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.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence