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Adult Learners and the Necessary Shifts in University Admissions

Adult Learners and the Necessary Shifts in University Admissions
MOOCs have made lifelong learning an attainable goal for adults who otherwise might not have access to traditional higher education institutions. It is up to colleges and universities to adapt their admissions standards to ensure they capture this growing group looking for ongoing educational opportunities.

I am an adult learner. I love learning — all kinds of learning.

I am also a tenured associate professor at a university.

There is, I believe, a huge disconnect between the growing numbers of adult learners and the definition most colleges and universities use to identify their learners.

Adult Learning Is Knocking and Wants to Come In

Since the founding of the first university in the United States in 1636, the bulk of university education has been directed at 18 to 22-year-olds, in a four-year structure.

Graduate education, the logical “next step” in this paradigm, follows a predictable pattern of formalized coursework. Admission standards rely on cognitive data such as test scores and grade point averages. These standards have not been significantly altered in almost 400 years.

I think we are due for a change.

While there are numerous opportunities for continuing education for adults on university campuses, in the form of professional development and lifelong learning programming, it has always seemed to me adult education programming is nothing more than a stepchild. It is always a little on the fringe of university life and has never been considered rigorous or important enough to be considered “real learning.”

In addition, for acceptance into the formalized mainstream of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the cognitive criteria does not take into account qualities test scores do not address, such as persistence, motivation and mastery of topics learned in the workplace.

The programs designed for adults are typically afterthoughts, and admissions standards to so-called “legitimate programs” are designed to make it difficult for adults to gain acceptance.

Enter the MOOC Tsunami

With the explosive growth of massive open online courses (MOOCs) within the past year, universities need to take a long, hard look at not only what defines learning, but also what constitutes a learner.

For the first time in history, the “big data” MOOCS have produced is a gateway to understanding who is out there learning, not just in a degree-granting sense, but in welcoming learners outside the traditional framework of bricks-and-mortar universities.

MOOCs have been roundly criticized for their low completion rates. This criticism is part of a paradigm of learning where there is a predictable pattern of students signing up for a course, taking a course and, at the end of the course, receiving a grade. MOOCs, however, have shown the traditional way of viewing completion rates may not be accurate. The playing field has changed. And that playing field encompasses all types of learners — students who direct their own learning and self-select that learning.

The analytics for examining MOOC completion rates is just beginning to emerge.

Stanford University has led the way in this research. The Lytics Lab at Stanford has discovered new ways to view learners in the MOOC environment. Those learners fall into four categories:

  1. Auditors watch video lectures throughout the course, but attempt very few assessments.
  2. Completers attempt most of the assessments offered in the course.
  3. Disengaged students attempt assessments at the beginning of the course but then sometimes only watch lectures or disappear entirely from the course.
  4. Samplers briefly explore the course by watching a few videos.

I would like to add the idea of a fifth MOOC user: adults who simply love learning … or in the words of Kio Stark, author of Don’t Go Back To School: A Handbook for Learning Anything, “It’s fine to take something just because you’re dabbling and curious, and you shouldn’t feel obligated to finish. You should take what’s there that’s useful for you and forget about the rest of it.”

Those Who Throws Stones

It seems universities, in addition to pointing out low completion rates of MOOCS, also need to take a long, hard look at their own low graduation rates, astronomical tuitions and the encroachment of online education that has not been an overnight sensation.

Online learning has been growing rapidly over the last decade. MOOCS are simply the next generation of the online education movement.

And here is the kicker: MOOCs welcome all learners. Everyone is valued. Everyone has a contribution.

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Jerome Lucido, “Non-Cognitive Admissions Standards a Must for Adult Students,” The EvoLLLution, May 6, 2013, accessed at

John Duhring, “Not All Online Students Are The Same: A Summary of Stanford’s MOOC User Study,” MOOC News and Reviews, April 19, 2013, accessed at

Robert McGuire, “Can You MOOC Your Way To A Career?: Q & A With Kio Star, Author of “Don’t Go Back To School”,” MOOC News and Reviews, May 8, 2013, accessed at


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