Adult Education and the Internet Term Paper

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[. . .] Second, the quantity or length of experience is not necessarily connected to its richness or intensity. For example, in an adult educational career spanning 30 years the same one year's experience can, in effect, be repeated thirty times. Indeed, one's 'experience' over these 30 years can be interpreted using uncritically assimilated cultural filters in such a way as to prove to oneself that students from certain ethnic groups are lazy or that fear is always the best stimulus to critical thinking. Because of the habitual ways we draw meaning from our experiences, these experiences can become evidence for the self-fulfilling prophecies that stand in the way of critical insight. Uncritically affirming people's histories, stories and experiences risks idealizing and romanticizing them. Experiences are neither innocent nor free from the cultural contradictions that inform them.

Clearly the use of the Internet as an educational technology (when this problem is not acknowledged and dealt with) can allow the drawbacks of experiential contextualization to persist, where, perhaps in a traditional learning environment -- one that includes students of varying age, experience, cultural and ideological background, and one that forces the adult learner's participation in discussion and dialogue -- the vantage points of other students may have a greater influence and changing effect. Here, awareness of the problem can be an important tool in developing and implementing "online courses," for educators can employ discussion groups online that have the ability to closely mimic physical classroom participation.

A third area of difference that is commonly attributed to adult learners is their tendency to want to relate what they learn to specific and tangible needs in their lives. As a group, they seek education as a means to advance professionional and social/economic position. Interestingly, this can also be an asset or a detriment depending upon the subject being studied.

For example, as a group, adult learners tend to favor the practical side of learning rather than the theoretical. Further, not only do adult learners lean toward practicality in their educational preferences, but they are far less willing (or far less able) to allow their studies to take precedence over other aspects of their lives -- aspects that may include family or career obligations. It is this overriding tendency among adult students to place their studies in a secondary position that has led to the increasing popularity of Internet-based education. This is simply because the online format allows a greater flexibility of time and resources than that found in a traditional classroom.

It is hardly surprising that given the pervasive traits among the majority of adult learners (including self-directedness, high levels of personal experience, and a desire for practicality), that the Internet is a particularly popular, and powerful tool in the adult education milieu. To be sure, unlike previously unwieldy, complicated, and dubious "correspondence course" formats, Internet-based adult education is gaining legitimacy, practicality, and popularity among students and educators alike. However, a solid grasp of some of the pitfalls of adult learners can help educators develop Internet-based methods that serve to counter those pitfalls.

Learning Theories and Processes in Adults

The way in which adults learn is often described as a process quite different from one a child might experience. Although the subject of learning process can be every bit as complex and controversial as the characteristics common to the adult learner, four major process theories often emerge.

Although many site the four major processes as acquisition, reflection, practical need, and embodied co-emergent, it can be helpful to view the four process theories as "perspectives."

In this vein, Tara Fenwick describes these four theories of process as lenses through which adult learning processes might be viewed. She writes:

Mindful of these three considerations, we offer in this chapter various theories of adult learning grouped into four perspectives. Think of these as four different lenses for viewing learning processes. The learning as acquisition lens understands knowledge as a substantive thing - a skill or competency, concept, new language, habit, expertise, or wisdom - that an individual obtains through learning experiences. Learning as reflection is a lens focusing on learners as active constructors of knowledge, creating new meanings and realities rather than ingesting pre-existing knowledge. The practice-based community lens of learning focuses more on people's ability to participate meaningfully in everyday activities within particular communities of practice than on their mental meanings. Going even further, the lens of learning as embodied co-emergent process challenges people-centered notions to portray learning as emerging in the relationships that develop among everyone and everything in that situation - people, spatial arrangements and movements, tools and objects. While appearing mutually oppositional, these four perspectives are not as clearly distinct as this categorization implies.

As mentioned above, the acquisition model of the adult learning process describes learning as an almost impartial -- as if there are no underlying issues of difference among the adult learner population. In the purely acquisition model, knowledge is a "thing" equally obtainable by all adult learners in the same way. However, as Fenwick observes, the model acknowledges difference mainly through varying levels of "experience" that the individual student is capable of bringing to the table. According to Fenwick (and several other critics), it fails to address the following:

acquisition theories tend to imply a fundamentally additive conception of learning. Their representation of knowledge as a substantive thing pre-existing the learning individual who ingests it is vehemently denied by critics...Acquisition does not focus on the differential knowledge that people construct, individually and collectively, through different meanings of their experiences. Nor does it dwell on how adults revisit and re-construct these meanings, or how they often experience transformation of identities and knowledge through reflective learning processes.

The next "lens" or theory of the adult learning process, the "reflection" model, is particularly appealing when one remembers the theory that adult learners tend to favor individuality in education. Although this process theory supports the fundamental individuality trait, it also brings to the forefront an inherent difficulty that adult learners and educators might encounter -- namely that the understanding of a particular concept, or idea is relative to the individual learner, and may differ substantially from the understanding of other students, or even the instructor.

Fenwick writes:

This prevalent and influential adult learning perspective casts the individual as a central actor in a drama of personal meaning making. As learners reflect on their lived experience, they actively interpret what they see and hear, emphasizing aspects of greatest personal interest or familiarity, and so construct and transform their own unique knowledge. This means that in a classroom of adults listening to a presentation, each learner will most likely construct a very different understanding of what they are hearing (which may or may not approximate what the speaker thinks she is saying!).

The practice-based model, on the other hand seems to encounter less of this "relative" nature of knowledge, and instead focuses on learning in a situational context -- one in which the participants agree on the "practice." This situational context can include groups of individuals in the workplace, organization, club, or sports team (to name a few examples). In this reality, learning is embedded in the circumstances in which the group exists, and, by extension, in which the individual learner belongs. Here, almost no emphasis is placed on the individual's reasoning, experience, or individual understanding, but instead, on the version of valued knowledge that the group acquires, values, and promotes.

However, like most real-life situations, the practice-based community model has its drawbacks. This includes the vast chasm that opens up between ultimate universal "truth" and "untruth." Learning becomes relevant only to a particular group situation.

The final common theory of adult learning process is the "learning as embodied and co-emergent." This theory of process is far more complex and encompassing than the previous three, and involves the "interconnection" of individual adult learners with all of the contexts in which they interact (and the "truths" and knowledge contained within those contexts). One common way in which this theory is explained is by comparing it to a "conversation:"

Educators might understand this phenomenon through the example of conversation. As each contributes, changing the conversational dynamic, other participants are changed, the relational space and governing rules among them all changes, and the looping-back changes the contributor. This is 'mutual specification' (Varela et al., 1991), the fundamental dynamic of systems constantly engaging in joint action and interaction. As actors are influenced by symbols and actions in which they participate, they adapt and learn. As they do so, their behaviors and thus their effects upon the systems connected with them change. With each change these complex systems shift, changing their patterns of interaction and the individual identities of all actors enmeshed in them. Thus environment and learner… [END OF PREVIEW]

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