Students returning to school for an online university degree have considerable differences in demographics and needs from their traditional student counterparts. Typically adult learners, they are motivated to learn skills that will directly apply to their future careers. They are more self-directed in their learning than traditional students just out of high school. When faculty members help students connect the content to their work and life experiences it increases their understanding and retention of the material. Faculty members who learn about adult learners' needs can help them achieve their educational goals.
Online learning systems enable students to attend college who may not have been able to otherwise due to constraints of location, work schedules, or family obligations. Teaching online may seem quite unlike teaching on-campus, but students who are earning an online university degree have a desire to learn just as those who sit in brick and mortar classrooms. The difference, however, may be in the type of learner you have in your virtual classroom. Understanding these differences can help you know how to connect with these students and can assist your students in making the most out of their university experience.
Typically, online learners are non-traditional students coming back to college after time away from school. Many have jobs, families with children, and experiences in work and life that the 18-year-old who just graduated from high school does not have. Most are quite motivated to get a university degree because they want to change careers or advance in their current one, however, they have constraints on their time in which to get their work done. Because of these elements, adult learners want to know why the content they are learning is relevant. They want to understand how the subject they are learning relates to their prior experience and how it will help them get ahead in life.
According to Malcolm Knowles’ principles of andragogy, adult learners need to construct their learning. They need the self-discovery that comes with identifying what is most significant to their understanding based on their experiences, while at the same time be guided in a fuller understanding of content they will need to know for their future careers. Adult learners focus on solving problems that are revealed in their studying rather than on abstract content that initially may seem unrelated to their life’s purpose.
Therefore, as their instructor, your task is to help them understand the importance of what they are learning. That is quite different from helping them understand what they are learning. Because adult learners are more self-directed than traditional students, they may need less deliberate guidance through a topic. They do need, however, to understand the point of why they are learning something if the reason is not immediately obvious. You also need to be sensitive to the diversity you will have in your classroom. Age, gender, race, ethnic background, military status, and those with disabilities will all grace your classroom. In addition, you will have students with a wide variety of technological skills. Your goal is to provide a learning experience that will spark their interest and enable them to go on a quest for answers to learn more.