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First-Generation University Adult Learners and the Choice of an Online Learning Model

Access, success and affordability of higher education are main topics of discussion among policy makers. The most recent U.S. Department of Education data from fall 2014 indicated that 5.8 million students took at least one online course, with 2.85 million of them studying exclusively online.

The question remains whether or not online education can play a significant role in leveling the playing field and eventually reducing income inequality. According to the U.S. Department of Education and the Center of Education at Georgetown University, about a third of undergraduate students in U.S. universities and colleges are first-generation learners whose bachelor degree graduation rates within six years from starting their studies are only 25 percent. About 54 percent of these first-generation students are adult learners (ages older than 24). 4.5 million undergraduate students are both first-generation and low-income and their bachelor degree completion rate is only 11 percent.

Dr. Yoram NeumannDr. Yoram Neumann

The improvement of the quality of learning experience and graduation outcomes for first-generation university adult learners has always been an area of utmost importance to me. I  was a first-generation college student who completed three degree programs (bachelor, master and Ph.D. levels) as an adult learner while working full-time with children, in addition to being fully financially responsible for my own university education. Early on, I devised for ourselves learning strategies that enabled me to successfully juggle an environment with multiple commitments. I did it more than four decades ago, long before recent developments in cognitive sciences and the psychology of learning uncovered those strategies. The results of using these strategies even surprised me. I completed my bachelor degree in three years with dual majors (economics and statistics). After receiving my MBA degrees with Summa Cum Laude honors, I completed the Ph.D. degree in 18 months (from Cornell University).

It was only natural, given this background, that the development of an online learning model aimed at leveling the playing field was the focus of my effort over the past several decades. Assessment, experimentation, and implementation of new ideas were used to continuously improve a comprehensive learner-focused model that helped 16,000 adult students to successfully achieve their educational goals and to increase their economic opportunities. The model focuses on the “learning-to-learn” ability. This is the ability to persist in learning through student awareness of his/her learning needs, effective search for information, efficient time management and the use of support to overcome challenges. Students with high learning-to-learn ability will find greater success. The individual’s learning-to-learn abilities are addressed in three stages. The first stage involves improving the learner’s search behavior by providing learning cues or other supporting mechanism designed to improve pre-identified areas where the learner may experience difficulty. Second, the learner is provided with a variety of learning activities with timely, constructive and supportive faculty feedback. Finally, the learner employs self-reflection to increase his/her ability to self-regulate the mastery of learning outcomes and competencies. This model was consistently assessed for the general adult student body and for first-generation university adult learners.

Student services are specifically designed to support the model. A customized integrated information system was built to support student learning, to allow for highly interactive teaching and learning, and to provide real time feedback to faculty and academic leadership on student progress in their courses and degree program, retention, graduation rates, and time-to-degree. Finally, faculty members are the vital and central part of this model responsible for high level of student engagement and interaction as well as for providing immediate and constructive feedback and guidance to the learner. The overall assessment found that adult learners using this learning model outperformed a control group receiving the traditional face-to-face instruction from the same professors. Even more important, the benefits of the model for first-generation adult learners in comparison with other adult learners were substantially higher.

Early on, I discovered that to receive maximal benefits from this learning model, learners must be committed to uninterrupted learning. Learners, who made that commitment and progressed in their degree program without interruptions, significantly outperformed those learners who exercised the leave of absence option. Moreover, learners who opted for accelerated learning outperformed all other learners. These outcomes were even more prevalent among first-generation adult learners. Consequently, a performance-based scholarship program was implemented that rewards uninterrupted progress and further rewards accelerated progress. The merit based scholarship not only promotes learning and assists learners in advancing their education and careers, but also makes the cost of attaining bachelor or master degree programs more affordable than non-profit, for-profit and the vast majority of state supported institutions. This performance-based component adds an extrinsic motivational dimension to a model that has already incorporated intrinsic motivators and meta-cognition.

Finally, my experience and studies uncover strategies that are extremely beneficial to first-generation adult learners with little prior knowledge of the subject matter. Learners who participated in pre-course learning orientation activities related to time management, learning tips and a variety of supporting techniques outperformed learners who did not. While we found this to be true across the spectrum of learners, the maximal improvement was observed for first-generation learners. Similarly, learners who received weekly tips from their professors to take control of their weekly learning activities outperformed learners who did not receive such tips. Again, the maximal improvement was observed for first-generation adult learners.

All the aforementioned learning-model based outcomes extend beyond academic performance in a single course and also include higher retention and graduation rates as well as reduced time-to-degree across all degree programs or degree levels for all groups of learners. Still, it is the first-generation adult learners who are the big winners, gaining more from the model than any other group.

Online university education outlined in this article can serve as an important vehicle for leveling the playing field, increasing economic opportunities and eventually reducing income inequality for the up and coming first-generation college adult learners.

Dr. Yoram Neumann is the Chancellor and Chief Executive Officer and University Professor of Business Administration at Touro University Worldwide.

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