Traditional and Non-Traditional Learners in Online Education
Some definition is required of both traditional and non-traditional students before proceeding. Traditional students are often defined as students who have entered college after high school and non-traditional students are commonly agreed to be those who have returned to school some time after. The reasons these non-traditional students have decided to return to school at a later date could be due to financial setbacks, starting or planning a family or working a full-time job.
One of the larger concerns administrators and educators need to address when it comes to non-traditional students enrolling in the online classroom is the learning curve associated with some of the technology used in these courses. Some non-traditional students may not have grown up with immediate access to the Internet or may not fully grasp how to use online platforms or programs as quickly as younger students. What educators and administrators need to keep in mind when teaching and offering online classes is that non-traditional students may need extra help in understanding and using the technology in these classes.
Many examples can be cited of individual students who have thrived in the traditional classroom setting but struggle online. There are a number of reasons for this struggle. As explored above, the learning curve associated with learning new software or platforms can pose a challenge. Equally challenging is the isolation in these online classrooms. Many non-traditional students may feel as though they are not entirely connected to their instructors or may be apprehensive about an assignment when they are not entirely certain about its requirements. There is also the learning style to consider. Individuals learn in myriad ways: kinesthetic, auditory and visual. All too often, online learning relies almost exclusively on one of these, typically visual, and those with different learning styles may feel frustrated.
Obviously, online classes are not going away. The increase in popularity among students of all ages has cemented their presence in colleges all over the world. While it is true there will always be students — traditional and non-traditional alike — who cannot handle online classes, adjustments must be made to ensure adults have an equal opportunity to participate. By providing first-year seminar-type online classes, students can learn how to best manage their participation in online classrooms and assess their own learning style to learn what maximizes their potential for success. In addition, instructors need to be aware that non-traditional students may need extra help in understanding how to use programs and platforms online while providing adequate instruction to ensure both traditional and non-traditional students understand what is expected of them and how to complete their assignments.
The nature of online courses means the student is largely expected to be an independent learner. This is inevitable. However, instructors have the power to reduce the amount of isolation students of all ages feel by regularly posting announcements at the beginning, middle and end of each week that highlight assignment instructions and address any questions students may have.
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 Brookfield, S. D. (2010). In C. E. Kasworm, A. D. Rose, & J. M. Ross-Gordon (Eds.), Handbook of adult and continuing education (pp. 71-81). Los Angeles: Sage Publications.
Author Perspective: Educator