Skip to: Navigation | Content | Sidebar | Footer

How Are Online Programs Serving Adult Learners?

Our lives are increasingly busy as we try to juggle multiple roles and responsibilities, and adding school to the schedule only extends the list of things we need to accomplish each week. A 2011 study [PDF] from Noel-Levitz higher education consultants found that the majority of online learners are adults (55% are 35 and over) and working full-time while pursuing an education. What should you know about each of the schools and programs you are considering? Whether you decide to pursue a certificate or full degree there are several key elements to consider in terms of how you'll be supported once you are enrolled.

The non-profit Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) developed a list of "principles
for serving adult learners effectively
," which includes nine inter-related components covering a range of services prospective online students should be looking for – from financial options to transition counseling. This approach, like others I've profiled (e.g., Quality Scorecard), is designed as a guideline for institutions that are planning and managing student services, but you can also use them as a guide for comparing potential programs, if you know what to look for and questions to ask before you enroll. Let's take a closer look at each of these principles, with the adult online learner in mind.


CAEL describes this principle as "overcoming barriers in time, place, and tradition in order to create lifelong access to educational opportunities." Online institutions, and those offering online programs, are reaching new students through the Internet with distance delivery options and sometimes flexible pacing. What information is available to you as a prospective student, before you enroll? Take a look at Penn State World Campus as an example of a detailed school-based website with information about admissions, as well as what you can expect as a student enrolled in one of the online programs.

Life and Career Planning

Will your goals be assessed at the beginning of your online program? CAEL encourages schools to include this kind of support early (even before enrollment) to ensure that the program you want to pursue will keep you on target toward your goals. My recent conversations at the National Career Development Association annual conference included the changing role of career services to include more life counseling (i.e., creating life-work balance, aligning career goals to life purpose) in addition to career decision-making and job search assistance. Ask about the availability of life and career guidance from the start, and explore how these areas might be included in orientation sessions and student success courses.


Student debt is rising across the country. What financing and payment options can your prospective schools assist you with? Calculating the return on investment of an online learning experience includes a host of variables, many of which will be unique to you, but it's important to understand the finances involved. Look for information about costs and ask financial advisors any questions you may have about the resources available.

Assessment of Learning Outcomes

As an online student you will gain "knowledge, skills, and competencies" through your course work, and CAEL recommends an outcomes-based approach. Look for lists of learning outcomes or objectives associated with the programs and courses you are considering. You may also be able to transfer previously completed courses and/or earn academic credit through assessment of your prior learning experiences. Capella University's website provides an overview of what you can expect at that institution. Ask admissions and academic advisors for more information about the process involved at the schools you are interested in attending.

Teaching-Learning Process

How are the courses structured? High quality online programs are developed with careful selection of instructional strategies designed to help you, the learner, gain the knowledge, skills, and competencies you need through the successful completion of your courses. Many programs also incorporate practical application opportunities, such as field experience, practicum courses, and internships. These may even be required depending on your area of study.

Student Support Systems

Institutions of higher education have a variety of resources and assistance in place, from libraries and writing centers to academic advising and personal counseling. Kaplan University's online student services page lists some of the services they have available, including alumni relations and student clubs. Inquire about additional services as well, and include this kind of support – school-sponsored, but outside of course work – as you make your decisions about online programs.


CAEL includes this item in the list as it is used "to provide relevant and timely information and to enhance the learning experience." In online courses the use of technology is a given, but it's worth exploring a little further to see what types of technology are used and how they are used in and out of class to provide the support you need to succeed. Is there a help desk available for students during the times you may need it? Will your courses have synchronous and asynchronous requirements? You may even want to experience a sample course online or go on a virtual tour.

Strategic Partnerships

College collaborations with other organizations and employers can help schools "to develop and improve educational opportunities." How are your prospective schools working with other groups? I mentioned alumni relations above, and formal mentorship programs like the one at American Intercontinental University can be very helpful as you prepare for life after graduation. Employer partnerships, such as those developed by American Public University System, can also lead to professional networking and practical learning opportunities.


CAEL suggests that higher education institutions develop "guided pathways" that lead students both in and out of the academic program. Making the transition to becoming an online student can be challenging. What support is in place to help you acclimate to the process and then lead you to next-steps after you graduate? This holistic approach involves the integration of multiple support services and it may be up to you to initiate assistance in the areas in which you have concerns.

What would you add to the CAEL list of principles for serving learners effectively? Knowing what to expect before you begin your endeavor as an online student can go a long way in helping you reach your goals. Don't wait to ask questions! Do your research in advance and make decisions based on your needs.

Image credit: Tim Morgan, Flickr, CC-BY