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Traditional and Non-Traditional Learners in Online Education
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Traditional and Non-Traditional Learners in Online Education

Adult students will find greater success in online programming if institutions commit to providing them with introductory technology-skills seminars prior to starting their courses.


Over the past decade, interest in online education has exploded as an alternative to traditional face-to-face classrooms. While many traditional-aged students may enjoy the freedom that online classes offer, it is all too easy to forget about non-traditional students; adults who may or may not have been able to attend college classes in their early twenties and who are now returning to the classroom. The reasons non-traditional students return to school are diverse.

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.[1] 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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References

[1] 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.

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2 Responses to Traditional and Non-Traditional Learners in Online Education

  1. James Branden Reply

    2014/02/26 at 9:19 am

    The learning curve for online education is indeed steep, and the lack of real effort on institutions’ part to address it is worrisome. Institutions that cater to a large adult student population need a comprehensive strategy beyond offering basic tech workshops that adult students may not even access. The strategy should be able to identify what exactly the gaps are, where students struggle the most and evidenced-based solutions to strengthen their tech skills.

  2. Tyrese Banner Reply

    2014/02/26 at 4:10 pm

    I know this isn’t really the comprehensive strategy James is talking about, but one thing institutions could perhaps introduce is a requirement for adults to take a general education course that’s delivered online before starting their programs. That way, they would have time to get used to the e-learning environment and develop their tech skills before the course “counted” toward their credential.

    One of the things we’re constantly seeing is students dropping out because they don’t have the basic skills needed to participate in today’s higher ed courses. When they were last in school (whether high school or postsecondary), there wasn’t such a reliance on tech literacy.

    This is critical to increasing adult student retention

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