Classes Going the Distance So People Don't Have To: Instructional Opportunities for Adult Learners

Distance education will enable postsecondary educators to serve agrowing number of adult learners by reaching outside the physicalboundaries of college campuses. This alternative delivery mode isespecially important to educators of the 21st century because babyboomers are returning to academic institutions in increasing numbersto refresh or enhance their knowledge base and skills. They arepreparing themselves for career changes or are learning for the purepleasure of new knowledge. These mature learners have differentcharacteristics, tendencies and goals than their younger counterpartsand are different from themselves at an earlier stage in their lives.Many of these distinctions are driven by changed life obligations andlearning expectations. Over the past 20 years this large group oflearners has matured, and technology and the capabilities it affordshave also changed.

Today's communications technologies &emdash; including theInternet, audiographics, videoconferencing and computer-basedtraining &emdash; allow institutions of higher education to reachpeople in a variety of environments such as businesses, colleges,hospitals and even private homes. Distance learning programs ofvarious types are available through more than 1,000 educationalinstitutions in the United States.[1] Estimates are that bythe year 2007 almost 50 percent of all learners enrolled inpostsecondary education courses will take some of their coursesthrough distance education delivery formats.[2]

The purposes of this paper are to examine some of thecharacteristics and needs of adult learners contrasted withtraditionally aged learners in colleges and universities, and toconsider distance education as a vehicle to meet the needs of adultlearners. A case study centered on human resource development classesand adult distance learners who participated in those courses viavideoconferencing demonstrates some of the outcomes and uniqueeducational opportunities inherent with the integration of differentcommunications technologies.

Adults as Learners

Adult learners have become an important component of today'scollege population. The Digest of Educational Statistics reportedthat by the year 2001 more than 15 million adults are expected to beenrolled either full- or part-time in higher education.[3]While adult learners are a significant and growing segment ofpostsecondary education, some of their characteristics and needs areoften distinct from traditionally aged college students.

Almost by definition, the adult learner is a person who returns tostudy, on a full-time or part-time basis, after a period of timespent in other life activities or pursuits. As a result, he or shebrings a rich background of life and work experiences to theclassroom. This background includes the wide range of roles thatadults fill: employee, spouse, parent, citizen, and community orchurch worker. In general, adults have more sophisticated insightsthat result from their employment, from the skills they haveacquired, from their broader life experiences and from therelationships they have developed with other people. Unlike youngerlearners, older, more experienced students find it easier torecognize how ideas can be transformed into action and how theory canbe transformed into practice outside the classroom. For these reasonsthey tend to appreciate direct application of concepts and theaddition of "real world" perspectives into their learningexperience.

Another way in which adult learners differ from younger learnersis that their goals are often more clear-cut. That is, adult learnersare more likely to clearly identify the things that are mostimportant in their lives, such as the careers to which they want todevote their energies, the skills they wish to acquire, the personsthey aspire to become, or the kinds of relationships they hope tobuild. Adult learners are also more likely to prioritize the forcescompeting for their attention. These learners, to a greater extent,want to know what they can expect to gain from a course orprogram.

A third way in which adult learners are likely to differ fromyounger students relates to motivation. Adult learners frequentlyprefer to take an active part in their own learning, and they aremore willing than younger learners to make sacrifices in settinggoals for themselves and in striving to reach them. Manycircumstances contribute to a generally higher level of motivation.Often adult learners are able to devote only a small part of theirtime to study because of the demands of full-time or part-time jobsand the obligations they have as a spouse, parent or as the child ofelderly parents. Time is valuable to them, and when they decide todevote some of it to study, they take that seriously. Adult learnersare often inspired to pursue further education by a desire to advancein a job or to make a career shift. Age can also bring increasedawareness and appreciation for new knowledge.

While adult learners have many significant advantages over youngerstudents in learning situations, there are a few forces that inhibittheir ability to pursue additional learning. Frequently adultlearners are unable to attend classes on college campuses becausethey are place-bound. Career and family obligations limit thedistance they are willing or able to commute to and from traditionallearning sites. The desire to stay near the community in which manyof the adult learners' most important life activities take place isimportant, but equally as important are the expenses involved withtravel, child care, elder care and parking.

Lack of time, discussed earlier as a strong motivator, is adouble-edged sword; limited time can be an obstacle in the learningprocess. Intensified work obligations, a child with an illness, orany number of other pressing and occasionally urgent demands, candistract adult learners from their course of study or exhaust theirmental and physical stamina before class meetings or study are evenconsidered. Diminished stamina is a force related to the agingprocess that creates difficulties for adult learners to pursueadditional learning. As maturing adults age, they often may find thatthe process of aging affects their ability to absorb and retaininformation. Clearly, not all adults age at the same rate or displaythe same characteristics as they age. Nevertheless, these changescould interfere with learning. Fortunately, many aging adults havebeen able to face new challenges and overcome these obstacles becauseof the opportunities created by technological advances.

Distance Education Courses

The number of students enrolled in and the number of coursesoffered through some form of distance education have grown rapidlyover the last few years. A wide variety of continuing educationclasses, college or university credit courses, and even entireundergraduate and graduate degree programs are now offered throughsome type of distance education delivery method. Some of the reasonsfor the increasing number of participants and educational optionsavailable are the ease of adding instructional richness to courseofferings, the variety of integrated technologies that can beemployed, the time flexibility possible with some modes (i.e.,asynchronous communication), the greater freedom from locationconstraints, and more potential accommodations that can be made forindividual learning.

Many delivery formats have been used for distance education. Mostof these methods support showing direct application of concepts,demonstration of principles, interaction with or presentations byrecognized experts or practitioners, and other "real world" additionsto the more traditional learning designs. With interactivetelevision, audioconferencing, videoconferencing or Web-basedcourses, virtual field trips to museums, manufacturing plants,legislative chambers or health care facilities are possible forfirst-hand observation of theory meeting practice. These methods alsoenable speakers to join the learners in real-time exchanges.Enhancing the learning experience in these ways allows the learnersto clearly see the usage, benefits and outcomes of their study,thereby satisfying adult learners' desire for applicability andobjectivity.

A range of increased time flexibility can be realized withdifferent types of distance education delivery modes. Asynchronouscourses that are developed at one particular time and accessed bystudents at another time allow students greater flexibility in theirscheduling effort and learning process. Unlike synchronous courses,which are developed and delivered in real time, courses that aredelivered asynchronously allow students to "tune in" at theirconvenience. For instance, a student who is taking an asynchronouslydelivered course could discuss the merits of a particular theory withanother student at two o'clock in the morning. At 3:00 in theafternoon, the same student could ask his or her instructor toclarify the expectations of a research project by sending an e-mail.Since there is not one particular time in which all of the studentsmust be conversing or communicating, a student has the option ofparticipating within varying course time limits throughout thesemester.

Student time flexibility can also be enhanced by incorporatingcombinations of different delivery modes. Course work that issupported by synchronous and asynchronous components not onlyincreases student motivation and interaction, but also provides thestudent more time flexibility in participating in the course. Forinstance, a course delivered primarily through audioconferencing(synchronous delivery) could be supported by student chat rooms oronline instructor office hours (asynchronous communications), whichallows the student to communicate at all hours of the day.

Distance education courses can also offer an increased convenienceof place to those learners participating in the course. Interactivetelevision, a combination of videoconferencing and audioconferencing,requires learners to be present at a specific delivery site at apredetermined time; telecommunications equipment allows the deliveryof instruction right into the privacy of a learner's home or worksetting. Instruction can be "home delivered" to those learners whohave a reliable telephone line, a personal computer with a modem andspeakers, and a remote camera attached to the top of the PCmonitor.

Real-World Applications

Among the first courses to employ video-teleconference distanceeducation (VTDE) at Northern Illinois University (NIU) in DeKalb,Ill., was a graduate level course in human resource development(HRD). This VTDE course has been taught each semester since theSpring of 1995 by the same professor at two sites &emdash; on the NIUcampus and at several different community colleges &emdash; one ofwhich would be the remote site each semester. This course and the HRDfield generally have drawn learners at masters and doctorate levelsfrom adult education, counseling, instructional technology, andindustrial or business management.

The class populations' characteristics were anything buthomogenous; they consisted of U.S. citizens and foreign nationals,and part-time and full-time learners. Their experiences as HRDprofessionals ranged from little or none to an impressive record ofaccomplishments. A broad range of ages, both genders, and a varietyof care-giver responsibilities were represented among these classpopulations.

The classroom from which the course was telecast housed a VTDEsystem that was encased in two 35-inch television sets, including amain camera. From the broadcasting site, where the instructor waslocated, a signal was sent via T-1 telephone line to the communitycollege site. The following week the process was reversed, and thisalternating process continued throughout the course. In this way, theinstructor maintained the face-to-face contact with learners that isa strong plus to the building of good relationships. The VTDE systemincluded a touch screen menu pad that permitted the instructor to usethe camera to zoom in on learners while they were speaking, to runvideotape or slides, or to run a computer application program.Another integral piece of hardware was an advanced overhead projectorknown as a document camera, which was used to display excerpts fromthe textbook and supplementary materials. The document camera alsopermitted the instructor to project hand-written messages at theother site.

This video-teleconference distance education (VTDE) course had twopurposes: to provide an overview of theory, research and practicerelating to individual development, career development andorganizational change; and to acquaint students with the potentialfor and complexities of the VTDE classroom so that they could gainthe skills to employ similar systems confidently and appropriately asa delivery system in their own work setting. In thisclassroom-laboratory, learners received a book of readings tosupplement the textbook, paper copies of transparencies, studyquestions that served as advance organizers for the next class, andcase studies or simulations designed to relate theory and research topractice. These resource or supplemental materials could be used at atime and pace of the each learner's choosing which made the processmuch more convenient and supportive.

Real-world applications were shown through the addition of humanresource development (HRD) practitioners and recognized HRD expertsas living resources to the lectures. Guest HRD experts eitherattended a class at NIU or a distant site, or interacted withlearners by telephone using audioconferencing from their homes oroffices. These different formats brought richness to the course forboth the learners and the instructor.

Assignments included keeping journals in which learners reflectedupon their classroom experiences, their readings and the operation ofthe VTDE system. These journals were useful to the instructor inmonitoring the progress of learners, discerning their difficultiesand assessing the strengths and weaknesses of systems. The journalswere also helpful in assisting the learners to track their own growthor progress toward their personal educational goals and objectives,and to record valuable insights on theory and techniques for futureapplication.

Encouraging Results

The combination of media and methods used in NIU HRD classesyielded strong positive results for the adult distance learners.Evaluations of the HRD course revealed that in the years 1995 and1996 about 90 percent of the learners consistently reported beingsatisfied with the teaching and learner process of the course viadistance education.[4] The results for 1997 were morepositive than those in 1995 and 1996. These results may have beenpartially explained by the fact that the instructors would have beenmore experienced. But the improved evaluations may also have beeninfluenced by the smooth technical delivery in 1997; systemtransmission difficulties were few that year.

The human resource development course delivered throughvideoconferencing at NIU illustrates how distance education satisfiesthe distinct needs of many adult learners. Desirable characteristicsof the course material and technology combination include: (a)applicable concepts and techniques; (b) clear, learner-set andlearner-monitored goals; (c) opportunity for and use of learnermotivation; (d) careful, flexible use of time; (e) convenience andaffordability in location; and (f) consideration of and accommodationfor the learners' limitations. In summary, the expanding number ofdistance education opportunities and the growth in the number ofadult learners seem to have a mutually supportive future well intothe 21st century.

Lynn Neeley is the Associate Dean of the College of Business atNorthern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill. She has championed manyprojects focused on adult learners and the integration of technologyinto the tool set of educators. E-mail: [email protected] 

John A. Niemi is a Distinguished Presidential Teaching professorin the College of Education at Northern Illinois University inDeKalb, Ill. He has worked in the field of human resource developmentfor over 40 years in the U.S., Canada, Finland and Russia. E-mail:[email protected]

Barbara J. Ehrhard is an adjunct faculty member at McHenry CountyCollege in Crystal Lake, Ill. She has taught Computer Science,Information Sciences and Adult Continuing Education courses whilecompleting her doctorate degree in Business Education. E-mail:[email protected] 


  1. Lozada, M. (1997), "Look Out for Distance Learning: It's Out There," Techniques, 72(7), pp. 24-26.
  2. Kascus, Marie (1997), "Converging Vision of Library Service for Off-Campus/Distance Education," Journal of Library Services for Distance Education, 1(1),
  3. National Center for Educational Statistics (1995), Profile of Older Undergraduates: 1989-90, NCES 95-167, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
  4. Niemi, John A., K. Owens and Barbara J. Ehrhard (1997), "Video-Teleconference Distance Education HRD Graduate Classroom," Proceedings of the National Meeting of American Association of Adult Continuing Education, Cincinnati, OH. 

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.