Adult learners have a set of specific and unique needs, and are different from traditional college students. Possessing greater maturity, interest in learning, and also career and life-oriented objectives, they have different expectations for their education, as well as different backgrounds and goals. This chapter examines what adult learners are, theories of adult learning, and the applicability of online learning to adult learners. Specific teaching methods and techniques are discussed for online and hybrid distance learning courses, as well as hybrid arrangements; encompassing teaching methods, types of exercises and activities, intensive course structures, block scheduling, and the use of modular course segments. Examples from an adult learner hybrid distance learning undergraduate program, Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Global Business Management, are also provided. Future trends and areas for further research conclude the chapter.
Characteristics Of Adult Learners
Adult learners comprise a significant portion of a category known as “non-traditional” undergraduate students, which now includes nearly half of all college students in the U.S (Horn, 1996). Some of the core characteristics of non-traditional students are that they delayed enrollment (did not enter college after high school; or started and did not finish), are likely to attend school part time, have full-time jobs and careers, and are likely to be married with dependents (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002). Other related, but proportionately smaller populations may also be included in the non-traditional student category; such as older adults returning to the workforce (and college) as well as those who may have retired from a position and are seeking new careers in different areas.
In contrast to the stereotypical undergraduate student who enrolls in college as the next logical step after high school, 73% of adult non-traditional students attend college for the purposes of career advancement, to improve their knowledge in a subject area, and/or to complete a degree to add to their credentials (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). These aspects help to categorize adult learners as a specialized population, together with their educational need for current, relevant and technically oriented content, and their goals of career development and mastery of practical (and accompanying conceptual/theoretical) skills.
Many adult students are or were previously employed full-time and therefore understand that higher education is not only desirable, but necessary in today’s highly competitive global economy. In fact, many jobs which will be available in the future will require higher-level cognitive skills that only a portion of current workers possess (U.S. Department of Labor, 1999). Because the global economy has placed new demands on both workers and the workplace, the goals of adult students can differ significantly from those of 18 to 21 year old students.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Collaboration: Teaching and learning activities which emphasize teamwork, group work, and other situations where students work together on a task.
Authentic Activities: Teaching and learning with an emphasis on real-world, complex, and collaborative activities.
Block Scheduling: The scheduling of classes using larger (and sometimes, sequenced) blocks of time.
Intensive Scheduling: Scheduling formats where courses are taught in a shorter time frame than a semester or quarter.
Andragogy: The principles and concepts behind teaching adults.
Hybrid Distance Learning: The employment of both classroom sessions and online communications sessions in a course.
Self-Direction: The situation where students are active participants in their own learning process.
Pedagogy: The art and science of teaching children.
Perspective Transformation: The process of learning through changes in viewpoint and approach.
Critical Reflection: The use of careful deliberation and thought to produce new insights.
Transformative Learning: The process by which newly gained (or changed) perspectives provide better insight and understanding.