Children learn differently from adults. Here’s how to design an online course that plays to their strengths.
The most fundamental demographic decision any online educator needs to make has to do with age. Are you teaching kids and teens, or adults? We’ve written already about some of the fundamental characteristics of adult learners, but as you can imagine, younger audiences are a different can of worms.
Of course, even lumping young children and teens in the same group is a stretch. And yet, as you’ll see, there are many reasons to speak of the two groups together that have nothing to do with their age or maturity level. Teens are in a transition period on their way to adulthood, but their learning environment is still structured in ways that are very similar to earlier learning periods.
So without further ado, here are some tips for designing learning environments for these audiences.
1. Encourage natural curiosity.
Children are biologically hardwired to learn. The problem is that the things kids and young adults choose to learn don’t always align with what the adults in their lives want them to learn.
As an online educator, your dream scenario would involve designing a specialty course specifically for kids who already have the interest in learning your subject matter. That could be anything from gardening to cooking to Minecraft. But if your course is connected to a more “mandatory” subject, then your challenge will be to inspire curiosity despite the probable reluctance of your audience.
There are two ways to do this: You can contextualize the information in a way that makes sense to students, or you can embed it in a game.
Contextualizing the information is like writing a story problem in math. Unfortunately, most of us remember story problems as being laughably improbable. But create a story that feels familiar and relevant to your audience, and they’re far more likely to work on the problem.
Gamification involves turning the subject matter into a kind of game, and one way can do that is to…
2. Offer meaningful awards.
Kids are a lot like adults in many ways, most notably in the way they respond to rewards. It turns out that kids and young adults are not fans of empty trophies. They know condescension when they see it, and it actually damages their self-esteem to be rewarded for poor work.
However, that doesn’t mean that we should split learners into groups of “winners” and “losers.” Rather, online educators should offer badges based on the strengths their learners demonstrate in class or using an online learning system.
Maybe one learner is good at participating in a class discussion or posting on a learning forum while another has a better record completing organizational tasks. Those two learners are demonstrating different skill sets, and it is fine to recognize each of them for their strengths.
3. Eliminate the risk of failure.
The concept of failure can mean different things to different people. Some kids don’t particularly care one way or the other. The threat of failure doesn’t mean anything to them because they’re completely locked in to their own set of interests.
But for other learners, the idea of failure can be crippling. They become so anxious about failing that they optimize their learning strategies for success on paper, rather than real learning.
In reality, most of life doesn’t operate on a pass/fail basis, so it isn’t reasonable to set our courses up in the same way. Instead, create an environment where learners can experiment and run different strategies to find what works best.
As an example, when I learned math in school, my teacher offered us a half-point back on any wrong homework answers that we could solve correctly. The second chance taught me to proofread my work more carefully after I saw how many problems I got wrong from a simple failure to carry over a plus or minus sign. Instead of believing I was “bad at math,” I learned I was simply careless. That insight gave me the confidence to stick with math all the way through calculus.
4. Consider if and how to involve parents and educators.
Probably the biggest difference between children and adults is that adults rarely require supervision or an external motivation to keep moving forward on their course.
Children—and even teens—are very different. In many cases, they may need adult supervision to complete their coursework. But at the same time, many older children resent adult involvement in their education. Involving parents can take away any desire they might have to engage with your learning program and nip internal motivation in the bud.
Instead of engaging adults as a default, think of them as a secondary audience that you might want to engage in some scenarios, especially if you need to control what content your learners can access, or which courses they can purchase without extra permissions.
Remember that children and young adults will pick up on more than you expect.
Finally, remember that young audiences are far quicker to pick up on some contexts or nuances than you might think. In particular, these groups can smell condescension a mile away. Present content in a way that makes them feel like you’re talking down to them, and they’ll be gone faster than you would expect.
Content can be presented in a fun and engaging way without being condescending. If you think about the serious subject matter covered in Harry Potter, comic book films, or even many popular television programs, it’s common for these to present surprisingly mature themes in ways young audiences readily relate to.
So don’t undersell your course—and your young learners—by watering down the material. Instead, trust that your learners will respond to the excitement you feel about your subject, and design your material accordingly.