Higher Education, the Internet, and the Adult Learner
The concept of using the Internet in the pursuit of higher education is not exactly new. Indeed, the institution of "distance learning," has been in full swing since the heyday of late night Sally Struthers correspondence-school commercials. What has changed, however, is the increasing legitimacy and widespread use of the Internet in the pursuit of higher education -- from the research of traditional college students, to the complete education of students enrolled in "online universities" and courses.
Adult students face unique challenges when they utilize the Internet as part of their education in ways that mirror the issues they face within other instructional modalities.
In seeking to understand just how adults learn, these issues must be viewed collectively, for general adult learner/adult education studies must be considered as a whole along with the added factors arising out of the use of technology. It is in this synthesis that a good understanding of the behavior of adult learners in Internet/distance courses can be understood.
The Adult Learner and Adult Education
There is no question that adults experience and approach education in very different ways from younger learners. This fact is supported by the vast field of educational theory that has sprung up around the topic itself. Indeed, there are countless books that deal with the unique position and characteristics of adult vs. child students, as well as older-adult vs. traditionally-aged students in higher education settings.
One of the first aspects of difference between adult and younger learners is the adult's need for a certain amount of autonomy and self-accountability. This need is not merely due to the increased autonomy that the adult is accustomed to in other aspects of daily life, but to greater amounts of life-experience, knowledge, and perceived self-independence that increased age (in most cases) naturally brings. Interestingly, Internet-based learning necessarily carries with it an increased reliance on personal accountability and autonomy, especially when it is relied upon as a primary educational mode (as a distance or online course).
Whereas lower-age and lower-level students may experience increased autonomy as a difficulty; perhaps manifesting itself in variying shades of procrastination in the absence of daily contact with a "flesh and bone" professor, the adult learner seems to experience increased success. The psychological reason often attributed to this difference in learning style is discussed in Karen Webster, Miriam Zachariah, and Joelle McFaury's article, Do Adults and Children Learn Differently? There they write, "Adults need to be self-directed in their learning because they are maturing and moving away from the dependency of children." Further, Dirkx and Lavin observe in Planning and Implementing Integrated Theme-based Instruction, that adult learners place importance on the perception that they have control over their education. Further, they tend to be "voluntary" learners -- that is exclusively motivated by self-desire based on specific life-goals rather than ambiguous ideas.
Although this idea of the self-motivating nature of adult learners certainly lends itself to the importance and appropriateness of the utilization of independent Internet educational techniques and resources, it is important to note that there are objections and qualifications to the theory that all adult learners are self-motivated in all subject areas and in all situations. Indeed, in the article Assumptions about the Adult Learner, it is noted that, "[Adult learners]...may evidence a greater or lesser degree of self-directedness depending on their maturity level and familiarity with the content."
Interestingly, other experts have also challenged the assumption that adult learners are always independently motivated, and prefer independent learning strategies. These experts theorize that factors such as gender, political climate, cultural differences, subject area, and previous experience may effect the extent to which an individual, or group of adult learners respond to independent learning.
This is an area on which Stephen Brookfield comments in the International Encyclopedia of Education, where he writes:
number of important questions remain regarding our understanding of self-direction as a defining concept for adult learning. For example, the cross-cultural dimension of the concept has been almost completely ignored. More longitudinal and life history research is needed to understand how periods of self-directedness alternate with more traditional forms of educational participation in adults' autobiographies as learners. Recent work on gender has criticized the ideal of the independent, self-directed learner as reflecting patriarchal values of division, separation, and competition. The extent to which a disposition to self-directedness is culturally learned, or is tied to personality, is an open issue. We are still struggling to understand how various factors - the adult's previous experiences, the nature of the learning task and domain involved, the political ethos of the time - affect the decision to learn in this manner.
Further, Brookfield goes farther than merely stating that the independent-learning model may not apply to all adult students, and asserts that an over reliance on this model on the part of either the student, or the educator or institution, may have its own significant drawbacks in a number of ways. He writes:
work is needed on clarifying the political dimensions of this idea; particularly on the issues of power and control raised by the learner's assuming responsibility for choices and judgments regarding what can be learned, how learning should happen, and whose evaluative judgments regarding the quality and effectiveness of learning should hold sway. If the cultural formation of the self is ignored, it is all too easy to equate self-direction with separateness and selfishness, with a narcissistic pursuit of private ends in disregard to the consequences of this for others and for wider cultural interests. A view of learning which views adults as self-contained, volitional beings scurrying around engaged in individual projects is one that works against cooperative and collective impulses. Citing self-direction, adults can deny the importance of collective action, common interests and their basic interdependence in favor of an obsessive focus on the self.
Clearly, this observation raises the issue of a balance that must be struck between acknowledgment of the supposed pervasive tendency among adult learners toward independent learning (especially utilizing the Internet -- a medium in some instances, even more removed from human interaction than the distance learning models of past technologies), a tendency that must be accepted with a grain of salt in light of the recent qualifications Brookfield mentions, and the very real world necessity of cooperation, interpersonal interaction and communication, and collective learning and peer collaboration.
In addition to an increased need for self-direction in the adult learner's higher education goals, he or she usually demonstrates (as a demographic) a tendency to bring a sense of personal experience to their studies. This sense of personal experience has been described as a "living textbook." This means that the adult learner commonly has a wealth of personal experience, beliefs, knowledge, and skills that directly impact the way he or she responds to learning and education. Interestingly, the vast majority of the current educational models developed for adult learners view this tendency to be almost completely positive, again Brookfield observes:
Almost every textbook on adult education practice affirms the importance of experiential methods such as games, simulations, case studies, psychodrama, role play and internships and many universities now grant credit for adults' experiential learning. Not surprisingly, then, the gradual accumulation of experience across the contexts of life is often argued as the chief difference between learning in adulthood and learning at earlier stages in the lifespan.
However, many adult educators seem to ignore the very real problems that can arise from the adult learner's reliance on their "living textbook" in relation to novel (or even, not so novel) subject matter.
To be sure, the very nature of experience involves preconceived notions that can taint the ability of the individual to learn new material. Examples of this might range from indoctrination in old or outdated theories (for example, until recently, most adult students were taught the theory of the "Big Bang" as undisputed fact, rather than theory -- this may predispose such students to resist contemplation of other theories currently en vogue). Further, the adult learner's past successes and/or failures in previous educational endeavors may have left them with motivational difficulties, misguided attitudes concerning aptitude/ability, and rigidity regarding a specific subject area (as is often the case concerning attitudes about computer technology).
In addition to these, rather obvious problems concerning the pool of experience that the adult learner brings to their educational table, there exist even more complex issues of cultural and ideological issues related to individual experience and memory. Brookfield writes:
First, experience should not be thought of as an objectively neutral phenomenon, a river of thoughts, perceptions and sensations into which we decide, occasionally, to dip our toes. Rather, our experience is culturally framed and shaped. How we experience events and the readings we make of these are problematic; that is, they change according to the language and categories of analysis we use, and according to the cultural, moral and ideological vantage points from which they are viewed. In a very important sense…