The expansion of distance education programs has allowed institutions of higher education to be successful in their collective mission to make educational programs more accessible to adults who normally would not have that access. Indeed, online learning has brought education to the people. Access to school is now as simple as logging on to the Internet in the privacy of one’s own home. Who are these students taking courses online? Why are they in online courses versus traditional classrooms? What is different about them, about their situations, and their expectations? Why are some online learners successful and others not? Why do some online learners continue to work through programs while others drop out? For online learning programs to be successful in the long term, it is important to have a thorough understanding of the online learner. This chapter examines the adult online learner in higher education.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that in the 1999-2000 school year, eight percent of all undergraduate students participated in distance education, and of that number, almost one third were enrolled in entirely online programs (NCES, 2002). “Moderately or highly nontraditional students were more likely than either traditional students or minimally nontraditional students both to participate in distance education and to be in programs available entirely through distance education” (NCES, 2002, p. 10). A more recent study conducted by The Sloan Consortium (2007) reported that approximately 3.5 million higher education students took at least one online course during the fall 2006 term. That number represents almost 20 percent of all U.S. higher education students, and is a 9.7 percent increase over the same time period in 2005. The study concludes that the number of online learners will continue to grow, although not at the strong pace seen in the past few years. The Consortium found that while almost all types of institutions of higher learning grew in terms of online student participation, the highest growth rates were found at two-year associate-degree institutions (The Sloan Consortium, 2007).
Key Terms in this Chapter
Andragogy: The teaching of adult learners. Important in andragogy is the concept of learner-centered instruction.
Pedagogy: A teacher-centered approach to instruction, often used in the teaching of children.
Traditional Classroom: Learning space in which the teacher provides face-to-face instruction to students and communication between and among teacher and students is face to face.
Nontraditional student: A student with any of the following characteristics: has delayed enrollment, attends part time, works full time while enrolled, is considered financially independent for purposes of determining financial aid, has dependents other than a spouse, is a single parent, or does not have a high school diploma (NCES).
Traditional College Student: A student who is between the ages of 18 and 22, who lives on or near campus, is a full-time student, and receives financial support from parents.
The Classroom Experience: An experience characteristic of traditional face-to-face classrooms that features both formal and informal learning, social interaction, networking, and the building of connections among participants.
Social Presence: The degree of awareness of another person in an interaction and the consequent appreciation of an interpersonal relationship” (Tu & McIsaac, 2002, p. 133).
Logistical Presence: An aspect of social presence that deals with the mechanics of the online classroom (Schmidt & Conceicao, 2008, p. 1).