Online Education and Flexible Learning Options: How Nontraditional Learners Are Meeting Their Educational Goals

Online Education and Flexible Learning Options: How Nontraditional Learners Are Meeting Their Educational Goals

Copyright: © 2022 |Pages: 24
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-8323-4.ch007
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This chapter discusses the increasing enrollment in online courses, particularly among nontraditional learners. Nontraditional learners rely heavily on distance education courses due to their demanding schedules. Therefore, they require the flexibility afforded by distance education; otherwise, college enrollment and success may not be possible. Although distance learning was increasing in popularity among college students, there was still pushback from faculty before the COVID-19 pandemic, although the pandemic forced professors who avoided online education to adjust their teaching methods to online learning platforms in place of the traditional classroom environment. As nontraditional adult learners increase in numbers, there will be a greater demand for distance education, and institutions that hear and respond to this demand will fare better than those who continue to oppose nontraditional teaching methods.
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As discussed in previous chapters, nontraditional learners often live busy lives, and juggle multiple responsibilities. They typically have little control over work hours and location, although that has changed somewhat due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and students who are parents have to arrange their schedules around their children’s daycare, schooling, sports, and physical needs. Therefore, many nontraditional students opt to forgo the traditional classroom experience, in which they attend an in-person class 2-3 times per week, during the day, simply because it is impossible to fit it into their daily calendar. Universities offer evening and weekend classes for students who cannot attend during the day but wish to pursue higher education. However, the problem with evening and weekend classes is that professors have to extend their workdays to teach them, which leads to their class schedule interfering with their own personal, social, and family obligations. Nontraditional learners often have obligations during evenings and weekends, as well.

Although evening and weekend classes are still an option for many adult learners, the advancements in technology in the last 30 years have led to a large proportion of students choosing distance education. In contrast to traditional classroom environments, distance education is a teaching method in which the instructing and the learning occur in separate environments (Kentnor, 2015; Roffe, 2004). If these online courses are asynchronous, which the vast majority are, students can learn completely on their own schedules.

I began teaching online courses in spring of 2008, when approximately 21% of students, or 3.9 million, were taking at least one online course (Allen & Seaman, 2008). At the time, my university was offering extra compensation for each semester a professor offered an online course. There were many proponents for exploring online education and expanding our course selections, but there were more opponents. Many professors argued that students were not engaged with the material, their instructor, or their peers in these courses, and that they were cheating their way to their final grade. This notion was a popular sentiment across other universities as well, and despite their increasing popularity among students and administrators, only about one-third of faculty members approved of online education prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (Allen et al., 2012; Ruth, 2018; Seaman et al., 2018). However, before the pandemic necessitated a shift to online learning, over 30% of students were enrolled in at least one online course (Lederman, 2018; U.S. Department of Education, forthcoming). In 2017, there were an estimated 6.5 million students taking at least one course online (Ginder et al., 2019). Many of these were nontraditional students, as they tend to prefer distance education when compared with their traditional counterparts (NCES, 2011).

After the onset of the pandemic, of course, a much higher proportion of students were enrolled online because in-person courses were deemed too risky for health reasons to offer or attend, and campuses were largely closed until a vaccine became widely available in the United States (U.S.) in 2021. Although enrollment dropped overall from fall 2019 to fall 2020 by 650,000 students, approximately 45% of students were completely online and an additional 28% were completing at least one course online (Lederman, 2021). After being obligated by the pandemic and ultimately their home institutions to migrate their courses online in spring 2020 and again in fall 2020, faculty members’ opinions of distance education became more positive as a result of their experience teaching online (Johnson et al., 2021).

Unlike faculty, administrators have overwhelmingly supported distance education, and viewed it as a strategy for increasing enrollment without a large increase in overhead costs; the majority consider online education as crucial to their future as an institution (Allen & Seaman, 2016; Hixon et al., 2016; LeBlanc, 2015). They are now joined by influential voices such as Jeb Bush, Bill Gates, and Andrew Cuomo, who support transitioning entirely from the traditional brick-and-mortar establishments to distance education (Herman, 2020). With some students already back on campus, it is unlikely that all future higher education will occur online, but the COVID-19 pandemic definitely expedited many of the changes that were already taking place due to both advances in technology and the rise of nontraditional college students.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Zoom: A video platform that allows users to hold meetings, webinars, and online events such as online classes.

Face-to-Face/In-Person Course: A course in which students meet together, with the instructor, in person in a traditional classroom environment, and the majority of learning and instruction occurs in the classroom.

Andragogy: The method or practice of teaching, based on research or theory, used with adults.

Moderately Nontraditional Student: A student with 2-3 nontraditional characteristics.

Synchronous Online Course: A distance education course in which the professor and students meet at preassigned days and times, much like an in-person course, for lecture and class discussion, but the meetings occur through technology platforms such as the university’s learning management system or Zoom.

Minimally Nontraditional Student: A student with 1 nontraditional characteristic.

Hybrid-Flexible Course: A course in which approximately 50% of instruction occurs online, typically through a learning management system, and the other half occurs in the classroom with the professor and classmates.

Distance Education: Education that uses technology to provide content to students in a separate environment from the one in which the instructor prepared and delivered it.

Attrition: Unit of measurement to determine the rate of students who drop out during or after their first or second year of college.

Learning Management System: A software application, such as Blackboard, Canvas, or Brightspace, that institutions use to create and deliver educational courses and other programs.

Sense of Community: A feeling of belonging in the classroom, whereby the learner feels supported, challenged, and accepted.

Social Presence: The perception of themselves, the learner, other students, and the instructor as real and present in the classroom.

Highly Nontraditional Student: A student with 4 or more nontraditional characteristics.

Asynchronous Online Course: A distance learning course in which all of the course material is presented at once, or at staggered dates throughout the semester, through a learning management system, without the instructor and student having a set time to cover course material. Learning occurs on the student’s own time and schedule, with the exception of due dates.

Nontraditional student: The increasing and majority population of college students who have at least one of the following criteria: 25 or older; single parents; dependents; part-time students; a GED; delayed college attendance; financial independence; and full-time employment.

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