The Real Story of Adult Online Learning

She is searching information in the library
She is searching information in the library

To watch the TV ads, one might think that earning a post-secondary degree online is easier than through traditional classroom study. Certainly, it is true that one might do a lot of work in one's pajamas (something not common even with the informality of today's campuses). Furthermore, one does not have to fight traffic or search for a parking place, except when there is a specific reason to go to a campus or education center. But these enticements do not capture the full picture of what online students encounter.

Here are some issues to ponder as well as some of the positives for people considering pursuit of a degree in an online environment. I'll start with the challenges, many of which apply to adults in any higher education program, whether online, on a campus, or at a local center.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines "adult" as "fully developed and mature." If this is so, one might think that any person older than students of traditional age should be able to negotiate any challenges that higher education study entails. However, there are aspects of "mature" that may not be as apparent as broad shoulders, a few wrinkles, or graying hair. For example, to succeed in online learning, one must have a palpable measure of personal discipline that can be tested only by the experience of matriculation.

Saint Leo University began serving adult undergraduates four decades ago through dispersed military centers, civilian centers, on-campus weekend and evening programs and, since 1998, our Center for Online Learning, which has several thousand enrolled in exclusively asynchronous online degree programs. Every year at graduation ceremonies, I am impressed when I learn about the personal challenges that adult students encountered and overcame. Among the more common problems are challenges in effectively organizing and managing one's time, personal and family illnesses, need to care for elderly parents, deaths, divorces, children who don't understand the reduced attention and won't leave one alone, necessary chores to perform, school closings at inopportune times, job dislocations or promotions , deployments for the military that result in new time commitments, financial setbacks, and quite often mental stress, perhaps accompanied by periods of depression. In short, it takes great discipline and persistence to handle adult responsibilities and school, too. Note that the students who conveyed these challenges are the students who succeeded.

The online adult learner has the above issues and others, including developing adequate technological competence that may include dealing with computer crashes, slow connections, and even power outages that, with recent "super storms," may last for days or even weeks. Another type of issue relates to the loneliness of not having face-to face student colleagues with whom to share common experiences. For example, there are difficulties in finding friends and family who can understand and empathize with what an adult student experiences. And there is one big challenge that many do not expect, but all encounter: the challenge of having to interact almost daily and in a meaningful and knowledgeable way with the instructor and student colleagues in the electronic classroom. You cannot just sit in the corner and absorb in an online setting; active participation is a must and shallow reasoning is apparent to all. Indeed, for most classes, participation is graded. Furthermore, the ability to write lucidly is an important skill that also must be used just about every day, and certainly every week. This is a big hurdle for those with less than excellent writing abilities.

The above challenges are some of the reasons that effective academic advisement is critical to student success in online learning. At times, the academic advisor may seem like one's only understanding and helpful friend, a common theme in the stories heard at graduation receptions.

So the TV and magazine advertisements suggesting that online learning is easy are not telling the whole story. However, for those who have the discipline, organization, and innate capacity to handle college-level work, achievement of success is particularly impressive.

Saint Leo University utilizes some common assessment mechanisms to ensure that all of our various modes of study lead to the desired learning outcomes. Our experience indicates that online students consistently perform as well or better than "on-ground" students. This may relate to the online format that requires students to learn by doing, rather than by absorption, as is sometimes the case with students sitting and listening in classes with only moderate interaction. One cannot "hide out" in an online setting where regular input is a requirement. And the rewards can be gratifying. Many online graduates tell us of subsequent success in their careers, including significant promotions. Others report that their children have learned from watching them and that, in turn, they are doing better in school. And virtually all report a feeling of true accomplishment and greater self-confidence that comes from the recognition that their hard work paid off.