Access to Learning: RETHINKING THE PROMISE OF DISTANCE EDUCATION

By Grill, Jennifer | Adult Learning, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Access to Learning: RETHINKING THE PROMISE OF DISTANCE EDUCATION


Grill, Jennifer, Adult Learning


When we examine the gap between the promises of technology in education and the reality, what we find is a lot of wishful thinking" (Kearsley, 1998).

The connections between distance education (DE) and adult education in this country are clear: the majority of distance learners in the U.S. are adults. Many adult educators have already felt the push to get on the DE bandwagon. Graduate students in the field know that they will increase their chances -- of finding employment if they can include the words "distance education" somewhere on their vitas. With government and private agencies eager to sponsor distance learning initiatives, getting involved in DE seems hard to resist. But, perhaps we should hesitate i for a moment and ask ourselves what all the fuss is about.

Access for All

Proponents of DE are quick to point out that one of the greatest, if not the greatest, advantage of learning at a distance is that larger numbers of people will have access to education and training. Access can be limited not only by geographical factors, but also by the physical limitations of learners, inconvenient scheduling, or lack of relevant information or experts. Now, with new technologies such as videoconferencing and computer-based networks, adult learners can study on their own at home or work with greater ease than ever. It is no surprise that distance learning, perhaps because of its strong association with technology, is being touted by some as a panacea for many of the challenges facing education today. However, as most adult educators know, if something seems too good to be true it probably is.

Access for Whom

There is clearly nothing wrong with increasing access to adult education, but who are we providing access to? A short list of characteristics of the typical American distance learner (Moore & Kearsley, 1996) looks like this:

* Most are adults aged 25-50.

* Distance learners take courses for many reasons, particularly to learn new subjects and skills or update old ones. They may enroll to fulfill a personal goal or for work-related reasons.

* Most participate in a DE course voluntarily.

* Most are not strangers to formal education.

* The more experience the learner has with formal education, the better his/her chances are of completing a distance learning course.

* Distance learners tend to be more field independent and self-directed than traditional learners.

* Most take learning seriously, are highly motivated, committed, and task-oriented students who want to use the knowledge they have gained.

Additionally, what we know about the typical adult learner is that he/she is well-educated, white, and middle-class. Also, as with traditional learning settings, the most successful distance students are those who most educators would term "good students." By combining all of these factors, we find that DE is providing increased access, quite often, to the same people who have always had relatively good access to educational opportunities. In other words, we are increasing access, but not necessarily broadening it.

Providing education to those who need it, regardless of their socioeconomic status, is of great importance. However, if educators focus too narrowly on the technology issues in DE, they can inadvertently widen the gap between the educational "haves" and "have nots."

Most studies done on why adults do not participate in learning activities focus on the typical adult learner (Merriam & Caffarella, 1991). Even for these adults, with relatively high levels of education and stable work situations, there are still barriers to overcome. Making time to attend courses and study, being able to afford tuition, finding information about a course--all of these can keep even a highly motivated learner from continuing his/her education. Furthermore, research has shown that in the case of DE, adult learners tend to need a great deal of guidance and support to complete a course (Kearsley, 1998). …

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