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How Adult Learners Bring Value to the Online Classroom

Age is just a number – unless you’re a college student. Then, a number in the 30s or higher could mean that you possess a wealth of wisdom that can enhance the learning experience for fellow students and even your professors.

How so?

For an answer to that question, start with the research of American educator Malcolm Knowles, who helped bring the concept of “adult learning” into the 20th century. Knowles helped popularize theories related to andragogy, a term originally used in 1833 by German educator Alexander Kapp.

Andragogy is the “adult” version of pedagogy, or childhood learning. Knowles established six “assumptions” about adult learners:

  • They need a reason to learn something
  • They need to feel involved in the planning and execution of their education
  • They need to learn about things that can help them in everyday life
  • They learn through problem solving
  • They are self-motivated
  • The way they learn is based on life experience

All of these facets of adult learning relate to how these older students succeed in the online classroom. For example, adults students use their life experience to provide perspective. This perspective can help an older student offer valuable insight to a class discussion.

It’s true for traditional classrooms, and now it’s true for digital distance learning, too. Florida Tech’s online students find plenty of opportunities for convenient interaction and engagement through phone, email, live chat and message boards. Those last two, in particular, offer older, returning students opportunities to make meaningful, insightful contributions through interaction with their classmates.

This was the case for Florida Tech alumnus Steven Barrett of West Palm Beach, FL, who earned a degree in Computer Science as a traditional student in 2002. A decade later, when he decided to pursue an MBA with a Specialization in Management, he chose the convenience and flexibility of online courses.

But he wondered whether he would have the opportunity to interact and engage with students and professors. He quickly learned that he would not work in isolation.

“Going online, there’s a little bit of apprehension,” Barrett said. “I’m like, ‘Okay, how is this going to be engaging? Am I going to be disconnected and just responding to work once a week?’ However, the professors did make it very engaging. People were all over the world collaborating, trying to get projects done and everything else.”

That kind of collaboration also plays into one of Knowles’ assumptions about adult education: Adult learning is oriented toward problem solving, rather than content. Collaboration on a class project provides multiple opportunities for older students to demonstrate the teamwork and leadership skills they have honed over the years.

That’s only one way older students can add depth and insight to an online class. Here are a few more:

  • Sharing helpful anecdotes about past professional experiences that apply to a particular lesson
  • Developing and suggesting solutions to challenges based on experience in a current or former job
  • Demonstrating communication skills honed in a professional setting

Furthermore, because (as Knowles observed) adult learners are self-motivated and take a role in planning and evaluating the education process, they often bring a dynamism to a classroom setting that helps shift the focus to real-world application of the class material. That’s a bonus for classmates, who can take advantage of a fellow student’s shared wisdom, and for professors, who appreciate the combination of knowledge, inquisitiveness and motivation older students bring to class.

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