Over the past few years, there has been a lot of discussion about student persistence in online education and how to improve it (Lakhal et al., 2021). While exit interviews show that the most common ...
I teach at a college for working adults. Most of our students work at least one job and have many family obligations. In short, they are busy people looking to learn in the most efficient and effective way possible. To meet these needs, we offer online classes that include a weekly 90-minute synchronous session (attendance optional), which is recorded and posted within the course along with copies of any materials that were discussed. Real-time interaction with the professor is available through weekly virtual office hours and by appointment.
Even with all the flexibility, engagement and meaningful interaction, which serve as the foundation for building professional relationships, take extra work. Adult learners demand a different type of pedagogy; while the goal of any learner is to acquire new skills, the approach for teaching adult learners requires some consideration for their experience—in life and in work. Activities that foster interaction with others learning the same concepts provide support for a community of learning (Yarbrough, 2018). These teachings suggested that incorporating some form of project-based learning would help students learn. Of course, this was easier said than done. Structuring a project to foster interaction between busy adults felt impossible.
Adult students have legitimate concerns about project-based learning; busy personal schedules preclude meetings with classmates, and fear (not always unjustified) of the impact that a dysfunctional team may have on project grading is rational. Moreover, if an employer remits or partially reimburses tuition, potential financial concerns arise as many tuition support programs require a baseline grade for reimbursement. Still, we cannot overlook the potential positive benefits of a group learning experience. Working in a professional team to resolve a problem is an important skill to acquire—and one that takes practice. At most jobs, people rarely work in a vacuum; there are always others they will depend on to complete their work. Brainstorming with others to solve a tough problem can be rewarding for all involved, with a spirit of mutual respect evolving from the effort. I didn’t want my students to miss out on that experience.
When I first began teaching, I clung to assigning group projects and insisted that students would benefit if they just tried hard enough. But even with some coaching, teams frequently devolved into frustration and stress for the students. No one was walking away from the project feeling better for having done it. These projects resulted in students experiencing many of the downsides of group work and few, if any, of the benefits. So, I paused to assess, read some literature, and recalibrate. This led me to look at project-based learning in a different way. I wanted to build organic interaction and exchange of ideas without the pressure and expectations of formal grouping. After quite of bit of mapping and consulting with students, I decided to try a whole-class group effort and have the students build a wiki that, once fully populated, would serve as a reference guide for students as they begin careers in health administration. By “whole class,” I mean treat the entire class as the group; each member would be required to contribute and engage, and each would receive a grade reflecting their own effort. I would serve as the group’s leader, facilitator, editor, and coach.
The goal of this project design was twofold: (1) to give students a chance to participate in a group project without having to coordinate directly with peers and (2) to foster professional relationships between students that would extend beyond the classroom. I have no scientific evidence to evaluate the project’s success, but anecdotally, it went well once the project began to unfold over the course of class. I believe it was helpful for students to read and read to others’ professional writing. And much to my delight, I did see substantive discussions within the wiki! Adult students need flexibility, and that includes a flexible approach to cultivating long-lasting friendships that can foster a career-spanning network of contacts.
 Articles were posted anonymously, but comments were identified so that students could reach out to commenters as needed.
Yarbrough, J. R. (2018). Adapting adult learning theory to support innovative, advanced, online learning—WVMD Model. Research in Higher Education Journal, 35. https://www.aabri.com/manuscripts/182800.pdf
Jacqueline B. Penrod is an associate professor at Peirce College in Philadelphia. She has taught in the Health Programs Department since 2016. Her teaching focuses on health policy, emotional intelligence in management, and legal aspects of healthcare administration and health information technology.