The phenomenal growth in the number of adults enrolled in graduate level classes that are delivered through distance education methods, such as video teleconference technology, has implications for library support services. The authors discuss adult learners and higher education provided in a distance delivery format, case studies centered on these adult learners, the library service and support needs specific to this segment of the learner population, the distance adult learners' expectations of library service support, some potential online resources, and the implications for library services to enhance this nontraditional learning environment.
As higher education moves into the twenty-first century and is forced to reach outside the physical boundaries of the university or college campus, technological change is impacting the delivery of education to distance adult learners. Today's communications technology, specifically video-teleconferencing distance education (VTDE), is enabling institutions of higher education to reach populations in a variety of settings such as business, colleges, hospitals, and prisons. In particular, rural communities are now able to receive educational offerings similar to those available in urban areas. Courses that would not normally be offered in one location due to lack of potential enrollment are now simultaneously embracing learners at several distant sites (Ehrhard & Schroeder, 1997).
Currently there are over 1,000 educational institutions in the United States offering some type of distance learning programs (Lozada, 1997). Experts estimate that, by the year 2007, approximately 50 percent of learners enrolled in higher education courses will take courses through distance education (Kascus, 1994). Like traditional younger learners, distance adult learners require ancillary services, especially library services, to help them conduct research and fulfill their assignments. In today's world, learners can rapidly access library databases through their personal computers. The librarian's role is to assist such learners by demonstrating how to use data services and how to narrow searches in the most efficient manner. The purpose of this discussion is to help librarians become more familiar with the characteristics and needs of adult learners and to assist librarians in dealing with this category of learners.
THE ADULT LEARNER
Who are these adult learners who are moving steadily into distance education? Almost by definition, the adult learner is one who returns to study, on a full-time or part-time basis, after a period of time spent in other pursuits. As a result, he or she brings to new learning a rich background of life and work experience. This background includes the wide range of roles that adults fill: employee, spouse, parent, citizen, and community or church worker. In general, then, and in contrast with younger learners, adults possess sophisticated insights culled from their knowledge of the world of work, from the skills they have acquired there, and from the relationships they have developed with other people at work and in their personal lives. These insights make it easier for them, as learners, to recognize how ideas can be transformed into action and how theory can be transformed into practice outside the classroom.
Another way in which adult learners differ from younger learners is that their goals are often more clear-cut. That is, adult learners are likely to identify, with some certainty, the things that are important in their lives--i.e., the careers to which they want to devote their energies, the skills they wish to acquire, the persons they aspire to become, or the kinds of relationships they hope to build with others. Also, adult learners are more likely to prioritize the forces competing for their attention. Of course, there are some adult learners whose goals and priorities are poorly defined.
A third way in which adult learners are likely to differ from younger ones relates to motivation, which is closely linked to …