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Why Universities Need to Redefine Education to Include Adult Learners


I am an adult learner. I love learning . . . all kinds of learning.

Carol Engler

Carol Engler

I am also a tenured associate professor at a university.

There is, I believe, a huge disconnect between adults learners like myself and what universities define as learners.

I feel caught between my love of learning and the myriad higher education admission standards, education program reviews, national standards and cross- disciplinary turf wars.

Recently, I was approached by a colleague who asked about my work designing empathic education, in which I harness the concept of teaching of empathy and place it into a framework that is hopefully understandable for all learners. It’s inspired by the work of Jeremy Rifkin and his book, The Empathic Civilization.

Empathic education has an evidence base of neuroscience, and my colleague stated that since I teach educational leadership classes, I did not have the right to cross over into the field of neuroscience which is in “another department.” This individual believed that, since I did not possess a formal degree in neuroscience, the knowledge learned from my own pursuit of the subject outside of the framework of a degree was null and void.

I rest my case.

Adult learners are knocking and they want to come in

Since the founding of the first university in the United States in 1636, the bulk of university education has been directed at 18-22 year olds in a four-year structure.

Graduate education, the logical “next step” in this paradigm, follows a predictable pattern of formalized coursework. Admission standards rely on cognitive data such as test scores and high school grade point averages. These standards have not been  significantly altered in almost 400 years.

I think we are due for a change.

While university campuses offer numerous opportunities for continuing education for adults in the form of professional development, it has always appeared to me that adult education programming is nothing more than a stepchild, always a little on the fringe of university life and not considered rigorous or important enough to be treated as “real learning.”

In addition, for acceptance into the formalized mainstream of bachelors/masters degrees, the cognitive criteria does not take into account qualities that test scores do not address: persistence, motivation and mastery of topics learned in the workplace.

Adult learners in MOOCs

by Christopher Connell via Flickr

Enter the MOOC tsunami

With the wave of massive open online courses (MOOCS) within the past year, universities need to take a long, hard look at not only what defines learning but also at who those learners should be.

For the first time in history, the “big data” produced by MOOCS open a gateway to the understanding of who is out there learning . . . not just in a degree-granting sense. MOOCs welcome learners outside the traditional framework of bricks-and-mortar universities.

MOOCS have been roundly criticized for their low completion rates. This criticism is part of a paradigm of learning where there is a predictable pattern of students signing up for a course, taking a course and, at the end of the course, receiving a grade. MOOCs, however have shown that the traditional way of viewing completion rates may not account for all the ways people are learning. The playing field has changed. And that playing field encompasses students who direct their own learning and self select that learning.

The analytics for examining MOOC completion rates that is just beginning to emerge demonstrate the need for this broader understanding of the learner. Stanford University has led the way in this research, and the Lytics Lab at Stanford has identified four categories of learners in the MOOC environment:

  • Auditors watch video lectures throughout the course but attempt very few assessments.
  • Completers attempt most of the assessments offered in the course.
  • Disengaged students attempt assessments at the beginning of the course but then sometimes only watch lectures or disappear entirely from the course.
  • Samplers briefly explore the course by watching a few videos.

I would like to add the idea of a fifth MOOC user:  adults who simply love learning . . . or in the words of Kio Stark, author of Don’t Go Back To School:  A Handbook for Learning Anything, “It’s fine to take something just because you’re dabbling and curious, and you shouldn’t feel obligated to finish. You should take what’s there that’s useful for you and forget about the rest of it.”

Those who throw stones

It seems that universities, in addition to pointing out low completion rates of MOOCS, also need to take a long hard look at their own low graduation rates and astronomical tuition. Nor has the encroachment of online education been an overnight sensation. MOOCS are simply the next generation of an online education movement that has been growing rapidly over the last decade.

And here is the kicker:  MOOCs welcome all learners.  Everyone is valued.  Everyone has a contribution.


Dr. Carol Engler is associate professor of Educational Administration at Ashland University and a 30-year veteran of the Akron Ohio Public Schools where she served as a high school administrator, counselor and teacher. She is founder and former Executive Director of The Ohio Council of Professors of Educational Administration, the author of The ISLLC Standards in Action: A Principals Handbook and the recipient of numerous awards for her educational leadership and scholarship. She is currently designing a new concept called empathic education, which is grounded in the belief that empathy can be taught. Her research in this area has taken her into the field of neuroscience, focusing on mirror (empathy) neurons. You can follow her on Facebook and Google Plus.



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One Comment

  1. Great message. Let’s hope it is heard and addressed soon.