How To Build Effective Distance Learning Experiences For Adult Learners
Building an effective distance learning experience for students with limited literacy and numeracy skills presents a unique set of challenges. Traditional distance learning models can be effective, but they need to be adapted to ensure the experience is accessible for students that typically enter programs reading at the 6th-10th grade level.
Note: Adult Education takes on various meanings depending on the context. In this article, Adult Education will refer to instructional programs for students that have dropped out of high school and are studying to earn a high school equivalency diploma (i.e. GED, HiSET, etc.) and preparing for college and career pathways. These students can range in age (16-70) and typically possess a variety of academic and professional competencies.
Unlike K12 students or professionals engaged in eLearning in the workplace, adult learners are part-time students that are busy with the demands of work and family obligations. Therefore, due to their limited academic preparedness and non-traditional educational experiences, developing effective distance learning for adult learners needs to be approached with sensitivity to and accommodations for these issues.
The following are 5 strategies for building effective distance learning programming for adult learners:
- Offer coaching services.
Learning online is obviously easier than ever before. But for students with limited literacy and numeracy the internet can be overwhelming, making online learning challenging for adult students. Academic success coaches should make regular contact and act as guides, helping students navigate the complexity of the web experience. Coaches can also help students develop the soft skills necessary for being successful in an online class, including time management, goal setting, and staying focused in a distracting environment.
- Allow multiple entry (and reentry) points.
Adult learners, especially those without a high school diploma, are very busy, and sometimes other commitments will take priority over their education (i.e. work, family). Therefore, engagement levels can fluctuate. eLearning courses should therefore be designed in a way that allows for students to miss 1-2 weeks and re-engage when they are available again. Always-available units (on-demand), chunked lessons, and new courses starting over regular intervals can help meet this goal.
- Focus on foundational skills.
Preparing for a test like the GED or HiSET can be an almost insurmountable task for a student that dropped out of school at a young age and enters an adult education program at a 6th-10th grade reading level. The test covers nearly all K12 content in reading, writing, math, social studies, and science. It is therefore unreasonable to expect a student to master all of this content in the time that many expect to complete a program. Therefore, courses should focus on building the foundational skills needed for success in school, the workplace, and community. For example, instructional sites like Codecademy, where students learn how to code, focus on learning as an ongoing process. Since the world of code is large, introductory courses actually skip several topics for the sake of keeping students engaged and providing them with the foundational skills needed to drive their own learning forward upon course completion. In that spirit, an online adult education program should focus on providing students with the foundational reading, writing, and most importantly, critical thinking skills needed to get motivated and continue their own education. Since most adult education students will need to be in school for a long period, the emphasis must be on engagement and retention; after all, a self-motivated learner can accomplish anything (with our without a teacher). The College and Career Readiness Standards provide a good start to thinking about which core skills need to be addressed, and which competencies can be delayed (for now) as students get comfortable with being in school, learning on their own, and building confidence as they find success with introductory topics.
- Stay in regular contact.
Email regular “digests” with a review of the recent content and reminders about upcoming deadlines. Google Sites can be used to organize class content, and Google Plus Communities and Facebook Groups are a great (and free) way to include a social network component. And in this spirit, be sure to respond to all emails within 24 hours. Students should understand that they can email anytime for academic and digital support. Try to reply promptly as students typically seek support when they are engaged in coursework. Gchat and Google Hangouts are also great ways to offer online office hours.
- Integrate digital literacy skills.
Students should always be improving computer skills. Wherever possible, try to include computer literacy lessons, ranging from how to use spell check to how to use Google effectively. As an extension, allow students to explore material independently rather than through direct instruction. For example, in a writing course, students can be directed to research thesis statements on their own (using Google). Then, the group should collectively evaluate the websites found. This process encourages students to take control of their education while also learning how to evaluate web content, both of which are fundamental 21st century skills.
With over 30 million adults in the United States that do not possess a high school diploma or equivalency, there is a clear need for adult education programming nationwide. Online learning can provide a transformative educational experience that allows a student to study anytime and anywhere. And with the right structures and resources, distance learning can be an effective instructional model for adult learners.