Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Adult learners in cyberspace - Prepare for lift-off

Allan Goody
Centre for Staff Development
The University of Western Australia
    The use of technology in the delivery of education seems to be growing at an ever increasing rate. However there is the danger that teaching in cyberspace, that is, the use of web based teaching, particularly for learning at a distance, is growing faster than our ability to understand its impact on the basics of learning theory and the organisation and management of the delivery of courses. This mode of delivery is often cited as being a big advantage for non-traditional students who have difficulty in attending regular on campus classes. But have we given enough thought to the adult learner and their preparation for learning in cyberspace? And what about the instructor who will face a whole range of emotional, psychological, pedagogical, organisational and physical factors?

    This paper examines a course taught in cyberspace for adult students enrolled in a masters program. Everyone involved was new to this mode of teaching. What seemed like a great idea on the launch pad quickly suffered basic mechanical problems at lift-off, resulting in the shutting down of some engines, some running repairs, a slight change in the flight path and refiring of the main boosters.

    Questions were raised by both the students and the facilitator about the compatibility and preparedness of adult learners and teaching in cyberspace. This lead to an examination of the use of technology, the organisation, conduct and management of the cyberspace course and how the principles of adult learning might explain some of what occurred. This paper highlights some of what the group concluded and what preparation is needed in planning for teaching and learning in cyberspace.

Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 Home Page


The use of technology in the delivery of education is growing rapidly. In fact "there is some danger that the innovations ... are advancing faster than our understanding of its practical uses" (Merisotis & Phipps, 1999, p. 13). Instructors are trying to understand the impact of this technology on basic learning theory and the organisation and management of the delivery of courses, while at the same time trying to deliver the course content. Technology, in particular the use of web based delivery methods, is used in both the enhancement teaching and learning in face to face classes and for the provision of distance education courses. The 'computer generation' has grown up with technology and utilising the world wide web as part of their education is almost second nature. But the generations before face the prospect of learning to use computers and all the programs that come with them. This paper looks at what happened in an adult learning course offered in cyberspace (web based delivery).

What happened from the first day of the class could appropriately be termed a 'revolution'. The combination of adult learners, varying degrees of computer literacy, a new delivery mode, a facilitator who was inexperienced with web based teaching, content which focused on the principles of adult learning and development, together with the inevitable technical glitches, produced an exciting and informative exercise in teaching and learning. The outcomes of the course helped inform the development and offering of further graduate courses using web based delivery. It also identified the need for adult learners, including the instructors, to be prepared for 'lift-off' into cyberspace teaching and learning.

The course as it was designed

Learning in Adulthood is a required credit course offered in a masters degree program in adult and higher education taught in a ten week quarter in the traditional format of weekly 4 hour classes. On the initiative of the facilitator, a senior member of the faculty, it was decided that the course be offered in cyberspace. The facilitator, who had extensive experience in distance learning instruction, had not previously taught in cyberspace and had limited exposure to the internet and associated technology. The decision to offer the course in cyberspace was made so as to trial the technology and to create more flexible access for non-traditional students. Confidence in the decision was enhanced by assurances of success from the computer resource specialists.

The course was structured as a mix of face to face meetings (first and last class) and cyberspace discussion groups. The first meeting was to facilitate student introductions and an orientation to the internet. The last class was for student presentations and course evaluations. The students were required to work in small groups using the synchronous chat rooms to plan their projects.

The students represented a range of non-traditional students, ages ranging from 23 to 55 years, a variety of life and work experiences, generally active in the community and fulfilling a number of life roles. Twenty percent considered themselves computer literate, the majority having limited or no computer experience, usually nothing more than word processing skills and a limited introduction to the internet through casual surfing of the web.

The major assessment in the course was a case study developed in learning teams of five. Each team was to examine the learning orientations and experiences of several individuals in the context of the principles and practices of adult education. Individual concept papers and journals were also required. Texts by Brookfield (1986) and Merriam and Caffarella (1995) guided the students in their studies. The computer support staff provided technical support including establishing and maintaining the course web site, providing an orientation to the internet and dealing with software and system problems.

What happened

The students came to the first class expecting a traditionally taught course in the face to face format. There had been rumours and some publicity that the course might be delivered over the internet. The rumours were confirmed. Then the realities began to emerge. Not all students had access to a computer off campus. This meant they had to come to campus to use the computer laboratories, thus diminishing one of the initial aims of having the course online. It was soon discovered that few students were computer literate enough to navigate the web site. Some did not even have email accounts established with the university. Technical glitches further darkened the mood. The university owned technology failed to respond to the demands put upon it.

Students expressed feelings of anger, resistance, challenge, excitement, frustration and anxiety. Change was being forced upon them and many were not ready for it, mainly because they did not understand it and were disoriented. A revolt was sparked. Then a remarkable thing happened. The learners took charge of their own learning. Perhaps not so remarkable considering they were adult learners. Only one student quit.

Through negotiation between the students and the facilitator the course was reinvented to accommodate the curriculum requirements and the learners needs. By the end of the first meeting the structure of the course had changed. There was an increase in the number of face to face class meetings including another for the second class. This provided the students with the chance to reflect on the first class, what was expected of them and how they were going to respond to the situation. This meeting also provided another opportunity for further introduction to the technology. What happened that first evening also forced the facilitator to step back and evaluate the situation and process what had happened in the first four hours of the course.

Perhaps the most significant outcome was the change to the case study. The students saw an opportunity here for real and meaningful learning. Through negotiation and collaborative development by the class and the facilitator, the case study changed from being a study of some adult learner to a study of the students themselves as adult learners. Each team developed a case study that described themselves as adult learners and how the process in which they were currently engaged reflected or conflicted with the generally accepted principles and practices of adult learning and development.

What the outcomes of the course tell us

Questions were raised by both the students and the facilitator about the compatibility of adult learners and teaching in cyberspace. Through the case study, the class and the facilitator examined the use of technology, the organisation, conduct and management of the cyberspace course and how the principles of adult learning might explain some of what occurred. They also provided some issues to consider in preparing adults for teaching and learning in cyberspace.

Generally accepted principles for effective practice in adult education

The six principles for effective practice that apply to the teaching-learning transaction, curriculum development and instructional design in adult education (Brookfield, 1986) provide some insight as to why the students felt empowered in seeking changes and why the course was successful. These principles, voluntary participation, self direction, praxis, critical reflection, mutual respect and collaborative facilitation, can be readily identified in the actions and motives of the students and how they moved through the course and produced the case study. These principles provide a guide for those developing courses for adult learners, whether the courses are formal or non-formal, or offered in traditional or emerging flexible delivery modes.

The human factor

Technology cannot replace the human factor in education. The students in the class missed the social contact of traditional classes and the connections of a cohort group. Initially they felt disconnected from the teaching learning process. A significant factor that attracted students to this course was the personal style and reputation of the facilitator. Many students missed the verbal and visual cues that the facilitator used in the traditional classroom sometimes feeling marginalised by written comments that lacked the verbal cues for interpretation. The facilitator also noted the lack of visual and verbal connection so important to her teaching. The technology also had an effect, positive and negative, on the quality and quantity of student and facilitator responses. The asynchronous nature of the conferencing facility allowed for my thoughtful responses. However, it also removed the spontaneity and creativeness in responses.

The technology factor

The technology - access to computers, learners being computer illiterate, lack of understanding of adult learners on the part of the technicians, and failure of the equipment - contributed to a stratifying effect, creating an inequality among the learners. Many students felt that the technology was overshadowing the course content and taking away from learning. The technology used in the delivery of courses can disorient, intimidate, isolate and disempower adult learners. As much as the communications revolution brings the world together it also isolates individuals. Increased access to education through technology is more than it just being available, its also having the tools and knowing how to use them. Whether technology enhances learning is the subject for much debate. Russell (1999) would argue it does not; nor does it diminish learning.

Transformative learning

Transformative learning (Mezirow, 1990; Cranton, 1994) is an integral and often unanticipated part of the adult learning process. In this course the students were, as the facilitator put it, 'living the content' and they were transformed as a result. The process of change that the class went through called for reflection on the content of the learning and the process. Change creates stress which can inhibit learning (Akerlind & Trevitt, 1999). Reflection on the process helps the learners understand the change and better cope with it.

The context of learning and the role of the instructor and the student

Change is not simply about learning new skills. We cannot simply transfer teaching and learning strategies from one context to another without considering the characteristics of the new environment, the learners and what it is that we want them to learn. The instructor's role is expanded beyond that of facilitator of learning as they deal with a variety of educational issues and more. "When instructors begin to use electronic communication for education they experience a whole new set of physical, emotional, and psychological issues along with the educational issues" (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). The role of the student is changing with greater emphasis on self direction and self discipline. Time management skills need to be integral to the course content. Development of team skills is also necessary.

Program planning

Adult learners want to be involved in decisions that affect their learning and how they go about it. Involvement in the decision making enhances the chance for success by giving the learners a sense of ownership of the program (Goody & Kozoll, 1995). Programs, including formal and for credit courses, must be flexible and responsive to the needs of the learners.


The course was essentially about adult learning and development with a group of adults as students that provided an interesting opportunity for learning beyond the explicit course objectives. In what became the new design for the course, the students began an intense process of reflection and self study of themselves and the facilitator as adult learners. The outcomes of the course pointed to a number of issues of preparedness for adults learning in cyberspace. The outcomes also reinforced what we already know about the principles and practice of program planning for adult education. In this course, communication technologies simply added a new dimension.

Merisotis and Phipps (1999) in a review of the research on the effectiveness of distance education concluded that the technology involved "is not nearly as important as other factors, such as learning tasks, learner characteristics, student motivation and the instructor" (p. 17). This was certainly the case with this course. Once the class had accepted the inevitable change, they dismissed the technology as simply being the craft that took them into cyberspace. Then these cyber-learners stuck to their new flight plan, successfully completed the course and achieved their learning objectives.


Akerlind, G.S. and Trevitt, A. C. (1999). Enhancing self directed learning through educational technology: When students resist the change. Innovations in Education and Training International, 36(2), 96-105.

Brookfield, S. D. (1986). Understanding and facilitating adult learning: A comprehensive analysis of principles and effective practices. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cranton, P. (1994). Understanding and promoting transformative learning: A guide for Educators of Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Goody, A. E. & Kozoll, C. E. (1995). Program development in continuing education. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Merisotis, J. P. & Phipps, R. A. (1999). What's the difference? Outcomes of distance vs. traditional classroom based learning. Change, 31(3), 13-17.

Merriam, S. B. & Caffarella, R. S. (1991). Learning in adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1990). Conclusion: Toward transformative learning and emancipatory education. In J. Merizow and Associates (eds.), Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood: A Guide to Transformative and Emancipatory Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Palloff, R. M. and Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace: Effective strategies for the online classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Russell, T. L. (1999). The no significant difference phenomenon. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University.

Please cite as: Goody, A. (2000). Adult learners in cyberspace - Prepare for lift-off. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/goody.html

[ TL Forum 2000 Proceedings Contents ] [ TL Forums Index ]
HTML: Roger Atkinson, Teaching and Learning Centre, Murdoch University [rjatkinson@bigpond.com]
This URL: http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/goody.html
Last revision: 19 Feb 2002. Curtin University of Technology
Previous URL 3 Dec 1999 to 19 Feb 2002 http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/confs/tlf/tlf2000/goody.html