What is Adult Education?

Higher Education today is in a very volatile state. It is in the process of embracing technology while fighting to maintain the model that some feel is the only method for quality. In the past quality meant that a student would go to the hallowed halls of the ivory tower, subjected to teacher-centered instruction in [...]

Higher Education today is in a very volatile state. It is in the process of embracing technology while fighting to maintain the model that some feel is the only method for quality. In the past quality meant that a student would go to the hallowed halls of the ivory tower, subjected to teacher-centered instruction in hopes of entering the ranks of the “intelligencia.” Today, that model is still out there but it is losing ground. Instead, programs catering to the needs of the adult learner are on the rise. However, many in higher education lack of understanding about what adult education is.

Before discussing adult education, a definition for what is not adult education would be helpful. For the sake of argument, this review will differentiate between “traditional” education and “adult” education. Traditional education, that which has been in place in higher education for years, refers to the path many Americans (and non-Americans) have followed from secondary school to post-secondary schools in the age range of 18 – 24 years old. As a cohort of students, the focus of the traditional student does not typically include the “real life” details of adults (family, work, budget, health, etc.). Instead, the social aspects of college often play a more important role for the traditional student.

There are many types of adult learning. The model below shows several adult learning modes present in the field today. When some hear the term, they think of GED programming for those that did not finish high school. That is an older (circa 1970s) model that still has its place and is more often connected with well-established community college systems. Important as a seminal model, it is not what many think of when they hear the term.

Another area of adult learning is graduate programs. While graduate programs, in their format, may not be structured as “adult-friendly” programming, by default, they are programs for adults. Based on the normal progression of education in the United States, individuals reach graduate programs as they are really starting to think about adult issues in their life. Alternatively, adults who have already been out in “real life” (out of college for a while) come back to get a graduate degree. In both examples, the priorities of student in graduate programs, as a cohort, are decidedly adult in nature.

Another format that very often caters to the adult learning format is that of online education. There are many formats for online education. For that reason, it cannot be automatically classified as adult education just because it is online education as some traditional programs have moved their programming online and kept to the essentials of a traditional format (i.e. traditional assessments, semester-based formats, synchronous delivery in some cases, etc.). However, the largest of online programs are geared and designed for adults. Programs like University of Phoenix, Capella University, Walden University, Liberty University, Ohio Christian University, Indiana Wesleyan University and others have online programs specifically for adult learners.

Still, while examples of adult learning may be seen throughout higher education, clarity regarding the specifics is important. There are many theoretical points of view on adult education. Coined in 1833 by Alexander Kapp, the term “Andragogy” as used in the adult education market currently was popularized by Malcolm Knowles in referring to the difference in the way adults learn and are taught. While there is disagreement on whether or not Andragogy (as defined by Knowles) is a theory or a set of guiding principles, the fact remains that the construct speaks directly to the needs of adult learners. There are six guiding principles of Knowles’ (Knowles, Holston, & Swanson, 2005) Andragogy:

  1. Adults need to know why they need to learn something before learning it.
  2. The self-concept of adults is heavily dependent upon a move toward self-direction.
  3. Prior experiences of the learner provide a rich resource for learning.
  4. Adults typically become ready to learn when they experience a need to cope with a life situation or perform a task.
  5. Adults’ orientation to learning is life-centered; education is a process of developing increased competency levels to achieve their full potential.
  6. The motivation for adult learners is internal rather than external (p. 159).
  7. With these principles in mind, the curriculum for adult programs should be developed from a perspective that meets adult learners where they are in order to enhance their learning most effectively.

Regarding format, InterLearn holds to a very specific format for developing adult learning. We use a unimodule concept to develop accelerated curriculum. That is, a course is developed for use as a fully online, asynchronous course and for use as a fully onsite synchronous course. For both the online and onsite courses, undergraduate, three-semester-hour courses are set at five (5) weeks in length. Each course is broken down into one-week units that include a foundational devotion for the week, discussion questions, assignments (based on authentic assessment methods), readings, and micro-lectures and presentations. Due to the accelerated nature of the courses and programs that we design, objectives and outcomes are developed with higher-level critical thinking in place. In programs we design, courses are offered in a cohort fashion (a group of students stays together throughout the program for all courses), take one course at a time (unless an elective is added), and progress through a set order on the courses. In our model (that is the same that University of Phoenix, Ohio Christian, Indiana Wesleyan, and others use), students complete about 27 semester hours per year and have five – six weeks of vacation from the program. Cohorts are scheduled for regular starts throughout the year (typically about every six to eight weeks) based on the demand for the program. Additionally, students are registered as full-time students for financial aid purposes. For marketing and effective systems purposes, our programs are offered as associate’s degrees (60 hours) and bachelor’s core (roughly 40 – 50 hours, depending on the program). Upon completion of the bachelor’s core (and institutional general education requirements), students are eligible to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from the institution.


Knowles, M.S., Holton III, E.F., & Swanson, R.A. (2005). The adult learner (6th edition). Burlington, MA: Elsivier.

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