“I completed high school 20 years ago and wanted a ‘little break’ before furthering my study. That ‘little break’ was extended as my family grew. Life happened, and I never quite found the right time to keep my promise to myself to go to uni – until now!”
“This is my first teaching period in uni. I’m 36 years old. I live with my wife and two very active kids. When I’m not being a chef, cleaner and taxi driver (you know the list), I’m working as a learning support officer at our local school. I haven’t written an academic essay in over 15 years!”
These are common introductions of my mature-age students. They often share their family backgrounds, nervousness, excitement and responsibilities they have to juggle as they begin their uni journey. In sharing, they “feel a sense of solidarity seeing others post about their concerns”, as one student put it.
Students in general say a critical issue in the shift to online higher education has been a lack of adequate support, interaction and engagement with academic staff and peers.
Mature-age, online students are identified as the most vulnerable to not completing their degree. That happens to about 43% of them compared to 30% of those aged 20 to 24 and 21% for students who enrol straight out of school.
Given the inconsistent completion outcomes for mature-age students compared to younger and on-campus students, a different approach is needed. This means universities must take account of the particular needs and circumstances of mature-age students.
“I think a lot of us can relate to the idea of struggling to keep on top of everything.”
Who are these students?
A 2019 study of mature-age learners highlighted the following challenges of studying online:
- uncertainty in abilities leading to a “narrative of disadvantage” and a feeling of stepping into a space where they feel they do not belong
- first-year, mature-age students consider withdrawing from their studies at higher rates
- enrolment in university may be rooted in previous negative educational experiences – traditionally, the status quo in higher education has not served students at the margins.
Online teaching compounds existing weaknesses
In the shift to online, many education providers are making the same mistakes by continuing with impersonal teaching methods. Students aged 25 and over rate engagement as the least satisfactory aspect of their online courses.
Active engagement tends to drop off as the teaching period progresses. (The proxy measures of “engagement” are active presence and involved participation.)
Further, education has commonly had an emphasis on subordination. Cue the “domineering teacher” portrayed by antagonist Terence Fletcher in the 2014 film Whiplash. One-way information transmission and an expectation of passive knowledge acquisition have overshadowed relationships between teaching staff and students.
The challenge, then, is to start off in a way that develops a culture of trust, collegiality, openness and contribution.
‘It resonates!’ Recognising experiences and skills
Mature-age students are starting online higher education with a variety of aptitudes, knowledge, opinions and values. These backgrounds affect how students engage with and construe information. The online experience should encourage connection, active participation and critical thinking.
The language of education is shifting to incorporate students as “stakeholders”, “co-constructors” and “active participants”. Such terms have a powerful effect.
In 1930, psychologist and educational reformer John Dewey advocated for empowering learners by honouring their lived experiences and capabilities. Reforms of the 1960s and ’70s began shifting education toward autonomy, allowing for reflection, independence and flexibility. More recent geopolitical movements, driven by social media, are, once again, prompting an upturn in education that emphasises discussion, openness and independent thought.
It’s essential that these themes be re-created in today’s digital learning environments.
“You made me feel like I am not alone in this. I was anxious and afraid that I won’t be able to keep up.”
Emerging from the 2019 study of mature-age students were several key recommendations:
- understand and value the circumstances and experiences of this cohort
- communication and personal contact are vital
- embed timely, proactive support.
In such environments, educators must be given the time to get to know their students’ situations and experiences. They can then reach out to support them. In essence, Dewey argued for educators to meet learners where they are, wherever that may be.
“I have felt I was always able to contact you and receive helpful advice. It means a lot – especially for newcomers like me!”
These suggestions are in line with the findings and recommendations of the recent Macklin Review of post-secondary education and training in Victoria. Times of growth and uncertainty call for greater adaptability, empathy and innovation. This will feed into student retention, progression and ultimately an undergraduate qualification.
To government and institutions: online education, and of mature-age students in particular, must be approached differently. Education can only act as the great social equaliser if the growing cohort of mature-age students are engaged and supported to reach their academic goals.
To current and emerging mature-age learners: well done to you! You are seen and being heard.