The Needs of Distance Learners



The questions for discussion this week include: (1) “How do you engage learners who may not want to be in the course or training session?; (2) What can you, as an instructional designer, do to prepare for the different readiness and motivation levels among learners?; and, (3) What have you learned this week that has helped you think about designing learning experiences that engage everyone and meet diverse needs?” (“Needs,” 2011, p. 1). However, the title of the discussion is “The Needs of Distance Learners” implying a separateness and/or distinctiveness between distance learners as compared to traditional, face-to-face learners when reflecting upon the questions posed.


There is one distinct difference. The main objective of distance learning programs “is to provide a valuable learning experience to students who might not otherwise have access to learning” (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009, p. 162). In the not too distance past, distance learners who fell into this category were different in that they tended to be older, more committed to learning, more independent, self-motivated and take responsibility for their education. “Many adult learners have responsibilities (e.g., families and jobs) and situations (e.g., transportation, childcare, domestic violence and the need to earn an income) that can interfere with the learning process. Most adults enter educational programs voluntarily and manage their classes around work and family responsibilities. Additionally, most adult learners are highly motivated and task-oriented” (as cited in Cercone, 2008, p. 139). However, with the accessibility of technology diffused among the mass populace, distance learning has become a flexibility / opportunistic option for many. True, this has begun to change the demographics of the “typical distant learner”; however, it is my contention that it has not truly changed the pedagogy of instruction. What I mean to say is that solid instructional strategies, engaging and motivating learners, is not new to teaching (distant or face-to-face). The reality is that with the advancement of technology and Web 2.0 technology tools, the distant learner can now expect and/or demand equivalent, if not identical, engaging instruction. Please bear with me as I further elaborate.


First, Cercone provides a comprehensive summary of adult learner characteristics that should be taken into consideration in designing an instructional program, as follows:

  1. “Adults may have some limitations and these should be considered in the design of the online environment” (Cercone, 2008, p. 140).
  2. Learning styles need to be considered. In any group of adults there will be a wide range of individual differences, thus the individualization of learning experiences is important in many situations” (Cercone, 2008, p. 141).
  3. “Adults need to be actively involved in the learning process” (Cercone, 2008, p. 154).
  4. “Adults need scaffolding to be provided by the instructor. Scaffolding should promote self-reliance, and it should allow learners to perform activities they were unable to perform without this support” (Cercone, 2008, p. 155).
  5. “Adults have a pre-existing learning history and will need support to work in the new learner-centered paradigm.
  6. Adults need the instructor acting as a facilitator” (Cercone, 2008, p. 156).
  7. “Adults need consideration of their prior experience. The instructor should acknowledge this prior experience. Adults need to connect new knowledge to past events.
  8. Adults need to see the link between what they are learning and how it will apply to their lives. They want to apply immediately their new knowledge. They are problem-centered.
  9. Adults need to feel that learning focuses on issues that directly concern them and want to know what they are going to learn, how the learning will be conducted, and why it is important. The course should be learner-centered vs. teacher-centered” (Cercone, 2008, p. 157).
  10. “Adults need to test their learning as they go along, rather than receive background theory.
  11. Adult learning requires a climate that is collaborative, respectful, mutual, and informal” (Cercone, 2008, p. 158).
  12. “Adults need to self-reflect on the learning process and be given support for transformational learning.
  13. Adults need dialogue and social interaction must be provided. They need to collaborate with other students” (Cercone, 2008, p. 159).


Aligned with these characteristics is an extensive listing of recommendations for online learning programs (Cercone, 2008). The majority would agree with these characteristics of adult learners, and there is a great deal of research out there along these lines. However, what would happen, for the sake of argument, if we substitute the word “learner” for “adult” in each of these statements? The resulting characteristics would actually describe the majority of learners (sans the youngest elementary age learners), distant or face-to-face. Ironic, isn’t it?


In fact, many of Cercone’s recommendations fall hand-in-hand with techniques that would typically engage and/or motivate a student. The difference is that technology has now given the online and/or distant learning instructor tools to meet these learning needs. Dabbagh opines the need for meaningful and/or authentic instruction provided by either exploratory and/or dialogical pedagogical models (Dabbagh, 2007). As a credentialed teacher for secondary science many of these pedagogical models are similar. “Engaging the learner requires instruction that is well-structured, with clear responsibilities for students and provokes students to join in deeper levels of discussion (as cited in Simonson et al., 2009, p. 166). Further, as in face-to-face instruction, distance learning instructors are advised to give consideration to culture, online etiquette, prior knowledge/experiences (subject or technological), and learning styles (Simonson et al., 2009). Similarly, learners who are most successful online are responsible for their learning, organized, participate regularly, study, complete assignments and ask questions, if necessary (Simonson et al., 2009). Again, these are factors that benefit any learner (distant or face-to-face).


Personally, I am grateful technology has advanced to the point that distance learning in higher education has become more acceptable. Further, with a traditional face-to-face instructional background my experiences motivating and engaging students transfer well into the distant learning arena. Bonk proposed a TEC-VARIETY Model for Online Motivation and Retention (Bonk, 2009) consisting of tone/climate, encouragement and feedback, curiosity and exploration, variety and novelty, autonomy and choice, relevance and meaningfulness, interactivity and collaboration. In addition, Bonk (2009) suggests incorporating an R2D2 Method of reading, reflecting, displaying and doing (i.e., auditory/verbal, reflective, visual and kinesthetic learning styles) utilizing Web 2.0 technology tools (Bonk, 2009).





Bonk, C. J. (2009). Creatively engaging online students: Models and activities. Unpublished manuscript, Indiana University. Retrieved from


Cercone, K. (2008). Characteristics of adult learners with implications for online learning design. AACE Journal, 16(2), 137-159. Retrieved from


Dabbagh, N. (2007). The online learner: Characteristics and pedagogical implications. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 7(3), 217-226. Retrieved from EBSCOhost


Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th Ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.


The needs of distance learners [Week 4 Discussion Post comment]. (2011). Retrieved from



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