Schools mull needs of adult distance learners

Many ed-tech advocates have voiced support for distance learning as a way for K-12 students to take courses not offered at their regular schools or enroll in courses for college credit. But another group of learners–adults who turn to distance learning to return or expand their schooling–is attracting more and more national attention.
Colleges and universities are examining the needs of adult distance learners as they develop online courses that meet the needs of not only 18-to-22-year-olds, but also those students who might have full-time jobs and family responsibilities.
Shawna L. Strickland, a clinical assistant professor in the University of Missouri-Columbia’s School of Health Professions, studied literature on the demographics and personality types of adult distance learners for a recently released study. The study–"Understanding Successful Characteristics of Adult Learners"–was published in a recent edition of Respiratory Care Education Annual.

"Correlations between learning styles and success in distance education have shown to be inconclusive," Strickland said. "However, one common theme reappears: The successful traits of a distance learner are similar to the successful traits of an adult learner in traditional educational settings."

While students of all ages are enrolled in distance education, Strickland found that older adults are more likely to choose distance learning as their preferred method of education for several reasons. 

Their life experiences, both work and social, can make traditional learning experiences
less satisfactory, the report says. These factors make an older adult more likely to choose a non-traditional learning program rather than a traditional, on-campus learning program. 
However, Strickland also found that in contrast to younger learners, some older adults might not be comfortable with the technology and might encounter problems–not with the course material, but with the technology that accompanies the course.
Many researchers agree that adult learners who choose to participate in distance education are goal-oriented and highly motivated–much the same as any K-12 learner who enrolls in an online course and has to work more independently to keep up with course work.
Capella University Vice Chairman Michael Offerman has started a new blog, "The Other 85 Percent," that challenges the traditional view of how best to serve today’s college students–most of whom, Offerman said, do not fit the traditional definition of a college student: age 18 to 22, living on campus, and going to school full time.
In his blog, Offerman points to the fact that the average Capella University student is now 40 years old.
"Despite clear changes in the demographics of American higher education, public discussion and public policy consideration are still based on the tradition of the 18-year-old going directly from high school to full-time, on-campus study," Offerman writes.
"This blog asserts that about 85 percent of college students today do not fit that tradition. Instead, it is focused on a major segment of higher-education students: adults who study at a distance. I believe that it is time for us to recognize and deal with contemporary higher-education reality and its public policy implications."
Through the blog, Offerman, who served as president of Capella University from 2001 through 2007, will explore issues such as educational accessibility, outcomes, and accountability as they relate to the working adult.
One topic that he said he would address in particular is how to ensure that colleges and universities serving adults at a distance demonstrate real learning outcomes to prospective students.
"The adult student today has different needs and objectives than the college student of the past. I plan on using this blog to explore what we can do to meet those needs," he said.
Adults are increasingly turning to distance education to advance to new career levels or achieve professional certifications. 
Cathleen Schneider wanted to become a registered nurse for many of the 27 years she spent as an LPN but was unable to enroll in a traditional college nursing program owing to the commitment to her job, as well as family obligations. Schneider, of Cape Coral, Fla., is part of a growing population of adults using distance education to become RNs.
"I am finally an RN," said Schneider. "And I couldn’t have done it any other way."
One fundamental cause of the nursing shortage might be the lack of nurse educators, according to David Hopkins, chief learning officer of distance learning provider Rue Education.
"Many individuals lack the time and financial resources for traditional campus programs and are looking for more flexible options, better suited to their lives," said Hopkins.
"Distance learning is not an easy way to become an RN, but it is very doable with dedication, hard work, and sacrifice," said Jacquelyn Wright, a former Rue student from Plantsville, Conn., who is now an RN.
Hopkins acknowledges that educating adult learners is not without challenges. "The first 120 days are critical. Many of these students must learn how to learn again. Once they get a taste of accomplishment, their chances for completion increase dramatically," he said.
With an eye toward retention, new technology and student-centric approaches to distance learning are being developed. When adult learners register with Rue Education, for instance, they immediately speak with a master’s degree-level educator to discuss expectations from the program and questions. Within 48 hours of receiving their books, students are called by an academic advisor to discuss short- and long-term goals.
As important as the personal element is, perhaps the biggest advancement has occurred in technology. One example is Rue’s introduction of tutor-led online courses that are taught by master’s-level educators. These courses include "stopgaps" to evaluate learning at various stages. If students do not log back on after an assignment, the educator contacts them with encouraging text messages, eMails, or phone calls asking if they need help.
"Over the past four months, our students have had a 94- to 96-percent pass rate for standardized CLEP exams, with about 150 exams taken a week," says Hopkins. "We anticipate that the extra support offered through our tutor-led courses will not only maintain our high pass rate, but also increase the frequency with which our students take these exams."
UMassOnline CEO David Gray recently announced the formal launch of three new online study concentrations. The new programs include concentrations in arts administration, journalism studies, and health and human services. Last November, the university launched a fully online Master of Public Health in Nutrition program.
"Today’s leading colleges and universities with a genuine interest in providing high-quality online programs have an obligation to go well beyond the mere packaging of long-established traditional courses with baseline delivery technology," Gray said. "In addition to the requirement that the technology significantly enhance and enrich the learning experience, the program offerings themselves must remain contemporary, reflective of the real world, and ever-evolving to meet and exceed growing demands for leading professionals to have the contemporary knowledge demanded of the new career opportunities."
All three of the new offerings were developed by UMass Amherst’s University Without Walls (UWW) program, which offers degree completion programs for adult learners.

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