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Adult Education in the “Real World” Classroom


At the present, demand for higher education has continued to rise especially in the case of adult learners who perceive added credentials in education as a stepping stone towards a better position and a more fulfilling career. Suffice it to say there are many means of continued education that these learners can choose from such as traditional classroom environments, online learning modules or even blended learning options. However, it should be noted that despite the ubiquitous means of obtaining an advanced degree in a particular field of study, it cannot be stated that face to face learning environments or methods of online instruction are equal and interchangeable. One of the primary reason virtual education through online learning portals was created was to address the issue of the need for autonomy and freedom by students who had to deal with the pressures of everyday living such as work, family and other personal factors.

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However, online lessons lack the dynamism found in face to face learning environment and, at times, adult learners find the lack of direct human interaction to be discouraging resulting in a greater likelihood to drop out of the online course due to a lack of interest. On the other end of the spectrum traditional classroom environments also happen to provide the needed dynamism and face to face interaction that is desired by adult learners, however, in this instance the fixed schedules and amount of coursework that needs to be internalized within a particular timeframe also causes considerable problems for adult learners due to the subsequent interference with their work/life balance. It is due to this that this paper postulates that a new model of education needs to be developed that utilizes the positive aspects of both traditional and online learning environments in order to create a better and more effective method of teaching adult learners. It is anticipated that through such a model educational institutions will be able to address the various problems that have been indicated so far resulting in better programs and learners that are more motivated to learn and complete their respective advanced degrees.

Affordances and Constraints in Adult Education: Does One Size Fit All?

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this research is to determine the extent to which adult learners are affected by the constraints of time and motivation to complete classes in the “real world” classroom and in the virtual learning environment. It will attempt to clarify how best to address these concerns and how instructors can best utilize the students’ strengths while addressing their difficulties with these two differing issues.

Today’s adult learners are faced with several choices when planning continuing education. Classes are offered in two major modalities, either face-to-face, traditional classes, or online instruction, or e-learning. They face challenges in both of these situations, but what difficulties they face, and how they go about addressing them are different for the two different modalities of instruction. This research is going to explore the specific issues of motivation and time constraints, and how the adult learner copes with these within each modality.

Adult learners can bring a variety of strengths to the classroom. They are often more experienced, both in their life-world and in the work place. They are familiar with responsibilities and obligations and therefore may be better equipped to meet deadlines and fulfill class commitments. They also have a greater sense of what to expect at workplace and what future employers may look for in an employee. However, many of them may have been out of the classroom for a while. Techniques and teaching methods may have changed since they were in school, or they may not have been good students before and so dropped out of college. They also may be less inclined to get involved with the entire “college experience” as a more traditionally aged student due to family and work commitments. By finding “what works” for this growing student population, both students, and teachers can benefit. The students will experience greater academic success if their needs are met, and the college in turn can benefit through better retention and an increase in graduation rates. Instructors, in turn, will be able to create more successful situations for their students.


By identifying the constraints of adapting to a new environment, strategies can be developed to maximize the success of the adult learner. These should seek to accommodate the differing needs of adult learners in both face-to-face and e-learning. Research on these issues should reveal some common strong points and needs that many adult learners share.

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  1. Are there any necessary differences between online and f2f learning?
  2. If so, how do these affect the learner?
  3. Do adult learners have different needs?
  4. Do those different needs have any relationship with the differences found between online and f2f modes of learning?
  5. Would the learning experience be improved if identified needs are matched with affordances of the mode?
  6. How would these improvements in learning be measured?


The face of education is changing. Students in the twenty-first century are in a position not only as learners, but as consumers. Institutions vie for attendance numbers, graduation rates, and job placements each of which translates into dollars – both from government funding sources and from the students themselves. Adult learners in both traditional classrooms and in online classes tend to have the perception of themselves “more as ‘customers’ than traditional students” (Rankin, 2002, 145) i.e. the product they are buying is their education. This view comes with maturity and the fact that they have selected to attend classes and the mode in which they will attend. Colleges are increasingly in a position to sell a product – learning – and likewise, students are increasingly in the position of consumer. How that is changing the learning environment can be either “a boon or a bust” for the adult learner.

Newer, cutting edge technology is opening up opportunities for both traditional classroom instruction and a variety of online and computer based learning opportunities, but all this choice is still not a guarantee of success for the adult learner. When it comes to the best type of situation, one size truly does not fit all; what brings success and empowerment to one may be the downfall of another. Adult learners encounter a variety of challenges and issues in the classroom, regardless in which modality that class is offered. The adult learner is faced with several issues that place constraints on their learning; personal issues, social situations, and even the learning environments themselves. Some of the largest personal factors faced by these students are the amount of expendable time available and their personal motivation level.

Time constraints are the reasons adults cite most for not being able to undertake learning” (Beyond Rhetoric, 2003, 5). The problems are compounded by the number of other commitments that are being faced. “Reflecting work and family commitments, it is difficult to find time to engage in learning courses, especially for those unconvinced of the benefits of learning” (Beyond Rhetoric, 2003,5). “Even were that not the case, constraints on the availability of tutors, and even the number of working hours in a day, will, at some point, act as a barrier to further learning” (Dron, 2007, p. 52).This is a consideration regardless of whether the student is taking classes in a traditional face-to-face classroom, or in an e-learning environment, such as an online class or other distance learning or blended learning mode.

“Ironically, the very aspects of adult learners’ lives that make online education so attractive can make the retention of those learners so precarious in practice. The additional flexibility and assumed freedom allowed through online learning require increased responsibility on the part of the adult learner to meet deadlines and stay on top of assignments without face-to-face interaction” (Rankin, 2002, 143). To help the learner be successful, these online classrooms should be well designed; the ‘site should present an organized vision, showing a natural progression of coursework and activities from beginning to end. If students know what to expect right from the start, they can organize their own time better to complete necessary tasks. Therefore, online should not include “surprise” exercises and last-minute assignments” (Rankin, 2002, 144).

More often than not, the working adult students will not only have academic demands, but they will also be under pressure to meet work deadlines and family obligations. “When forced to make a choice between an important project just assigned by the boss and a long planned research paper for an instructor, the online learner will most likely have little choice but to fulfill work obligations first”. (Rankin, 2002, 143). In a study conducted by Kim (2005), students who were not successful in completing online courses were surveyed. Despite the beliefs of instructors, some of the students self-reported, “they did not complete the self-directed e-l earning course although they intended to in the beginning. Lack of motivational quality in the e-learning course was a key factor for some learners who decided not to complete the course, followed by lack of time.” (Kim, 2005, 127). In addition, “the learner’s level of satisfaction with learning has a paramount impact on his or her continuing motivation. The learner’s perceived control also seems to have a positive influence on his or her continuing motivation” (Kim, 2006, 14). This seems to be one of the strongest predictors of student success – the motivation level. There can be either intrinsic factors, or extrinsic motivational factors. Coupled with a student’s self-identity, they can either motivate a student to succeed, or be an indicator of failure.

Paradoxically, those adult students whose needs are the greatest are often the very people that aren’t motivated to go beyond where they currently are. “Many low educated or low-skilled individuals believe their skills are good or excellent and thus do not see any need to improve” (Beyond Rhetoric, 2003, 5). These individuals, if they do enter a learning scenario, may lack the intrinsic motivation that will help them to persist in attaining their goats. It is also important to make “a distinction between persistence and continuing motivation… persistence is inferred when a person keeps on working on a task, whereas continuing motivation refers to a person returning to a task despite an interruption of the task”. (Kim, 2005, 13), Thus, an unmotivated learner will not continue to come to class even if it is a traditional face-to-face setting.

It may be even more difficult to keep these under-motivated learners involved in online classes. “… to require learning in the absence of any motivation has to be self-defeating, because it ruins the experience of learning” (Jen-Louis, 1988). Kim states, “continuing motivation and intrinsic motivation are the most significant constructs for learners of computer-assisted instruction” (2005, 11). In other words, these two factors are good predictors of success. “Learners with high self-confidence tend to demonstrate high persistence in a task regardless of their goal orientation. However, those with low self-confidence tend to avoid challenges and will likely quit rather than persist in the task” (Kim, 2005, 14). Because so much of the student’s learning is sell-directed in online classes, these are most difficult for the less motivated learner or the one whose motivation diminishes over time.

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Dron found when formulating a study that “it became more obvious that not all learners need or desire the same degree of help from teachers, it became apparent that the research question was how to get the right balance between giving independent learners [support].., while, at the same time, not asserting such control that we impede the learner or reduce learners’ capacity to self-management, or indeed de-motivate them” (Dron, 2007,6). The adult learner walks a fine line between autonomy and the need for direction. To provide one or the other in insufficient quantity can be discouraging and act as a barrier rather than a bridge to student success. “Learners with mastery goals tend to focus on achieving mastery; they are willing to accomplish something challenging and to gain understanding or insight from the tasks…. Therefore, the mastery-goal orientation is more likely to foster intrinsic motivation of the learner” (Kim, 2005, 12). The role of the intuition and ultimately the instructor is therefore becoming two-fold; they must not only instruct, or teach the students, but also find the ways of successfully motivating them.” Lack of motivation has been a concern in theory and practice for facilitating successful online learning environments, yet there has been a lack of knowledge on how to motivate online learners, especially in self-directed e-learning settings, which is a dominant instructional format for adult learners” (Kim, 2005, 124).

E- learning contains many positive elements for the motivated adult leaner: convenience and flexibility offered by the “anytime, anywhere” accessibility (Richardson-Swan, 2003). But these could also translate to negatives because of diminishing motivation. Several considerations should be deliberated when designing online courses for the adult learner. Some of the positive components that would help student success are course interactivity, integration of real-world situations, and student control over sequencing and the pace of the lessons. “Learners found the learning climate positive because they could work in the comfort of their home, they felt no pressure of deadlines or grades, and for some, prior learning experiences helped allay their anxiety about online learning” (Kim, 2005, 126).

Sometimes the same factor can add or detract depending on the individual learner. An absence of external motivators is one of these in the case of e-learning situations: the absence of social interaction and of external motivators might have more significant influence on students in colleges or universities than on working professionals in terms of motivation to persist in self-directed e-learning” (Kim, 2005, 129). The lack of physical presence in the e- learning course can be disquieting to some learners, while others are glad of the distance and autonomy this offers. ‘Findings… suggest that the learner’s motivational level is likely to increase when the e-learning course is designed in a way that is relevant to the learner, has multimedia components and hands-on activities, simulates real -world situations, provides feedback on the learner’s performance, and provides easy navigation on its course Web site (Kirn, 2005, 133).

Finally, there should be considerations given to how much information the learners are given prior to entering into the classroom. Older students are often only familiar with traditional f2f classrooms. It is easy to recognize how much time will be required to be spent, at least in the classroom, when the student has the class scheduled at a specific time of day on specified days of the week. It becomes more difficult to manage study time when the class is online and the student is required to plan their time for the class and balance it against the aforementioned demands of family and work. Students need honesty about the time and technology that will be required for online courses. Likewise, don’t expect students to just pick up the skills along the way, if those skills should actually be a prerequisite for the class (Rankin, 2002, 145). Wojecki believes that this approach to the construction of the training program was inviting learners to be more active agents within the learning process, rather than the passive subjects the participants were originally expecting to be” (Wojecki, 2007).

Adult learners encounter a variety of challenges and issues in the classroom. When it comes to the best type of situation, one size truly does not fit all; what brings success and empowerment to one may be the downfall of another. “In an educational transaction, there may be constraints imposed by a vast range of things, such as the subject matter, available space and/or time, degree of initial knowledge, personal preference, the weather or even the laws of grammar” (Dron, 2007, p. 45). The adult learner is faced with many constraints on their learning; personal issues, social situations, and even the learning environments themselves. These constraints can either restrict the learning, or they can provide direction to the learner. “Constraints are not all equal. They may be broadly split into those that are primary, (without which the learning experience would be pointless), and those that are secondary, (without which the learning experience would be changed, but not necessarily obliterated)” (Dron, 2007, p. 49).The focus of this research will be to examine previous research to determine the affordances and constraints of adult education in existing physical, face-to-face learning environments and e-learning or virtual classrooms.

One of the greatest positive constraints the adult learner brings to either a classroom situation or an e-learning environment is a focus of purpose. The adult learner often has a clear goal and purpose on entering (or re-entering) school; job requirements, changes in employment situations, or simply the desire for a better position bring many adults back into the modern classroom. As Dron states, “Where learners perceive a need that is fulfilled by their learning beyond the current application, their approach to learning is different, more focused and intense” (2007, p. 50). Simply stated, the learner who feels that the learning fulfills a need or purpose will approach that learning with more energy and focus than one who sees no need for it.

To an adult learner, one of the greatest negative factors that constrain learning is time. When an adult leaves the work force to become a student, they cannot leave behind family, house, and personal obligations. There aren’t enough hours in a day to meet work deadlines, maintain a household (chores, repairs, etc.) and attend to children’s needs. “However, mothers must relinquish some of their authority over child- rearing for this [learning] to occur, and mothers are more likely to do this when structural constraints, such as the requirements of shift work, force them to do this”.

However, when the student feels empowered in a given situation, it makes a difference in their attitude whether or not they actually take the opportunity to make the change or not. The student can feel more empowered when they have the ability to make choices concerning how and when they will learn. Even if they do not actually exercise these options, just having them can make a difference in the student’s motivation to finish a course. “The control they knew that they were able to exert [over a situation] was enough to make a difference” (Dron, 2007, p. 49) in how they approached the situation.

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Adult students have the choice to attend face-to-face classes during the day or in the evening, but having a family can constrain the student. Assuming the children are of school age, day classes are easier, but illness, days off from school and bad weather can all restrict the time the learner can spend in the classroom. If the children are not school age, then daycare becomes a constraint. Finding reliable daycare, and paying for it, can be difficult. Granted this is partly more of a financial constraint than a time, but it comes down to the same thing. If the student cannot either find or pay for daycare, he/she will not be in class.

“Contrary to popular belief, the major motivation for enrolment in distance education is not physical access per se, but the temporal freedom that allows students to move through a course of studies at a time and pace of their choice. Participation in a community of learners almost inevitably places constraints upon this independence – even when the pressure of synchronous connection is eliminated by use of asynchronous communications tools”. The constraints that are imposed by a lack of reliable transportation can be alleviated by e-classes, but the constraints of time and abilities can still be present. “It would be easy to claim that we were merely constrained by space”. If learning could be made easier by simply changing the time and place that classes are offered, or by giving more options to the learner, everyone would be guaranteed success. However, “engagement with learning requires motivation and a desire to learn” (Dron, 2007, p. 53). Additionally, if the student doesn’t have experience with computers and other technologies, they are constrained by their lack of knowledge no matter how motivated they are to learn. “Educational social software (ESS) may also be used to expand, rather than constrain the freedoms of their users”.

Some constraints to e-learning can also be a lack of the proper technology as well as the knowledge of how to use it. “Unlike the real environment, the virtual space is not limited to a particular group at a particular place and time” (Dron, 2007, p. 55), but it can be limited by income and life circumstances. When the adult returns to school, many luxury items may have to be trimmed from the budget; internet access is often one of the first cuts to be made. Income can further constrain the student since computers are not cheap and many families have never even owned one, or if they do, it may be outdated and prone to break down.

An Overview of the Research Methodology

This research hopes to uncover distinct patterns of adult learners’ affordances and constraints and attempts to answer how these can be used to increase the success of the learners. It will also chart differences between online classes and face-to-face instruction in their ability to provide a rich and rewarding learning experience for adult learners. In examining these differences, the factors of time and motivational constraints will be considered. It will seek to provide a model that can address the current gaps between available resources and student needs. The intended synthesis of recent research will focus on interpretations, charts, and models of current learner constraints. The research will be conducted in the following ways:

  1. by analyzing previous studies on the topic of adult learners to track themes and patterns in learning.
  2. by consulting literature on adult learning to correlate and tabulate relevant teaching methodologies.
  3. by synthesizing personal experience and the findings from previous researches
  4. by comparing personal experience with the literary experience and by juxtaposing these two experiences give the full weight of the new consolidated model for teaching adults

Utilizing a Qualitative Research Methodology

What is Qualitative Research?

Merriam (2009) in her book “Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation” explains that qualitative research is a type of exploratory research in that it tries to examine and explain particular aspects of a scenario through an in-depth method of examination (Merriam 2009, 3-21). While it is applicable to numerous disciplines, it is normally applied to instances which attempt to explain human behaviour and the varying factors that influence and govern such behaviours into forming what they are at the present (Merriam 2009, 3-21). Thus, it can be stated that qualitative research focuses more on exploring various aspects of an issue, developing an understanding of phenomena within an appropriate context and answering questions inherent to the issue being examined. This makes it an ideal research method to be utilized in this study since it would enable the researcher to examine the differing needs of adult learners in both face-to-face and e-learning. The following are the possible qualitative research methods that will be utilized in this study:

Narrative Analysis

Based on an examination of the types of qualitative studies by Merriam (2009), one possible approach that could be pursued is the use of a narrative analysis in presenting information to readers. Merriam (2009) states that a narrative analysis is actually one of the oldest methods of analysis that makes use of experiences and methods of communication with others in order to better understand the various facets of particular situations and external events (Merriam 2009, 32-50). As explained by Merriam (2009), this method of qualitative analysis utilizes a variety of methods of examination, not limited to biological, psychological or linguistic approaches and, as such, can utilize several different perspectives in order to explain a particular issue (Merriam 2009, pp. 33-50). Such an approach can be seen in the case of the article “Beyond Content: How Teachers Manage Classrooms to Facilitate Intellectual Engagement for Disengaged Students” wherein Schussler (2009) interspaces her views with that of the student’s utilized in the study in order to identify specific problems in intellectual engagement and what could possibly be done to resolve them (Schussler 2009, pp. 114-121).

Document Analysis

Despite the effective methodology shown by the Schussler (2005) study, another possible method of qualitative research would be to rely almost entirely on document analysis. As explained by Merriam (2009), a research study that relies almost entirely on academic literature without other methods of external data collection runs the risk of being confined primarily to the results exhibited by the research studies utilized (Merriam 2009, pp 135-165). This can result in a study that is severely constrained in terms of the number of factors that it is capable of encompassing especially in situations where the research subject that is being examined is focused on a narrowly specific topic (Merriam 2009, pp 135-165). On the other hand, relying purely on academic literature in order to investigate a particular study does have its advantages since it reduces the amount of time need during the initial stages of preliminary research and enables the research to more effectively justify the results presented by indicating that they had already been verified by previous researchers (Merriam 2009, pp 135-165).

Comparison between Narrative Analysis and Document Analysis

Merriam (2009) explains that narrative research combines direct quotes, views and perspectives from the research subject utilizing biological, psychological or linguistic approaches (though it can of course encompass even more approaches) and blends them with various types of academic sources in order to create a written output that is best described as an academic narrative since it seems to be an elaboration on the experiences of those writing and those being examined (Merriam 2009, pp 32-100). It is somewhat of an informal method of presentation; however, it is an ideal method if the purpose of the research is to showcase the views and experiences of both the author and the research subjects through the lens of a variety of academic methods of examination (Merriam 2009, pp 32-100).

Considering this study’s focus on differing learning methods (face-to-face and online studies) and adult learners, this in effect makes a narrative analysis an ideal method of examination since it will utilize the perspective of adult students to answer the research questions of the study. In comparison, when looking at chapter 7 of her book, Merriam (2009) elaborates on document based research by stating that document based methods of analysis primarily concerns itself with an examination of various academic texts in order to draw conclusions on a particular topic (Merriam 2009, pp 139-165). While each method of analysis does have its own level of strengths such as in the case of a narrative analysis that enables a researcher to utilize learning and adaptation approaches in order to examine various types of data, it should be noted that a document analysis is far easier to do and has a higher degree of academic veracity as compared to narrative based research which can often result in mistaken conclusions (Merriam 2009, pp 32-165).

Use of Narrative and Document Analysis

After examining the pros and cons of using either narrative or document analysis in this study, it was decided that using both approaches would be the best way of addressing all the issues of the study. Document analysis will be able to help combine the information from various academic sources into a cohesive whole, while narrative analysis will address the perspectives of the adult learners.

Critical Review

Self Determination Theory and Adult Learning

Based on the work of Deci and Ryan (2008), self-determination theory can be considered a set of intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors that influence an individual’s ability to accomplish a particular set of tasks. In the case of this study, this encompasses an adult learners capacity to initiate and complete an advanced educational degree within an educational institution of their choice (Deci & Ryan, 2008). Deci and Ryan (2008) explain that each individual has a different set of motivating factors that influence their behaviors or activities (Deci and Ryan, 2008). As such, when it comes to applying this in the case of advanced education one must look at intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors that impact an individual’s decision making and motivational processes. Extrinsic methods of motivation can be described as an external motivating factor that provides satisfaction over the completion of a task in the form of a reward or pleasure at its completion.

For adult learners, this comes in the form of higher incomes from having advanced degrees, the feeling of accomplishment from completing a course, the level of distinction accorded to them due to the possession of masters/doctoral degree as well as a plethora of other factors that can be categorized as a “reward”. Intrinsic methods of motivation on the other hand are derived from an individual’s pleasure/sense of satisfaction at working at a particular task or, in this case, learning a new course. Adult learners oriented towards intrinsic motivation are categorically different than their extrinsic counterparts since their desire to learn originates not from factors related to external rewards, rather, it is more along the lines of the pleasure, happiness and joy they derive from learning. This is an important distinction to take into consideration since Deci and Ryan (2008) explains that individual differences in causal orientation impact the manner in which people view the means that they will accomplish a particular task Deci & Ryan, 2008).

In the case of traditional, computer-mediated and blended learning methods of education, self determination theory suggests that students, adult or otherwise, would view each method of learning in a different way given the varied motivational factors that drive them. In the case of traditional classroom learning environments, the dynamic setting, the constant exchange of ideas and the means by which a student can interact with and get guidance from a teacher would appeal more to adult learners with distinctly intrinsic levels of motivation. The basis behind this assumption originates from studies such as those by Halvorson et al. (2011) which indicate that traditional classroom environments are still considered the most fulfilling method of learning due to the level of interaction found in them (Halvorson et al., 2011). On the other end of the spectrum, adult learners that are more inclined towards extrinsic methods of motivation would view advanced education as a means to an end rather than derive a specific amount of joy from actually learning.

It is based on this that such individuals would prefer a method of education that is affordable, can accommodate their current time schedules and would enable them to advance in their respective careers within a reasonable amount of time. For such individuals, computer mediated learning (i.e. online learning) would be the best choice given its capacity to accommodate varied schedules and allow a degree of autonomy for students. What must be understood is that one of the flaws in the present day models of teaching lies in their inability to take into consideration different self determinants which motivate young and adult learners alike. Different levels of motivation behind obtaining an education necessitates different types of learning environments otherwise the end result would be a degree of de-motivation on the part of students as they are unable to fulfill their individual motivational factors behind learning. One way of potentially addressing this issue would be to either develop a means of assessment in order to determine what type of learning model would be an appropriate fit or to create a generalized learning model that appeals to both extrinsic and intrinsic motivational factors. The advantage of such a model is that it would help to streamline present day methods of education in such a way that resources going into multiple models of education (i.e. traditional, online, blended learning) would be consolidated into a single method of learning.

Distance Learning Theory and Adult Education

Through the work of Paulsen (1993) we are introduced to the early conceptual ideas of distance learning through CMC. From his perspective, it can be seen that distance learning is the conceptualization of several freedoms such as that of time, space, pace, medium, access, curriculum and choice (Paulsen, 1993). Distance learning theory presents the opinion that through the aforementioned factors a better and more efficient method of education is presented to learners since it enables them to choose what to learn, when to learn it and the means by which they are able to do so. This goes completely against the traditional model of education wherein learning is based on a set time, curriculum and under the auspices of a teacher. For Paulsen (1993) CMC directed learning can be considered a method of industrialized learning to the effect that it can be mass produced easily given that the medium of communication it espouses is primarily text based (Paulsen, 1993).

The inherent issue with traditional methods of education that distance learning resolves is that it takes into consideration the need for freedom by adult learners. It specifically states that a more flexible method of education is needed in order to accommodate the varied activities that an adult learner has in their lives (i.e. family, career hobbies, etc.). On the other hand, it should be noted that while distance learning theory incorporates autonomy, flexibility and above all freedom in its design, it neglects to delve into the quality of the programs its advocates. There is little mention of the fact that studies such as those by Dzakiria (2008) indicate that distance learning programs are far too condensed and lack the dynamism that traditional classroom environments have (Dzakiria, 2008). As such, while there is flexibility, Dzakiria (2008) questions whether is a sufficient level of actual learning within CMC programs given that it is more akin to militaristic rote learning which various studies have shown lacks the development of creative thinking (Dzakiria, 2008). It is based on this that it cannot be stated that distance learning theory is the best method of developing a teaching model given its apparent deficiencies in actually creating a quality learning environment.

Complexity Theory and Adult Learners

In the article “A Child of Complexity Theory: by Hase and Kenyon (2007), readers are introduced to the term “heutagogy” which concerns itself with the concept of “learners as the major agents of their own learning” (Hase and Kenyon, 2007). In essence, complexity theory which is advocated for by Hase and Kenyon (2007), explains that an individual’s personal experiences determines the means by which they internalize and learn new pieces of information and it based on such experiences that each individual tends to learn the same type of lesson in different ways. They state that it is a mistaken belief that teachers can control an individual’s learning experience; instead, a teacher is merely a means of transferring knowledge and skills with the personal experiences of the learner determining how their learning experience is created (Hase and Kenyon, 2007).

It is based on this that Hase and Kenyon (2007) make the assumption that what is necessary in modern day curriculums is not a set standard as determined by the educational institution, rather, what is necessary is the development of a “living” curriculum that centers itself on the experiences of the learner as the key driver towards education. This means that a certain level of adjustment needs to be taken into consideration based on the learner wherein it is under their prerogative that the process of learning is implemented. This can be accomplished by providing them with choices as to the type of method of education they want (i.e. traditional, online, blended learning etc.) as well as involving them in methods of application that utilize real life situations so as to evaluate them based on their unique individual applications of the lessons they have learned.

Based on the views of Hase and Kenyon (2007), the major flaw in present day methods of education is that they create a “mold” so to speak in which students are expected to conform in order to learn. However, as seen in the case of “heutagogy” this is a major mistake given that an individual’s personal experience dictates the most effective method for learning. It is when an individual’s desire for self-directed learning clash with the set models created by an educational institutional which often resulted in them dropping out of the course due to a lack of motivation in completing it since they are not learning in the way that they desire (Hase and Kenyon, 2007). By implementing an educational system where there is a greater level of self-direction, this would most likely result in higher rates of course completion among adult learners since they would be able to learn in the way that they would be most comfortable with.

The Concept of Control

Through the article, “Beyond Independence in Distance Education: The Concept of Control”, Garrison and Baynton (1987) present the notion that “independence is only one part of a complex interaction among several components that characterize the educational process” (Garrison and Baynton, 1987). The explain that the process of “Control” (composed of independence, power and support) is a necessary facilitator of student motivation when it comes to distance learning practices that educators need to take into consideration. Though the setting of such an assumption is during the latter half of the 1980s where computer technology has yet to reach the levels it has at the present, it is just as applicable today for adult learners given the need to establish methods of self-directed and independence for online methods of education due to the lack of a teacher to “urge students on” so to speak. It is based on this assumption that an examination of Garrison and Baynton’s (1987) aspects of control will be conducted in order to show how they can be implemented in present day learning practices for adult learners.

  1. Independence – Garrison and Baynton (1987) explains that independence within the learning process can be defined as “the freedom to choose one’s learning objectives, learning activities, and methods of evaluation. This assumes not only that there are alternatives available but also that the individual is aware of these alternatives and free from coercion regarding their choice”(Garrison and Baynton, 1987). Such a concept is wholly attributable to present day adult learners who do require a considerable degree of independence when it comes to their individual methods of learning. As it has been revealed in other literary sources that have been examined in this paper thus far, concepts related to autonomy, choice and the ability to choose the manner in which they learn are processes which are necessary for adult learners in order to be able to learn within a setting of their choice. The concept of independence by Garrison and Baynton (1987) can be thought of as a manner in which these varied needs are solidified into a distinct whole wherein it can be stated that independence is a major component of the framework necessary for adult learners to actually obtain an advanced degree. Without a degree of independence in the manner in which they study, it is likely that they would be unable to cope with the learning process and would most likely drop out of the course, distance learning or otherwise.
  2. Power – for Garrison and Baynton (1987) the concept of power was defined as “Power is the ability or capacity to take part in and assume responsibility for the learning process. Without the requisite intellectual ability, study skills, or motivation to be involved independently in a learning process the individual cannot be in control of the learning situation. Thus, the individual must have the power to participate in a particular learning experience” (Garrison and Baynton, 1987). This particular concept by Garrison and Baynton (1987) presents a previously new notion to the examination of theories for adult learning in that while it emphasizes the desire for learners to assume responsibility for the learning process it also indicates that their ability to do so is based on their inherent intellectual capacity, study skills and method of motivation. A more apt clarification of such a concept is detailed by the Garrison and Baynton (1987) in the next section of their article wherein they state “if either the intellectual capacity to handle the material or the motivation to perform the learning activities (power) is low or absent then the degree of control over the learning process is diminished” (Garrison and Baynton, 1987). This notion is applicable to present day teaching models wherein they can be criticized for providing the means by which an adult learner can be independent but fail to take into consideration their capacity for actually being able to assume control. This means that while various models of education today are able to provide methods of independence, they lack the ability to gauge whether adult learners possess the intellectual capacity or necessary means of motivation in order to actually understand the material outside of a classroom setting. This is an extremely crucial aspect that should not have been neglected yet is absent at the present in online and blended learning yet is present in traditional classroom environments, however, a traditional classroom environment lacks the necessary level of independence sought by adult learners. As such, online and blended learning environments need to have some means of being able to gauge a student’s level of “power” when it comes to independent learning and adjust as necessary. Without this level of adjustment and providing a “one size fits all” method of education, it is likely that based on the perspective of Garrison and Baynton (1987) an adult learner would lack the necessary intellectual and motivational capacity to internalize the subject matter that they are supposed to study resulting in either a subpar level of education or the learner dropping out of the course entirely.
  3. Support – the last aspect of the levels of control by Garrison and Baynton (1987) is support. Garrison and Baynton (1987) defines support as “the resources that the learner can access in order to carry out the learning process. Support refers mainly to the availability and accessibility of courses, learning materials, and teachers/facilitators. It may also refer to other resources such as community experts, library facilities, and media such as audio cassettes, television programs, or computer terminals” (Garrison and Baynton, 1987). This is the easiest of the three levels of control to understand since it indicates that for any distance learning process, it is necessary for schools to provide the means by which learners can access the necessary resources for them to understand the lessons that are being taught. At the present, this can come in the form of access to online databases where eBooks, articles and an assortment of other works can be obtained.

Communication and Control

Towards the end of their article, Garrison and Baynton (1987) gives the assumption that “The degree of control that a learner has over the educational experience is manifested in, and determined by, the communication between the teacher and student” (Garrison and Baynton, 1987). This means that despite the level of independence, power and support provided by CMC based methods of education, the final facilitator of control over the process of education is still dependent upon communication between students and the teacher. In this case, communication and control between student and teacher comes in the form of setting the learning objectives, course content, transition between lessons as well as the rapidity in which they are given. All of which are aspects lacking in online or blended learning activities at the present. It is usually in the case of traditional classroom environments that a teacher is able to adjust the lesson content based on the needs and predilection of the class towards a particular lesson.

For adult learners, they require this on an individual level which cannot be done in traditional classroom settings given the need to address the needs of the entire class rather than one specific student. Such an issue could have been addressed in the case of online and blended learning education, however, such models can be considered more of a “you take what you can get” method wherein despite the level of autonomy that they provide, there is little that an adult student can do in order to adjust the lesson content towards the type of lessons they want to learn and the manner in which they learn them. This is due to the structured method in which such lessons are presented as well as the lack of sufficient methods of communication between teachers and students. As such, it can be seen though Garrison and Baynton’s (1987) concept of control that present day models of education are lacking in their ability to sufficiently address the needs of adult learners who are predilected towards independence yet desire to control the means in which they learn. One solution to this problem would be to develop a new model of education that enables learners to effectively communicate their needs to the teacher while at the same time enabling them a degree of independence and power when it comes to their choice on how they choose to learn.

The Consolidated Model of Teaching Adults (COMTA)

That e-learning allows learners to form a virtual community of inquiry wherein they construct knowledge through analysis of the subject matter, questioning, and challenging assumptions, that the real-world classroom takes on the new tones with the traditional face-to-face participation, and passion for discussions, and when blended, radically change the teaching paradigm, all this we know. Taking into account students cognitive limitations, we have set out to devise an effective learning environment that is technologically rich and the one that captures all the complexity of adult learning. Making some instructional modifications not by discovering any necessary laws of the nature of learning, without which we would be all in uncertainty and confusion, but by observation of the established modes of learning and by connection of the relevant ideas, we have attempted to create an environment that would suit everyone’s needs and learning preferences.

The Consolidated Model of Teaching Adults or COMTA, focuses on the following objectives:

  1. To develop an effective method of teaching that enables student autonomy due to life, work and other personal constraints
  2. To increase the level of perceived interaction between students and teachers and create a more interactive learning environment to increase student motivation in learning
  3. To reduces constraints of memory and cognitive processing limitations
  4. To address the issue of time constraints so as to enable adult learners to study at their convenience
  5. To enable a method of teaching that takes into consideration the need for affordable methods of education

Based on these objectives, it can be argued that the COMTA teaching model is designed to specifically address the issues of adult learners when it comes to advanced education. Studies such as those by Geçer (2013) have shown that adult learners have an assortment of problems with present day teaching models and, as such, it is necessary to develop a new model that creates a learning environment that is more conducive towards the needs of this particular group of individuals (Geçer, 2013).

Before proceeding, it is important to note that the study of Kraft (2007) which delved into analyzing the different levels of learning for adult, teen and adolescent learners alike asserts that it is the motivation behind learning that influences a learner and at times it is the very environment that they are exposed to that either promotes motivation or reduces it (Kraft, 2007). Kraft (2007) explains in his study that initially students, when presented with a particular subject in a new learning environment, have high levels of motivation resulting in the desire to internalize what they are learning. However, overtime this level of motivation is influenced by outside factors such as their personal affairs: family, friends, hobbies etc.

In his examination, Kraft (2007) focused on the learning environment within the context of the school/training institute itself (private and public) due to the plethora of outside factors that would be too difficult to analyze. What Kraft (2007) discovered was that the militaristic method of teaching found in public schools resulted in less interested, less motivated, and above all bored students who were taught to memorize rather than analyze the subject they were being taught. This differed greatly from his analysis of the private school system where deep introspection, critical thinking and analysis were the focal point of the learning environment. The private school teaching environment produced more attentive and more motivated students resulting in students with better grades and critical thinking levels as compared to their public school counterparts. This example shows how motivation can be impacted by the learning environment. Not dissimilar to this example, Hao-Chang (2009) explains, the primarily text based method of e-learning is considered unappealing by some adult learners given the lack of interaction between students and course instructors (Hao-Chang, 2009).

Based on the examples above and the previously mentioned problems with traditional classroom environments, the following steps of the COMTA model have been developed:

This particular approach involves having to divide a subject into 3 distinct phases: the introduction, the analysis and the application.

Utilization of online E-learning to introduce students to literature of the subject they study

As mentioned in the previous section, one of the main issues when it comes to traditional learning environments is that adults simply do not have the time to work and study synchronously. Thus, it is necessary to create a method of study that takes into consideration the need for autonomy and the inherent time constraints of adult learners in the form of introductory e-learning stages during the course. The introduction stage of the course involves developing the initial knowledge that students would need in order to learn what a subject is about. This involves reading short articles and online recorded video tutorials that the teacher has provided in order to help them understand the initial intricacies of the subject. This can be done at the student’s leisure within a span of time ranging from 5 days to 2 weeks. During the introduction stage, it is recommended that readings are provided in short snippets with small non-grade impacting quizzes being implemented at the end of each reading session so as to test a student’s current knowledge regarding the subject they are reading. The advantage of this method compared to traditional classroom environments consists of the following:

  1. It enables the teacher to better monitor the progress and understanding of the students regarding lessons, which would enable them to determine what to focus on in the analysis part of the course.
  2. It provides students with the autonomy they need in order to balance their education with the personal affairs.
  3. It removes the time constraints that would normally discourage adult learners from progressing in their studies.

Implementation of scheduled classes on morning, afternoon or evening schedules

This section is where the “application phase” of the COMTA model is put into effect. The concept of having scheduled classes stems from the development of blended learning environments. Blended learning is a combination of e-Learning and face-to-face learning, wherein students complete a course both online and offline. Usually, the online content deals with the readings and necessary information to help students’ transition into a particular subject matter, while offline meetings deal with the more practical application of the theories.

The COMTA model differs from the traditional blended learning model in that it departs from the use of classroom lectures. The reason behind this is simple; the lecture aspect has already been taken care of in the e-learning stage of the model through the videos that the teacher had uploaded. In this stage, the teacher uses an analysis of the various automatic quizzes in order to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the class regarding the lessons that they were taught and creates a lesson that focuses on analysis, feedback and rapport between the teacher and student in order to help them better delve into the lesson (Van der Meijden & Veenman, 2005). This aspect of the COMTA model helps to address 4 identified problems in the Computer Mediated Communication model of learning and the traditional classroom setting:

  1. It addresses the learning predilections for adult learners to feel a level of interaction between students and teachers as well as creates a method for immediate feedback
  2. It helps the teacher to impart a level of analysis to students that could not be implemented through a primarily e-learning based approach
  3. It increases the motivation of adult learners since the lack of interaction between students and teachers (as well as between students themselves) was noted by several studies as being one of the main reasons behind adult dropout rates in online courses.
  4. Lastly, it saves considerable time since the interaction between the student and the teacher involves analysis with the lecture and reading section already having been taken care of through the online session.

Practical Application of Knowledge through the Real-World Simulations

This stage in the COMTA teaching model involves a practical application of what was learned through an online simulation that mimics an actual real world simulation. The primary purpose of this practice is intended to

  1. Help learners work creatively
  2. Enable them to think analytically and
  3. Develop practical experience with the knowledge that they obtained from class.

This simulation can be achieved either through an online model where students have to interact with a predetermined set of situations that they have to resolve or a continuous model experience wherein students compete with each other through a simulated online platform. These simulations are intended to not only increase student motivation through interest in the lesson but also enable them to practically apply what they have learned. It should be noted that this aspect of the COMTA model is a reflection of the working education model which combines work and education in order to help students better understand how to apply their knowledge and skills in an actual working environment. The reason behind this practice being implemented through an online medium is related to the need for autonomy and time constraints on the part of adult learners. These types of learners simply do not have the time or the capacity to handle the workplace learning model as well as the traditional classroom learning model. Time constraints and their own jobs would simply get in the way, as such, it is necessary to implement a process that teaches the practical application of what they are learning, hence the fact the online virtual simulation exercise is being advocated in the case of the COMTA model since it resolves the indicated issues.

Implementation of Online Forums for student and teacher interactions

The last stage of the COMTA teaching model is to address the issue related to a lack of interaction between students, teachers and other students within the same course. Studies such as those by Strøms, Grøttum & Lycke (2007) have shown how teacher-student interaction and student-student interaction are often sought after by adult learners due to level interactivity and the apparent “social experience” this entails (Strøms, Grøttum & Lycke, 2007). By implementing an online forum where ideas can be shared and commented on, this simulates the desired level of interactivity that is sought after by adult learners yet is still capable of presenting them with the autonomy they desire as well.

When comparing the COMTA teaching model to other present models, it can be seen that it addresses the deficiencies found in the traditional classroom model as well as the Computer Mediated Communication model. It promotes a greater level of interactivity while at the same time ensures adult learners gain the needed autonomy. Overall, the COMTA program can bring a combined learning model to the doorstep of the adult learners as well as take them on an experiential journey to new professions. COMTA is a flexible and dynamic program that will build bridges from the brick and mortar lecture hall to the virtual classroom, to the career-training arena, preparing adults for a new future.


What has been revealed by this study is that present day models of education need to be re-evaluated regarding their effectiveness when it comes to adult learners. The fact is that they simply do not take into consideration the current needs of this population and, as a result, a new model of education needs to be implemented. While the COMPTA model has shown that it is capable of accomplishing such a task, there are still a variety of factors that need to be taken into consideration. First and foremost among them is the concept of “location” as a method of evaluation regarding the implementation of particular models of education. Aspects related to local culture, accessibility to technology as well as budget constraints are factors that differ not only on a state level but are also different when examining various countries.

The COMPTA model or even online learning models may work in states such as New York, Washington, or even Boston given widespread technology use, internet connectivity and high local wages, however, in areas such as Mississippi, Kansas or Missouri where local wages are low, internet connectivity is scant and the overall level of technology sophistication of adult learners is low, shows how particular models of education simply cannot be applied on a general basis. The same can be said when comparing the current situation of the U.S. with that of the Philippines, Cameroon and Ukraine wherein it is obvious that the traditional method of education is predominant simply because other models cannot be applied due the inherent structural limitations of their framework for education.

Based on what has been gleamed from the various studies that have been examined, the following are the main contributing factors that would inhibit the COMPTA model from being implemented.


When examining the findings of this paper, it can be seen that the concept of the work-life balance has become an essential if not integral aspect of the present day adult learner. If colleges and universities want to be able to attract and retain talented students, they need to be able to incorporate work-life balance policies into their operational model for education. The COMPTA model, which focuses on integrating not only a work life balance into its operations model but also resolves the issues found in workplace learning presents itself as an ideal framework that can be utilized in order to resolve the various identified issues that have been presented in this paper so far. It is anticipated that through such a model, educational institutions will be able to address the various problems that have been indicated resulting in better programs and learners that are more motivated to learn and complete their respective advanced degrees. However, the concept of “location” as a method of evaluation regarding the implementation of particular models of education should be taken into consideration as well since applicability of a new model of education on all situations is simply not possible.

Reference List

Dzakiria, H. (2008). Students’ accounts of the need for continuous support in a distance learning programme. Open Learning, 23(2), 103-111.

Halvorson, W., Crittenden, V. L., & Pitt, L. (2011). Teaching Cases in a Virtual Environment: When the Traditional Case Classroom is Problematic. Decision Sciences Journal Of Innovative Education, 9(3), 485-492.

Client Source

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development and health. Canadian Psychology, 49(3), 182-185.

Garrison, D. R., & Baynton, M. (1987). Beyond independence in distance education: The concept of control. The American Journal of Distance Education , 1(3), 1-8.

Paulsen, M. (1993). The hexagon of cooperative freedom: A distance education theory attuned to computer conferencing. DEOS, 3(2), 1 – 8.

Hase, S., & Kenyon, C. (2007). Heutagogy: A Child of Complexity Theory. International Journal of Complexity & Education, 4(1), 111-117.

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