May 2004 
Volume 21, Number 1
Patrick R. Lake, Editor



Christine Vanchella & Roberta S. Lacefield,

As faculty living and working in rural Georgia, attending conferences and workshops usually involves spending time on the road, providing the opportunity for reflection and discussion.  It was on one of these trips, returning home from a System-sponsored conference on technology and education, that we decided to read aloud a book provided by the conference sponsors, Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace.  In this work, authors Palloff and Pratt lay out the keys to success in online learning: honesty, responsiveness, relevance, respect, openness, and empowerment.

Reviewing this list, we were simultaneously struck with the same question – “Haven’t we heard this before?”  Our mutual question was framed in the context of our experiences as a psychologist and an adult educator, and we felt that the keys for successful online learning specified in the book mirrored our understanding of the keys to adult learning in general and were being rediscovered in the context of learning online. Is this the case? Were these the same key items we thought we remembered from adult education research?  Is there something special about the online environment that makes it different from traditional learning environments or are the important elements the same?  

The search for an answer to these questions led us to a re-examination of current research and thought regarding adult learning and education. What we found was that Palloff and Pratt’s key elements sounded very similar to those mentioned in our review of the literature (Knowles, 1984; Brookfield, 1986; Chickering & Gamson, 1987; Wlodkowski & Ginsberg, 1995; Merriam & Caffarella, 1999; Dononvan et al, 1999).  Our review identified six recurring themes: the instructor’s role in providing direction, guidance, and feedback; extent to which the course establishes and encourages student-faculty and student-student interaction; relevance of material to learners; quality of course content; extent to which course addresses multiple learning styles and aids development of metacognition; and, inclusion of opportunities for self-directed learning.

Palloff & Pratt

Key Themes in Adult Education Research

·         Honesty

·         Responsiveness

·         Relevance

·         Respect

·         Openness

·         Empowerment

·         Instructor’s role in providing direction, guidance, feedback

·         Student-faculty and student-student interaction

·         Relevance of material to learners

·         Quality of course content

·         Recognition of multiple learning styles

·         Development of metacognitive skills

·         Opportunities for self-directed learning

This review confirmed our original belief in the underlying commonalities.  Though we act as if teaching online is somehow different from teaching face-to-face, the fact of the matter is that the research shows the same key elements in both.  So, we asked ourselves, if online education isn’t truly any different, why is it driving a renewed interest in the research and an imperative for change?

We believe the consumer demand for online education, supported by decreasing costs and increasing availability of technology, is the primary external pressure forcing educational reform today.  This is a powerful realization--powerful because academia is facing the next stage in its evolution.  External forces are driving change, and change will come whether we are ready or not.  And, change is always difficult.

Why is it difficult? John P. Kotter, in an article from the Harvard Business Review on Change entitled Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail, gives us insight into the nature of this difficulty when he states, “Reform generally demands activity outside of formal boundaries, expectations, and protocol.”  Therein lies the problem.  Academia, including student experience, is grounded in formality and protocol, which reinforces the status quo.  Therefore, we persist in the use of our familiar, comfortable methods.  Many of us continue to use the traditional lecture format with objective assessment of textbook and lecture material.  Yet, we sense that these are no longer the most effective methods, particularly in our increasingly complex and diverse environments.

Teaching online forces us to confront this new environment.  The problem is that many of us approach this new frontier with the old paradigm.  When faced with this opportunity for real change, our fear of change prompts us to simply use our old methods in a new environment.  Why do we do this?  Instead of addressing this question, we drift our focus into ‘proving’ that the online course is worthy and equal to the face-to-face class rather than truly examining the effectiveness of our strategies in either setting.

In contrast to those who fear change, there are those who embrace change.  Some of us have eagerly adopted the technological advancements in education.   Change appears to come easy to those who jump in, adding all kinds of ‘bells and whistles’ to their courses.  Yet when, and more importantly if, we critically examine these changes, there often is little evidence of the utility of the change for the learner. 

In this sense, change can also be dangerous.  If the change is surface change only, not driven by sound theory and principle, then we have truly made no change at all.  We drift from our intention of using technology meaningfully to using it gratuitously - technology for its own sake.  Our conclusions about the effectiveness of the technology are too easily focused on how new, interesting, or clever it is, rather than how well it supports student learning. We should be asking, “Do the technological changes support what research has told us are the key elements necessary for student learning?”

There is a danger that we will focus our limited time and energy on irrelevant surface issues.  Resources are limited, and real change is demanding of our time.  This time demand is clearly evident in other human domains.  For example, we can observe the experiences of business and learn many lessons.  Again in the words of Kotter, “change involves numerous phases that, together, usually take a long time.  Skipping steps creates only an illusion of speed.” 

A similar lesson regarding the relationship between change and time is available in human development.  We understand that we cannot force maturation.  It happens at its own pace, influenced by the environment of the organism and its readiness for change.  With these lessons from business and human development in mind, why would we expect authentic change in teaching to happen quickly?

Online education allows change because it is new; there are no formal limits, no standard practices, no single ‘right way.’ It provides us with a grand opportunity to shape education that reflects our current knowledge and research about the way adults learn – to reengineer education rather than use our old, obsolete practices in a new environment. It is an opportunity we cannot allow to pass us by.

Before we simply reinvent online education in our own image, we must take a moment to ask ourselves some questions.  Have we made a scholarly examination of our teaching?  Do we recognize the opportunities for modification of our current teaching style? Are we taking the time to progress through the necessary stages?   Are we ready to experience real change?   Only by considering these questions honestly and openly will we ensure our survival in an ever-changing, competitive, and complex educational environment.

Christine M. Vanchella is a freelance writer and an Adjunct Professor at South Georgia College 
(Douglas, Ga.) and
Roberta S. Lacefield is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Waycross 
College (Waycross, Ga.).


Brookfield, S. (1986) Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. San Francisco:         Jossey-Bass.

Chickering, AW, & Gamson, Z.F. (1987) Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7.

Donovan, M. S., J. D. Bransford, & Pellegrino, J. W., ed’s. (1999) How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice. Washington DC: National Academy Press.

Knowles, M. S. (1984) Andragogy in Action: Applying  Modern Principles of Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kotter, J. P. (1998). Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. In Harvard Business Review on Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Merriam, S. B. & Caffarella, R. S. (1999). Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Palloff, R. M. & Pratt, K. (1999) Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wlodkowski, R. J. & Ginsberg, M. E. (1995) Diversity and Motivation: Culturally Responsive Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.