Online Adult Learners


American Public University System and its two universities, American Military University and American Public University, have served online learners, many of them working adults, since the early 1990’s.  Since that time, utilization of the internet, broadband availability and other technologies have continued to evolve and the number of studies reporting methodologies for success has increased as well.

Our institution, like many others, has evaluated the successes of online learners and we have evolved the methodologies deployed in the classroom in order to enhance the learning environment and experience.  (See guest article by Jennifer Stephens about APUS’ outcomes assessment initiatives.)  Still, there is evidence that adult online learners are at the highest risk of not completing their degrees.  Surprisingly, some of the reasons for students’ inabilities to succeed in online classes are not related to the technology or the format of education delivery.   As far back as 1998, researchers identified that “adults’ experiences with the Internet are consistent with the conventional wisdom about the characteristics of adult learners: their ability to pursue self-directed learning and their struggles to balance learning projects against the constraints of time, space, economic resources, and personal relationships.”

That line of thinking and others influenced our direction as we added a required course for undergraduates (RQ295) that oriented the student toward the requirements of pursuing a degree online.  While not structured based on any specific methodology or research, the intent of that course is to educate the student on many of the skills required in e-learning as identified by Alan Clarke in his 2004 E-learning and Skills.  According to Clarke, a successful e-learner will require skills in the following areas:

• Time management
• Acceptance of responsibility
• Planning
• Searching for information
• Assessing the quality of information
• Reading
• Writing
• Creating content
• Self-assessment
• Collaborating with others
• Problem solving

Whenever I meet with our alumni or students who are near graduation, they usually share some of their experiences in acquiring these skills during their academic progression.  It is important that all students grasp the concepts listed above but an online student, particularly one who may also have a family and full-time job, will find that successfully juggling all these responsibilities makes developing these skills an imperative.

In the hopes of easing some of the logistical burden on our students, we moved our semester start dates from three times a year to monthly, recognizing that the career and personal demands of our students might not allow for a conventional fall, winter, and/or summer start.

One of our biggest challenges is monitoring the constantly changing technology environment and determining when to implement expensive, newer technologies versus waiting for the technology refinements and the lower costs of implementation when the technology has more users.  We have usually chosen a course of action somewhere in the middle, which is to say, we’re not a first adopter, but we’re not the last.

Web 2.0 technologies are the latest entries to the online learning tools.  Wikis, blogs, and e-portfolios are three of the most popular technologies.  These tools have the potential to engage the online learner more than in the past, but they also add responsibilities and demands for the learner beyond those found in submitting essays written in Word.

There is no doubt that people who succeed at earning a degree through online learning are self-motivated and self-confident.  It’s the job of all of us who offer online programs to find ways to increase the confidence of others so that we can increase the retention and graduation rates of students who have few practical choices other than online education.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity by the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2019. He also serves as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), as a Trustee of The American College of Financial Services, as a member of the board of Our Community Salutes - USA, and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


  1. I might also add that online learners must develop the skill of networking. Not only do we need to use networking in the “real world” after graduation, but also during classes (online or residential). Networking is a vital tool to online students. It helps them learn from fellow students and other faculty, derive benefits such as research and resources, as well as career planning and relationship building/networking for the future.


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