How Adult Learners are Changing Education

There’s no denying the education sector is changing. As continuous education becomes more important for working professionals keen to advance their careers, how people access education is undergoing a revolution.

The way adults learn is very different from the traditional route taken by young graduates fresh from school. Their expectations, motivations, lifestyles and experience are different for younger students. 

This brings new challenges to education providers in delivering and assessing education. At the same time, it offers great opportunities to innovate and reach out to a much wider potential student body. 

In this article, we look at the key ways adult learners are changing education. 

Shift in student demographic

People are now living longer and working well into retirement age. This means that there is a greater variety of learners wanting to upskill. 

In the US, the number of teenagers is projected to drop slightly from 2015-2030. Education providers need to reach out to other cohorts in order to remain sustainable into the future. 

With almost 31 million adults having attended college without completing their studies over the past 20 years, there is an opportunity to re-engage these adults with education and grow the market. 

Four million of these adults have completed at least two years of college, making them more likely to finish their studies if they re-entered formal education. Already most learners in higher education are not aged 18-22 as might be assumed.

Differing expectations

Differing expectations

Students entering further education straight from school might look forward to meeting new people and developing an active social life. 

They expect a variety of extracurricular activities, sororities and fraternities. Meanwhile, adult learners view education as a place for professional networking which may further their careers in years to come. 

In fact, 65% of adult learners say that they expanded their professional network through education. They are less likely to make extra-curricular activities a priority when it comes to choosing between course providers. 

Learning formats

Convenience is an important factor in how adult learners choose education providers. Being able to fit in study around work and family commitments is crucial to their ability to undertake further studies. 

Online courses and virtual classrooms mean that learners save on the time and cost associated with travel. However, this needs to be balanced with the accreditation and recognition of the course. Adult learners choosing courses for continuing professional development will expect their new skills to be recognized within their professional sectors and across organizations. 

Continuing education may be motivated by a long-term goal of career advancement or career change. Testimonials from previous adult learners who have leveraged their education for career development can be a persuasive way to encourage adult learners to return to education or take further courses.

Experiential learning

Experiential learning

Experiential learning may be more valued by adult learners who want to see how the learning applies to their existing real-life workplace situations. 

While school students may be more accustomed to a more passive form of learning for learning’s sake adult learners may be more likely to question how their new knowledge fits into to their professional lives. Course assessments can integrate learning into their workplace by using projects in the workplace to assess skills acquisition. 

Southern New Hampshire University has implemented competency-based education (CBE) for the past five years. Students earn college credits based on their demonstration of skills acquired rather than hours spent in the classroom. 

For a professional fitting further education into an already busy life, this option could be very attractive. Less time spent in the classroom away from work and other commitments may make accessing education more financially viable also. 

Course credits

Another approach to assessing adult learners is to give course credit through Prior Learning Assessment (PLA). 

For a student with years or even decades of professional experience accelerating their path through education to graduation using their existing skills makes sense. It recognizes that not all learning takes place in formal education and that “on-the-job” experience should be valued alongside more traditional models of learning and assessment.

These developments can be used to tailor courses to reflect individual learners’ needs instead of a traditional of a one size fits all model. Education providers need to be responsive to the needs of adult learners. This should be reflected in timetabling classes, communication and use of technology. 

Adult learners are more likely to view themselves as partners in the learning process rather than simply recipients of learning.

Microlearning

Microlearning

Working professionals want access to education that can be applied to their role instantly so require bite-sized and relevant learning. Microlearning encourages learners to make learning habitual and track their progress as they go. 

It has the added advantage of fitting in around adult learners’ existing work schedules. The rise of the use of smartphones means that accessing microlearning can happen while on the move, commuting to work, between meetings or even while waiting to pick up children at the school gates. 

The success of the language app DuoLingo, with over 25 million users per month, demonstrates the public appetite for microlearning. 

Impacting cost models

Unlike traditional degrees, education that attracts adult learners is short, impactful and relevant. The cost needs to reflect this. While some adult learners may be fortunate to have employers footing the bill, others, particularly those seeking a change of career or re-entry into the workforce, will be paying their own fees. 

Beyond the fees, there are other hidden costs associated with further education, including books, travel and additional childcare costs. Unlike younger students whose college experiences are as much about socializing as education, mature students may be more results focussed and will want to see a return on their investment sooner rather than later. 

The University of Arkansas’ eVersity program allows students to take one class at a time, charges a standard rate for credit hours and includes the required textbooks in the cost. This allows students to budget for their courses and pay as they go. 

Technology is crucial

Technology is crucial

As digital technologies are now a normal part of the workplace, employees need to know how to use digital relevant to the role and for those that are comfortable with technologies expect it to be part of their learning experience. 

Technology underpins many of the aspects which make education more widely accessible such as certifications, CBE and microlearning. 

Conversely, developing supports for adult learners who are not digital natives or lack access to it will be required, especially if their recent work experience has not required much use of technology. 

Adult learning requires greater collaboration

In order to know what adults and working professionals require educators need ties to both industry and government. 

Developing partnerships between employers and educators will mean education tailored to the needs of the workplace. For adult learners, this reassures them that the courses they take are relevant and up to date. Buy-in from employers could have the added benefit for adult learners of accessing financial support to finance their studies. Creating links between education providers and industry can facilitate work placements for students and allows industry experts to contribute to developing course materials.

The South Korean city of Suwon with assistance from its universities, guarantees libraries within 10 minutes walk of every citizens’ home as well as learning facilities slightly further away at 20 minutes walk. Having access to education on their doorstep reduces two of the main barriers to further education, time and travel cost, opening education to students of all ages and income levels. 

The days where education ended when students graduated in their mid-twenties are long gone. 

Professionals of today recognize that lifelong education is crucial to both career and personal development. Continuing learning in adulthood has been shown to contribute to better physical and mental health, increase the likelihood of having higher paid jobs and more active citizenship. 

In order to thrive in this changing marketplace education providers need to put themselves in the shoes of their target customers, experiment with new ways of assessing students and giving them access to education in innovative new ways. By doing this they can broaden their appeal to a much wider market.