Access Barriers Experienced by Adults in Distance Education Courses and Programs

Access Barriers Experienced by Adults in Distance Education Courses and Programs

Chris Zirkle, Edward C. Fletcher Jr.
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-739-3.ch035
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The proliferation of distance education components to courses and entire programs at institutes of higher education have been the focus of discussion within the last decade. Educational constituents have sought to explore the implications of distance education practices on teaching and learning. The purpose of this chapter is to examine the literature on barriers to access, particularly for adult learners, in distance education programs and courses. Prior to discussing access barriers, a brief history of distance education is articulated. Further, strategies that individuals or institutions utilize to overcomethese barriers are presented. Concluding the chapter are trends and issues shaping the future landscape of distance education.
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The use of distance education in the United States continues to grow. Recent studies have documented the increased use of distance education in a multitude of academic and technical disciplines in postsecondary institutions. Many institutes of higher education offer entire degree programs online and, whether they like it or not, more and more faculty are being required to integrate online components into their courses (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005). Private industry and business, along with governmental agencies, have also recognized the value that the “any time and any place” phenomenon distance education provides for educational and training opportunities to employees in organizations.

Despite the removal of time and place constraints in comparison to a traditional classroom for adult learners, distance education can present a new set of constraints, or barriers, to accessing educational opportunities. These barriers can be significant for adult learners, many of whom are “non-traditional” students, i.e., older, employed, in pursuit of job skill updates, seeking career transitions, or returning to college after a long absence. Further, these students may be single parents or transfer students, who, because of family responsibilities, work commitments, or geographic limitations, are seeking to access educational opportunities that imposes little impediments to their life challenges. Thus, distance education offers the promise of unfettered access for these individuals. But, has the promise been fulfilled? What are the obstacles impeding success?


This chapter will focus on examining the issue of access to distance education courses and programs by adult learners, and will center on two basic research questions:

  • What are the significant access barriers that adult learners experience while accessing distance education courses and programs?

  • What strategies are being utilized, either by individuals or institutions, to address these access barriers?



The history of online education is complex with varying opinions of its origin (Sumner, 2000; Zirkle, 2003). One may find its roots in instructional technology and computer-mediated instruction or others in distance education (Larreamendy-Joerns & Leinhardt, 2006). However, most researchers argue that the initial form of distance education was provided through correspondence courses (Zirkle, 2003). Correspondence courses’ utilize one-way communication through printed course materials and the postal service in order to facilitate the learning process (Sumner, 2000). Sumner (2000) argued that distance education began by the end of the 19th century, during the Industrial Age, when the demands for an educated workforce were great. According to Sumner (2000), “By the end of the 19th century, a number of Canadian, American and European universities offered distance education courses, reflecting the growing public thirst for education” (p. 274). In addition to educational institutions utilization of correspondence courses, both World Wars sparked the proliferation of correspondence courses in military settings as a strategy to transform society.

As new technologies emerged, the limited nature and disadvantages that existed with one-way communication began to subside as new forms of two-way communication proliferated (Sumner, 2000). The establishment of the Open University embodied the innovativeness of a new evolution of distance education and had considerable influence on the development of numerous other institutions (Sumner, 2000). Since the 1970s, the Open University utilized a variety of media for teaching as well as mainframe computer for which students were enabled to access at their local study centers or residential school sites (Jones, Scanlon, Tosunoglu, Ross, Butcher, Murphy, & Greenberg, 1996).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Synchronous Learning: Learning that takes place collaboratively and in real-time with other learners in a distance education environment. Types of synchronous learning may include, but are not limited, to live chats.

Institutional Barriers: Distance education barriers that occur as a result of the educational institution. These barriers may include, but are not limited to a lack of funding, support, and faculty training.

Online Education: A learning context in which most, if not all, learning takes place online. This type of education has its origins from distance education.

Correspondence Courses: Courses that involve one-way communication, in that the learner is provided with printed course materials and he or she mails assignments to his or her instructor.

Student Barriers: Distance education barriers that occur that have a significant impact on learners. These barriers may include, but are not limited to the lack of relationships between the instructor and learners as well as the lack of a relationship among the learners.

Asynchronous Learning: Learning that takes place independently and at the discretion of the learner in a distance education environment. This type of learning is not time or space bound. Types of asynchronous learning may include, but are not limited to students accessing text-based documents or posting discussions.

Distance Education: A form of instruction that is not bound by space or time and where the instructor and learner is physically separated.

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