The Role of Adult Education Philosophy in Facilitating the Online Classroom

By Milheim, Karen L. | Adult Learning, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Role of Adult Education Philosophy in Facilitating the Online Classroom


Milheim, Karen L., Adult Learning


Teaching philosophy is much more than just teaching style, or a framework for a course. It can be defined as our beliefs about life that are carried out in our teaching practice, which serve as a foundation for our educational philosophies (Zinn, 2004). In general, teaching philosophy can be a tool for improving practice; there are several, significant reasons for exploring our adult teaching philosophies more fully (White & Brockett, 1987). In an earlier work, Apps (1973) identified the following benefits of developing a philosophy, including: informed and improved decision-making relevant to practice, more effective planning of educational programs, and analysis of situations. More recent works have expanded Apps (1973) description, showing that personal philosophies towards adult education are developed by factors such as positionality, referring to race, class, and gendered identity (Bank, Delamont, & Marshall, 2007; Brown, Cervero, & Johnson-Bailey, 2000); introspection and understanding of our individual roles as adult educators (Cranton, 2006; Heimlich & Norland, 2002); prior educational experiences (Taylor, 2003); and, consideration of philosophy as an opportunity to explore alternative viewpoints to our own (Beatty, Leigh, & Dean, 2009).

The majority of literature addressing philosophies in adult education practice focus on how philosophy influences traditional, face-to-face classroom settings (Elias & Merriam, 1995; Strom, 1996; Tisdell & Taylor, 1999). However, little information exists that describes how philosophy relates to online adult education instruction. The purpose of this article is three-fold.

First, it describes the intent and purpose of adult education philosophy. Second, it examines key differences between traditional and online instruction, with the main body of this paper focusing on the role of adult education philosophy in online education. Focusing on three, updated philosophies - humanism, critical-humanism, and emancipatory education--the final section explores how adult education philosophy undergirds and influences online education program settings, particularly from the standpoint of the instructor's role.

The Purpose of Adult Education Philosophy

Examination of individual adult education philosophies helps us to discover if our beliefs are aligned with our practice (Tisdell & Taylor, 1999). As Beatty et al. (2009) suggest, "Core elements of one's teaching philosophy can influence course design and the classroom environment" (p. 99). Also, our own self-awareness as educators, including relationships with students, colleagues, and roles in the classroom can lead to a more authentic practice where class structure, approach, and content is aligned with the perspectives of the educator (Cranton, 2006). As Driscoll and Carliner (2005) describe, "differences in reasons for teaching and the societal goals for providing education are the fundamental issues underlying an educational philosophy" (p. 30).

Once we create a basic view of ourselves as educators, we can begin to determine which philosophical lens is best aligned with our beliefs. Adult education philosophy is typically divided by major categories: liberal, behaviorist, progressive, humanistic, and radical education (Elias & Merriam, 1995). This article focuses on three updated philosophies- humanism, critical-humanism, and empancipatory--as described by Tisdell and Taylor (1999), which were partially based on Elias and Merriam's earlier work. This article does not dismiss the perspectives presented by Elias and Merriam (1995). Rather, the three philosophies presented here describe what Tisdell and Taylor (1999) present as more current approaches aligned with adult education practice.

Adult education philosophy is not limited to a traditional, face-to-face classroom environment. As adult education programs increasingly utilize online classroom environments, philosophy should inform practice for educators of these programs as well. …

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