Hidden Voices of Adult Learners in Open and Distance Learning Program: Problems and Strategies to Overcome the Problems

Abstract Most recent studies on adult learners in open and distance learning (ODL) programs in Malaysia have been focusing on students’ ICT skills, learning strategies, and interconnectivity but studies on problems encountered by adult learners while studying as fulltime or part-time students are scarce. This paper describes hidden voices of adult learners who revealed some of the problems, which they experienced in OUM academic program in terms of time management, family, career, and motivation.

It will also present some of the strategies that the students employed to overcome their problems. Introduction Traditional distance education which offers correspondence courses in 60s and 70s has now faded away, and is being replaced by online distance learning and/or open and distance learning (ODL). In addition to Raffles College, Malaysia Correspondence College (MCC), Maktab Adabi and Maktab Federal, USM (Universiti Sains Malaysia) was the earliest local university that started to offer “off campus studies” to working adults in 1971 (Yusof & Syarifah, 1999).

The number of adult learners in continuing education in Malaysia is increasing when more universities such as UPSI (Universiti Perguruan Sultan Idris), UKM (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia), UPM (Universiti Putra Malaysia), UiTM (Universiti Teknologi MARA) opened up distance education program for adult learners in mid 90s. The number of adult learners has moved from 17,756 in 1996 to 20,000 in year 2000 (Mokhtar et. al, 2003).

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Later when OUM (Open University Malaysia) was established in August 2000, the number of adult learners keeps increasing as technological advancement allows for more access to online education courses, communication and exchange of information. The number of OUM students alone increased from 1000 to 12,000 within 3 years (Mansor, 2003). Under the 8th Malaysian Plan (2001-2005), Malaysia is expected to have 60,000 distance learners annually. This phenomenon is not new in Europe and America since life-long learning process among adult learners who are working full-time and studying part-time has become a common culture in their societies.

In Malaysia, the concept of lifelong learning process may not be new but the practice is still at infant stage. With the establishment of OUM specifically, more working adults can pursue their higher education. OUM offers a blended approach in its teaching-learning environment where interactions between teachers and students take place physically and virtually. As the number of adult learners is increasing exponentially, the need to provide quality education is very demanding.

Administrative aspects, students’ support services, learning materials, accessibility to online resources, evaluation procedures, teachers’ qualifications, and contemporary methodological approaches contribute equally to quality teaching and learning. Still, one aspect that is also crucial to be observed is the problems faced by these adult learners. By understanding some of the adult learners’ problems, ODL institutions can provide better student support services, and eventually lead to better student performance. Past Studies

Recent studies in open and distance learning program (ODL) has been focusing on adult learners’ ICT skills, learning strategies, and interconnectivity but studies on adult learners’ problems that the learners encountered while studying as full-time or part-time students are scarce. Among the few, Zuraidah & Ahmad (2002) studied the type of supports (access to computer and networking, technical help), training support, learning support (online materials and references, tutorial and counseling) and administrative support needed by ODL at USM.

They revealed that 58 percent of USM students who enrolled in ODL program had difficulty in accessing the materials online, 40 percent said the computers in campus were inadequate and 54 percent complained that the downloading of the materials was time consuming. However, 40 percent said that online help was available when needed. This issue of accessing is quite a common problem reported in such studies as Khan, 1996; Harasim et. al, 1997; Lockwood, 2001; Mansor & Ramli, 2003.

Two things that can be done to overcome this problem firstly is to provide enough number of computers in the computer labs on campus or at the centers (Bates, 2000; Zuraidah & Ahmad, 2002), and secondly, to improve the capability of the networking system on campus, perhaps by upgrading its bandwidth. Another related study Daing, Abu Daud & Bahaman (2002) investigated students’ readiness and attitudes towards online program at UNITAR (Universiti Tun Abdul Razak). They found that 75 percent of these students, who were mostly young and had no work experience, were moderately ready for the online courses.

About 86 percent were reported having positive attitude towards online learning. At present, OUM is conducting a study on e-learning readiness in Malaysia. Nevertheless, there are general studies on adult learners’ problems in distance learning programs such as the one offered by USM. Saw et. al. , (1999) for example, reported significant evidence that students from East Malaysia were able to make adaptive responses to accommodate several changes during the transition period at the beginning of their distance learning programs. Idrus et. al. 2001) found female adult learners at USM had many new experiences at the initial stage, and had to make some sacrifices when they become “students”. The female adult learners carry several roles as mother, spouse, daughter, sister, member of community and teacher. Atan et. al. (2003) discovered a significant reduction in adult learners’ time spent for family activities and recreation activities when they joined the distance learning program. The study involved adults learners in distance leaning programs offered by UiTM, UKM, and UM. In addition, the level of stress among these adult learners was reported high.

The sources of stress include less time for sleeping and family commitments, as well as age ability to meet the course assignments and health requirement. The Study The main objective of this study is to identify and describe some of the problems that are faced by adult learners in a continuing education program at Open University Malaysia (OUM). The study also looks into the strategies that they employed to overcome the said problems. These problems are categorized into four areas: time management, family, career, and motivation. Methodology

The sample population consists of 43 participants (39 females and 4 males) who enrolled in three courses at OUM. The class was held for two hours 4 times per semester normally. During the class sessions, students listened to lectures and engaged in class activities. At other times, students communicated with their lecturers via e-mail, phone, and SMS (short message system). They also participated in an online forum which was moderated by the lecturer. Most students’ assignments were sent to teachers via e-mail. All participants are inservice teachers who have been teaching at schools for at least more than 3 years.

A survey form was distributed to 47 participants at the end of the semester but only 43 survey forms were returned. Since there were too many common responses in open-ended questions, the data collected were categorized and quantified in terms of frequency distribution for general overview. Findings Background A total number of 43 participants voluntarily involved in the study. All participants, who carried either certificate in teaching or diploma in teaching, are sponsored by the Malaysian government to pursue their bachelor degree in the teaching of English as a second language at OUM. 0 of them are teaching at primary schools while 3 others are at secondary schools. 39 teachers have been teaching more than five years. 42 of these experienced teachers own a computer system at home but only 39 have access to the Internet from home. Others accessed the Internet from cyber-cafes or at work places. This trend shows that the participants are computer literate, and therefore, we can assume that they may not have critical problems in computing related activities. However, there are other problems that they experienced that we need to understand. Reasons for further study

Before we observe their problems, perhaps we need to look at their reasons for pursing their higher education at OUM. Supyan & Zaini (2002) believe that individual’s vision and philosophy of life determine his or her motive for continuing education. In other words, an individual worker with a clear vision in his life should always set his goals that he needs and wants to achieve. Although external factors such as incentives and promotions at work places can also motivate working people to obtain a higher paper qualification, these external factors might be needed at the beginning by ome people in order for them to improve their career and performance at work places. In this study, we found various reasons why these participants enrolled in the undergraduate program at OUM. The majority, i. e. , 25 participants (58%) said that they would like to upgrade and improve themselves in terms of knowledge and skills (goal oriented). 4 stated that they wanted to move higher in their profession (qualification oriented) and 5 stated they aimed at higher salary and better incentives (value for time and money oriented). 3 participants believed that they would be a better role model for their children (self-awareness oriented). expressed that they have been working towards achieving their dreams to gain a degree (highly focused oriented). 4 participants said they wanted to show to their family members that they could still earn a degree even at their present age (self-satisfaction oriented). In brief, all participants are very positive about pursuing their higher education. Problems and Strategies to Overcome Problems The open-ended survey form provides a space for respondents to write down some the problems that they had and how they solved the said problems in terms of time management, family matters, career development, and motivation. . Time Of 43 participants, 42 (97 %) expressed their disappointment with their time management. Most (95%) complained about not having enough time for their school work/activities, family members, house chores, and class assignments. For example, in term of school work/activities, participants experienced difficulties in coping with the increasing demands at schools and at the same time to complete their course assignments. Some participants (45%) engaged in ETeMS (English Teaching in Mathematics and Science) project, school administration, and reading as well assessing students’ works.

As far as family time is concerned, most participants (95%), who are working mothers, pointed out how difficult it was for them to divide their time for their children and spouses. Their family time was shorter compared to the past since they had to attend tutorials on one Sunday per month and to do their course assignments. As for house chores, very few participants (10%) mentioned they shared the burden with their spouses and/or children. Interestingly, none of the participants had any helper or maid at home to help them with the house chores.

In term of class assignments, 35 participants (81%) stated that they have not had enough time to go the library to do research and to look for materials for their term papers. Some (19%) said they could not find suitable time to review their text books and their work. As a result, participants had to devise some strategies to cope with their time management. 25 participants (58%) said they had stay up late night to study and/or to complete their OUM course assignments. Some (23%) even woke up early in the morning to do their class assignment before they went to work.

Others stated they had to cut down routine activities such as outing, traveling, watching TV, reading magazines/ story books, and shopping. Still, some others started to use a planner to set their priorities for daily activities and to discipline themselves with planned activities. To these students, time is so crucial that they could not afford to waste it. Two students expressed that their three and half-hours waiting period between the tutorial sessions was wasted on tutorial days.

These students had one tutorial in the morning and another one in the afternoon, and had nothing to do in between except “hanging around with friends” to discuss academic and non-academic matters at the cafeteria. ii. Family When it comes to family matters, many (25%) admitted that they “neglected” their children and their families while these teachers were studying or doing their course assignments. They spent less time talking to their kids and doing things together with them. One female student who had a new born girl said she had more difficult time to adjust her life as adult learners at OUM.

Another student, a male, who also had a new born girl, had to help his wife to take care of the house chores and the children during the pre-natal period. One female student expressed that she had to struggle harder to take care of the kids, house chores, and her studies when her husband had to travel for his work more often this year. It seemed that these students had to reschedule their priorities from time to time in order to cope with their studies. There were several strategies that the students carried out to adjust their life style.

For examples, they cooked less often at home during weekdays, redefined labor division at home by getting their kids and husbands to do house chores, and asked their close relatives (brothers, sisters, and parents) to look after the kids. It is not unusual to find some husbands who are supportive while others are not supportive to their wives during their studies. Nevertheless, according to 35 participants (84%), friends including colleagues at schools are always there when they needed help and support.

Only one participant reported that she had a discussion with her members of the family to talk about a “new life style” they had to go through during her study at OUM. iii. Career Equally important, career development is an extrinsic motivational element that drives the respondents to further their studies. As mentioned earlier, these participants received financial supports from the Ministry of Education Malaysia to pursue their undergraduate degree. They are following the OUM courses while working as teachers at schools. In other words, they are not relieved from their normal duties as teachers.

This sometime makes their life difficult when they have to study and work at the same time. They could not afford to lose their job and the opportunity to obtain a bachelor degree. 38 participants (88%) stated the tasks at school such as preparing lesson materials, assessing student’s works and assignments, and engaging in co-curricular activities took so much of their time that they could not find enough time to complete their course assignments. They were worried that this might affect their performance not only at their schools but also in courses they were taking.

How did they cope with maintaining their performance at schools and in the courses? 4 participants negotiated with the school principals and made special arrangements so that they could carry out both tasks without jeopardizing one or the other. 20 participants (47%) said that their friends had always been very helpful and cooperative. Friends would care enough to look after some works or duties assigned to the participants at schools. iv. Motivation In terms of motivation, most participants did not respond to the question.

Whether they were not certain of their own motivation or they had no problem with it, it was quite difficult to determine. Only 10 participants (23%) expressed their feeling about this element. 4 participants said that they had great support from families, spouses, and children. Others felt that they were motivated by their jovial friends and lecturers to continue their efforts to perform in OUM courses. One student stated he had to motivate himself in order to continue his journey in this endeavor. It seems that the participants rely more on extrinsic motivation than intrinsic motivation to move on in their studies.

Perhaps this is influenced by the fact that they are sponsored by the Ministry of Education to further their studies at higher level. The findings might have been different if the participants are paying for their own education. Normally, adults who pursue their studies on their own are motivated by their own interest, courage, and determination. Nevertheless, if these participants did not take certain strategies to maintain their motivational level throughout their academic program, they might have performed well in the courses.

Supyan and Zaini (2002) argue that the individual’s own vision itself, considered as an intrinsic motivation, should be a stronger source of motivation in order to drive a good worker, in this case an adult learner, to be enthusiastic and dynamic in his search for more knowledge and skills as well as to increase his productivity at his workplace. In addition to clear vision, good learning strategies are needed to sustain good performance. Implications Based on the above findings, time management seems to be the most common problem that OUM students have to deal with.

As they are teaching at the same time, these studentteachers need to manage their time effectively so that they are able to cope with the course requirements. This issue has been addressed at the orientation week conducted by OUM at the beginning of the semester. However, these student-teachers perhaps need continuous support and advice throughout their academic program because the first week exposure on time management skills, study skills, and ICT skills might not be grasped well by them.

Only after they went through the real life as a working adult student, they would appreciate the importance of these skills. One implication that the OUM administrator can look at is to provide counseling services that will help the respective student-teachers to overcome some of their problems. A Special-Interest-Group or SIG can also be conducted via online. This SIG should provide room for student teachers to share their problems and advices as well as to learn from one another how to manage their life as adult students at OUM.

Perhaps adult learners will be better prepared to participate in ODL program and to achieve a balanced and rewarding life while they are studying when they learn from one another’s experience in SIG. Another implication is that these students are given avenues to express their complaints, suggestions, and recommendations that will not only help improve the student support services but also their own needs and motivation. Although the present online forums are available to address some of these issues, scheduled face-to-face meetings with students should also be made available.

Last but not least, additional self-directed learning materials for each course perhaps can be made available online in addition to online library reference materials as these adult students cannot move around very much and as the library materials are physically limited in quantity. Conclusion It is apparent that adult learners’ problems are more complex than fresh school leavers who join a university program. These working people have to play several roles and have to meet many requirements and demands at work places, homes, and in the community. As a result, their performance as students may be affected to some extent.

More studies need to be carried out to understand the social being of adult learners in this formal lifelong learning process in this ODL environment. Learners’ vision, self-concept, self-esteem, motivation and learning style that contribute to successful adult learners should provide some answers to problems discussed in this paper. This paper only reports the surface level of problems and further studies should look into the depth of the hidden voices. In fact, further studies should investigate how effective their strategies were in solving the problems that they had.

Although there are no standard solutions for every problem, some basic strategies to minimize common problems should be established. The effectiveness of the one week orientation program for the adult learners should also be studied and investigated. The writer would also like to suggest here that future studies should look into problems and challenges faced not just by the students but also by the lecturers who are involved in ODL program. Let’s seek the answers to ” what extent their problems and challenges contribute to adult learners’ problems”? References Atan, H. Jaafar, I, Guan, S. K. , Azli, N. A. , Abd Rahman, Z, Idrus, R. M.. 2003. Self- Transitional Characteristic Of Distance Education Learnes: A Case Study Of Three Malaysian Univerties. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education-TOJDE, 44. (Online) http://tojde. anadolu. edu. tr/tojde12/articles/Jaafar. htm (June 12, 2004) Bates, A. W. 2000. Managing technological change: Strategies for college and university leaders. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publisher. Daing Zaidah Ibrahim, Abu Daud Silong, & Bahaman Abu Samah. 2002. Practices that facilitate learner control in online environment.

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