Tips for Success as an Older Online Student
June 1st, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
If you are thinking about going back to school as a mature adult, you may have feelings of apprehension about taking online classes and interacting with younger students. However, don’t allow fears about learning or common misconceptions prevent you from reaching for a new goal. You have qualities and characteristics that will help you succeed – provided that you are prepared to work in this environment and understand what will be expected of you as a student. Before you begin, take inventory of the skills and tools you’ll need so you’ll be ready for the first day of class.
What You Possess and Add to the Class
As an online instructor I am not immediately made aware of students’ ages. As I read their introductions and learn more about their background, I find that some students will indicate they are older and when they do, they often talk about feeling lost, being ill-prepared, and uncertain how to relate to other students. Students are typically enrolled in their online class without special age-related preparation and they have to adapt quickly. For students in their first class, they find that it often becomes a matter of sink or swim.
While it may be initially challenging, mature students usually have a well-defined sense of purpose and they are able to sustain their self-motivation longer than their younger counterparts. They also possess advanced life experience, generalized knowledge, and work-related skills that add value to the class discussions, especially for those students who have developed a broad worldview. In addition, mature students are usually more effective with their communication in class, once they have adapted to the online environment. Sometimes the hurdles that must be overcome involve the misconceptions about older adult students.
Common Myths about Mature Students
One of the first misconceptions about older students is that they will have difficulty working in a technologically-enabled classroom environment. While they may not be a technically savvy as younger students, or participate in as many social networking websites, many are used to using computers and computer software because of its prevalence in the workplace. In 2011, the Census Bureau conducted a survey and compiled data for the time period 2000 through 2011. In a report, Adult Computer and Adult Internet Users by Selected Characteristics, it was found that 61 percent of adults between the ages of 50 and 64 used a computer in 2000, which was 21 percent less than adults who are 18 to 29 years old. By 2010, the number of adults (50 to 64) who used a computer increased to 78 percent. For adults who are age 65 or older, they increased their computer usage from 21 percent in 2000 to 42 percent in 2010.
Another misconception about older adult students is that their ability to learn diminishes over time. While this may be true for some adults, it no longer considered the norm because of insight gained from ongoing research. In the New York Times article, A Sharper Mind, Middle Age and Beyond, Margie E. Lachman (a psychologist at Brandeis University who specializes in aging) indicated that “education seems to be an elixir that can bring us a healthy body and mind throughout adulthood and even a longer life.” This article further noted that “a college degree appears to slow the brain’s aging process by up to a decade, adding a new twist to the cost-benefit analysis of higher education.” The reason for reduced aging is due to an increase in mental capabilities over time, which results from an accumulation of knowledge and experiences that improve cognitive functioning.
What You’ll Need to Be Successful
Writing Skills: As you begin your online class, you’ll discover right away that you will need to have strong writing skills. This can be a challenge for students of all ages; however, for older students it may present more of a learning curve. If this is true for you, talk to your instructors about the writing resources that are offered through your school and ask for their recommendations and feedback about your work.
Communication Skills: For online schools, you are usually expected to submit written assignments and communicate with other students through discussion board posts. Your written words are the primary method of communication, which means that you must learn to use an academic rather than casual form of communication. This is an area where older students often excel because of past working experiences that required professional communication.
Critical Thinking Skills: You will also be expected to utilize critical thinking as you develop your discussion posts and written papers. Critical thinking is a structured technique to effectively evaluate information. When you apply critical thinking skills, you are analyzing that information, interacting with it, and processing it in a logical and rational manner. In other words, you are focusing your thought process in a methodical manner, instead of reading and reporting what you’ve read.
Ability to Adapt to an Accelerated Pace: Another aspect that can present a learning curve for older students is the accelerated nature of many online degree programs. There will be activities to complete each week and you cannot afford to get behind. Even one missed assignment can interrupt your progress. Students learn that the development of an effective time management plan becomes a necessity. If you want to keep up with your school work you need to plan ahead and allocate time to your studies.
Self-Discipline: This is an area where older students often excel because of their prior work experience and maturity. A time management plan is part of the self-discipline needed to be successful as an online student. You will also need to develop effective study habits and the self-motivation necessary to complete your work on time, even during times when it may seem challenging or too difficult at first.
Strong Virtual Presence: Older students are often initially intimidated by the thought of interacting with other students. This requires moving out of your comfort zone and into an academic zone. Your classroom interactions will be most effective when you have developed a strong virtual presence, one that initiates responsiveness from other students. A positive online image helps build a sense of working toward common goals and objectives through collaboration with others. You can develop a strong image by paying attention to your communication, postings, and interactions.
Developing Connections: Another option for connecting with students is through social networking websites. In my post, How Social Networking Relates to Online Learning, I talked about the use of these websites by students and how it helps them learn to feel comfortable communicating and interacting with each other in a technology-enabled environment, which translates effectively for online learning because of the communication and interaction skills acquired. Of course if you are conscious of your age, take advantage of anonymity that this environment provides and don’t share your age directly and develop connections through mutual interests.
The online classroom is a place where adults of all ages can come together for the purpose of learning and collaboration. Older adults often find this environment less intimidating that a traditional classroom because the age differences are not visible. If you have decided that the time is right for you to return to college, consider the skills you’ll need to be prepared and look forward to sharing the knowledge, wisdom, experience, and insight you have gained with the younger students. You will likely find that you are welcomed as part of the class and through your interactions, working in this environment can be very rewarding.
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