Online courses appeal to a variety of student populations and remove barriers encountered by non-traditional and adult learners in face-to-face programs. In online courses, “all course activity is done online; there are no required face-to-face sessions within the course and no requirements for on-campus activity” (Mayadas, Miller, & Senner, 2015).
The demand for courses and programs in the online modality continues to grow:
35% of college students take at least online course during their enrollment, 17% of students are enrolled in fully online programs, and 72% of public, nonprofit schools offer fully online programs (NCES, 2019; Xu & Xu, 2019).
A Babson Survey Research Group found in 2018 that online student enrollment has grown continuously since 2012. (Seaman, Allen, & Seaman, 2018).
Despite this rapid growth and adoption, there are still apprehensions that online learning is not as effective as more traditional modalities.
The efficacy and perception of the online modality has been researched and debated for many decades, and there is much research to suggest that there is no substantial difference between online and face-to-face courses and programs in terms of student learning outcomes (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones, 2010; McCutcheon, Lohan, Traynor, Martin, 2015).
However, the value of the online learning experience depends heavily on understanding of the learner populations who enroll in these courses, how these learners impact the course design, and how an instructor facilitates an online course.
The Online Adult Learner
Non-traditional courses and programs appeal to many adult learners, especially to those who are juggling a myriad of responsibilities including full-time jobs and families (Bourdeaux, 2019).
In the past, adult learners have been treated as higher education’s “afterthought” and “many of the barriers that keep adults from enrolling and succeeding in higher education are erected by colleges themselves” (Blumenstyk, 2018).
Flexibility and creativity on the part of institutions can make seeking an online degree more convenient for adult learner populations as “adult learners’ competing priorities make the traditionally ‘rigid’ academic calendar difficult to navigate” while maintaining quality and rigor of learning experiences (EAB, 2019).
Online degrees are a great answer to adult learner’s notions of convenience, and the proof is in enrollment age. The average age of an online undergraduate student is 30.5 years old while the average age of an online graduate student is 33.7 (Clinefelter, Aslanian, and Magda, 2019).
In a 2015 Oliver Wyman Consumer Survey, working adult students indicated a strong interest in online degree programs given lower tuition, increased convenience, and accelerated duration. For adult learners, convenience is key “because time is precious and adult students do not have time to waste.” (Bordeaux 2019)
Designing Online Courses for Adult Learners
Adult learners’ enrollment in online courses is at all time high, so it’s important to consider their needs and learning preferences while designing and developing an online course. For example, online courses often employ andragogical principles instead of the pedagogical ones which may be found in a traditional, face-to-face classroom.
Andragogy describes a student-centered approach to learning and it’s major assumptions, “hold that adults desire and enact a tendency toward self-directedness as they mature; personal experiences are a rich source of learning; adults learn best through experiential learning activities and problem-solving; [and] adult education programs should center on ‘life application’ and progress in relationship to learner readiness” (Stavardes, 2011; Decelle 2016).
As with traditional courses, there are a variety of ways faculty can go about designing online courses with andragogical principles. Some evidence-based best practices include:
Assist the students in the online course with something challenging. As the learner acts more independently, gradually shift learning responsibility to the learner (Dachner & Polin, 2015).
Example: Break down larger assessments or projects into smaller components. Provide regular and substantive feedback on their progress as they work through the various elements.
Ask students to engage in a dialogue with faculty and their peers about their professional and personal experiences with the course work and learning objectives (Carter, Solberg, & Solberg, 2017).
Example: Utilize group projects, self/peer evaluations, case studies, and structured discussions to encourage student-student and student-instructor interactions.
Adopt activities and assessments where the students assume a role that they are likely to encounter in a professional setting (Arghode, Brieger, & McLean, 2017).
Example: Employ simulations, role-plays, debates, or skits to replicate a situation that a student may experience in the workplace.
Facilitating Courses with Adult Learners
The need for different pedagogical principles for adult learners in online courses extends past the design of the course and into the delivery. The role of the faculty member shifts in an online course from the traditional lecturer to the role of facilitator.
Online facilitation is defined as presence, availability, expertise sharing, and participation modeling (Martin, Budhrani, Kumar & Ritzhaupt, 2019). Facilitation helps students connect to their learning and their learning community in the online classroom.
Facilitation can take many shapes and forms in an online class. Some evidence-based best practices include:
Regular and Substantive Feedback
Providing written and/or audio feedback over submitted work can help improve student participation and is highly valued by online students (Badiee & Kaufman, 2014; Martin, Wang, and Sadaf, 2020; Hosler & Arend, 2012; Cavanaugh & Song, 2014).
Using regular announcements to outline course expectations, remind students of upcoming due dates, and informally check-in with their progress can help keep students on track and manage their time effectively (Kelly, 2014).
Students perceive a high-level of value in instructor-created video content that introduces students to the course, units or modules, and key areas of learning (Draus, Curran, & Trempus, 2014).
Impact on Student Learning Outcomes
The effectiveness of online learning as compared to traditional, face-to-face modalities has been the subject of research interest for more than twenty years.
In the early days of Higher Education, there were significant reservations about the online modality’s impact on the achievement of student learning outcomes:
“In 2003, [only] 57.2% of academic leaders rated learning outcomes in online higher education as the same or superior to those in face-to face in instruction” (Allen, 2016).
As recently as 2015, that percentage has increased to 77% (Cavanaugh, 2015).
Some reservations about online learning continue today; however, research and data indicate that online learning is at least as effective and, in many cases, more effective in the achievement of student learning outcomes than traditional face-to-face modalities (Cavanaugh, 2015; Holmes, 2017; Magalhães, Ferreira, Cunha, Rosário 2020; Mollenkopf, Vu, Crow, Black, 2017; Nemetz, Eager, Limpaphayom, 2017; Sibirskaya, Popkova, Oveshnikova, Tarasova, 2019; Stack, 2015).
Many of these studies are indexed and described in the No Significant Difference database, compiled by the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements (2019). In fact, there have been so many studies on this particular topic, that meta-analysis researchers have begun gathering empirical studies to analyze the data. These meta-analyses also suggest that academic performance is actually higher in online vs. traditional classes (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones, 2010; McCutcheon, Lohan,Traynor, Martin, 2015).
While there is no significant difference in the achievement of learning outcomes for students between online and face-to-face modalities, some courses and instructors may find a significant difference in how their courses are organized, how course interactions take place, and how the students are best assessed.
In 2018, 3.2 million students were enrolled exclusively in distance education courses (US Department of Ed.,2019). These students sought out courses and programs that offered them convenience and flexibility and satisfied their learning needs.
A drastic change in modality, however, does not change the key factors central to their satisfaction: instructor, engagement, and interactivity (Bolliger, 2009; Martin & Bolliger, 2018, Nemetz, Eager & Limpaphayom, 2017). Students enrolled in online courses still seek out instructor-student and student-student interactions in order to help them achieve their learning outcomes, and “learner-to-instructor engagement strategies” are most valued by online adult learners (Bordeaux, 2019; Martin & Bolliger, 2018).
In addition to these frequent and substantive interactions, students hope for additional flexibility from their online instructors: “the students [yearn] for instructors to demonstrate care and deference to student needs” and they prefer instructors who demonstrate “patience, encouragement, timeliness, and availability” (Bordeaux, 2019).
The connection and understanding between students and instructors is not lost in the transition away from a face-to-face classroom. Like their face-to-face counterparts, online students still expect “clarity, respect, and intentional design from their instructors.” (Bordeaux, 2019).
Online education provides new opportunities for engaging students and increasing their satisfaction: “including active learning opportunities, such as participating in collaborative group work, having students facilitate presentations and discussions, sharing resources actively, creating course assignments with hands on components, and integrating case studies and reflections” (Martin & Bolliger 2018).
The faculty who develop and teach online are critical to the success of their online courses and programs (Eom & Ashill, 2016).
Leading online education bodies such as the Online Learning Consortium recognize “faculty satisfaction” as one of the “five pillars of quality online education” (OLC, 2017). However, some faculty remain skeptical of the efficacy of online education: “a small portion of all academic leaders report that their faculty ‘accept the value and legitimacy of online education’” (Allen 2016).
Interestingly, there is a statistically significant relationship between acceptance of online education and the number of online students enrolled at the institution. Faculty who are resistant to online education are more likely to not have distance education experience and are more likely to teach at an institution with small numbers of enrolled distance students (Allen, 2016; Bolliger, 2009). Faculty who have had the opportunity to develop and teach online, report that they are satisfied with the experience (Bolliger, 2009; Bordeaux, 2019; Stickney, Bento, Aggarwal, Adlakha, 2019).
Online education can “afford access” to more “diverse student populations” (Bolliger, 2009) and can also give the faculty more flexibility (Edwards, Perry, Janzen, 2011). Exemplary online teachers explore connections with their students and act as facilitators in their learning (Edwards, Perry, Janzen, 2011).
While the experience may be different to a face-to-face classroom, instructor-student interactions remain key, “because although online learning may force students to be more autonomous regarding the pursuit of knowledge, these students still need direction” (Bordeaux, 2019).
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