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Teaching Adults in a Blended Learning Environment

Presentation at 9th Annual
CSU Symposium on University Teaching
April 1, 2006

(Edited for Web Posting in Exchanges)

Mei-Yan Lu

Department of Instructional Technology
San José State University

Chia-Ling Mao

School of Nursing
San José State University

Michael T. Miller

Department of Educational Leadership,
Counseling, and Foundations
University of Arkansas

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This presentation applied a survey of student opinion to suggest strategies for classroom success with adult undergraduates in courses that combine tradition delivery techniques with alternative technologies.

Profile of Adult Learners

For the past two decades a growing population of older students has enrolled in higher education. Adult undergraduates make up 33% of those enrolled in the California State University and 55% in the California Community Colleges, both percentages representative of national enrollment figures for college students. The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (2005) has projected that these numbers will increase by up to 20% during the next 7 years. These students bring with them not only differing life experience but the likelihood of full-time jobs, families, and unique expectations for the results of a higher education.

Adult learners have a variety of unique characteristics based on both their stage in life and their age. The National Center for Educational Statistics (2002) specifically noted that adult students typically delay enrollment in postsecondary education, are more likely to attend college part time, are financially independent (of their parents), work full-time while enrolled, have dependents other than a spouse, are likely to be single parents, and often lack a standard high school diploma. Additionally, they have a vocational perspective on college enrollment with specific expectations for the outcomes of their educational experience. Often, this means that non-traditional or adult students are less likely to be involved in the collegiate aspects of campus life and more likely to view their college degree as a functional tool for better employment.

Research on adult learners in higher education has produced a variety of observations and strategies for their success. For example, Seaman and Fellenz (1989) noted that institutional flexibility in curricular and support services is important, meaning that certain offices are open later for adults who work full-time or that facilities or clearinghouses for child care are available, as is academic and motivational advising to support adult students’ lives and career goals. Problem-based learning with real-world applications related to previous life experience can also help adult learners internalize material.

Institutional Response to Adult Student Population

Many institutions within the California State University, including San José State University, have made tremendous strides in recent years to respond to the variety of learners making use of public higher education. The result has been the growth in alternative delivery of degree programs, especially distance on-site programs, online programs, and combination programs that combine face-to-face traditional instruction with an element of technology, such as online content modules. In many urban areas, including the San Francisco Bay Area, blended courses have become particularly commonplace, as students express a desire to have the in-classroom experience but do not typically have the time or resources to attend weekly class sessions.

Although the growth of such programs offered with blended learning strategies, such as web-based components, would seem to be an obvious solution, such settings have in fact been problematic for many adult students. The authors designed a study to identify some of the reported challenges adult learners have with blended learning, and to offer some instructional approaches to blended settings that might be appropriate for faculty members teaching adult undergraduates.

Student Opinions on Blended Learning

In an effort to understand the apprehensions and perceived difficulties in working with blended learning environments, a group of ten adult learners in an academic department at San José State University was convened in November 2005. In the group interview, which was based on strategies laid out by Creswell (2002), these students were asked a series of open-ended questions, with both transcribed recordings and notes being kept to capture their comments and thoughts.

Student opinions fell into three broad categories:

Blended learning is positive and responsive to student needs.

Student comments included “Blended instruction really meets my needs as a working adult student”; “I feel I could contribute more to our class blog than live classroom discussions because I’m more comfortable not speaking out that much”; and “I love the flexibility that I do not have to drive to campus every week.”

Blended learning is problematic for learning.

Four students expressed concern about participating in a blended classroom. Comments included “I am not disciplined. I need face-to-face interaction with my professor and fellow-students” and “Some lurkers and dominators are frustrating to our on-line discussion and some don’t take the blog postings very serious.”

Blended learning is confusing.

Comments on the issue of technological ability included “I am not good at synchronous chats”; “It’s hard for me to keep up,” and “I need a lot of help learning to upload and download files….I feel like I’m taking a computer class!”

Success Strategies for Instructors

Faculty members working with adult students must be aware of some of their unique needs and characteristics, such as the need for time flexibility and their varying degrees of comfort with technology. Thus, faculty might consider ways to build in real-life issues or examples, and might also find that while blended learning is convenient, it can be a barrier for some adult learners. Additionally, faculty should keep in mind that the method of instruction should largely follow the objectives of the individual course. Following are a few strategies that faculty might find helpful in working with adult students in blended course environments.

Spend in-class time up front.

Early in the semester, students bring their apprehensions and uncertainties to class. Bringing students together to get to know each other and to develop a supportive class environment can be essential later in the semester when content related issues drive concerns. That is, students who have met and interacted in the classroom are better able to handle their later exchanges online. This preparation should also include an introduction to the technologies that will be used in the blended portion of the course. Assess student abilities. Early in the course, faculty members should assess the technology skills of all students, and should work to define where additional support or training is needed. This approach also allows the faculty member to understand course-related skills gained through students’ real-life experiences.

Start slow and build.

A hierarchical approach to using blended learning for adult students may prove especially beneficial for those with high apprehension or limited technical skills. A strategy of increasingly complex tasks will allow adult students to build confidence and competence in using technology and in mastering the course content. For example, a student might start with the discussion board, posting responses to others when convenient, then graduate to giving immediate feedback to others in a chat room.

Use rubrics.

Rubrics, where faculty state their assessment and grading criteria in advance and in writing, have become popular on many campuses. Adult students may find that knowing what will be used to determine a course grade reduces their performance anxiety. Also, clearly spelling out the criteria to be used in assessing the technologically-mediated portion of the class will enable learners to perform at a uniform level.

Provide technical support.

The biggest single complaint about online or blended courses relates to the effective and appropriate use of applications. Faculty will find their jobs easier and their classes’ performance enhanced if there is someone dedicated to helping students understand how to use technology and resolve problems with their personal computers. Depending on campus resources, such support may even be available for the asking. Use a variety of technologies. Technology is rapidly changing, and reliance on any single application may have limitations and may place boundaries on learners. There are several current possibilities for faculty members to consider incorporating.

  • Podcast, distributing audio or video files, such as lectures or radio programs, over the Internet for listening on mobile devices and personal computers.
  • Moodle, a free course-management system or open source software package designed to help educators create effective online learning communities.
  • Class blog (or weblog), a website where students can post comments on a regular basis about any number of topics, although most are directed toward a particular learning module.

As technology is increasingly integrated into higher education, blended courses can be expected to increase, in that they not only make the best use of technology but also meet the needs of a burgeoning population of adult learners. However, success in blended learning environments depends on the technical readiness of faculty and students. The foregoing strategies may assist faculty across disciplines to prepare.

References

Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. (2005). Principles in practice: assessing adult learning focused institutions. www.cael.org.

Creswell, J. (2002). Research design: Quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

National Center for Educational Statistics (2002). The condition of education 2002. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Science. Compendium. Available from NCES.

Seaman, D., and Fellenz, R. (1989). Effective strategies for teaching adults. Columbus: Merrill Publishing Company.

Posted December 8, 2006.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2006 by Mei-Yan Lu, Chia-Ling Mao, and Michael T. Miller.

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