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Flexible Programs Assist Adult Learners to Thrive

Flexibility is extremely important when developing programming geared toward adult students. Photo by John Vetterli.

Adult learners bring very specific needs into their educational experiences. I think we all agree that for educational programs to succeed those needs must be met. One foundational need of adult learners, as taught by Malcolm Knowles, [1] is that they must be in control of their own educational experience, right from planning (what course should I take? what do I need to learn?) to outcomes assessment (was this course good for me? did I learn anything useful?). To me that spells flexibility in all dimensions: temporal, spatial, electronic and pedagogical.

Program administrators have many choices in creating and offering programs that are adult-learner friendly. Adults trying to fit a college education into already busy lives are less likely to adjust to a college schedule than are younger learners. Thus, the first level of flexibility is time, or temporal, convenience. This may be accomplished by offering more evening and weekend classes. Do this and adults will flock to the program. But let’s be honest, at many colleges classes are offered at the convenience of the faculty. Schedules are created by department chairs, who are faculty themselves, and graciously accede to colleagues’ requests when scheduling. There is no question that classes taught by full-time, dedicated faculty are, for the most part, of higher quality than classes taught by part-time faculty. Thus, to present adults with the best of both worlds – a quality program taught by full-time faculty that is time-flexible for the learner’s needs – requires a healthy, working partnership between administration and full-time faculty.

A good principle of instructional design is to “chunk” the subject matter to be taught. In the same spirit, class length can be temporally organized to be convenient.  One approach is to create class sessions that are half-semester long, or 8 weeks, rather than the traditional 16 weeks. The student can take the same semester credit load, but do it sequentially rather than concurrently.  The focus for the students is on one or two subjects at a time over 8 weeks rather than on four or five classes over 16 weeks. This greatly simplifies an adult learner’ s already busy life with less to juggle and keep track of at one time. And focusing on only one or two subjects at a time enhances the quality of the educational experience.

The ultimate in temporal convenience is online classes where the adult student is taught asynchronously. Recently we have seen a large, and probably disproportionate, number of adults as online students. Students in fully online classes would miss the socializing and epiphanies (light bulb of understanding turning on) in the face-to-face classroom experience. A middle way is blended learning, a class format presenting several classroom-based events per session interspersed with technology-mediated asynchronous and synchronous activities. This is an impactful way to deliver flexible education. If done right, blended programs might also serve a geographically dispersed population. One approach I recommend you consider is the ClassroomPlus blended format deployed at George Mason University to teach an MBA program for Northrop Grumman executives based around the USA [2]. So temporal flexibility is important.

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[1] Knowles, Malcolm S. Informal adult education: a guide for administrators, leaders, and teachers. Association Press, New York, 1950.

[2] Fortino, A. & Wolf, P., Going The Distance – Management Education in A Virtual World: Embracing the Disruptive Challenge and Making A Successful Transition, AACSB BizEd Magazine, January 2007. (

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