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Online Learning: A Smart Choice for Adult Learners

Tile image of a Desk with coffee cup and laptop

If your concept of education has always included a classroom with students, desks and a teacher, chances are you might be someone who balks at the notion of taking an online course.

But the perception – more common among adult learners – that effective and rewarding learning cannot take place in an online environment is rapidly heading the way of cassette tapes and dial phones.   

“There are plenty of myths about online learning, most of them perpetrated by people who have no experience with online learning or knowledge of the issues surrounding it,” said Richard Novak, associate vice president for continuing studies and distance learning in Rutgers’ Division of Continuing Studies.

Novak has been associated with online learning at Rutgers since 1998 and is an expert on how adults returning to education later in life learn in different environments.  He directs Rutgers’ Center for Online and Hybrid Learning & Instructional Technologies (COHLIT), which helps faculty develop and teach online and hybrid – part online, part face-to-face  – courses.

“The debate over the effectiveness of learning online has long been over,” Novak said. “Several large-scale studies are reporting better learning outcomes for online learning than for some face-to-face courses.”

A major meta-analysis of distance education studies by the U.S. Department of Education concluded that hybrid courses are the optimal model for learning, notes Novak.

By virtue of their life experiences, adult learners bring many advantages to the online environment that their younger counterparts may not have, Novak says. “Most important are their personal organization skills, study skills, life management skills and their dedication, in which adult learners tend to have an advantage,” he says.

With both credit and noncredit online offerings proliferating at Rutgers and other universities, what makes some people reluctant to go that route? Here are some of the chief misconceptions:

“I don’t do technology well.”

Fear of technology and the technology requirements for online education is often cited by adult learners. “This turns out to be unfounded in most cases, especially as well-designed courses make it easier to ignore the technology and focus on the content,” Novak says. “As long as adults can search and navigate the internet, handle email, upload and download documents,  and have a relatively new computer and good internet access, they will be fine.”

“How does my professor know if I’m there, or if I’m learning?”

Brent Monahan, a COHLIT instructor who trains faculty to develop and teach online courses, says a well-designed course will incorporate methods to assess student progress. These include testing, written assignments and voice and written responses to a group discussion. The great advantage to students is that these interactions are recorded and available for future reference.

“There are also quantifying trackers built into the course that cannot show how well the student has learned, but can show the amount of time put into various activities,” Monahan said.

‘I’ll miss the human connection in the classroom.”

“Some adults worry about missing out on the social aspect of learning, or that they will be isolated as if on a desert island,” Novak says. “This concern has some merit, but well-designed online courses are not a solitary experience; they build interactivity heavily into their design. Learners interact with each other, the instructor and the course material.”

Interactivity is required, unlike in a traditional classroom, “where passive attendance is acceptable.”

Ironically, says Monahan, students in an online class may get to know each other better than they would in a traditional classroom.

“They have more time, and they have tools that allow communication from ‘side to side’,” he says. “Also, hard as it may be to believe, the instructor can be more accessible in an online environment. Good online teachers check into their courses on a regular basis.”

Among the advantages of online learning is the ability of students to self-pace and also to experience a course in a way that suits their learning style or abilities. Aural or visual learners, or those with disabilities, have access to different methods in the online environment, Monahan said.

Overall, Rutgers is at the forefront in developing well-designed online courses that focus on the learner, says Monahan. There has been tremendous growth in the number of credit and noncredit courses and programs being offered online or in hybrid format.  The Division of Continuing Studies and other continuing education units as well as academic departments at Rutgers have been steadily increasing their online offerings.

“The growing acceptance by major employers of employees with online degrees and the shifting of much staff development and training to an online mode reflects, at least in part, the effectiveness of online learning,” Novak said.

According to Novak, the greater challenges for adult learners may simply lie in reviving rusty skills or learning how to use today’s academic libraries.

“Even adults who may be adept at managing their time and who have the study skills to succeed will face some challenges as they return to higher education,” Novak says. “For example, the process for doing academic or scholarly research has changed. Accessing library resources is different than it was 10 or even five years ago.

“The good news is that Rutgers, as well as other fine institutions, offer support for students as they learn how to learn with these new tools.”

For more information on online learning at Rutgers, visit

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