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Adult Learning

Donald G. Perrin

Much has been studied about how adults learn and how distance and flexible learning compares with face-to-face learning in a classroom. Less has been said about who are the distance learners and what are their reasons for participating at a distance. Distance learning (DL) provides higher education opportunities for students who are geographically remote or otherwise cannot attend on-campus classes because of scheduling conflicts, travel, work, and/or family responsibilities. Add to this people with medical problems, limited mobility, and disabilities.

We traditionally plan DL programs and courses based on policies and procedures of the host institution for on-campus classes. This includes schedules, course structure and delivery, evaluation, and support services. This is reflected in courses taught by television. Online courses are asynchronous with added time flexibility for the learner.

Learning could be further facilitated if we started with needs and characteristics of the distant learner based on goals and demographics. The typical distance learner is older, more motivated, and more responsible than on-campus students. Many are skilled professionals with complex lifestyles with extraordinary responsibilities. Often these are mid-career professionals who are extremely competent but, in academic terms, not qualified. They urgently need qualifications for advancement in their careers. DL may be their only feasible access to higher education. On a daily basis, their priorities are # 1 their family, #2 their job, and #3 their education. Job and family demands and responsibilities create chaotic schedules with frequent interruptions. These learners need flexibility to use available chunks of time for academic activities. Under this kind of pressure, education becomes #4 priority because good health is a prerequisite for all three.

These busy experienced professions are a tremendous asset to higher education programs because they share relevant and current experiences that expand the resources of teacher and textbook. These professionals should be welcomed and nurtured as a valuable asset.

The very nature of distance learning and the distance learner make it necessary for students to assume control of their own learning. The traditional school model built on fixed schedules, rigid rules, and instructor control must be transformed for greater flexibility, collaboration and support. The Internet, interactive multimedia, social networking, learning management systems, and self-service technologies, provide the tools for students to manage their own learning and communicate with peers and instructors.

The Space Age (1958 - ) brought new curricula with improved methods of teaching and learning:



Lecture and textbook

Slides, audiotapes, motion pictures, videos

Abstract and verbal

Real or simulated experience (Dale’s Cone)
New emphasis learning by doing

One-way communication (lecture-discussion)

Increase in dialog, interaction and feedback

Rote learning, drill & practice; repetition

Stimulate exploration, participation, collaboration

Emphasis on Knowledge
(pre Bloom’s Taxonomy)

Focus on application, problem solving,
creativity, and relevant knowledge/skills/aptitudes

Emphasis on medium / large group learning

Learn in small groups; individualized learning

Teacher managed; teacher imposed discipline

Learner managed based on intrinsic motivation

Punishment for failure

Reward for active participation and success

Technologies for group learning (film, television, radio recordings) were supplemented by individual learning technologies such as language laboratory, teaching machines, and single concept films. Videotapes replaced 16mm films and CDs replaced records. The new media could be reproduced inexpensively and were much more widely used. However, classroom technology was inferior to the average home or office.

In response to Sputnik, revolutionary new curricula in science and mathematics required retraining of hundreds of thousands of teachers. This was achieved by designing learning resources to be used by students. Teachers could learn the new curriculum along with their students. There was greater emphasis on learning by doing, individual learning and performance evaluation. By empowering students, the focus was moved from teaching to learning.



Focus on teaching

Focus on learning

Teacher control

Learner responsibility

Learning is a variable;
Instruction is a constant

Learning is a constant;
Instruction is a variable

Whole class teaching

Diagnostic/prescriptive learning



Fixed curriculum

Flexible curriculum

Rote Learning

Activity based Learning by Doing

Grade on bell-shaped curve

Rubrics guide learning to criterion

Measure seat time

Measure performance

Interactive computer technologies and the Internet made learning possible anywhere at any time for anybody. This added a whole new dimension to education because education could now go to the learner instead of the learner having to come to a physical campus.



Classroom based


Learning & schedule controlled by teacher

Learning & schedule managed by student

Fixed schedule for on-campus classes

Any time – anywhere – flexible schedule

Fixed curriculum (one-size fits all)

custom curriculum

Limited local resources

Access to global resources

Learning resources slow/expensive to update

Global resources with dynamic updates

Manual record keeping and tracking

Learning Management System - automated

Major construction cost for brick and mortar

Virtual environments – scalable and lower in cost

Transportation time/cost born by learner

Internet access saves time, cost, and fossil fuels

Slow and expensive to change

Scalable to meet dynamically changing needs

With time flexibility and customization, courses can be offered on demand, more frequently, and for different lengths of time. The most difficult aspect of change is transfer of responsibility from professor to the learner. Traditional methods of teaching will always be with us and are preferred by many instructors and students. However, the future requires the ability to have effective and flexible teaching and learning in a mobile society where institutions of higher education adapt their schedules, methods and support systems to respond rapidly and effectively to societal and individual learner needs.

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