Visit Modern Campus

Flexible Programs Assist Adult Learners to Thrive – Part 2

Spatial, electronic and pedagogical flexibility are vital elements to a system geared toward adult student success. Photo by Niki Odolphie.

In the first part of this piece, I introduced the fact that adult learners have very specific needs that must be addressed by higher education institutions in order for them to succeed in their learning. More than anything, adults need to be in control of their own educational experience from the planning stage all the way to outcome assessment [1]. In this article, I will discuss how spatial, electronic, and pedagogical flexibility is critical to this process and the success of adult students.

Spatial flexibility is important. If face-to-face classes are not an absolute necessity (and in some schools the faculty won’t consider anything else), don’t force the adult student to travel to one central place to take all classes. Classes should be located close to where adults live or work. Your institution should consider opening centers and offering popular programs, or at least the program core classes, at these remote centers. Locate the centers so they are more convenient for adult students. It stands to reason that institutions that offer classes at multiple centers will be more successful with adult students.

Electronic flexibility is another important dimension. Flexibility in this dimension means having all classroom materials, including syllabus, assignments, and even textbooks and reading materials, available anytime, anywhere. Consider developing a robust electronic platform for each course where a student with a browser can find any reading or homework assignment from any computer or Internet-based device (iPad, iPhone, tablet) at any time. Adults often don’t have dedicated hours available to do their class work, and need to snatch a few minutes here or there to do it. Be flexible and make it easy for them by providing material electronically and readily available anytime, from anywhere.

Lastly, pedagogical flexibility is critical and is the domain of faculty. There is much the faculty can do to add flexibility to the adult learning experience. Let’s take assignment and exam deadlines, for example. These are critical to student success. Instructors should expect students to hand in assignments and take exams on time; however, adult students are constantly juggling school, home, and work responsibilities. The latter may take students out of town during assignment deadlines or exam time; companies go through business crises sometimes requiring all hands on deck; a student may be called upon to do double shifts for extended periods. This is especially true of military veteran students who are still serving in Reserve units. Allow one assignment per semester to be excusably late, for example, or create alternate proctored exam-taking opportunities. Makes sure all deliverables can be handed in electronically. Classroom management flexibility goes a long way to assist adult students succeed in their classes.

Other exciting developments in the classroom are MOOCs [2] (massively open online courses) and flipped classrooms [3]. Both systems disaggregate the lecture from the recitation or coaching portion of the class. To better support adult learners, faculty can take a lesson from these new developments by considering how they can deliver the traditional didactic materials (lectures) in alternative ways to support their students. One way might be to record lectures with low-tech webcams and make the resulting video available for the convenience of the student before the class meets, as in flipped classes, or after, as in most executive programs today. What was costly to produce at one time, due to the requirement of expensive video equipment and dedicated videographers, can now be done with a webcam and YouTube. With a little training, such videos can be produced by any instructor. One day soon, this concept will be as ubiquitous as using PowerPoint.

Lastly, faculty love to teach, and I believe they sincerely appreciate the passion, focus, and commitment of adult learners. Faculty should and do assist students outside the classroom by making themselves available for tutoring and guidance. A word of caution: the use of electronic communication and the 24-hour availability of social networks has made students more, not less, demanding of instant responsiveness from their teachers. It is a good thing for students to be engaged in their classes continuously all of their lives, but it can make the job of teaching unmanageable if there is an expectation of round-the-clock availability, or instant answers to questions. The solution is to set boundaries. Give students a well-documented schedule of when and how questions will be answered by the instructor. In addition, consider setting up study groups based on social media platforms where students can help each other before seeking the help of the teacher. This works well in large online classes, for example, and will need to be a standard practice in MOOCs. All these strategies spell pedagogical flexibility.

As more and more adults return to school to continue their education we will see programs change to support them. These are just a few of the salient temporal, spatial, electronic, and pedagogical ways in which we can make our programs more flexible for the adult learner.

– – – –


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

[2] Perry, Tekla S., John L. Hennessy: Risk Taker, IEEE Spectrum Magazine, May, 2012.

[3] Berrett, Dan, How ‘Flipping’ the Classroom Can Improve the Traditional Lecture, The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 19, 2012.

Author Perspective: