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Adults and the Higher Education Experience (Part 2)

Adults and the Higher Education Experience (Part 2)
The social learning experience of on-campus education can be replicated online through widely accessible technologies, but educators must be diligent in establishing norms and standards that contribute to a positive learning environment.

The following is the conclusion of The EvoLLLution’s two-part email Q&A with Melora Sundt, executive vice dean and clinical education professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. In the first installment, Sundt discussed how the social learning experience that comes with the on-campus, face-to-face approach to higher education can be beneficial for adult students. In this conclusion, Sundt discusses how this social learning experience can be made more accessible by going online.

2. What are the barriers facing non-traditional students in on-campus programs and what advantages might online programs offer?

While there are many benefits to attending a traditional program, these programs, because they cater to a traditional population (ie. 18 to 24-year-olds, single, no children, not working full time and residential), create some barriers for non-traditional students that many online programs have worked around. The first is scheduling. Classes held during the day are less accessible for the working adult than are classes on evenings and weekends, or in an executive, compressed format. Any large program has the advantage of scale; because they enroll many students, they can create many more sections at a variety of times, making it more likely that the working adult, or the adult dealing with child care or parent care issues, can find a convenient class time. Online programs also eliminate travel time to campus, increasing their convenience for working adults.

The scheduling issue is related to another life factor for many adult students: dependent care. When a student with dependent care responsibilities has to get to a campus at a certain time for class, we’ve added the need to find reliable, competent, dependent care during class time. Some physical campuses have child care. Very few have elder care. Students attending online also need to find dependent care, but if they have greater choice of class time and don’t have to travel to class, finding the time and care may be easier, and therefore that education is more accessible.

Adult students are also more likely to see greater innovation that favors their circumstances happening in online programs. Here I’m referring to competency-based programs and policies that allow credit for work in particular. Some of the lag in taking up these innovations by traditional programs is due to concerns about rigor, but some is due to operational barriers, such as rigidity in the way we — faculty, administrators, federal policy makers — think about length of academic terms or how we define what constitutes a “credit hour,” etc.

Not all innovations are successful or are good ideas, but I’ve seen more experimentation with groundbreaking program ideas and application of technologies when institutions create online programs. In my own experience, the greatest creativity, questioning of assumptions and therefore improvement of our instruction, programs and delivery on learning outcomes, happened when we created an online program.

3. Can the “social learning” benefits of on-campus be replicated in an online environment?

Yes. Some online programs integrate a social networking capacity within their instructional environment so students can connect with faculty and one another after class, form student groups, participate in workshops, etc. When those systems that use the simultaneous web cams (where everyone can see and hear each other) extend that capacity into the co-curricular experience (so student groups and workshops, faculty meetings and other interactions are all held in that environment), that intellectual community can be actualized. In those cases, we do see out-of-class learning and meaningful, supportive relationship building.

4. What are the biggest challenges with the social aspect in an online environment?

The biggest challenge for the programs using the simultaneous webcam delivery is that of online presence or identity. My colleagues and I wrote about this in the article noted above. “Presence” manifests itself in all online programs through our text-based communication – “flaming” or “trolling” happens in online programs just as it does in other online communities. So establishing norms about how we communicate with one another is an issue in online programs. For the programs using webcams, presence becomes an issue for faculty to manage during class. Instead of managing one classroom’s environment, we’re managing 15 or so; one for each camera turned on. For example, the camera picks up everything in its range — the naked spouse walking behind the student, the dogs barking, the children, the Starbuck’s lounge — and everything becomes part of the class environment. Helping set norms for appropriate camera presence is an issue the F2F classroom doesn’t have to address in this way.

A related issue is students’ expectations for institutional responsiveness. Setting norms for faculty response time becomes even more important when email or phone are the primary communication vehicles. When virtual student groups are used, two more complications arise: (a) students will share information, some of it incorrect, or ask questions about the program in these groups. They may assume that someone from the university is monitoring these groups and will respond. It’s important (and time consuming and informative) to monitor groups; (b) Going viral: When a student in a traditional program is annoyed, she or he might complain on Facebook or tell a few of their friends, but when your community is virtual, the ability for complaints to go viral within that community magnifies. Modeling how to express dissent and deal constructively with conflict in a virtual community, as well as monitoring group traffic to prevent solvable problems from becoming major events, will and should involve more effort than they might in a traditional program.

The EvoLLLution and Destiny Solutions created an eBook sharing non-traditional student perspectives on what learners need from their institutions. To download the eBook, please click here.

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