Volume 1, Issue 1, 2007    
       
  An Overview of the Influences of Distance Learning on Adult Learners    
       
  Henry O’Lawrence, California State University, holawren@csulb.edu    
       
 

Abstract

This article depicts the meaning of Distance Learning (DL) and its implementation to enhance learning and teaching in higher education. This study describes the historical background of distance learning education, factors that influence adult learners, and DL’s key objectives, effects, issues, advantages, and disadvantages. The advent of new methods of teaching with technology has resulted in issues concerning the delivery of courses through the World Wide Web and the difficulties involved in incorporating Information Technology (IT) into an existing curriculum. Among the examples, colleges and universities are implementing distance learning programs for 3 reasons: (a) the convergence of communication and computing technologies, (b) the need for information-age workers to acquire new skills without interrupting their working lives for extended periods of time, and (c) the need to reduce the cost of education. Distance learning has gained ground in institutions of higher learning because of its flexibility and availability to learners and teachers, regardless of geographic location. This study does not focus on technology; rather, it focuses on the consequences of using technology for course design, delivery, and the perception of adult learners participating in distance learning.

Introduction

Distance learning is any type of instruction in which the student and instructor are separated by physical distance (i.e., not in the same room; Wahlstrom, Williams, & Shea, 2003). It is a medium of teaching and learning using modern technology so that teachers or students do not have to be together in the classroom. With the growth of distance learning programs, the online format has led to a growing interest in learning among adult learners and in continuing the pursuit of their educational goals.

 

However, there is a wide range of opinion concerning the appropriateness of distance learning, especially among nontraditional students. Some still support the importance of face-to-face and classroom experiences in which students learn from one another through classroom interaction and others contend that a hybrid configuration (part of the course in the classroom and part in distance learning) is much better than learning that is presented exclusively through distance learning. Extended observation of students taking classes online or in the hybrid mode leads to the clear conclusion that distance learning is not for everyone.

 

The author discovered that so many students, administrators, and even the faculty did not know and understand that the definition and role of distance education are very broad. Discussions, interview, and group discussions among colleagues indicated that there are many interpretations; and among of those discovered, this article treats only a few that seem significant. The following are those discovered during assessment: (a) trying to compare the online program/curriculum with regular program/curriculum; (b) the traditional institutions offering online programs as part of their curriculum, and those institution that are less known but spend significant amounts of money promoting online programs; (c) trying to compare graduates of online programs to those who went through regular and rigorous programs at traditional institutions; (d) inability to understand the purpose of distance education and the targeting population; (e) problems when online graduates from ordinary schools compete with those who earn their degrees in a traditional way (from rigorous academic programs); and (f) lack of evidence that evaluates the knowledge that students gain, the objectives of the distance learning program, and how these objectives are being realized.

 

Purpose of the Study

 

There were initial concerns that distance learning might lower the quality of instruction; however, studies show that its benefits are clear and demonstrable and it continues to gain acceptance. According to Belanger and Jordan (2004), several reasons play major roles: (a) It opens up new opportunities for students who might otherwise be excluded from participation in the learning process; (b) it allows institutions to educate a larger number of students with relatively fewer instructors, thus providing a cost-effective method of delivering higher education; and (c) learners have the opportunity to pursue lifelong learning after graduation, regardless of lifestyle or location.

 

Therefore, the purpose of this article is to determine what influences adult learners to participate in distance education. Lessons and findings are drawn from the author, who collectively teaches online courses, and from adult learners participating in online courses. This article also emphasizes factors that motivate and deter adult participation in distance education, especially the online format. Information regarding attitudes and specific reasons for adult participation in distance learning can provide insight for faculty attempting to incorporate online courses into their existing regular classes. For the purpose of this article, distance learning, distance education, and online format mode of instruction are used interchangeably. Also, the terms adult learners and nontraditional student are used interchangeably. This article is divided into several sections, including a review of literature, factors that influence adult learners and major issues facing distance learning education, the advantages and disadvantages of distance learning, a conclusion, and a summary and recommendations.

 

Problems

 

Communication is a major concern relevant to and influenced by the development of the distance learning between students and teachers, as both students and teachers have an important role to play. Students need to know their roles in distance learning and how to use the technology to communicate with the teacher and with each other. They not only need to know how to operate the microphone or how to post to a bulletin board discussion, but they also need to understand communication etiquette. The role of the teacher in an online learning environment is to assume more responsibility for planning. The materials that students will need must be prepared in advance, while students must also understand what is expected of them in terms of their patterns of responses (Heinich, Molenda, Russell, & Smaldino, 2002).

 

The situation for online teachers appears at first to be a difficult one in that they cannot see or hear students and cannot interact directly with them, as in a face-to-face situation. Online learning is student centered and structured such that the course materials are presented in a suitable online format, with learning tasks, collaborative activities, and seminar and tutorial conferences planned by the teacher but not teacher led and directed (Stansfield, McLellan, & Connolly, 2004). It has been argued that online teachers cannot observe students, cannot see and interpret their facial expressions or signs of inattention, and cannot react immediately to rectify matters that may have gone wrong.

 

Certain features of online instruction are educationally advantageous, such as an increased opportunity for reflecting on and refining ideas, a greater degree of learner control over the materials, flexibility permitted by unrestricted access to the materials, and enhanced levels of interaction both in relation to the materials and in the opportunities presented for active learning by means of conferencing, discussion groups, and collaborative learning projects (Stansfield et al., 2004).

 

Moore (2000) claimed that distance learners require a great deal of interaction, mainly with the purpose of giving reassurance that everything is going well. The development of a virtual world motivates students to participate in the educational process by exploring and playing with the lesson materials. It can potentially provide an active, independent, student-centered, and tutor-facilitated engagement that enables communication with other students and tutors that may not always be available within the traditional classroom setting (O’Neill, Singh, & O’Donoghue, 2004).

 

Although some instructors prefer to determine their curriculum and activities as the course evolves, in this environment adult learners found it important that they be given a list of readings, assignments, and expectations at the beginning of the course. The course must be well organized, and introductory activities must be appropriate for novices and experts alike; collegial interaction must be fostered in some way. Rules for using any online environment must be established in the group, regardless of which configuration is ultimately chosen. The nature of online teaching requires instructors to rethink the evaluation process as well. The evaluation component must be ongoing and continual, and it is important that the instructor become familiar with each student’s work, which can be accomplished only through many instructional activities (Lau, 2000).

 

Review of Relevant Literature

 

Distance learning provides many benefits, including meeting the needs of nontraditional students with responsibilities to career and family that keep them from taking traditional college courses. In fact, this new approach provides a new source of revenue for public universities that are experiencing shortages in financial support from the state and can ease the tension of body count in classrooms to generate full-time equivalence (FTE) to avoid canceling classes (Maguire, 2005). As a result of this success, the benefits of distance learning have led many higher education institutions to implement distance learning classes, even if on an experimental basis, just to keep the flow of revenue going. Some are hybrid in format and some are completely online. In general, society benefits most from an overall increase in technology literacy through greater access to education (Belanger & Jordan, 2004).

 

The number of nontraditional students has grown more rapidly than the number of traditional students (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). The growth of nontraditional adult enrollment in higher education demands a different and more flexible delivery system to meet students’ needs (Chun & Hinton, 2001). Distance learning is designed to ensure compatibility with the characteristics and needs of the adult learner. By retaining their jobs while attending school, adult learners are able to continue to gain in work experience while pursuing educational goals (Nafukho, Thompson, & Brooks, 2004).
 

Because of the rapid growth in distance learning, the use of technology has overcome many of barriers to higher education by providing traditional universities with an opportunity to meet the changing worldwide demand for education (National Committee of Enquiry Into Higher Education, 2001). The demand for higher education is expanding throughout the world: by 2025, as many as 150 million people will be seeking higher education (Goddard, 2000). This growth in demand will result in a change in the type of students undertaking higher education. Educational needs are becoming continuous throughout one’s working life, as labor markets demand knowledge and skills that require regular updating (O’Neill et al., 2004). A recent report by the National Committee of Enquiry Into Higher Education (2001) indicated that more than 50% of higher education students were mature students (someone who starts a degree at age 21 or older). This figure is expected to increase as people realize the importance of education and how convenient it has become to have access to online learning and virtual universities that allow educational experiences to be tailored to the needs of individuals or groups.

 

The distance-learning environment has a major contribution to make to the educational requirements of the 21st century by encouraging general acceptance of the concept of knowledge as a vital element in social development and economic growth. The authenticity, quality, and competitive standards of such programs should come from reputable institutions so that those in higher education can confidently say that it will eventually lead to economic growth.

 

Keeping pace with changes in technology and meeting the increasing demands of the knowledge-based economy will require a highly skilled and educated workforce capable of working collaboratively to find solutions to diverse economic, social, and environmental problems. The key to success is, in large part, continuing education, which means that online learning, with its open access and opportunities for active collaboration in an egalitarian environment, will have an important role to play in meeting the challenges of the future (Stansfield et al., 2004).

 

To make it even more convenient, distance-learning courses can take place in hybrid form, which combines various technologies for communicating via networks and which allow the instructor to evaluate students who undertake such programs or curriculum. According to Twiss and O’Lawrence (2002), hybrid courses are a blend of face-to-face instruction and online learning that satisfy students’ need for convenient course offerings while making the best use of facilities, faculty resources, and online teaching technologies as the amount of classroom seat time is reduced. Even though traditional classroom methods continue to be important in learning, the use of technology helps to refocus how student needs are met.

 

Historically, the precursor of technology-based distance learning was correspondence education, which started in Europe and the United States in the mid-19th century; it was established to provide education to those who could not attend traditional classroom environments, and used the postal system as a delivery mechanism. The most prominent of these delivery vehicles in the new millennium is the Internet, which generated a new phenomenon of the virtual learning environment (Belanger & Jordan, 2004).

 

Integrating information technology tools into teaching and managing classroom space is also a critical issue as space fills and enrollment grows. This space/enrollment crunch brings particular focus on activities that integrate face-to-face and Web-based instructional formats, as well as instructional support in the use of system features. Educators are conjecturing whether the future success of online education will largely depend on professional collaboration and the sharing of resources, or whether technology will be fully integrated into higher education.

 

Many argue that this type of technology has come to stay and that technology should be viewed as a requisite rather than a choice. If this is true, future college students will have to put up with technology-expert faculty, and faculty will have difficulty putting up with technology-ignorant students. Technology is changing rapidly and is providing new opportunities to rethink how to educate students. However, new technologies mold into the old model of teaching and learning by enhancing lectures and increasing access to education for students located all over California (Twiss & O’Lawrence, 2002).

 

Burgstahler (2002) stated that the multiple modes of delivery blur the lines between different types of distance learning, such as television, course discussion using e-mail, a weekend retreat that brings participants together face to face, and/or resources provided on the World Wide Web. The multiple modes of delivery are definitely reshaping the world of higher education, revolutionizing teaching and learning practices and delivery systems. They have affected the social organization of teaching and learning in higher education by expanding the delivery of higher education and opening opportunities to rethink the fundamentals of the higher-education setting, such as the roles of students and teachers, time and place of instruction, and organizational participants (Gumport & Chun, 2002).
 

As Diaz (2000) indicated, many researchers endeavored for many years to determine whether distance education could provide the same level of academic excellence as courses taught in traditional modes. A large portion of distance education research has been devoted to comparative studies of distance and traditional methods of education, and researchers conducting comparative research often ask the same basic research question: Is distance education as good as, or better than, traditional education?

 

Diaz (2000) stated that this type of question is premised on the implicit yet rarely mentioned assumption that traditional education is the ideal mode of educational delivery and thus can serve as the gold standard against which all other forms of alternative education should be measured. Diaz referred to the assumption as untenable simply because it is impossible to determine whether one class method is better than another without first agreeing on the criteria for such a determination.

 

Methodology and Data Collection

 

An instrumental case study was conducted as an in-depth inquiry that observed historical facts and development occurrences, presents conditions, and environmental interactions, which were instrumental in accomplishing something other than understanding (O’Lawrence, 1999). This study focuses more on insight, discovery, and interpretation and understanding of the perceptions of adult learners participating in distance learning education. Its objective is to develop an understanding of the dynamics and influence of distance learning education on adult learners.

 

Several on-campus interviews were done and data collection occurred in two phases: (a) open-ended interview (face-to-face and telephone) and (b) documents review (with a convenient sample) because triangulation of data adds substance and credibility to case studies. Open-ended interviews were conducted with students who use the online program or who were taking classes taught online or in a hybrid format. Stake (1995) said that two fundamental uses of the case study are to obtain descriptions and the interpretation of others; while Yin (1994) also suggested that open-ended interviews translate facts, details, concepts, and opinions in oral form; through open-ended interviews, more in-depth information is obtained.

 

Limitation of the Study

 

The limitation of this study has to do with the study’s lack of access to past graduates who have taken or participated in online program. Also, it is not the intention of this study to compare the findings from data collected to that of other studies; it is an overview of general information gathered on a convenient sample of adult learners participating in distance learning education and the perception of the author based on experiences as professor in the field.

 

Findings/Analysis

 

The findings and analysis of this study are based on the overall interpretation of the interviews conducted with the students both face to face and via telephone. This report is analyzed and interpreted to the best of the authors’ knowledge and every complicated comment or personal attack was eliminated to avoid bias. The majority of the participants were female teachers (79.0%), whereas male participants composed 21.0% of the population. The participants were mainly in the workforce (instructors at postsecondary institutions, city/local employees, law enforcement officers, and firemen). Many students enrolled were between the ages of 29 and53, and the majority of the students (85%) had between 9 and 20 years of work experience. Of the participants, 42% described their work as regular teachers or Para-educators and working toward teaching credentials to become permanent teachers, 24 % worked in management positions, about 5% held supervisory positions, 6% worked in a manufacturing setting, 7% worked in a transportation or service industry, 2% described their jobs as being non-supervisory, while 14% of the respondent had less than 9 years’ experience at their jobs.

 

What Influences Adult Learners to Participate in Distance Education

 

Adult learners are attracted to distance learning programs because they receive total support from their employers—tuition is paid, employees receive pay increases and promotions, and the majority of the employers support the immediate transfer of learning from the classroom to the workplace. About 80% of the participants indicated that it is low cost, they gain instantly in work-related knowledge and skills, they find personal fulfillment, they attend because of pressure to get a degree to fulfill external expectations , and they attend on the recommendations of their employers, who list requirements if the employees want to keep their jobs or secure professional advancement. So, what influences adult learners to participate in distance education are incentives from their various employers and the suitable programs offered through distance education.

 

What Motivates Adult Learners to Participate in Distance Learning

 

The majority of the participants (66%) identified timeliness, dependability, and flexibility as the major factors that motivate them to participate in distance learning, while 25% identified efficiency as the major factor, and only 9% indicated that they attend because of its self-directed learning approach. The issues of transportation, childcare, and uninterrupted career path were widely mentioned by a majority of participants (98%). Again, flexibility was mentioned (89%) as the major motivating factors in participating in distance learning.

 

The reason adult learners preferred distance learning at both the undergraduate and graduate levels was to balance work and family demands with part-time degree completion. Because of the need to complete college course work to finish their education, keep their current jobs, and be promoted, distance education appeals to these groups primarily because of flexibility of time, convenience of working from home, less rigorous course work, the ability to take care of their families at the same time, or work from office, and the culturally diverse group interactions.

 

Adult students see online programs providing new opportunities and preventing a short or even long distance commutes to attend a class. At the same time, students can remain in their homes or workplaces; they can participate in learning activities, interact with most of the people in class, exchange information more frequently, and establish friendships with other students. Other factors that influence adult learners participating in online programs result from their common characteristics:
 

· They possess a variety of background experiences of prior learning and work experience.

· They can integrate new concepts with their prior knowledge while picking new ideas from their colleagues with similar work experience.

· They enjoy and desire practical applications because of the co-hoc nature of most of these programs that draw prospective students from similar backgrounds.

· They learn best by having control over their learning environment and having the opportunity to showcase their talents in group or special projects.

· They enjoy participating voluntarily in the learning experience and most of them think that they know more than their instructors; unfortunately, most of the instructors do not challenge those individuals.

 

Advantages of Distance Learning

 

Many adult learners take a distance-learning course with certain expectations about its rewards and drawbacks. The following are some of the advantages of distance learning courses students and instructors identified:
 

·  Flexibility: They believed that the greatest rationale for the existence of most forms of distance learning is that students can do much of the work at times and places of their choosing.

·  Self-tailored learning: Within certain limits, it allows them to learn at their own pace, in their preferred medium, or in a more comfortable environment.

·  For instructors, they are able to combine lecture material with specific modules offering computer-learning tools. This permits instructors to devote more time, if required, to covering concepts in class, while letting students learn the hands-on portion of the course on their own.

·  More choices: Distance learning courses allow students more choices in course offerings and times without fear of class conflicts (Wahlstrom et al., 2003).

·  Increased learner centeredness: Learners can study tutorials or add-on material at their own pace and at the appropriated time for them. This is particularly important for learners who suffer from not being able to follow the pace of the lectures but who have the capabilities of catching up and finding the missing information by studying on their own.

· It reduces operational costs for institutions.

· Course standardization in courses for which there is a large number of potential learners: Computer-aided learning tools help achieves a certain level of standardization in the quality and quantity of material received by all learners.

· Lower course development costs: By centralizing the development of some of the learning tools, institutions may free up time for instructors to focus on other important teaching or training matters (Belanger & Jordan, 2004).

 

Disadvantages of Distance Learning

 

It is also important to be aware that there are certain difficulties to distance learning that adults encounter regularly. The most significant drawback is that some of the adults taking classes online lack self-discipline and time management. For some of the adults, the expenditures required for computer equipment and Internet connections outweigh the usual expenses of taking a conventional course, such as commuting, parking, and perhaps babysitting (Wahlstrom et al., 2003).

 

Some feel lonely without face-to-face contact with other students, no matter how much they may communicate with others by phone, e-mail, or discussion board/chart room. Internet-based distance learning courses, in particular, rely less on lectures as a means of instruction and more on reading and discussion; thus, students who are uncomfortable with their reading and writing skills find themselves equally uncomfortable with distance learning courses.

 

Heinich et al. (2002) indicated that, among other shortcomings, learners who participate in broadcast lessons without talkback capabilities feel like second-class citizens, having little rapport with the rest of the group. Technical problems may interrupt the instruction and may create confusion and frustration for the instructor and students. Also, because of inexperience, instructors may not feel comfortable teaching in this type of setting, and students may also be reluctant to assume greater responsibility for their own learning. Students also have difficulty making certain types of online connections as a result of their type of access to the Internet.

 

Effective distance learning requires extensive preparation, as well as adapting traditional teaching strategies to a new learning environment. Adult learners find it difficult to become quickly aware of and comfortable with new patterns of communication, to learn to manage their time, and to take responsibility for their own learning. It is difficult to adapt to student learning styles because of the distance. Hybrid modes of teaching remain the best for adult learners, as it allows for:

 

·         Developing appropriate methods of feedback and reinforcement,

·         Optimizing content and pace,

·         Using case studies and examples that are relevant to the target audience,

·         Being concise,

·         Supplementing courseware with print information, and personalizing instruction.

 

Most methods used in distance learning are not really valid for adult learners such as print-based independent study courses, electronic projects on the Internet, audio conferences, and two-way interactive television. It does not prove that they are learning what they suppose to learn, nor does it prove authentic program quality and deliverance. Therefore, more experimental studies are needed in the area of media selection in which researchers can compare the effectiveness of different technologies that deliver similar content to similar audiences. It would be useful to analyze the content of a learning module; the goals of the students, teacher, and the school; implement different technologies; and determine what factors influence successful delivery.

 

Conclusion, Recommendations and Summary

 

Many studies have attempted to ascertain whether distance education differs from traditional modes of instruction when referring to facilitating student success. The majority of these studies reported no significant differences between the distance and traditional modalities. Most important, the design of such types of research (whether comparative or evaluative) clearly places emphasis on the importance of the method of delivering instruction and is consistent with the instructivist (instructor-centered) learning theory. The research is inconsistent with the constructivist (learner-centered) theory, which is more concerned with the role of the student in learning than with the role of the instructor in teaching (Diaz, 2000).

 

Teaching online courses can be challenging, time consuming, and require extensive preparation to ensure that things are done well and that students get feedback within 24 hours of posting their responses. Distance leaning is a viable alternative for lifelong learning opportunities, including informal courses, professional development tutorials, and full degree programs. We must be careful to perform in-depth evaluations and assessments of online courses regarding ease of access, media attention or exaggerations, the role and interest of the private sectors, and the major reason for increased demand by both education and business, as well as the effectiveness of online learning activities.

 

Instructional strategies are what really make a difference in how adults learn online, not technology. Instructional methods should make learning meaningful and interesting for adult learners. We must not compare traditional institutions adopting part of their programs, either hybrid or completely online, with other institution the general objectives of which are business, profit, and then education. Faculties among traditional institutions are well educated and have obvious qualifications. The faculties among profit-centered schools are less qualified but still holds qualify degrees. The authenticity of such programs is questionable, along with the qualifications of their faculty. In most cases, such programs limit the quality of the educational system and, as a result, make the college degree less valuable and weaken competitiveness.

 

A colleague once remarked that anybody could have a college degree, given enough money. College degrees are for sale. Since it is becoming a way of making money, we no longer think of the quality of the education system but of quantities to generate FTEs and revenue. We see people today who look good on paper with impressive qualifications but who have no knowledge base. We cannot allow those people to become teachers in the public school or part of the educational system because they would not have anything to offer their students.

 

A good manufacturer produces good products. We still need good standards, good reputations, value, and a competitive spirit that would give students a competitive edge in a global economy. Jennifer Mulrean (2005) asked an important question: Who would hire an online grad? She offered important advice for those seeking degrees online: Find out first how the online degree will measure up against those earned at traditional brick-and-mortar programs and determine whether it will allow the graduate through the door of the human resources department. What is most interesting here is that a survey by the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) found, “almost 70 percent of corporate supervisors rated the value of a distance degree as just valuable or more valuable than resident school degrees in the same field” (p. 3).

 

The results of this study provide clear evidence for evaluation of the objectives of distance learning education. The evaluation of such adult learners is important to determine evidence that adults are acquiring knowledge and to develop methods to analyze their needs and to appraise solutions to fulfilling them.

 

Based on the results of this study, it is recommended that evaluation involving evidence about behavior changes in adult learners be conducted routinely for valid evidence of the desired behaviors in online adult learners. Observations online will be useful to determine habits and certain operational skills. Interviews may shed light on changes taking place in attitudes and interests. Such interviews, in the form of questionnaires, will give evidence about interests, attitudes, and behaviors related to distance-learning education.

 

Finally, students rate distance learning in various ways. They find it problematic in the area of curriculum development and agreed that not all courses are suitable for this mode. In most cases, students have been deprived of critical educational experiences essential to real learning. Students indicate some courses could be more time consuming than face-to-face classes and they said they end up getting lectures with a reduction in feedback and personal interaction among colleagues. Most students are not suited to this type of learning, and some subjects are not taught as effectively online as others. Many adult graduate students are attracted to the convenience of distance learning in that it allows them to spend more time with family and to avoid missing work to attend a traditional course.

 

More study is needed to verify the use of technology potential in developing rigorous curriculum for students and attaining the original teaching goals. Distance learning will not produced the same academic elite as the face-to-face mode and would never replace traditional learning; as a result, we have to be careful that we maintain the academic quality that helps students remain competitive in global education and in a global economy. More data need to be accumulated, and there is a definite need to develop strategies for teaching in distance learning in order to teach effectively. Multiple modes of delivery will facilitate teaching methods that build students’ inquiry and problem-solving skills as well as their content knowledge in every subject. Although technology is an integral part of distance education, any successful program must focus primarily on the instructional needs of the students rather than the technology.

 

References

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