While the online adult learners are growing in numbers, the diversity in what motivates them and what they expect from an online course has grown as well. This chapter explores the current literature as well as qualitative and quantitative data from course surveys and student reflections in online courses taught by the author in an attempt to profile these learners, determine why they are taking online courses and investigate their evolving attitudes toward technology. It includes summaries and student quotes to portray the individual thoughts of online adult learners.
Today’s popular media and many practitioner journals suggest a rather homogeneous picture of today’s online adult learner as a busy professional, stay at home parent or part time student. Yet the literature and my experience indicate a population with very diverse backgrounds and expectations. Li and Irby (2008) profile online learners as “busy working people, often on shift who want to advance their career, frequent travelers, those who physically find it difficult to attend college and parents who want to or have to spend more time at home with their children” (p.451). They note that online education has become the “vehicle to help access to the underserved populations, but also expands student access to universities that are not in their geographical area including international locations” (pp.450-1). White and Bridwell (2004) also see new technology as expanding the “learner’s capacity for access” (p.273). In contrast, Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007) voice the concern that potential online learners have limited access to technology which is increasing the digital divide and widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. They cite a 2005 study that estimates that only 14.6% of the world’s population has internet access. Another concern is mentioned by Piskurich (2006) who cites statistics that report that 60 – 80% drop out of elearning courses and by Li and Irby (2008) who mention concerns for lower student performance and the rate of retention and note the need for enhanced specific skills such as writing, communication, time management, organization, and the ability to work independently.
Many authors agree that online learning is not for everyone. Jeong and Lee (2008) note that “reflective learners have a tendency to reflect and test information more often than active learners but their research found that there was no significant differences in the number of replies posted per student per debate but that the exchanges between reflective learners produced more critical discourse. In a research study conducted by Pratt, (1999) he found that introverted persons were often more successful online. Student reflections from the author’s courses indicated that often students for whom English was a second language indicated the preference for online learning. They appreciated the fact that asynchronous online discussions allowed them the time to study another student’s posting, craft a thoughtful response, possibly check its English correctness with another student, then post the response. With a fast paced in class discussion they often were lost in attempting to translate the comments and their own thoughts back into English. Another advantage is explored by Sandmann, Reischmann and Kim (2007) who see a role for asynchronous e learning in broadening and deepening the global perspectives of the learner but also caution that educators need to recognize differences in motivations and expectations of learners in different cultures. They also noted marked differences in the participation patterns of students from different cultures.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Transformative Learning: The process of becoming critically aware of our assumptions which may result in a change in perspective and acting upon these new understandings.
E-Learning: Learning in which technology plays a major role in the delivery of content and the communication between instructor and students and between students.
Learning Community: A group of students learning collaboratively (Barab, p 3).
Action Learning: A methodology which involves reflecting on and analyzing real life problems and directing one’s learning in order to achieve a specific goal or solve a specific real problem.
Distance Education: “…the provision of learning resources to remote learners and involving both distance teaching (the instructor’s role in the process) and distance learning (the student’s role).” Key elements include a separation of teacher and learner in space and time, two way communication between teacher, tutor or educational agency and learner, the use of educational media to unite teacher and learner and carry course content. (Palloff and Pratt, 1999)
Synchronous E-Learning: All learners are online at the same time and engaged in the learning at the same time with the instructor. (Piskurich, 2006)
Adult Learning: “The process of adults gaining knowledge and expertise.” (Knowles, 2005, p.174)
Critical Reflection: The process of analyzing and questioning experiences and assumptions.
Learning Style: The preferred style by which a person learns best.
Online Learning: Students engaged in learning are not in same physical location but are separated by some physical distance.
Asynchronous E-Learning: Learners access information at anytime and communicate with others in the class and/or the instructor in a delayed communication format.