2 | The Contribution of Adult Education Principles to Online Learning and Assessment
It is often said—mostly by adult educators—that distance education is a child of adult education. That adage can be accepted in historical, geographical, and pedagogical senses. A short history lesson is in order so that the relationship of online learning and assessment principles to the larger domain of adult education is clear. We begin with definitions.
There are many definitions that purport to define adult education. Here are several, coined over the decades and the globe:
All the deliberate methods by which men and women attempt to satisfy their thirst for knowledge, to equip themselves for their responsibilities as citizens and members of society or to find opportunities for self-expression. (1919, Report to the British Ministry of Reconstruction, cited in Selman & Dampier, 1991, p. 3).
A process of public enlightenment and awakening regarding . . . the post war world. (Canadian Association of Adult Education, 1943)
The entire body of organized educational processes, whatever the content, level or method, whether formal or otherwise, whether they prolong or replace initial education in schools, colleges, and universities as well as in apprenticeship, whereby persons regarded as adults by the society to which they belong develop their abilities, enrich their knowledge, improve their technical or professional qualifications, or turn them in a new direction and bring about changes in their attitudes or behaviour in the two-fold perspective of full personal development and participation in balanced and independent social, economic, and cultural development. (UNESCO, in Darkenwald & Merriam, 1982, p. 9)
And from Eduard Lindeman, who professed in his writing that,
education is life—not a mere preparation for an unknown kind of future living. . . . The whole of life is learning; therefore, education can have no endings. This new venture is called adult education—not because it is confined to adults but because adulthood, maturity defines its limits. (1926, p. 6, emphasis added)
Although Darkenwald and Merriam (1982) claimed that any definition will be based on assumptions and value judgments that will not be acceptable to everyone, the broad intention of adult education can be clearly understood through these examples.
Likewise, the purposes of adult education—the “why?”—are many and varied. In his slim but useful book, The Purpose of Adult Education, Spencer (1998) elaborated on four purposes of adult education: vocational, social, recreational, and self-development. These basics were fleshed out by others. Jarvis (2010) identified these purposes:
- to maintain the social system and reproduce existing social relations,
- to transmit knowledge and reproduce culture,
- for individual advancement and selection,
- to provide for leisure time pursuit and institutional expansion, and
- to further development and liberation.
Well-known adult educators Darkenwald and Merriam (1982) presented their own list that included:
- cultivation of the intellect,
- individual self-actualization,
- personal and social development,
- social transformation, and
- organizational effectiveness.
Each definition and list of purposes outlines a field that is diverse and vast. Chapters in any adult education textbook will contain topics that address women and gender issues; citizenship; community; vocational enterprises and apprenticeship; labour unions; political and knowledge economies; work and learning; cultural and cross-cultural learning and teaching; social theory and practice; critical thinking and critical theory; environmental education; popular education and theatre; immigration and language; prior learning assessment and foreign credential recognition; literacy; social movements; professionalism; and of course distance education, online education, “open” education, m-learning, and MOOCs.
The history of adult education is diverse and rich (Selman, 2001; Selman, Cooke, M.Selman, & Dampier, 1998). Perhaps one of the first organized adult education efforts was the lyceums of the United States in the 1800s. Lyceum societies organized entertainment comprising speakers and debates the purpose of which was to foster social, intellectual, and moral growth in American. Chautauqua was another popular form of adult education in days gone by, where travelling tent shows presented “knowledge” and information of many sorts to the local attendees. The first Chautauqua was held in 1874 in Upper New York State; Chautauquas continued to travel the country with assortments of preachers, entertainers, magicians, speakers, and “teachers” until the early 20th century. Adult education became formalized through agricultural extension efforts when food production was an important way of life for America’s early agriculture-based society; the University of Wisconsin was an early leader in that area.
In Canada, the University of Guelph assumed a prime “extension” role offering agricultural courses to Ontario farmers. Quickly becoming one of the largest providers in university extension by offering courses and learning opportunities at a distance as non-degree programming, the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension, headed up by founding director Ned Corbett, expanded its reach across the province by means of travelling instructors, “magic lantern” shows, and, eventually, in 1933, the establishment of the Banff School of Fine Arts. Having now celebrated over 100 years of service to Albertans, the Faculty of Extension continues to offer courses that fulfill all adult education’s roles listed above.
The education of adults, non-formally and outside the walls of formal institutions, had begun in Canada in 1606 in Port Royal (in what is now Nova Scotia) with the Ordre de Bon Temps, where gatherings of men “peer-educated” themselves with entertainment and discussion. Many other adult education enterprises flourished over the years; Canada’s history is rich with world-renowned examples: the Antigonish Movement, Frontier College, the Women’s Institute, the Mechanics’ Institute, the YMCA (first formed in England to accommodate the crowds of young men migrating to the city from farm work during the Industrial Revolution), the National Farm Radio Forum (predecessor to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s show Cross Country Checkup), and John Grierson’s National Film Board. The first adult education graduate degree program in Canada in adult education was introduced at the University of British Columbia in 1957.
After many years of active adult education activity affecting all sectors of society, adult education was recognized as a field. The Commission of Professors of Adult Education, a gathering of American adult education professors, was founded in 1959 to debate the theory and the principles underlying the practice. But already in 1943, the Canadian Association for Adult Education produced the following Manifesto, which outlined adult education’s core beliefs.
Manifesto of the Canadian Association for Adult Education (CAAE)
The Canadian Association for Adult Education confronting the challenge of world events, in its annual convention of May, 1943, desires to affirm its stand in regard to the basic issues of the crisis and to call upon all interested individuals and groups to share with the Association the urgent educational task of creating and strengthening those attitudes and understandings upon which a new Canadian and world society can be founded.
The C.A.A.E. believes that in this day of total war and total challenge, academic aloofness and neutrality are not enough and that it is obliged to declare itself categorically upon those basic issues of human principle which underlie the social and economic, and spiritual problems of our times.
The C.A.A.E. therefore affirms its adherence to the following principles:
(a) The principle of total and mutual responsibility—of each for all and all for each—both as between persons and as between nations. This must be made operative even towards the criminal or underprivileged individual and the guilty or underprivileged nation.
(b) Social controls and planning are a necessary expression of this sense of social responsibility. Planning need not necessarily involve governmental ownership of, control over, or active interference with, economic enterprises. Nevertheless, it is probable that the area of public ownership and control should be extended in those enterprises most essential to human welfare and where individual enterprise is unable or unwilling to operate in the public interest. It is still more desirable that the area of voluntary co-operative activity in every field should be increased.
(c) Human beings are ends not means. Planning must be combined with such local and community participation and democratic vigilance as to prevent the regimentation and frustration of the human personality. Social efficiency and social security are not ends in themselves but are for the sake of human dignity and personal fulfilment.
(d) Efficient service to the community—not social privilege, financial power, or property rights—should determine the status of the individual.
(e) The greater importance of consumption over production as the determining factor in economic activity must be re-asserted. Consumption goals, such as meeting decent standards of nutrition and housing, should be the main incentive of economic life.
(f) Social goals take precedence over individual and sectional purposes of profit or advantage. This principle asserts itself in time of war and must be maintained for the winning of the peace. Great collective purposes of social security, world nutrition, slum clearance, reforestation, soil conservation etc., are emphatically necessary as binding forces uniting our people, motivating economic life, and giving dynamic content to planning and to the effort after full employment.
(g) Neither the old individualism nor the newer mass-collectivism but a relationship of voluntary co-operation, which balances rights with responsibilities, is the basic pattern of the emergent social order. Such a relationship of voluntary co-operation has a place for central planning and control as well as for the legitimate liberties and enterprises of the individual. In the international sphere it supports the obligations of a collective system for defence and for the maintenance of world peace.
The C.A.A.E. will seek the co-operation of all individuals and organisations who endorse these principles in formulating and executing a whole-hearted campaign of public education directed towards the winning of a people’s war and a people’s peace.
Please hang this up for ready reference.
CAAE’s Manifesto drew the line in the sand for adult educators of that era. Adult education’s commitment to social justice and citizenry remained its hallmark for the next decade. The passion faded, however, as did its champions—orators and leaders such as Ned Corbett in Alberta, Alfred Fitzpatrick in Ontario, and Father Moses Coady in Nova Scotia—but soon after, another brilliant contributor to adult education, Malcolm Knowles, made his mark by categorizing the process of adult learning, a move from the collective to the individual.
Assumptions Underlying Adult Education
In 1970, Malcolm Knowles, often regarded as one of adult education’s “fathers,” outlined four basic assumptions of adult education upon which he built his andragogical stance. Knowles’s assumptions have become the basis for modern adult education study, although more recent critical theorists have questioned the wisdom of placing such heavy emphasis on the state of the adult learner rather than on the role of adult education in creating a more just society. Knowles’s four assumptions are:
- Recognizing the concept of the learner as moving from dependency toward self-direction, although at different rates and in different ways
- Valuing learners’ prior and experiential learning and the corresponding value of “active” learning
- Recognizing that adults learn when they are ready to learn and that learning occasions should capture adults’ sense of readiness and eagerness in order to fulfill their need for social competency
- Recognizing that adults’ competency-orientation results in a new time perspective that values immediate application rather than a subject-centred postponed application
From these assumptions, the rationale underlying distance education is discernible. Knowles described adults as independent learners, who are ready to take control of their own lives through educational experiences, who will draw on their own past experiences to build new knowledge, and who are ready to learn now. As we focus here on higher education, Knowles’s work provides the foundational knowledge for examining adult learning and its offspring, distance learning.
If this sounds like a prescription for the take-up of distance education—for motivated learners to seize opportunities to learn that fit their lifestyles and their schedules—it is. The first generation of distance education delivery was correspondence, a “course-in-a-box.” If one accepts the history of distance education as divided into five generations, then that history looks like this:
- First generation: correspondence education
- Second generation: “integrated use of multiple, one-way media such as print and broadcast or recorded media such as video-cassettes”
- Third generation: “two-way synchronous tele-learning using audio or video-conferencing”
- Fourth generation: “flexible learning based on asynchronous online learning combined with interactive media”
- Fifth generation: “intelligent flexible learning, which adds a high degree of automation and student control to asynchronous online learning and interactive multimedia.” (Bates, 2008, citing Taylor, 1999, p. 217)1
As Spencer (2004) pointed out, the issues that define distance education are the issues of adult education:
Distance education (DE) is essentially a delivery method, and most of the more challenging issues in DE are issues to be found also in education generally and in adult education in particular. For example, questions of access, equity and pedagogy, and the overarching questions as to the purposes of adult learning (for economy, transformation/social change, diversity etc.), are generic to education. The DE perspective adds a twist to these issues: it flavours them without substantially changing their essence. (p. 189)
Distance education and online learning have evolved since Spencer wrote this in 2004; it could be argued today that there has indeed been a change in “essence,” largely driven by an explosion in social media that we could not (or did not) foresee at the time. However, correctly so, he cautioned that distance education—and online modes—provides delivery vehicles for adult-styled learning, as defined by Knowles’s assumptions. The missing ingredient in the mix that constitutes today’s online learning capabilities was technology, and, as evidenced above through the generations, developments in technology fostered corresponding growth in distance education’s ability to enhance delivery modes and, ultimately, serve more learners in more diverse ways.
This correlation by no means implies that adult education drove distance education. There are many factors in distance education’s rise to its current heights, among them the aforesaid advances in technology, globalization and a shrinking world, and also the American military’s concern with making more education available to its members (Kasworm, 2010). The University of Maryland’s University College still caters to a large number of American servicemen overseas and their mandate is reflected in the ongoing popularity of their distance programs.
However, as Spencer (2004) points out, self-directed, lifelong, accessible education—hallmarks of distance education—are fundamental tenets of adult education. And while earlier generations of distance education, specifically correspondence education, offered limited opportunity for the types of shared and collaborative learning prized by adult educators, well-designed online learning invites participation, collaboration, and critical discourse. The ways in which online learning offers these opportunities are discussed at more length in Chapters 4 and 7.
Spencer supports this contention with research from Deakin University in Australia, where researchers’ critical perspectives on distance education confirmed its harmony with liberal adult education (Evans & Nation, 1989; Evans & King, 1991). As we have done in this text, the Australian scholars “locate [their consideration of distance education] within the subject areas of education and social science” (Spencer, 2004, p. 195) and highlight cases of learner-centred course design that offers “more student choice, more open-ended projects, experientially based assignments and interactive materials” (2004, p. 195).
The Australian research is old research, and the sixth (or seventh) generation of distance education, now almost solely conducted online, is further advanced in its use of collaborative tools than was the case when Spencer contemplated 2004’s distance education status. That said, the relationship between distance education and adult education was observed in the very foundational aspects of distance education’s raison d’être: increased access and opportunity for adult learners and the encouragement for motivation and self-direction, both of which imply maturity and the acceptance of adult education theory.
Online Learning and Adult Learners
Today’s online learning affordances magnify and enhance the spirit of adult education theory. And while we realize that online learning extends its reach to many other demographics, we focus here on higher education. Within adult education, there is nuance in the definition of adulthood. Age is understood to be an inadequate defining parameter, as the various ages for being considered “adult” differ geographically and politically, even within one jurisdiction, such as Canada. The best way to define adult is by psychosocial means, which refers to an individual’s ability to meet the responsibilities usually conferred upon adults by the society in which he or she lives.
The literature, some of it reviewed and cited above, tells us with certainty that adults have a preferred style of learning. By “learning style” here, we are not referring to the more scientific breakdowns of Kolb, or even to the distinctions between visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic learning—although research shows that most adults combine these modes and, overall, prefer the kinaesthetic approach (MacKeracher, 2004). Knowles’s (1970) work also provides us with a good sense of how adults like to learn.
Adults Learning in Their Own Way
Simply removing adults from a traditional classroom, with its overtones of “school days,” helps adults feel less like children and more like themselves. Even in traditional face-to-face classrooms, adult educators work to ensure that adults are not treated or made to feel like children. There are strategies to accomplish this: Do not place adults in little desks; do not arrange the desks in rows; try not to have adults looking at the backs of others’ heads; do not “lecture” to adults; do not turn your back and write on a blackboard (blackboards are generally out of style now, but even whiteboards can offend); manage a flexible classroom with appropriate occasions for movement (adults get sore); do not read from PowerPoint slides (adults can read); and so forth. Peter Renner’s excellent guide to teaching adults provides useful tips and hints in this regard, while Brookfield’s classic The Skillful Teacher offers more research-based and theoretical advice (Brookfield, 1990a; Renner, 1993).
As a part of adults’ need for respect is an appreciation of fairness. Fairness is a slippery concept, but adults recognize it when they see it and more so when they don’t see it. In his blog, Downes (2010) makes an impassioned plea for fairness as a societal necessity, while acknowledging at the same time the difficulty with defining or implementing it. Complicating the issue further is the acknowledgement that fairness and equality are not the same thing. As Butler states (2004, p. 105), “What is fair for one student may not be fair for another.” Butler goes on to critique the notion of fairness “simply as a technical affair with test construction” (p. 105). It is more than that, larger than that. Fairness includes not just the product by which learners are assessed but the context that precedes assessment and the outcomes of that assessment. What consequences to learners follow from assessment?
Put another way, the authors cited above are calling for authentic assessment that aligns with learning activities framed within the learning cycle. They are calling for assessment that makes sense to learners because it reflects the collaborative knowledge of the group, constructed on adult principles. Assessment, in these cases, is fulfilling its role as best it can, for both learners and teachers.
Online learning can address these adult preferences. Learning online can allow adults to create the ambience that suits them and fosters optimal conditions. With autonomy, however, comes responsibility (Garrison & Archer, 2000); we assume adults have reached the level of maturity whereby they can manage their autonomy successfully. One of the issues with online learning among younger learners, for example, high school youth, is the lack of maturity that is often demonstrated through behaviours and absences (Palahicky, 2017).
Flexibility and Choice for Adult Learners
It’s safe to say that the largest advantage to online learning is the flexibility it offers learners—including “open” learning. Open learning can be defined in a number of ways (see Chapter 6 for this discussion), and online learning is not necessarily open. But it is flexible, available in both synchronous and asynchronous formats. The asynchronous format does not require attendance or performance in real time. Synchronous delivery, on the other hand, does set a time for an online learning group to show up for real-time exchange. Though this is generally not favoured as much by learners for obvious reasons of convenience or inconvenience, synchronous sessions can still add substance to an online environment. In most cases now, synchronous sessions are recorded for flexible access at a time of the learners’ choice.
Online learning permits choice in other ways as well, both curricular and logistically. To explain this, we consider course design and the pragmatics of engaging learners at a distance. Consider, by comparison, the dynamics of a face-to-face classroom where the person at the front of the room launches a topic or question to the group and all attention focuses on that particular topic. The physics of one-place, one-time creates a cognition-cluster around that issue, and it can be dealt with in a prescribed amount of time. As this is not possible online, given its usually asynchronous nature, good online design calls for a variety of stimuli, possibly questions, possibly other avenues for participation, so that the dissemination of focus and time still keep learners engaged through diversity and choice. This strategy can be likened to small group activity within a classroom where different groups are tackling different topics. More conceptual ground is covered, learners can enjoy the opportunity for diversity, and it’s possible to have made the choice of topic open to them.
Garrison and Archer (2000) discuss another aspect of the “worthwhileness” (p. 163) of choice. They acknowledge, quite practically, that it is not possible to cover every aspect of a particular topic. Given that constraint, “decisions have to be made as to what is essential for understanding if students are to have the time to approach their learning in a meaningful manner” (p. 163). This consideration highlights both choice and authenticity. Within well-designed curriculum, learners may be given a choice of “topic-within-topic,” whereby they can choose among approaches or perspectives on a certain topic, and bring their individuality or experiential learning to the topic. Garrison and Archer (2000) point out that “if students are to accept responsibility for their learning, then choice, negotiation, and agreement must be part of the process. This process is dependent upon a responsible and collaborative process of assessing students’ current goals, motivation and knowledge” (p. 148).
The adoption of the constructivist approach to learning plays into online design here. In believing, as constructivists do, that learners will engage in knowledge-creation as a group, each bringing the value of his or her own experiential learning to the table, the offering of topic choice to learners opens up the possibility of “fit,” of relevance of the topic at hand to learners’ experiential history. Topic A doesn’t ring a bell? Try Topic B. The canny designer chooses an array of topics that reflects the theme or content at hand but also provides a number of different entry points to the discussion, with something for everyone.
Connection and Purpose among Adult Learners
These adult needs are consonant with the notion of choice. Adults choose to learn when they feel they need to (Knowles, 1970); from their choices there should arise a sense of purpose, since they have acted upon either intrinsic or extrinsic motivators (usually a combination of both) and thereby moved toward their goal.
The issue of “connection” in online learning occupies a lot of literature in our field. It should not be contentious, as there is sound empirical data that illustrates the value of social affinity and connection among online learners (Conrad, 2014; Conrad, 2005; Ross, Gallagher, & Macleod, 2013; Shackelford & Maxwell, 2012). However, some learners, especially novice learners, equate sociability with visual presence, and, except for occasional webcam use, it is obviously not possible to see fellow learners at a distance. That said, the literature referred to above shows that a great deal of social activity and a strong sense of sociability can be established and can exist online. Dewey, Garrison, and Archer (2000) maintain “the coordination of the social and psychological factors to be the ultimate challenges for the educator” (p. 14). The social aspect of online learning is called community, and building community involves careful and strategic work by designers and instructors (Conrad, 2005; Rovai, 2002). It involves trust, safety, humour, and social presence, as described in Chapter 7.
Most adults value online community and the relationships that emerge from well-constructed and facilitated courses that permit and encourage social connection. Not all do, however. Again, learners choose the level of sociability that they wish to bring to the course. Interestingly, gender researchers often attempt to illustrate that women are more socially active online than are men. We are not aware of any reports that successfully establish that this is so.
Adults Learners: What They Need to Learn
Two of Knowles’s (1970) precepts involve adult learners learning material that they feel they need to learn in order to problem-solve or to address a concern—for example, the need to improve a set of skills or obtain a credential in order to advance at work. One of the ways that adults make sense of learning material is by scaffolding that material to previous knowledge or to some aspect of their learning history. Essentially, what this means is that adults need to be given the opportunity to talk about themselves, their workplaces, their experiences, and their reflections and need to be given the chance to bring their experiential knowledge, from wherever it was gleaned, to the learning at hand.
A Cautionary Word Concerning Constructivism and Autonomy
Even as constructivists advocating for adult learning principles in technology-supported online learning environments, we recognize some level of constriction of approach. To those who say, “This type of learning is not possible for me in my practice,” we offer these caveats and the following research.
We begin with the often misunderstood notion of self-direction in adult learning, which does not imply “free rein” for learners in their learning. Rather, self-direction refers to learners’ active and responsible involvement in choosing their learning paths, setting goals, and self-monitoring their progress and motivation along the way (Candy, 1991; Garrison & Archer, 2000; MacKeracher, 2004). Learners do not cede the need for guidance, and educators should not abnegate their responsibility to “teach,” which Brookfield (1990a) considers a moral obligation. Facilitating adult learning in a learning-centred environment does not imply or permit a lack of presence, but rather the recognition that “delivering” education in the method termed “banking” by Freire (1970) is not a preferred way of learning for adults. The understanding of facilitation skills in adult education is based on Rogerian concepts that prize autonomy, empathy, and the exercising of a “sensitive awareness of the way the process of education and learning seems to the student” (Rogers, 1969, p. 111).
The teacher-as-facilitator, then, is present and responsible for adhering to the curriculum in such a way that learning outcomes are met. In our constructivist design, adult learning principles will be met also; the learner actively engages in collaborative knowledge building and exercises some degree of choice within the range of topics. How much autonomy, though, is enough? How much interaction, how much collaboration, how much content-presentation—and in which ways? As Garrison and Archer (2000) point out, many of these pedagogical issues can be negotiated within the group, assuming that adult education principles are introduced, explained, and understood. (Further discussion on group issues and assessment is found in Chapter 5.)
Here, however, we present an example from a hypothetical history class that illustrates the theory presented in this chapter. The Stanford History Education Group (n.d.) points out that memorizing and recalling historical facts is an old approach to learning history, not reflective of the constructivist philosophy. They also state that “constructivism is not a prescription for how to teach” and acknowledge that the discovery method of searching out solutions is not universally useful nor applicable. This realization echoes a current argument in the teaching of children’s math, where a backlash against discovery-math approaches seems to indicate that some things are just better accepted as fact, while leaving the excitement of “discovery” to more complex, problem-centred issues.
In order to demonstrate the complexity of history and the importance of interpretation, students might be assigned to projects that require them, armed with facts, to create their own analysis or interpretation of those data. Not only does the flexibility of online technology make project work accessible over time and space, but technology’s affordances enable archival research and connectivity to, and interaction with, global resources.
This chapter outlined adult education’s relationship to online learning, specifically in a foundational role; it serves to preface the following discussion, which continues to relate adult education principles to online learning—this time with a focus on assessment. Online learning is seen here as the “offspring” of adult education, reflecting adult education’s concepts and principles, and carrying forward its respect for adult learners’ learning preferences and characteristics.
1 There is disagreement among scholars on the number and classification of generations. Some argue that distance education is currently in its sixth generation, approaching a seventh. The sixth generation is described as based on Web 2.0 and features an increased use of social software tools such as blogs, wikis, and YouTube that enhance learning opportunities (White et al., 2015, p. 104).