Engaging the Adult Learner Through Graduate Learning Communities

Engaging the Adult Learner Through Graduate Learning Communities

Ellen Reames (Auburn University, USA), Maria Martinez Witte (Auburn University, USA) and Marcus Howell (Auburn University, USA)
Copyright: © 2012 |Pages: 19
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-068-2.ch018
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Providing a college education is important to the advancement of the United States and at the international level. A highly competitive 21st century workforce is in demand, and there is an increased need for graduate degrees but the adult learners and the learning venues are changing dramatically. This chapter addresses the need for graduate education, the trends and changing demographics of adult learners or graduate students, and the use of graduate learning communities to satisfy the changing needs of those served by colleges and universities.
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Graduate student education is an important link to a well prepared 21st century workforce (Council of Graduate Schools, 2010). College and university graduate programs which actively support the adult learner account for 660,000 master’s and doctoral degrees each year (Snyder, Dillow, & Hoffman, 2009). While this figure might appear to be large it equates to only 8.8% of the U.S. domestic population and of that number approximately 1% are doctoral degree holders (Bell, 2009b). Adult learners are commonly defined as individuals aged 25 or older and the National Center for Educational Statistics considers these learners as non-traditional students. They may have delayed post-secondary education enrollment; are typically financially independent of parents; they work full-time; and have dependents other than a spouse (Adult Learning, 2008).

Global demands recognize the critical need for a talented, technologically savvy workforce with the social and intellectual skills to successfully navigate an ever growing cyber community (McCarthy & Samors, 2009; McPherson & Shulenburger, 2009). Graduate schools are an important link to our nation’s mission to develop a competitive workforce. As Debra W. Stewart, (2010), President of the Council of Graduate Schools, stated,

Graduate education in the United States has been an enormously successful enterprise, serving the vital scientific, cultural and economic needs of the national and global community. Our graduate schools are epicenters of discovery, innovation, and application, leading to advancements that affect every one of us. (para. 1)

Such an enterprise can be nurtured in graduate programs (Maki, 2009) and in particular through graduate learning communities (Gardner, 2009; Rovai & Jordan, 2004; Tokuno, 2008).

Learning communities have shown great promise in increasing student satisfaction, retention, enhanced academic development, strengthening of the college curriculum and teaching, connectiveness to faculty and peers through research and projects, engagement and motivation and increased recognition of the need to collaborate with others (Smith, MacGregor, Matthews, & Gabelnick, 2004). In learning communities the curriculum is structured “…so that students are more actively engaged in a sustained academic relationship with other students and faculty over a longer period of time than in traditional course settings” (Minkler, 2002, p. 1). Researchers have found positive results when learning communities were used in the areas of retention, academic success and student satisfaction in undergraduate programs (Tinto, 2006; Zhao & Kuh, 2004) but there is less evidence available regarding the use of learning communities in graduate programs. Although it is difficult to find large national studies concerning the effects on graduate programs, current studies are encouraging (Gardner, 2009; Tokuno, 2008; Pratt & Tokuno, 2008). There is a growing body of knowledge concerning graduate learning communities which are also referred to as a community of practice (COP) (Dabbagh, 2007; Stacey, Smith, & Barty, 2004). Dabbagh (2007) stated that “members of a COP understand that a social mind is at work and that knowledge is a shared intellectual capital” (p. 220). Learning is social and a critical tenet when learning communities are to be implemented within distance education programs and affiliated coursework (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005; Wenger & Snyder, 2000).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Facebook: A social networking website that allows sharing of information by a common interest user groups.

Generational Blending: Baby Boomers are individuals born between the years of 1944 and 1964. Generation X are individuals born between the years of 1965-1981. Millennia students are individuals born between the years of 1977 and 1998. Computers, cell phones, PDAs, and other mobile technology have been a natural part of their lives and they are considered technologically literate.

Twitter: A free social networking and micro-blogging service that allows users to post messages known as tweets. Tweets are text-based posts 140 characters or less that are posted on the subscriber’s page and then distributed to all those following the subscriber.

Dropbox: A file hosting service that allows users to store and share files via the internet.

Wiki: A website that allows creating and editing a number of interlinked web pages that are intended for note taking or to serve as collaborative websites.

Blackboard: A teaching and learning system that is used to deliver online resources and learning activities. Other course management systems include eCollege, Vista (formerly WebCT), Desire2Learn, LearningSpace, and Virtual-U.

Google Docs: A web-based storage service offered through Goggle and allows users to create, edit and share documents online.

Web 2.0: An electronic platform that connects Wide World Web open source mediums and allows users to communicate and build online communities.

Adult Learner: An adult, considered mature in status and experience, in a formal or informal learning process.

Learning Communities: A learning community is a group of individuals that share common values and beliefs and who are actively engaged in learning together from each other.

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