduce the Help Desk forum:
Another helpful feature of Moodle to take advantage of is the Glossary. I open it up to paritipants to define any vocabulary they need to look up for themselves so that everyone can benefit from this effort. I am often in error to assume that everyone's on the same page with our understanding of a term or idea. The Glossary allows learners yet another avenue to contribute what they have learned or understand to the collective knowledge of the group.
David's suggestions are really close to our approach too. Professionals are usually much more motivated than ordinary day students and need outlets for their willingness to contribute.
In addition to the tools mentioned by David we use the Netpublish module, that allows students to work in groups on articles/pages in an on-line document/paper that can be published to outside (non-Moodle) users. I has an advantage over Wiki in that it can be a graded activity.
We also use a real-time audio interface to have on-line classes.
Irmgard, can you say more about whom you are teaching, in what context; do they get a degree or certificate; etc...?
I create and run training programs for legal aid attorneys around the United States. We work very hard to make sure that our training content is immediately relevant to participants' daily practice experience.
Echoing David's response, we also use teams. However, our online courses are a little unusual in that they are very "hybrid": there is about a 1/3 mix each of online discussions, hands-on activities, and live (WebEx) meetings. The hands-on activities are really the teaching/learning engine in our trainings. As in our in-person trainings, participants roleplay scenarios with each other, usually over telephone. The WebEx presentations often focus on demonstrating skills to make that performance easier; the online discussions often follow up or allow reflection on that performance.
Practical activities and simulations aren't the only thing we do in our courses, but I do think that, to the extent they're possible, they are crucial for adult learners. Equally important is the opportunity to bring in practice experience and compare notes with others. This is where online rather than F2F learning can really shine. If your courses are sufficiently extended in time, and the topic of you training is highly likely to arise during that time, your participants' actual work is probably your best resource to draw from in the training. Think about how you can incorporate that into your course. For example, sometimes we have our participants research "How do people in our office do X?" This not only gives newer attorneys exposure to a variety of answers, it also stimulates potential networks that will outlast the training itself.
Finally, we've also found that time and motivation are both key to a successful course. We have made the mistake of making our courses too time-sensitive and -demanding on a weekly basis (if you look at the list of things we do, you can see how this happened). Right now we are working on retooling these courses so that each one involves the same amount of content but with fewer hours per week (say, 5-6 rather than 10-12). For this I've relied on looking at continuing ed classes to see what fits into a normal adult's schedule, and 5 hours is about right. It's also important to motivate your participants. If they are required to attend, or get something tangible (like a degree), this will be less of an issue. For us, this is not often the case, so we try to do something in the first days/week of the course to engage people at an emotional level, e.g. using a case study that lasts the whole course but with A/V elements that make the fictional client "real."
This is all based on my own limited experiences with the medium. One thing I wish I had more of is a set of colleagues who are doing similar work. Are there communities of instructional designers out there, specifically, designers of adult/professional education experiences?
At this point, we are offering a collection of classes which will lead to a certificate. Motivation may be an issue, hopefully not a huge one. Students also can apply to our formal degree programs and if accepted, can ask to receive credit for the online classes they have done.
I'd like to hear more about your experiences with this mix of live and online, because we are struggling with how to get one of the classes online. It is a project based class, and it is not clear how we will reproduce that aspect online.
Thanks for your comments. Irmi
Say more about what kinds of projects your class normally works on, how they operate, what kind of teamwork is necessary, etc.
I've found that the key to making projects work over a distance is to have very clear learning objectives and carefully-designed outcome measures for each that are objective, measurable, and verifiable. Projects that result in concrete work products are particularly well-suited to this. For other kinds of projects, including the sub-steps necessary to complete a final project, something a little more artificial may be necessary, e.g. "worksheets" that participants fill out report back on something that they do offline.
But it depends on what kinds of projects you're talking about.
EDIT: Thanks for that link, David. I'll check it out.
The IT Forum includes instructional designers and educational technologists from around the world (particulalry from N. America). It's a very active forum with thought provoking and engaging discussions. Here's a link: http://it.coe.uga.edu/itforum/index.html