Insuring Self-Direction and Flexibility in Distance Learning for Adults: Using Contracts

Insuring Self-Direction and Flexibility in Distance Learning for Adults: Using Contracts

Mary C. Ware
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61692-906-0.ch020
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Distance learning via the internet has become the key to reaching adult learners globally. Adult learners have been shown to benefit from such qualities as: provisions for self-directed learning, flexibility, and frequent communication with the instructor in order to achieve success. Contract learning and contract grading are two innovations popularized during the “individualized instruction” movement of the 1970s which are being used to assist instructors of twenty-first century on-line learning courses in providing for self-direction, flexibility and frequent communication. The chapter which follows will provide an overview of contract learning and contract grading as it can be used with adult learners in distance learning courses (e.g., courses supported by WebCT, Blackboard). The chapter will examine adult learning theories which support contract learning/grading as well as provide information on designing learning contracts and grading contracts which are appropriate for adult learners.
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As stated by Wang (2006, 2008) distance learning via internet technologies is becoming the key to involving adult learners across the globe. The knowledge already held by specialists in the field of adult learning gives us much information about HOW adults prefer to learn. Among the qualities needed in an effective course for adult learners are:

  • The provision of self-directed learning (pace and choice of options)

  • The provision of flexibility (so that the learning can relate to the experiential needs of the particular learner)

  • Frequent communication with the instructor (so that students know “how they are doing”).

Malcolm Knowles, often called the “father of adult education”, suggests three reasons why self-directed learning is important:

There is evidence that people who take the initiative in their own learning learn more things, and learn better, than people who simply wait to be taught. (Knowles, 1975. p. 14)

Self-directed learning takes advantage of our natural processes of psychological development. ‘An essential aspect of maturing is developing the ability to take increasing responsibility for our own lives - to become increasingly self-directed’ (Knowles, 1975, p. 15).

Most distance learning and technological learning systems require students to have skills of self-direction. ‘Students entering [such] programs without having learned the skills of self-directed inquiry will experience anxiety, frustration, and often failure, and so will their teachers’ (Knowles, 1975, p. 15).

Flexibility (i.e., provisions for different options in evidencing one’s ability) is also important because each adult learner brings different experiences to the learning environment, and the distance learning course should dovetail with that experience seamlessly. In order to insure flexibility, a variety of options must be provided to the learner.

Adult learners tend to be somewhat fearful of self-directed learning, as well as technologically mediated learning, and often need guidance to recognize that they are “doing it right”. Frequent communication with the instructor assists in assuring them that with self-directed learning, there is no “one right way” and that they are proceeding suitably.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Self-Directed Learning: Individual learner’s initiative and responsibility to (with or without assistance) identify, assess, and set priorities for learning needs.

Hybrid/Blended Courses: Distance learning courses which combine some face to face classes with some courses delivered through a distance format.

Contract Learning: A formal agreement written by a learner which details what will be learned, how the learning will be accomplished, the period of time involved, and the specific evaluation criteria to be used in judging the completion of the learning.

Contract Grading: An evaluation tool, either developed by the instructor or co-created with students, that allows students to choose individually the grade they would like to achieve in the classroom and then outlines specific student and instructor responsibilities needed for the students to receive the grade they have chosen.

Distance Learning: Field of education that focuses on the pedagogy and andragogy, technology, and instructional systems design that aim to deliver education to students who are not physically “on site”.

Assessment: Educational assessment is the process of documenting, usually in measurable terms, knowledge, skills, attitudes and beliefs.

On-Line Learning: Distance learning which is carried out via the internet (e.g., Blackboard, WebCT, or other platforms).

Andragogy (more recently spelled “Andragogy”): Andragogy refers to learning strategies focused on adults. It is often interpreted as the process of engaging adult learners in the structure of the learning experience.

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