September/October 2003 // Commentary
e-Learning: It's More Than Automation
by James Kilmurray
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James Kilmurray "e-Learning: It's More Than Automation" The Technology Source, September/October 2003. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The first ATM was located inside a bank and was available only during banking hours. Bankers viewed this technological innovation as an automated teller. Real innovation did not occur until ATMs were placed outside banks and in malls, grocery stores, and airports, available twenty-four hours a day. (Twigg, 2002, Preface, p. 2 [print], ¶ 4 [online])

Online educators of adults should not fall into the same trap as bankers did when they first introduced ATMs. The innovation brought about by e-learning does not follow the model of traditional, instructor-directed classes. The opportunity provided by e-learning is a different learning environment in which instructors can employ new learning models and new instructional practices.

Unfortunately, most of the courses that we see online today are not unlike the first ATMs. They are automated, but they still get delivered within the boundaries established by the instructor as the director of the learning experience. The traditional classroom model appears to be the norm for the majority of today's online classes. Automation is happening, but not innovation.

My aim in this article is to encourage teachers of working adult students to use their online classes as an opportunity to enhance the practice of adult education. To be successful in this endeavor, instructors must take into account the distinctive characteristics of adult students, develop a pedagogy that best suits their learning needs, and be willing to transform current practice and support further research.


For the past year, I have been an instructor at the University of Phoenix Online (UOP Online), an institution created to meet the specific educational needs of working professionals. The UOP Online recently announced that its enrollment increased by 70% in 2002 to reach 49,400 students, up from 29,000 students in 2001 (Gallagher, 2002b). What generally catches the attention of conventional, nonprofit providers of adult education is the fact that the UOP Online is expected to generate $500 million in revenue in 2003. Its growing success and visibility are challenging traditional higher education's approach to adult learning.

The UOP Online encourages instructors to experiment with new ways to deliver their online courses. My own approach is to share the responsibility for learning with my students. I believe that the functionality of the Internet delivery system uniquely supports what I call a "shared-responsibility" model of adult learning. It allows for what Nishikant Sonwalkar, the principal educational architect for MIT's Academic Media Production Services, calls "pedagogical choices" for learners (Arnone, 2002). My experience to date has shown me that adult working students are more than capable of directing and being personally accountable for their learning experiences.

The online courses offered by many other postsecondary institutions do not reflect this philosophy. I see a disconnect between the learning needs of today's working adult students enrolling in online courses and the traditional, instructor-directed models being used to deliver them. I believe that many postsecondary institutions are asking their instructors to automate courses for online delivery because they are motivated by the potential revenue benefits, and not necessarily the learning benefits, associated with online learning. On the whole, these institutions do not encourage their instructors to use the associated technology to guide and enhance the practice of adult education.

As e-educators, it is our responsibility to create a better connection. I suggest the following three steps as a way to forge a more intimate bond between the learning needs of adult working students and the practice of online instruction.

Step 1: Understanding Working Adult Students and Their Needs

The average age of my online students is 35. Because almost all of them have full-time jobs and/or parental responsibilities, they need flexible and convenient learning opportunities. Online education serves that need, and the rise of a service- and information-based economy has ensured that working adults are familiar with the basic technologies used in Web-based instruction. With the introduction of personal computers and the Internet to most professional offices, adults have become comfortable working in an online environment. Since they can now use their personal computers to get their jobs done while away from the office, why not use their personal computers to get their learning done without having to be present in a classroom? Information technology has freed them to not only work remotely, but also learn remotely.

A recent Eduventures report estimated that the fully online distance-learning market is growing in excess of 40% annually, with approximately 350,000 students generating $1.75 billion in tuition revenues for postsecondary institutions (Gallagher, 2002a). Given the broader picture of adult participation in education in the United States, this dramatic growth is not surprising. A National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) study found increased participation in adult education between 1991 and 1999 across virtually all of the examined groups, which were organized by age, sex, ethnicity, education level, employment status, and occupation type (Creighton & Hudson, 2002). The one exception was the 35-44 age group, in which participation in adult education started high and remained steady. By 1999, essentially the same percentage of adults in each of the first four age groups (spanning ages 16 through 54) participated in adult education. The major growth area was work-related courses. An earlier report indicated a similar trend (Kim & Creighton, 1999). Of the 6,977 respondents in a nationwide telephone survey, 23% participated in work-related courses, 23% in personal development courses, 9% in credential courses, 2% in basic education courses, 2% in apprenticeship courses, and 1% in ESL courses. Given these statistics, it seems safe to say that the dramatic growth in adult education has been driven primarily by career and job considerations.

A study by the Hudson Institute indicates that the American workplace is quickly completing an evolution in which physical strength has become an increasingly irrelevant attribute (Judy & D'Amico, 1997). Knowledge and facility with modern technology have become increasingly central ones. Innovations in information technology, coupled with globalization, are rapidly changing the face of both work and the workforce; the demand for highly skilled and educated workers is increasing. In this new economy, there is a growing glut of unskilled and poorly educated workers, and even a college degree does not guarantee someone a well-paid job (Judy & D'Amico, 1997). For these reasons, working adults are flocking to enroll in education programs that can provide them with the knowledge and skills they need to compete for better jobs.

As Knowles (1975) indicated in his book on adult learning in the early 1970s, working adult students are problem-centered and interested in the immediate application of knowledge. They value and want to share their own life experiences as well as learn from the experiences of fellow students. In the current era, adult students are motivated by the need to compete successfully in an ever-changing job market. In my experience, working students are willing and able to accept responsibility for their learning. Why not? Independence and accountability are already expected of them in the professional arena. They generally apply the same characteristics to any quality educational experience that relates to their career objectives and allows them to do their coursework at the times and locations of their choice.

Step 2: Instituting Shared Responsibility and Student-Directed Learning

Armed with an understanding of working adult students, we need to change the way we think about the roles of student and instructor in the learning process. In an environment characterized by student-directed learning, students share responsibility for learning with the instructor. The learners have some choice in what and how they will learn, and the instructor serves primarily as a facilitator or guide in the learning process.

I see student-directed learning as a subset of what the adult education literature refers to as "self-directed learning" (Knowles, 1975; Candy, 1991; Merriam & Caffarella, 1991). Much of the literature does not address an important advance: Today's Internet technology has provided students and instructors alike with navigation and discovery tools that free them from the roles imposed by the traditional classroom delivery model. The Web brings to individual desktops a rich assortment of text, graphic, video, audio, and communication resources that can be easily applied to learning. It also brings a functionality that enables instructors to easily guide students in using these resources to direct their own learning experiences.

Below, I recommend seven shared-responsibility practices that I have used in my own online classes with success.

  1. Develop the syllabus as an actual contract between you and your students. Describe up front the expected learning outcomes and how shared responsibility for learning translates in terms of successfully completing the course. Specify what they can expect from you as the instructor, and specify what you expect from them as students. Lay this out in great detail as you explain the schedule and weekly requirements. Also, design the syllabus in a way that clearly identifies the policies that will be in effect for the course. Spell out things like your grading criteria for each assignment, as well as the communication tone to be used in classroom discussions and individual communications. If your design includes learning teams (see point 6 below), include in the syllabus a standard group process to be implemented within each learning team. When posting weekly assignments, continue to link back to the policies as a way of highlighting their continuous applicability.
  2. Conduct a resource audit with your students. Have your students introduce themselves to you and one another by posting a biographical listing of their background and skills in a newsgroup. You post one as well. Explain that you are more than willing to accept questions in your areas of expertise, but that students should first draw on the expertise of their classmates. As a first assignment, you can have students review/respond to each listing. These biographies should remain available throughout the course so that students can continually reference them and contact fellow students as appropriate. I encourage students to take this resource network with them when they leave the course. Via e-mail, they can easily draw upon the knowledge of their peers long after the class has ended.
  3. Set up a location for informal communication and sharing. One of the drawbacks of an online environment can be the absence of opportunities for students to socialize and have relaxed conversations. Students need someplace, like a lounge or cafe, where relationships can form and informal learning opportunities can develop. You can easily create such an environment online by establishing a chat room or a chat newsgroup. Do not monitor this area as an instructor, but feel free to visit along with the students. The social aspect of learning needs to be reinforced for student-directed learning to be successful.
  4. Provide students with choices in terms of reading assignments, discussion topics, and written assignments. Taking into account the time demands on your students and the variety of their learning needs, give them choices of readings relevant to the weekly topic. Allow them to research and read relevant Web literature. Have individual students post additional topics for discussion in class beyond those that you have listed. And continue to update the readings (and their Web links) on a weekly basis depending on student interests. In terms of assignments, give students different options (e.g., position papers, case studies, reports, or research papers).
  5. Give students the opportunity to adapt written assignments to their job requirements. Design written assignments in such a way that they can be easily adapted to a student's work situation. Allow students to use their supervisors, instead of you (the instructor), as the target audience for a particular assignment. With permission from each student, e-mail the assignment to the supervisor for feedback. Use this additional feedback when assigning grades.
  6. Create learning teams that work independently of the instructor and the class. Divide the students into learning teams to facilitate collaborative learning. If possible, let the students self-select their teammates. Design assignments that must be completed as a team, and give group grades. Give the teams a variety of assignments and due dates from which to choose. Because these teams should be self-monitoring, get involved only when a team specifically requests your assistance or input. You can even have the assignments submitted to one of the other learning teams for feedback and grading.
  7. Have students write and post a weekly summary for the instructor and the class. As a weekly assignment, have students post a brief summary of their learning experience for all to read and discuss. Ask them to identify what they learned during the week through reading, discussion, and'/or reflection. Suggest that they copy their own summaries and those of their classmates to an online folder. When they are back on the job, students can use the folder as an online reference for solving job-related problems that were previously discussed in student summaries.

Step 3: Balancing Increased Revenue with Improved Learning through Research and Experimentation

As noted above, high demand is driving tremendous growth in the development of online classes and degree programs for working adults. But it is not just the traditional providers of adult education that are developing these programs. In fact, universities and colleges no longer dominate the playing field. Corporate universities, long suspicious of the ability of academic institutions to provide the applied skills they want for their employees, are offering their own internal programs. According to Michael Brennen (2002), e-learning research manager at International Data Corporation, spending on e-learning within corporations will jump from $3.65 billion to $12.98 billion by 2005.

Sensing a market opportunity, for-profit universities like the University of Phoenix also target working adult students with online programs. Add to this mix of providers the technology companies that offer Web-based continuing education courses from traditional publishers and the Web-portal companies that aggregate course content from other content sources. A potentially lucrative and very competitive market has emerged.

In this environment, we cannot overlook the importance of research into best practices and the need for quality standards specific to online education. The focus must continue to be improved teaching and learning achieved through innovation, not just improved revenues generated through automation. A recent Pew Learning and Technology Program report indicated that the "pacesetters" in online learning are developing new approaches to adult learning that "radically increase the quality of both the students' learning experience and the learning outcomes achieved" (Twigg, 2002, Section II, p. 23 [print], ¶ 10 [online]). These courses are moving in the direction of a more customized learning experience for the students enrolled. Students' knowledge about the course content and their preferred learning styles are determined before the course begins. Based on the results of these assessments, students direct their own path through the course, which consists of a wide array of high- quality, interactive learning materials and activities. Built into each course are instantaneous feedback mechanisms and varied kinds of interaction with instructors on an as-needed basis.

Since the majority of my teaching experience was based on an instructor-directed model, I found research like the Pew Report very helpful when I began teaching online classes. Unfortunately, research in online learning is still limited. There is much more that we need to learn about its effectiveness, and there is a pressing need to standardize pedagogical practices different from those applied to traditional classroom-based learning. As instructors, we need to use our online classes as opportunities to conduct our own research, and we should continually seek institutional commitments to support broader investigations.


Many adult education providers are running to get on the e-learning bandwagon. They are busy automating courses for online delivery. But has the actual learning experience of working adult students improved? Are online courses meeting their needs? These courses may have eliminated the constraints of time and place, but have they really transformed and improved the educational experience for adult working students?

These questions will not be answered as a result of using information technology to automate classes for remote access and delivery. The education innovations possible from e-learning are realized when Internet technology is used to support new learning models and practices that are directly connected to the learning outcomes desired by today's working adult student. As e-instructors, we can bring about the innovations necessary. But to do so we must move our online classes outside of traditional classroom boundaries. Remember the bankers with their first ATMs.


Arnone, M. (2002, March 4). Online education must capitalize on students' unique approaches to learning, scholar says. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved August 30, 2003, from

Brennen, M. (2002). Corporate e-learning market forecast, 2001-2005. Unpublished manuscript.

Candy, P. (1991). Self-direction for lifelong learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Creighton, S., & Hudson, L. (2002, February). Participation trends and patterns in adult education: 1991-1999 (NCES 2002-119). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved August 30, 2003, from

Gallagher, S. (2002a, September). Distance learning at the tipping point: Critical success factors to growing fully online distance-learning programs. Boston: Eduventures, Inc. [Editor's note: Electronic access to this source is limited to subscribers only. Available August 30, 2003, at industry_research_resources/distancelearning.cfm]

Gallagher, S. (2002b, October). For-profit postsecondary online programs grow rapidly by meeting student needs. The Education Economy. Boston: Eduventures, Inc.

Judy, R., & D'Amico, C. (1997). Workforce 2020: Work & workers in the 21st century. Indianapolis: The Hudson Institute.

Kim, K., & Creighton, S. (1999, November). Participation in adult education in the United States: 1998-1999 (NCES 2000-027). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics. Retrieved August 30, 2003, from

Knowles, M. (1975). Self-directed learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Merriam, B., & Caffarella, R. (1991). Learning in adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Ruch, R. S. (2001). Higher Ed, Inc.: The rise of the for-profit university. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Twigg, C. A. (2002, January). Innovations in online learning: Moving beyond no significant difference. 2001 program report. Troy, NY: The Pew Learning and Technology Program, Center for Academic Transformation, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Retrieved August 30, 2003, from

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