Why adult learning can thrive through distance

Adult learning expert, Sam Blyth from Instructure, explains why distance learning may have a positive knock-on effect on bringing adults back into education

There has never been a time where schools, colleges and universities have had to prioritise technology as much as right now. The importance of keeping learners safe in the midst of a global pandemic has meant that around the world, education institutes are leaning on their technological capabilities, hoping to ensure that students can seamlessly continue their studies outside of the classroom.

The concept of distance learning is nothing new, but this is implementation at a scale we have never seen before. Whereas previously, it may have been expected that a portion of classes would be delivered remotely, now educational institutions are racing to provide their students with remote access to every lecture, every piece of course content and every academic resource they will need.

Of course, this is no easy task, requiring a huge logistical effort on the part of staff for the sole purpose of being able to carry on with business as usual. However, although this may seem like a short-term priority, there is one demographic that will stand to gain in the long run, and that’s adult learners.

This bolstoring of distance learning infrastructure will directly benefit adult learners, at a time when fewer and fewer are choosing to get back into education. Over the past 10 years, the number of adults in education has dropped by four million, leaving many without the ability to upskill or retrain for the evolving job market.

Saving time by getting online

To understand just how important increased access to distance learning might be to adult learning, we need to be aware of what might be preventing adults from choosing to go back to university or college in the current climate.


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One of the biggest roadblocks to adults pursuing further education is the fact that they have more demands on their time than students who have just left school. For many adult learners, time for study has to be slotted in around work and family responsibilities. Rigid timetables and inflexible deadlines are often inconvenient for adult students, who don’t always have the luxury of setting their own schedules.

In a similar vein, while younger students traditionally live on or close to their universities, adult learners are more likely to commute in, with many relying on public transport to do so. This often means that arriving on time to classes is easier said than done, adding an additional layer of stress for adult students.

By offering recordings of lectures or seminars and ensuring that the relevant course materials are available online at any time, education providers can enable adult students to learn at the time that works best for them. Streaming live from lecture theatres can also help support adult learners, as it removes the pressure to be physically present on campus without cutting back on their ability to engage with their lecturer (and their peers) in real-time.

Bringing students together, apart

Beyond just the logistics of attending lectures and accessing resources, there are more intangible issues that adult learners come up against during their time at university or college. Some report a persistent stigma – a perception that education is just for the younger generation. However, this doesn’t have to be the case, and an upshot of the current crisis – where everyone will be able to learn online, on their own terms, could well be that we dispel the notion that universities are ‘for the young’ entirely.


From the recent conversations we have had with our customers, we know they are taking innovative approaches to keeping people connected, and this will benefit all students, regardless of age. We are certainly in a complicated time for the education sector, and it can be difficult to look ahead to the future when there are so many urgent issues to deal with. However, for many prospective adult students, the efforts being made across the country (and indeed the world) to strengthen distance learning could well be the silver lining they have been looking for to get them back into education.

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