The growing need to improve access for greater numbers of adult learners, coupled with the international movement to formally recognize experiential learning, were major reasons for the creation of the ALFI Benchmarking Study conducted by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) in the USA in 1999.
CAEL has a history of promoting best practices beneficial to adult learners in higher education including prior learning assessment. The ALFI benchmarking study examined the application of specific criteria to assess the quality of services provided to adult learners and culminated in the identification of a set of best practices for serving adult learners in post-secondary education. One of the premises of this current Canadian ALFI study is that these principles and their performance indicators are also applicable to other organizations engaged in the education and training of adult learners outside of formal systems of learning.
CAEL BENCHMARKING STUDY
CAEL partnered with the American Productivity and Quality Centre (APQC) to conduct a benchmarking study of six post-secondary institutions that were highly focused on meeting the learning needs of adult students. One of these institutions was Athabasca University in Alberta. The results of this study were published in a book, “Best Practices in Adult Learning” in 1999. The findings of the study were then transformed into principles of effective practice that were further tested with focus groups of adult learners, educators, employers, union representatives, policy-makers and others interested in adult learning. A major outcome of the consultation process was the identification of eight principles of effectiveness, performance criteria for each principle and specific examples of each of the principles in action in a variety of post-secondary institutions. Institutions that are performing at a high level in implementing the principles are referred to as “Adult Learning Focused Institutions” (ALFI). This refinement of the principles and consultation with key stakeholder groups resulted in the publication of a second best practice book, “Best Practices in Adult Education – A Self Evaluation Workbook for Colleges and Universities” in the Fall of 2002. The Workbook provides the tools and processes needed to enable post-secondary institutions and others engaged in the education and training of adults, to systematically assess their services to adult learners in order to improve access and enhance the quality of their services.
The eight key functions are: Outreach, Life and Career Planning, Financing, Assessment of Learning Outcomes, Teaching-Learning Process, Student Support Systems, Technology and Strategic Partnerships. In addition to the Institutional Self-Evaluation Process, the Workbook provides some useful demographic information on the changing nature of the population that is currently being served by post-secondary institutions.
The following observations provide a more accurate definition of the term adult learner, a more complete picture of the changing demographics in higher education and underscore the need for a more flexible, respectful, learner-focused approach to the provision of education and training for adults in many countries including Canada.
“…The evidence is irrefutable that adult students have achieved normative status in higher education, at least as deserving of our attention as the stereotypical 18-23 year old student in residential, full-time study. A closer look at the numbers reveals the staggering proportions of adult learners to be reckoned with. Not since the ’70’s has the typical student in post-secondary education been a recent high school graduate enrolled full-time in a 4-year college or university, working toward a bachelor’s degree. These students represented about one-third of undergraduates enrolled in 1992-93.”
Although definitions of the adult learner often differ according to who is doing the defining, there are seven characteristics (shared by many learners over 24 years of age) that provide a reasonably accurate description of the non-traditional adult learner.
These common characteristics are:
1. delayed enrolment into post-secondary education;
2. attending part-time;
3. financially independent;
4. working full-time while enrolled;
5. having dependents other than a spouse;
6. being a single parent; and
7. not having a standard high school diploma.
Many of these characteristics and behaviours are well known to those who work with adult learners and they have typified adult learners for decades. Prominent among both past and present findings is the fact that adult learners are often motivated to study for occupational or work-related reasons. Such learning does not always occur in post-secondary settings and in fact quite often takes place in the workplace, the community or through self-directed study. Learning may also include language or basic skills training including literacy and numeracy.
The recent trend toward increased adult enrollments in formal educational settings is a global phenomenon. The profile of the “typical” learner in a post-secondary education has gradually changed to that of an older, more experienced individual with a different set of life circumstances and needs. Many colleges and universities have found it a challenge to adjust and adapt to the changing adult learner profile. Adult learners have unique needs which include different types of information about their education and training options, flexibility in curricula and support services, academic and personal advising that supports their life and occupational goals and recognition of their prior learning related to their personal, education and employment goals.