December 20, 2011

Fears of the Nontraditional Student: A Focus on E-Learning

by Jennifer Dress, Pharm.D., PGY2 Psychiatric Pharmacy Resident, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy 

Non-traditional adult learners inevitably face barriers related to pursuing a college degree. These barriers tend to differ from those experienced by traditional learners. Essentially, non-traditional adult learners (i.e. part-time students, full-time workers, parents, and those not pursuing a college degree immediately after finishing high school) may encounter limited access to classes at a convenient time and place. A recent blog published by Dr. Flemming highlights some of the issues encountered when “teaching across ages.”1 However, there seems to be opportunities to develop strategies to increase course access and overcome these issues. Some may think the answer is at our fingertips. What better way to solve the problem than to offer online courses! 

Online courses may overcome some of these situational and dispositional barriers. Specifically, they may circumvent situations in which adult learners find it difficult to attend classes on campus. Non-traditional students may also feel segregated from traditional learners because of differences in age, responsibilities, and energy levels. This may be overcome by the anonymity and flexibility that online courses offer. Consequently, nontraditional learners may begin to feel their opportunities and educational experience align with traditional students. Or don’t they?

Although online courses may prove beneficial for busy adults, a new barrier may surface: fear. Instead of reducing the limitations facing non-traditional students, e-learning may bring forth fear of the unknown, fear of technology, and fear of losing control.2 A recent study conducted at a college in Boston highlighted some fears students have regarding e-learning. A survey sent to 64 faculty members and 234 part-time students taking courses in the summer of 2008 revealed that students and faculty members were least comfortable with online courses and social media sites when compared to websites that were used for informational purposes or had transactional tools.2 

However, only 74.4% of students and 33.3% of faculty had actually taken/taught an online class.2 Furthermore, those individuals who had not participated in an online class were significantly more likely to rank the online classes as more difficult than face-to-face courses (p<0.05). Despite the small sample size and pooled analysis of both teachers and students, an inference can be made from the study. E-learning naive respondents seem to be afraid of losing control over their learning environment and the means of communication.

Evidence from a study conducted in 2008 shows a benefit from blending both an online and face-to-face teaching component for students in an interprofessional team development course.3 The students, majoring in pharmacy, medicine, nursing, and other health care fields, were divided into groups attending traditional face-to-face lectures and those enrolled in the blended classes. Results from pre/post tests, in-class observation, and student polling showed no significant difference between the team process skills both groups acquired. Therefore, the quality of blended classes and face-to-face classes appear equal, but the importance of carefully considering the percentage of each component needed to satisfy learning objectives is crucial.3 

Despite the new obstacle introduced by technology, there is hope. First, we need to address the lack of confidence and fear of technology exhibited by students and faculty.  Faculty can receive support through instructional designers and pedagogical training in order to gain confidence and develop interesting and appropriate course designs.2,4 We can also learn by example from the University of Maryland, who successfully implemented a strategy to increase innovation of online teaching tools in early 2000 through provision of mini-grants for support and incentive.5 Finally, a less costly idea would be to develop a mentoring program to provide support to faculty and students involved in e-learning. Coming from someone who has feared technology at times, I feel these ideas are a good start to get all students united in their pursuit of a college degree.   In conclusion, the hope is that students, including myself, taking online courses will begin to feel the same as the learner captured in the following quote:

“I feel that I am able to express myself more effectively when
I have more time to think about the issues and questions.
I know that I will be able to contribute more to class and to the discussions.”2


1.  Fleming, J. Teaching Across Generations. Baltimore (MD): Educational Theory and Practice; 2011 Nov 27.

2.  Sendall P, Shaw RJ, Round K, Larkin JT. Fear Factors: Hidden Challenges to OnlineLearning for Adults. In: Kidd T, editor. Online Education and Adult Learning: New Fronteirs for Teaching Practices. Pennsylvania: IGI Global; 2010. P. 81-100.

4.  Carbonaro M, King S, Taylor E, Satzinger F, Snart F. Integration of e-learning technologies in an interprofessional health science course.  Med Teach 2008; 30:25-33.

5.  Educause Learning Initiative (2008, August). Educause. Fritz, J. Lessons learned from a faculty incentive grant program. Educause Mid Atlantic Regional Conference (MARC); 2004; Baltimore, Maryland. Educause; 2004.

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