HETL Global Communities

Engagement of Non-Traditional Adult Learners in Distance Education

March 23, 2014 in Volume 4

HETL note: We are proud to present the March 2014 issue of the International HETL Review (IHR) with the feature article contributed by Caulyne N. Barron (Dunlap-Stone University, USA). The author reviews the extant literature and provides a comprehensive analysis of an emerging multi-dimensional framework that may be used to describe the needs and aspirations of non-traditional adult learners, and identifies the key factors that may influence student engagement in this specific context. With a reference to best practice the article provides useful highlights into how distance education programmes may be developed and implemented in order to create a teaching and learning environment that supports for non-traditional adults students and helps them achieve their goals. You may submit your own article on the topic or you may submit a “letter to the editor” of less than 500 words (see the Submissions page on this portal for submission requirements).

CaulyneBarronImageAuthor bio: Throughout her career, Caulyne Barron, Ed.D. has helped non-traditional students meet their personal and professional goals. Dr. Barron is the Chief Academic Officer at Dunlap-Stone University, a distance education institution, where she manages operations and academics, focusing on curriculum, assessment, and institutional improvement. She holds a Doctor of Education from Northeastern University, and a Master of Education in Adult Education and Higher Education Administration. She is an approved accreditation examiner, focusing on educational standards, for the Accrediting Commission of the Distance Education and Training Council. She has been a speaker on faculty development, adult education, and training’s return on investment. Her research centers on distance education, for-profit education, adult learners, and the regulatory environment of education. She can be reached at [email protected]


Engagement of Non-Traditional Adult Learners in Distance Education: Best Practices and Points of Convergence

Caulyne N. Barron

Dunlap-Stone University, U. S. A.


Adult distance learners are a growing population within higher education, yet little research exists to guide practitioners to best practices that increase engagement and retention of these students. This paper identifies points of convergence from the traditional engagement literature, adult learning theory and trends, and distance learning best practices to identify key factors that higher educational professionals should consider in the development, administration and review of distance learning programs that enroll non-traditional adult learners.

Keywords: Online learning, student engagement, non-traditional education, best practices, adult learners.


Higher education in the United States is changing dramatically. Colleges and universities often struggle to keep up with emerging best practices related to diverse populations. As more institutions develop online programs to tap into the growing market represented by distance learning and access for diverse student bodies, many fail to consider the unique engagement challenges non-traditional adult students present, or fail to meaningfully differentiate between best practices for engaging traditional, on-campus students and their non-traditional or distance learning peers.

Non-traditional students and distance learners are growing student populations requiring different engagement approaches to meet their needs. Since 2002, online enrollments have grown at nine times the rate of traditional education (Kolowich, 2011). In fact, Allen and Seaman’s (2014) survey of institutions found that at least 7.1 million students had taken at least one online course. Many distance learners are also “non-traditional” in some way—“older, working adults, or ethnic minorities”—who are estimated to make up 85% of the growth in higher education over the next century both online and on-ground (Kamenetz, 2010, p. xi). Rather than addressing single elements of the multiple identities of these students bring to their enrollment, keys to understanding the best ways to engage and retain non-traditional adult distance learners can be found at the intersections of traditional engagement practices, adult learning theory and distance learning best practices.

This paper presents each of these literature streams, beginning with a discussion of engagement, specifically that of traditional student bodies, and how engagement is measured. Non-traditional populations are then discussed, centering on the unique learning styles and challenges of adult students. The third section introduces emerging best practices for distance learning (or online) programs. The discussion then identifies common themes and shared applications for education professionals, presenting key points for practitioners to consider in order to increase engagement of non-traditional adult learners in distance learning programs based on findings from the literature, organized by topics evaluated by a national engagement metric.


In the broadest definition, student engagement is “characterized as participation in educationally effective practices, both inside and outside the classroom, which leads to a range of measurable outcomes” (Harper & Quaye, 2009, p. 2). These academic and non-academic experiences have a significant impact on engagement related issues like retention and persistence, according to Tinto’s (1975) student integration model (Angelino & Natvig, 2009). Traditional students in campus-based programs have a wide range of services and experiences available to them that promote engagement on campus and within the community surrounding the institution. In fact, Silverman, Aliabadi and Styles (2009) described those who live on campus, having enrolled full-time directly from high school, as the “most involved and engaged students on campus” (p. 224-225).

Institutions quantify engagement levels in a number of ways, including the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which measures five benchmarks of effective practice: level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences, and supportive campus environment (Coates, 2007; Harper & Quaye, 2009). High marks in each of these areas point to more engaged students, and those more likely to persist and complete their studies.

The NSSE site allows researchers to set specific parameters to search the results. First year distance education students had different ratings in these areas in the 2013 NSSE data. They scored their institutions just slightly higher in the level of academic challenge and in supportive campus environment, but lower in enriching educational experiences, active and collaborative learning, and student faculty interaction. From this data, it would appear that distance education students are less engaged than their on-campus peers.

Traditional Campus-Based Students and Persistence

Campus-based, traditional undergraduates face their own challenges and barriers to retention. They may encounter questions of identity based on ethnicity, religion, country of origin, language, sexual orientation or disability, facing for the first time a community different from that of their home (Harper & Quaye, 2009). To meet these challenges, a host of best practices emerge that engage the whole student and create a sense of belonging and community on campus. From “bridge” programs to multicultural experiences, targeted initiatives can help build the level of engagement for students. By identifying actions tied to specific engagement metrics of the NSSE, the overall engagement, therefore persistence, should increase on among the study body (Coates, 2007; Harper & Quaye, 2009).

Yet, the model most institutions of higher learning use is tailored to meet only the challenges of traditional students in classroom- and campus-based models. In fact, while it is common for institutions to develop programs to increase retention, they are either so broadly or so narrowly applied, they are often wasteful or fail to make an impact (Herreid & Miller, 2009). Traditional students have more resources available to them than the majority of nontraditional distance learners, who are often an after-thought, if considered at all. Limited office hours, parking or transportation issues, geographic distance, and a lack of familiarity with organizational structure or policies are all elements that can place nontraditional distance learners at a disadvantage to their traditional peers. More on-campus events, residential life programs or traditional college-age activities are not sufficient to engage the full campus population, especially one that includes adult distance learners.

Non-Traditional Adult Learners

The dual shifts towards credentialing a more knowledgeable workforce and an emphasis in creating “a more accessible and egalitarian higher education system” have presented opportunities for adult learners to return to higher education (Kasworm, Sandmann, & Sissel, 2000, p. 449). This shift can be seen as early as the 1999-2000 academic year, in which only 27% of students across higher education institutions could be classified as traditional (Philibert, Allen, & Elleven, 2008, p. 583). When the criteria are more specific—“full time students of standard college age enrolled in four-year public or non-profit college”—only 29% of undergraduates in the fall of 2011 met the criteria (Casselman, 2011, para. 5). These shifts are not unique to the United States. Non-traditional learners are “increasingly prevalent” in the United Kingdom as well, where 22% of students were over 21 in the 2007/2008 school year (Remedios & Richardson, 2013). They have been studied in settings ranging from the US, the UK, to Malasia (Nor, 2011) and cross-cultural comparisons (Hsieh, 2010). ‘Non-traditional’ is a label that encompasses a wide range of distinct subgroups and populations, each with their own engagement challenges, and is perhaps less descriptive of those it includes, aside from deeming them ‘other’.

Non-Normative Discourse

With the increase in the number of adult learners, the structures of higher education have, in most cases, failed to adapt, reflecting traditional models when addressing enrollments, schedules and persistence. These models assume that “students can fully participate in the academic and social life of the institution” without considering the other factors that may impact persistence (Philibert et al., 2008, p. 583). Adult learners should force institutions to reframe their processes and structures, yet they are still labeled with the non-normative ‘non-traditional’ designation. Not only are these students marginalized on campus, they are also marginalized in the literature (Donaldson & Townsend, 2007; Kasworm et al., 2000). Without scholarly attention on the issue, practitioners may be unaware of the problem. Many colleges and universities fail to consider the gap between the experiences of their traditional students and those who fall outside that series of expectations. Non-traditional students experience different levels of engagement when they rate their learning experiences compared to their traditional peers (Richardson, Long, & Woodley, 2003).

However, several researchers concede that the market of higher education is changing, and non-traditional students represent a significant market that must be addressed for institutions to remain competitive (Chang, 2009; Donaldson & Townsend, 2007; Kamenetz, 2010; Kasworm et al., 2000; Philibert, Allen, & Elleven, 2008). For-profit higher education institutions have led the way in capitalizing on these groups, meeting the needs of underserved populations (Kelly, 2001; Kinser, 2009; Turner, 2006; Winston, 1999). They have done so through alternative schedules and delivery models, open enrollment or less-competitive admissions, an emphasis on customer service, and programs tied to the specific job skills needed by students and the larger economy. Traditional institutions seeking to enroll and engage these populations should consider emulating their for-profit peers in this respect. Yet, because of the biases inherent against profit-seeking models of a perceived good, distance education, like for-profit education, may be seen as less robust or somehow lacking in quality (Barron, 2014; Hoskins, 2012).

Multiple Identities and Challenges

Regardless of profit-orientation, Gilardi and Guglielmetti (2011) note non-traditional students have a higher risk of dropping out before they complete their studies than their traditional peers. There are a number of factors tied to the experiences and demographics of adult learners that contribute to this fact. Non-traditional adult learners exemplify the construction of multiple identities faced by traditional undergraduate students (Jones & McEwen, 2000), “embedded in communities of practice—of family, work, and societal involvements” (Kasworm et al., 2000, p. 456). They face “competing needs” when it comes to how they allocate their time and energy based on “their priorities and their perceptions of the return on time invested” (Silverman et al., 2009, p. 225). Also, because of their status as “other” on campus, adult undergraduates may find that they are “invisible since traditional-age student experiences are treated as universal” (Donaldson & Townsend, 2007, p. 37).

Nontraditional adult students are often expected to adapt and act more like traditional students, further devaluing their experiences and perspectives that may be vastly different from those of their traditional peers. Efforts that focus college-readiness at the K-12 level alone “do not provide a model that support attempts to access and succeed in college, especially first-time college goers” (Zafft, 2008, p. 6). Students who require more than a year of remediation to master basic skills are less likely to complete their program (Zafft, 2008), so careful assessment and skill-building programs may be additional avenues to increase engagement and retention through preparation in these populations as well.

Characteristics and Needs of Adult Learners

MacKinnon-Slaney’s (1994) discussion of a model for encouraging persistence in adult learning in higher education considers the personal issues (such as self-awareness and clarification of career and life goals), learning issues (educational background) and environmental issues (information availability, campus climate, support systems).

More specifically the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) defined seven characteristics that typically describe non-traditional students, including delayed enrollment into postsecondary education, attending part-time, financially independent, working full-time while attending, having dependents other than a spouse, often a single parent, and sometimes lacking a standard high school diploma (Council for Adult and Experiential Learning [CAEL], 2000, p. 3). These students have different needs from their traditional peers and grapple with feelings of isolation, therefore face different engagement issues, even on traditional campuses (Gilardi & Guglielmetti, 2011; Kasworm et al., 2000).

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) (2000) suggested that non-traditional students need different information about their educational options, flexibility from the institution in both academic and support services, targeted advising in support of their goals, and recognition of the experiences and work-based learning they have already achieved. As a result, they suggest eight principles of effectiveness for serving adult learners. These span the topical areas of outreach, life and career planning, financing, assessment of learning outcomes, teaching-learning process, student support services, technology and strategic partnerships (CAEL, 2000, p. 5)

While traditional support staff has historically struggled to meet the needs of adult students (Silverman et al., 2009), these can still be addressed in meaningful ways. Comprehensive training for staff and faculty interacting with non-traditional learners presents opportunities to address concerns and increase persistence rates in this model by addressing the underlying concerns of the students to increase engagement while also recognizing that these students have different needs. Discussions that relate to the measurable areas identified by the National Survey of Student Engagement (level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences, and supportive campus environment) are a strong starting point for campus assessment, planning and change. By understanding the point of view of the individual student, the campus can better address their concerns, tying specific measures to actionable plans.

Adult Learning and Best Practices

Popularized by Malcolm Knowles, andragogy refers to “ways of thinking about working with adult learners” (Merriam & Brockett, 2007, p. 135). Knowles wrote that there were differences in the ways that educators should approach adult learners when compared to the developmental theories of pedagogical (youth-centered) models. He suggested that adults need to know why they need to learn something before they undertake it, are self-directed, have more life experiences (and different experiences) than youths, want to apply their studies to real-world situations, are task-centered or problem-centered in their learning orientation, and are intrinsically motivated (Merriam & Brockett, 2007; Rovai, Ponton, & Baker, 2008). Other major theories of adult learning emphasize participation, experiential learning, self-directed learning, the value of experiences, social equity and access, and capacities for transformation (Merriam & Brockett, 2007; Rovai, Ponton, & Baker, 2008).

Programs addressing the perspectives, needs, and learning styles of adult learners without marginalizing them seem to have the best chance of engaging students and increasing retention on traditional college campuses. Yet, American higher education is changing at a breakneck pace. Moskal, Dziuban, Upchurch, Hartman and Truman (2006) wrote that “although online learning has been a part of the educational landscape for only a few years, the evidence to date suggests that it is rapidly becoming a major component of higher education” (p.29). The narrow lens of traditional undergraduate programs is no longer the only place to explore best practices for engagement and retention for non-traditional learners.

Distance Learning Programs and Students

Distance learning programs have grown from correspondence courses of the past and reflect a growing area of research. In its simplest definition, distance education “connotes a separation between the learner and the instructor within a formal educational structure” (Rose, 1995, p.5 as cited in Merriam & Brockett, 2007, p. 208). Technology has transformed the practice to an interactive model that allows greater access for larger populations in higher education. Of the American institutions surveyed in 2013, 90% claimed that distance education was an important part of their strategic plan (Allen & Seaman, 2014). In fact, Boyle et al. (2010) wrote “distance education is probably the fastest growing area of education internationally” (p.115).
Pioneers in the topic, Mehrotra, Hollister, and McGahey (2001) noted a number of factors contributed to the rise of distance (or online) programs. Among them: the need for additional credentials for career advancement, schedule and location accommodations required for non-traditional students, a shift toward lifelong learning, continuing education requirements for many professions, specific competencies required by employers, student-centered learning with an understanding of different learning styles, and cost effective collaboration models. These trends strikingly resemble the needs and factors that have created a surge in non-traditional adult student enrollments on campuses.

The Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C), a group of institutions and organizations “committed to quality online education,” identified five pillars of quality in the delivery of online learning programs, including learning effectiveness, cost effectiveness and institutional commitment, access, faculty satisfaction and student satisfaction (Moore, 2005). A matrix, starting with these pillars on one axis, can be built by evaluating each area in relation to ideas of community, learning design, assessment research and evaluation, and information technology (Moore, 2005, p.6). Each of these areas influence the perceptions and experiences of students within their course of study, therefore impacts engagement and retention. Other researchers have evaluated the importance of similar topics including institutional support, course development, course structure, student support, faculty support and evaluation and assessment as key areas that signal the quality of online programs (Clark, Holstrom, & Millacci, 2009; Shelton, 2010).

Best Practices in Distance Education

Building from this research, a number of best practices emerge. Maki and Maki (2007) noted “online students can and often do outperform traditional students” (as cited in Dixson, 2010, p. 1). Leach and Zepke (2010) have built an instrument to measure motivation, transactional engagement, institutional support, and active citizenship (Hoskins, 2012). The characteristics that can lead to high levels of performance include active learning assignments (discussion forums and assignments) that build skills while building a sense of community, strong instructor interaction with prompt feedback on academic performance, a sense of a relationship with faculty and staff, strong student support services during coursework, and programming tied to strategic planning and resources (Clark et al., 2009; Coates, 2007; Dixson, 2010; Rovai et al., 2008). Each of these areas can impact student satisfaction levels and can increase the sense of belonging individuals feel, while increasing their perceptions of the quality of the education they are receiving (Moskal et al., 2006; Richardson et al., 2003).

Engagement Challenges in Distance Education

Moore (1980) identified a “transactional distance” between the student and the instructor in distance education (Richardson et al., 2003, p. 225). Without a physical campus or face-to-face interaction, distance learning programs can promote feelings of isolation, and campus-based programs may seem irrelevant to these learners (Venter, 2003). As Boyle et al. (2010) wrote, the majority of extant research has focused on how technology can bridge the gap, without considering alternate solutions.

To combat this separation, institutions developed different forms of student services, ranging from local support groups, short residency requirements, teleconferencing or computer conferencing (Mehrotra, Hollister, & McGahey, 2001; Richardson et al., 2003). Yet, Angelino and Natvig (2007) concede “the literature is sparse in reporting strategies to properly assess students’ potential for success as online learners; provide the support needed during teaching/learning process; and encourage students to continue in online educational programs after completion of individual courses” (p.2). Notable exceptions include discussions of instructional best practices (Bailey & Card, 2009), assessment of achievement goals of learners (Remedios & Richardson, 2013), values education (Taplin, 2010), and student-student mentoring practices (Boyle et al., 2010).

The Role of Technology

The level of technological competence and confidence of individuals also impacts learning. It is more complicated than simply classifying “the haves and have-nots of computing technology” by describing “the adult learners’ level of education, their social class, and their ability to apply technology learning to their work life” (Kasworm & Londoner, 2000, p. 225). While distance learning programs increase access for a number of populations who would not otherwise be able to take part in higher education, the so-called ‘digital divide’ has been looked at in a number of studies with inconclusive results. Those from lower socio-economic status and developing countries traditionally have poorer access to technology. Yet, the level of access to computers or Internet connections does not seem to correlate with persistence, but “Internet searching training, Internet applications training and previous online course completion did” (Calvin & Freeburg, 2010, p. 65). Strong technical support and orientation to distance learning technologies seem to be an important best practice to meet these areas of concern for distance learners.

Points of Convergence

A number of points of convergence emerge throughout the literature between engagement practices, non-traditional adult learners, and distance learning, offering insights as to how to increase the level of engagement of a growing population within higher education. The development of programs that meet the needs of non-traditional learners through distance learning unbundles the functions of higher education from a specific time and place. The obligations that non-traditional learners hold (work or life commitments) are more easily navigated through asynchronous distance learning programs, but these same conveniences can further isolate a student who does not feel as though they belong with their traditional peers. These points of convergence are illustrated in Table 1.

Table 1. Strategies for overcoming barriers to engagement

Barriers to Educational Success

Engagement Best Practices



Goals, Flexibility, Access, Financing, Student/Faculty Interaction, Active/Collaborative Learning

Most Engaged Adult Distance Learner


Information, Climate-shift, Advising, Outreach, Supportive Campus Environment, Training


Assessment, Remediation, Orientation, Career-Focus, Academic Challenge, Enriching Educational Experiences


To combat this, a host of support services and course delivery methods can be used to increase the level of engagement of these students. First and foremost, adult distance learners need to be viewed as potential students within the higher education organization. A number of transition points, from GED attainment, advising models that present workshops and cultivate relationships with other organizations, ESL programs, and career pathways may be useful avenues for institutions considering targeting adult distance learners (Zafft, 2008). In many cases, institutions simply need to acknowledge the presence that adult learners already have on their campuses and determine ways, in alignment with their mission, to better meet their needs, which may include distance programs. Regardless of the path to recognizing these needs, specific recommendations can be framed within the areas of engagement measured by the NSSE, incorporating best practices drawn from the adult learning and distance education literature streams.

Level of Academic Challenge

The level of academic challenge that non-traditional adult learners perceive is impacted in many ways. For those that have been out of school for some time (a characteristic of many adult learners) work that is too challenging may lead to feelings of doubt and insecurity. As noted, the more remediation an adult learner requires, the less likely they are to complete their program of study (Zafft, 2008), therefore assistance in the transition process is an important point of consideration. Assessment and placement services may be a pathway for many institutions to determine if remediation, particularly for students with limited exposure to algebra or longer and more complex reading and writing assignments, is prudent (Zafft, 2008). They should be accessible and staffed by individuals who have training in the needs of non-traditional programs.

Increasing opportunities for academic advising may identify perceived weaknesses and allow opportunities to address them by pointing students to online tutoring or other support services. This then increases the likelihood of completing their first few distance learning courses, thereby increasing the odds that they will persist through the program (Calvin & Freeburg, 2010; MacKinnon-Slaney, 1994). If a course is too easy or is not related to an adult’s personal and professional goals, students may feel as though the process is not worth their investment of time and money and may not persist in the program. A delicate balance must be found in the placement, course development and delivery processes to meet these engagement challenges. Advising services that align curricula to an individual’s goals may be one means to bridge this gap. Detailing a student’s goals within an achievement-goal framework may be appropriate during the orientation or enrollment process for adult distance learners (Remedios & Richardson, 2013).

Active and Collaborative Learning

Both adult and distance learners can find their education isolating. Being a part of the broader campus community is a key engagement point (Harper & Quaye, 2009), so alternative means of building a collaborative environment are key. Some programs incorporate an on-campus component for their distance learners. Yet, this may negate the convenience that draws many adult learners to distance learning and may conflict with their other obligations. While residency requirements are viewed favorably as a means to engage and authenticate learners by accrediting bodies, they are often not realistic in many programs.

The best way to foster this sense of community is through active and collaborative learning within the virtual classroom. Chih-Yuan Sun and Rueda (2012) found that “the use of online activities and tools such as multimedia and discussion boards may be important ways to increase student engagement in an online learning environment” (p. 202). Discussion boards and collaborative projects remove the sense of isolation while still centering learning on meaningful activities that adult learners view as personally relevant. Discussion requirements and participation also allow adult learners to share their experiences, valuing their unique points of view and validating different learning styles. Here, the multiple identities and life experiences of older learners are a positive point of differentiation they can build on in their discussions, enriching the experiences of all students.

Several successful models (the Open University UK, Korean National Open University, and the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand) have used student-student mentoring through pair or small groups to increase retention in distance education students (Boyle et al., 2010). They have achieved success through both student-student mentoring where experienced students are paired with new students, and in peer-support models, where students in the same course help each other. The use of social media, through wikis, Facebook or LinkedIn, may be another means of humanizing the interaction between student groups in informal settings, outside the classroom, though each has its own monitoring challenges for administrators. Lester and Perini (2010) wrote that “many colleges across the country have engaged Facebook by establishing a college-sanctioned Facebook page,” giving examples of student services offices, student groups, and departments that establish their own pages (p. 74).

Student-Faculty Interaction

Beyond peer-to-peer interactions, non-traditional adult learners have to feel as though their instructors are invested in their progress as individuals as well. As Lester and Perini (2010) wrote, “Often faculty are the only connection that distance education learners have with the college” (p. 70). Accordingly, robust training for instructors that highlights interaction with their students is key. Strong policies that guide instructors and set reasonable expectation as to the response time and level of detail may foster more engaged distance education environments. Instructors identified “emails, class discussion boards for posting required discussion question responses and sharing student biographies and student group projects” as means of engaging with their students (Bailey & Card, 2009). Prompt feedback and other interactions help students gauge their progress and offer opportunities to point them toward additional resources.

Instructors that value the contributions these students make based on their experiences add further validation about the quality of the program students perceive. The simple self-posted biography identifying interests and motivations can be an effective tool for students to share more about themselves in an educational setting. Faculty and advising staff that understand the goals of students are more likely to make the learning process seem more personal for this population, a key to engagement and retention.

Enriching Educational Experiences

Most non-traditional adult learners are engaged in a specific process because of specific goals. They seek out educational experiences related to these goals. The types of assignments that students complete should feel purposeful and relevant to their work and life goals. Real-world case studies, strategic partnerships with other organizations, and other enrichment experiences offer opportunities for non-traditional distance learners to feel as though they are a part of a community and their goals are being furthered by their education. Opportunities to network and interact with fellow students, alumni and potential employers offer adult distance learners visible evidence of the transformative power of education and can be aligned with their personal or career goals. Restricting job fairs, alumni events, or social events to the campus casts geographically distributed students as outsiders. Supplementing these events with virtual events, virtual networking, webinars that introduce library resources, career services, financial aid seminars, etc., is an appropriate strategy.

Supportive Campus Environment

In a virtual classroom, adult learners may not feel as though they are as easily identifiable among their younger peers, soothing some of the anxieties they may have in on-campus programs. Yet, institutions must compensate for this lack of a physical campus to fully engage students. Academic advising, technical support, information services, career services and library resources must be made not only accessible for these students, but must be promoted to them as well. Careful attention must be paid to make sure that students are aware of their existence and that they feel comfortable using these resources. Orientation programs and other forms of outreach may be the most appropriate way to reach distance learners, but there must be a culture within the institution that embraces the diversity of their student body, making distance learners a priority rather than an afterthought across all support services.


Engagement best practices specific to non-traditional adult distance learners can be drawn from an extension of best practices within three discrete areas of scholarship: engagement research, adult learning trends and theory, and distance learning best practices. No obvious conflicts emerge between the strategies and tactics for each literature stream. The points of convergence reflect a pattern of support, emphasizing a broad view of students’ needs, and thoughtful and inclusive solutions to meet the needs of a growing and critical segment of American higher education. By framing the discussion within the network of traditional engagement, the needs of adult distance learners can be layered into existing programs or modified to better reflect the unique needs of these students.

Student demographics and delivery preferences are shifting. While more research is clearly needed to better identify successful tactics and approaches, the clues from these literature streams offer a strong orientation to the needs of adult distance learners. In order to grow and remain competitive, all institutions need to consider how they can reach out to more diverse groups. Distance education or programs tailored to non-traditional students may not fit the mission of every institution, but the industry as a whole must consider reframing their vision of who their students could be in order to include those that may not ever set foot on campus as a full time, residential student.


The author wishes to thank Dr. Joseph McNabb and Dr. Amanda Budde-Sung for reviewing early drafts and to the students at Dunlap-Stone University who inspired the research.


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This feature article was accepted for publication in the International HETL Review (IHR) after a double-blind peer review involving four independent members of the IHR Board of Reviewers, and one revision cycle. Accepting editor: Dr. Charlynn Miller (Federation University Australia), Associate Senior Editor and member of the IHR Editorial Board.

Suggested citation

Barron, C. N. (2014). Engagement of non-traditional adult learners in distance education: Best practices and points of convergence in the literature. International HETL Review, Volume 4, Article 3, https://www.hetl.org/feature-articles/engagement-of-non-traditional-adult-learners-in-distance-education

Copyright 2014 Caulyne N. Barron

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