Understanding persistence in adult learning

Distance Learning

What are the major ethical, intellectual, and cultural hurdles to be achieved to assure that adult learners advance scholastically in their approach to online education? What needs more attention? Which theories and strategies are the most relevant? And what about trust – the faith and trust that instructors and online educational programs must establish with students?

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The essay “Ethical Issues in Web-Based Learning,” by JOAN D. MCMAHON suggests (Khan, 2007, p. 210) that the “overall ethical problem” with distance learning is that “course information is now being posted to the Web,” which creates problems in terms of values, rights and professional duties and responsibilities. Teachers are expected to keep their assignments up-to-date but there are bureaucratic roadblocks put up in terms of revising a course syllabus.

VIRGINIA MCGIVNEY writes in the journal Open Learning that it takes longer for adults to finish coursework than it takes young people; also, adult learners often are short on confidence and hence they tend to need “emotional support as well as helpful academic encouragement” (McGivney, 2004, p. 33). It is a given that older people who do not reside with family members can find that “sustaining study over a long period” is quite challenging. More serious than that is the female whose significant other objects to her enrollment in educational programs, and in the time it takes for her to do her schoolwork. Many times the male feels cheated of time that he believes she owes him.

STUART NACHBAR writes in the Journal that cultural hurdles can be overcome through music lessons offered on the Internet2 K20 initiative. This DL project allows students worldwide to interact in a cross-cultural learning environment. Some of the interactive learning takes place through videoconferencing; participating schools deliver their own creations to other schools via the Internet2 technologies, and also tune in on the productions of distant schools across the country or in other continents.

The students and their instructor from Passaic Valley High School in New Jersey have been involved in a program called “Around the World,” which, according to Nachbar, “fosters a global exchange of ideas and information.” The two components of the program are one, a series of “roughly one-hour individual videoconferences” with students in India, Israel, Pakistan and the United Kingdom.

The second part is an interactive Web site; by logging on, students internationally who have participated in the videoconferencing can stay in touch with their new friends on a regular basis, and provide additional input.

In BRENT MUIRHEAD’s critique in Educational Technology & Society, he alludes to a recent survey of a graduate online class at Curtin University in Australia. The students were asked about the “professional relevance” of the course, the “reflective thinking” (the extent to which critical reflective thinking” occurred in association with online peer dialogue), “interactivity,” “cognitive demand,” “affective support” (how much encouragement was given to students) and “interpretation of meaning” (how well did students and tutors interact).

The students responded to the questionnaire positively in five of the six categories, Muirhead writes. The only area in which they were not satisfied was “interactivity”; there was a dearth of “dynamic dialogue in the class.”

ROSHUN DHURBARRYLALL writes about DL achievements on the island of Mauritius, just off the East Coast of Africa. An innovative program called Mauritius College of the Air (MCA) raised the standard of education significantly. It was clear that in order to make education more relevant to this country, young and old citizens on the island needed to become conversant with emerging scientific, technical, vocational and agricultural knowledge, and yet the cost of building schools and training / hiring teachers would have been prohibitive. Hence, DL was instituted.

MISSING LINK: The input presented so far in this paper suggests that scholars, instructors and authors are looking closely into several of the issues surrounding DL. But what about trust, which is a pivotal concept when assessing how much students are really getting out of their online learning experiences? How many students are engaging others in the process of completing their homework? How serious is the problem of plagiarism and how can instructors trust that students have not only completed assignments ethically but also have grown academically through the process of completing their work? Moreover, when instructors “willingly relinquish most of their classroom authority in order to entrust and empower the learners” to take control of their own learning (Smith, 2008, p. 325), is the outcome reflective of honesty and measurable scholastic advancement?

Collecting some of this data would be next to impossible, it seems, and trust goes deeper than just that between instructor and student. But R.O. Smith writes that research into trust vis-a-vis distance learning yields “contradictory results” (Smith, 326). Smith alludes to “the paradox of trust as a conundrum of a cycle that depends on itself to get started” (Smith, 328). In other words, when relating to trust between students, none of whom have met any others, the ability to trust someone depends on “perceptions that trust already exists,” Smith goes on. The interactive online group “…exerts unconscious pressures on the individual members to take the risk to trust and engage…” But individual members are often “reluctant to do so because they are unsure the group is safe” (Smith, 328). Why lay out one’s very personal history to a group of total strangers whose only commonality is the fact of their enrollment in the same DL class? Students who have healthy “self-other relationships” may well be willing to take risks and trust, Smith concludes, but others less sure of themselves and perhaps shy and retiring won’t take that risk. And how this matter of trust (between teacher and student and between students themselves) can be quantified and qualified is a difficult matter; what is needed is empirical research using online classroom participants in well-structured questionnaires and control group settings.

Works Cited

Dhurbarrylall, Roshun. (2005). Development of Distance Education in Mauritius. The Quarterly

Review of Distance Learning, 6(3), 185-197.

McMahon, Joan D. (2007). “Ethical Issues in Web-Based Learning,” Ed. Badrul H. Khan,

Flexible Learning in an Information Society, 210- 224. Hershey, PA: Information

Science Publishing.

McGivney, Veronica. (2004). Understanding persistence in adult learning. Open Learning, 19(1),

Muirhead, Brent. (2004). Interactivity in computer-mediated college and university education:

recent review of the literature. Educational Technology & Society, 7(1), 12-20.

Nachbar, Stuart (2007). The Internet’s Second Coming. The Journal, 34(4), 46-48.

Smith, Regina O. (2008). The paradox of trust in online collaborative groups. Distance Education, 29(3), 325-340.

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