Supporting Virtual Learning for Adult Students


The general model ofhigher education is that of the teacher lecturing to students in theclassroom. This 20th century model of mass higher education whereteachers and students interact in the classroom has supplanted the19th century model of personal education as embodied in the Oxfordtutorial tradition. Today, other models of higher education haveemerged such as distance education.

In the UnitedStates, with the increase of students attending higher educationalinstitutions since World War II, mechanisms of academic support suchas health services and cultural activities grew. In the 1970s, withthe influx of a diverse student population, academic services againgrew to include counseling, tutoring and child care. In the 1990s,academic services supply a whole range of services involvingcurriculum support (computer lab, writing center, tutoring),counseling centers and of course the library.

But what happenswhen the library, or the heart of the academic institution, is takenout of the picture? Can a student succeed if few academic servicesare provided? Believe it or not, this picture of virtual learningexists today. At Empire State College, a four-year Arts and Scienceinstitution in New York State, this method of alternative highereducation thrives. Since 1971, Empire State College has expandedaccess to higher education for students &emdash; primarily adults&emdash; who choose alternatives to the fixed schedule, place,program and structure of campus-based education.

Enter theMentor

Empire State Collegehas its headquarters in Saratoga Springs, New York. Its fivegeographic regions &emdash; Long Island, Metropolitan, Central,Western and College Wide &emdash; serve students across New YorkState and the world. At Empire State College the emphasis is onindividualized learning for adults. Once enrolled, the returningadult student is assigned a mentor, a faculty member who worksclosely and individually with the student. Besides providinginstruction in their own field of specialization, the mentor alsoserves as an intellectual guide who helps the student defineeducational tasks, identifies resources and evaluates studentprogress.

At the outset, thementor and the student develop a structured learning plan or learningcontract. This learning contract determines what the student willstudy. The student can choose from several comprehensive areas ofstudy instead of a single prescribed curriculum. Presently, at EmpireState College there are 11 undergraduate areas of studies and fourareas of graduate studies. The student's overall course of study isplanned based on one's strengths and interests. The adult student hasa choice of three types of study: individualized, small group ordistance learning.

At Empire StateCollege a semester lasts 16 weeks. Students who choose individualizedclasses meet with their mentor about every two weeks to discusscourse readings, papers researched, or analysis and evaluation of awork-related project. Students who choose small group study meet withthe mentor and other students six times during the semester on agiven evening. Students who choose distance learning take coursesoffered by the college's Center for Distance Learning. Thesestructured courses are accessible by telephone, mail, personalcomputer and other media. Each course has a tutor who helps guide andsupport the students and evaluates their work.


The students areexpected to hunt for educational resources themselves. Jim Case, Deanof Empire State College's Hartsdale Center explains: "Ideally, thestudents will leave the college knowing how to use and findeducational resources. In reality, as educational resources becomemore varied, finding these resources becomes morecomplex."

Overall, adultstudents have different needs than the college student entering fromhigh school. Adult students must balance work, family and otherresponsibilities in addition to school. While adult students havematurity and experience and are more focused on their goals, they canlack skills in research, writing and/or analyticalthinking.

At Empire StateCollege the mentors at the Hartsdale Center often work with adultstudents who do research. Mentors find that the students need tounderstand that research is a process, not just a one-shot deal. Forexample, Amy, an adult student, g'es into the public library and asksthe person at the circulation desk a research question. She d'esn'tknow that the person at the circulation desk is not a librarian andthat the librarian at the reference desk should be asked herquestion. When given an unsatisfactory answer, she concludes that thelibrary d'esn't have the information she is looking for. Anotheradult student named Roberto g'es to the public library and sees onemagazine on the topic for his research paper. He tells his mentor: "Icould only find one magazine article on this subject."

The Finder'sGuide

Fortunately, thereare other avenues to locating resources. Empire State College, amember of the State University of New York system, is part of theSUNY Library Open Access policy. This policy allows Empire StateCollege students who have a valid ESC I.D. Card to use the servicesof a SUNY library as well as borrow books. However, for some adultstudents, the location of another college or public library may bemore accessible to them than visiting a SUNY collegelibrary.

The Finder's Guidewas the development of a 1996 summer internship project at EmpireState College's Hudson Valley Center for this graduate student. Theintern initially met with the Dean to discuss the internship project.Next, mentors were contacted and interviewed to determine what kindsof information they wanted in this guide. The intern then visitedacademic and public libraries, bookstores and government agenciesthroughout five counties. A prototype of the Finder's Guide waswritten by mid- June 1996, a draft copy for Westchester County wascompleted within a month, and the final version was completed by theend of August.

Designed for thementor to use with adult students, the Finder's Guide, a printresource, provides information resources within each county. If theEmpire State College student needs to do research, the Finder's Guidecan help the busy student begin this process by locating the nearestpublic or academic library. Remember that not all Empire StateCollege students attend college in the same county where they live orwork. For example, Geraldo lives in the Bronx, New York, but attendsEmpire State College in Hartsdale, New York. Information aboutlibrary policies, hours and special collections are also listed inthe Finder's Guide.

If the mentorrecommends a text, the student can request this book through thelibrary's inter-library loan service. Or, if the student prefers topurchase the book, the Finder's Guide can be consulted for thenearest bookstore location. The Finder's Guide incorporates a varietyof informational resources: public libraries, academic libraries,bookstores, book publishers, book dealers, New York State Agenciesand Offices, Social and Human Services Agencies, and Internetaddresses.


Empire State Collegehas a wide variety of technology resources available to students anduses technology for many of its instructional activities. At thecollege there already exists computerized writing help called "TheWriter's Complex." However, students need a computer and modem toaccess it via the college's network. Once a student has a computeraccount, the college's network provides access to these informationresources: library access, online bookstore, electronic mail andInternet discussion lists. Of the 600 students attending Empire StateCollege in the Hudson Valley Region, it is estimated that about 50 %of the adult students don't own a computer. Yes, there are computersavailable at each of the Empire State College Centers for studentuse, but most students prefer to work at home and/or don't have thetime to use the computer at the college's center.

Another of EmpireState College's services is its college bookstore, located inSaratoga Springs, New York. As mentioned above, it can be accessed onthe college's computer system. For students involved in small studygroups, the mentor can order the text through the Empire StateCollege bookstore. Moreover, for students involved in individualizedstudy, the mentor may recommend books to the student that arespecialized or out-of-print. Having a list of major bookstores andbook publishers in the Finder's Guide can help the student locate thesource where the books can be ordered.


In the course oftheir college studies, some students need to be referred to specificoffices and agencies for non-related academic help. Since EmpireState College d'es not have a counseling center, having a list of theCounty's Social and Human Services Agencies can be most helpful. Byusing the Finder's Guide, the mentor can refer the student to theappropriate agency. For example, in Westchester (New York) Countyalone, there are over 600 Social and Human ServicesAgencies.

Empire State Collegestudents completing coursework toward a Social Science disciplineoften need to do an internship or practicum. The student may not beaware of the various kinds of social service agencies that exist. Byusing the Finder's Guide, which lists each county's Social &Human Services Agencies, the mentor can discuss internshippossibilities with the student. Then, the student can contact thesocial service agency to obtain more information.

In New York Statecertain qualifications must be met for various professions to belicensed. Presently, Empire State College d'es not offer degrees inareas that require licensing or certification. Remember that thementor helps the students determine their individualized courserequirements. Now the mentor can contact a specific state licensingagency to find out what courses are needed toward a specific degree.For example, if an Empire State College student wants to studymedicine, the mentor can use the Finder's Guide to call the New YorkState Board for the Professions office to determine which courseswill be necessary for future credentials.

Examples ofContent

Thus, the Finder'sGuide is a resource tool that the mentors can use to help studentssolve information problems. Dean Case adds: "The mentors know whatthey want the students to get, but they don't know where to get thisinformation." The Table of Contents in the Finder's Guide listsinformation on:

  • Libraries;
  • Bookstores;
  • Social and human services agencies;
  • Book dealers;
  • Book publishers;
  • The Internet; and
  • New York State agencies and offices.

Under the heading oflibraries, you'll find information for both public and academiclibraries such as hours, classification schemes, special collectionsand access policies. Regarding bookstores, it covers the type ofbooks carried and ordering policies. The Finder's Guide containsinformation on new and used book dealers, and lists Manhattanbookstore telephone numbers. For book publishers, it lists thetelephone numbers of academic publishers and lists academic bookpublishers by subject area.

In the section oncomputers, the Finder's Guide classifies Internet addresses in thesecategories: associations, companies, foreign countries,gateways/search engines, government, library, magazines, museums,newspapers, organizations and subjects. Finally, the publicationcontains the addresses and telephone numbers for state agencies anddepartments, and lists the telephone numbers for the State Board forthe Professions offices.

Serving AllStudents

Because each EmpireState College Center covers a different geographic area, the Finder'sGuide was created for five counties in the lower Hudson Valleyregion: Westchester, Rockland, Ulster, Orange and Sullivan. Thesefive counties serve the Empire State College students who live andwork in this geographic area. Future plans include putting portionsof this Finder's Guide online via Empire State College's computernetwork.

Therefore, while theacademic library still remains the heart of the university, studentswho live at a distance from the college or university must use theinformation sources available where they live, work or attend school.At Empire State College, where the library and many academic supportservices don't physically exist, the mentor often becomes theresource person for those students who need additionalsupport.

The Finder's Guideis a resource tool for the mentor to use when a student needs help.In this age of information explosion, having this vital informationin one place will undoubtedly help the students and mentors at EmpireState College achieve their educational goals.

Mary Bludnicki is agraduate student at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. Shehas worked in academic libraries and learning resource centers in NewYork for the past 17 years.
E-mail: [email protected]


  1. Granger, Daniel and Meg Benke, "Supporting Students at a Distance," Adult Learning, 7(1), pp. 22-23.
  2. Sewart, David, "Student Support Systems in Distance Education," Open Learning, Vol. 8, pp. 3-12.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.