The learning landscape in the US has evolved significantly over the last few decades. Gone are the days when 18-year old high school graduates would be the majority of the “typical college students.” Adult learners, commonly referred to as “nontraditional,” are increasingly becoming a recognizable population in campuses and colleges across the country. More than half of college students are financially independent people pursuing adult education either full-time or part-time. These learners decide to go back to school and pursue further education for various reasons. Specifically, the labor market is changing quickly with the technological revolution of the 21st century, and thus workers are required to have the relevant skills to secure employment. Additionally, for one to advance in terms of career, further education confers numerous benefits, hence the need to enroll in adult learning. This paper discusses the characteristics and goals of adult learners, participation in this form of learning, and the role of technology in the delivery of distance programs within this context.
Goals and Characteristics of Adult Learners
The demand for college-educated employees has been increasing unprecedentedly over the last few decades, especially with the Internet boom and the technological revolution of this century. According to Bergman (2016), over 43 million workers in the US are aged over 25 years, and they do not have a college degree. However, most entry-level job positions require employees to have at least a bachelor’s degree. This assertion explains why most adults are going back to school so that they are not locked out of the available job opportunities. Foote and Atkinson (2019) state that the most highly paying industries for people without college education currently employ “12 percent fewer workers without college degrees than they did in 2008, four times the national decline in the share of non-college-educated workers, with 14 in this category reducing their employment” (para. 14). On the contrary, the employment of people with at least a bachelor’s degree in the same industries grew by over 32 percent during the same period (Foote & Atkinson, 2019). These numbers are a clear indication of why working persons are opting to participate in adult education.
Additionally, workers with a college education earn significantly more as compared to their counterparts without such levels of academic qualifications. Conventionally, people go into employment in search of a way to cater to their livelihoods. Therefore, it suffices to argue that majority of people are looking for money in the workplace. As such, the level of salary remuneration is an important factor when an individual is considering the nature of work to undertake (Schudde & Bernell, 2019). Consequently, any venture that improves the chances of earning more will be embraced in large numbers. In most workplaces, the higher the level of academic achievement, the higher the salary. Therefore, people are pursuing adult education in the quest to earn more at the workplace. According to Tamborini et al. (2015), workers with a “bachelor’s degree earn around $900,000 more than high school graduates over 40 years between the ages of 25 and 64, while workers with a doctoral degree earn 1.3 million dollars more than those with a bachelor’s degree” (p. 1387). This assertion explains one of the objectives for people seeking to pursue adult learning.
Similarly, technology has revolutionized the way people work, and with an uncertain future, people are resorting to going back to school and improving their knowledge of emerging labor market trends. Rainie and Anderson (2017) warn, “Machines are eating human’s jobs talents” (para. 1). Therefore, even for adults with first and second degrees, there is an urgent need to pursue further education to ensure that they keep abreast with new technologies. Programmed devices, such as robots and AI-powered machines, are posing an existential threat to the labor market. As such, the only way to remain relevant and useful in such an uncertain environment is by having skills that can allow one to work alongside the machines. One study showed that “one more robot per thousand workers reduces the employment to population ratio by about 0.18-0.34 percentage points and wages by 0.25-0.5 percent” (Rainie & Anderson, 2017, para. 4). Therefore, it suffices to argue that adult education is a timely strategy for workers to survive in a quickly changing job market by remaining relevant.
Therefore, based on the highlighted goals for adult learning, it becomes easy to identify the characteristics of such learners. First, these individuals are self-directed, autonomous, and independent (Kapur, 2015). For instance, having a sense of direction in terms of career progression will allow a person to weigh the available options and go back to schools to improve the prospects of advancement. Similarly, adult learners are goal-oriented, and thus they go back to school to achieve enunciated objectives, whether for career or personal development. Another common characteristic of these individuals is that they have many responsibilities (Ho & Lim, 2020). In most cases, adult learners are parents seeking to improve the wage levels of their families and accord their children the best possible level of living standards. Others seek to further their studies to gain respect and improve their social standing together with boosting their self-image and self-esteem, among other related aspects. Regardless of the reason for pursuing further education, adult learners share the majority of these characteristics.
Participation in Adult Learning
With the increasing demand for college-educated employees in the contemporary workplace, the number of adults enrolling for further learning has been increasing every year for the last few decades. According to McFarland et al. (2019), the overall enrolment of adults in colleges rose from 35 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2017. Similarly, “Between 2000 and 2017, total undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions increased by 27 percent (from 13.2 million to 16.8 million students). By 2028, total undergraduate enrollment is projected to increase to 17.2 million students” (MacFarland et al., 2017, p. 34). As a fraction of the total number of students pursuing higher education, adult learners account for almost 40 percent. The emergence of various platforms that students can access learning materials has facilitated this upsurge in numbers. For instance, the majority of colleges are integrating online learning, thus allowing millions of adult learners to study despite their busy life and work schedules. Similarly, for-profit institutions of higher learning are becoming innovative to increase their enrolment rates and remain afloat. As such, adult learners have various options to pursue further education, hence their increased participation.
Role of Technology
Technology has become an indispensable part of adult education with its widespread adoption in the delivery of content and instruction to learners. The majority of adult students are busy due to tight work and life schedules, and thus they opt for online learning to achieve their academic qualifications. Technology offers a wide range of platforms whereby adult learners can access learning materials, interact with instructors, and work in teams with fellow students (Kara et al., 2019). Therefore, technology in adult learning is an instructional tool. Almost every adult learner in the US has access to an Internet connection, which is a basic requirement for the facilitation of online learning. Inverso et al. (2019) argue that the various technological platforms offer meaningful interactivity to provide students with the relevant skills and experiences that mirror what happens in the traditional classroom set-ups. Current times are changing unprecedentedly, which underscores the central role of adopting technology as the preferred mode of content delivery. For instance, the current Covid-19 pandemic has led to the closure of schools, but online education is still ongoing.
Adult education has been gaining prominence over the last few decades due to the rapidly changing labor market dynamics. Most job openings in contemporary times require successful applicants to have at least a college degree. Therefore, adults are going back to school to avoid being locked out of the available job opportunities. Additionally, such learners are seeking to advance their careers and improve their annual earnings, and adult education is one of the best avenues for the achievement of such goals. In the US, adult learners make up to 40 percent of the total students enrolled in institutions of higher learning. Technology has become the preferred channel of content delivery due to various factors, including convenience for busy adult learners and safety, especially during the current Covid-19 outbreak.
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