Online Learning: A Transforming Educational Environment for Adults in Higher Education

Online Learning: A Transforming Educational Environment for Adults in Higher Education

Patsy D. Moskal (University of Central Florida, USA), Charles Dziuban (University of Central Florida, USA) and Joel Hartman (University of Central Florida, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-830-7.ch005
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The authors describe the distributed learning program (Online@UCF) at the University of Central Florida (UCF) that serves a number of adult learners. They present outcomes from several years of research collected by the Research Initiative for Teaching Effectiveness on adults enrolled in online courses. Paradoxically, most educators in online learning focus on millennial generation students, their learning styles, and preference for Web 2.0 technologies. However, research at UCF confirms that online education resonates with adult students because it responds to their lifestyle needs, provides more active learning environments, and empowers their learning beyond classroom boundaries. This chapter examines the strategic elements required for successful adult online programs and explores components of online student satisfaction. The authors conclude by considering the opportunities and challenges for adults in online distance education.
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Adult Learners

Adult learners do not fit the customary description of the “traditional” college student who is a recent high school graduate, 18-22 years of age, not yet employed nor having family obligations. Adults, on the other hand, are described as “engaged in some form of instruction or educational activity to acquire the knowledge, information, and skills necessary to succeed in the workforce, learn basic skills, earn credentials, or otherwise enrich their lives” (NCES, 2000). Pioneer andragogy researcher Malcolm Knowles (1973) describes unique adult learner characteristics this way: read to learn, relevancy-oriented, responsible, self-directed, goal oriented, practical, and pragmatic, with life experiences that they bring with them to the classroom. As students, adults are more financially independent, working part time or full time while enrolling in courses. They may have dependents, a spouse, and/or children (NCES, 2002).

However, the characteristics that make adult learners “nontraditional” also create challenges for them in successfully attaining a degree. Often, adult students approach college with an already full plate. Employment and family obligations present time and financial considerations that may compete with the traditional educational experience. Because adults require more flexibility in scheduling, online asynchronous opportunities increase the likelihood that they will be able to successfully complete a degree program.

Silva, Calahan, and Lacireno-Paquet (1998) found four barriers for adults completing a degree: lack of time, family responsibilities, scheduling and location of courses, and cost. Customarily, adults see their work as a primary responsibility, compared to traditional college students who envision college as their primary “job.” These at-risk adults were successful at college completion less than 15% of the time, compared to 57% of those students who were classified as traditional (Choy, 2002). Berker, Horn, and Carroll (2003) found that 62% of these working adults were unable to complete their studies in 6 years, compared to only 39% of full time students. Similarly, an NCES (2002) study of nontraditional students found nearly half of them dropped out of community college, compared to only one fifth of the more traditional students. Clearly, life responsibilities make higher education challenging for this population of students.

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