Online programs are here to stay. These programs have revolutionized how students can access a college education and the population of people who are doing so is booming. That is an unequivocally good thing!
Older students who have taken time away from education to work or start families are coming back in droves to begin, finish, or extend their educations. During a conversation with one of my colleagues who works with many of these students, I asked him what the biggest takeaways have been in his work so far. The best thing, he said, is that older students are (no shockers here) more mature. Having decided to go back to school voluntarily, they generally have both the clarity of purpose and experienced work ethic that students fresh out of high school so often lack. Also, while much of what I do early on with my younger, more traditional students involves detective work- sometimes I can’t tell if a student just isn’t telling me what the problem is or if he or she genuinely doesn’t know that herself- older students arrive with a pretty good idea where their deficiencies lie. “I haven’t taken a math class in over 20 years!” Or “I haven’t written anything longer than an email since I started working!” Likewise, they are more comfortable admitting when they need help. Younger students, especially those who have ended up in academic hot water, are often reluctant to speak out when they don’t know something or need help for fear of looking stupid. They’re terrified of anyone finding out that they might not know something, so they keep mum even if it means falling further and further in the hole. Older students are much more comfortable asking for help, and they generally are very willing to use the resources available to them.
At my university, our online programs are chock full of great resources for students, from individual online tutoring to streaming video review sessions. Since many of these resources, much like online education itself, revolve around technology, it’s important to make sure older students know not only where to access help but how to actually use the technology. Not everyone over 40, of course, is a hunt-and-peck typer unable to do so much as cut and paste, but according to my colleague…”since there is such a wide spectrum of technological experience and ability with older students, it’s best not to assume that anyone knows anything.” He spends much of his time with online students helping them gain a facility with the technology that will enable them to make the most of the available resources. Sending an attachment, uploading a paper, joining a discussion thread, engaging with a tutor via video chat- these are all skills crucial to success as an online student that may be as foreign to an older student as pumping out some copies on the ditto machine would be to…well, pretty much anyone.
All in all, helping older students navigate the world of online education is, much as it is with traditional students, all about connecting students with the resources they need to succeed. It’s about listening to their stories and helping them discern first what they need and then how to get it. Online education has opened doors for so many new types of students, and it’s our job to make sure they have all they need to walk through those doors and across a graduation stage.
Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007. The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.