Clearing the Way for Adult Learners

From working professionals to retirees, nontraditional adult learners are redefining what it means to be a student in ways that are certain to reshape the delivery of higher education.

Lightbulbs on black with terms describing lifelong learning glowing inside

FLEXIBLE AND FOCUSED. Short-term and stackable. Affordable and accessible. These characteristics are fast becoming integral to the design of educational options that meet the needs of adult learners. Providers are scrambling to meet a global surge in demand for massive open online courses (MOOCs), small private online courses (SPOCs), certifications, stackable credentials, “micro” master’s programs, and master’s programs offered in flexible formats.

Last year alone, the top five MOOC platforms—Coursera, edX, Udacity, FutureLearn, and Swayam—partnered with 900 higher education institutions worldwide to launch more than 2,500 new courses, 11 online degrees, and 170 microcredentials, according to Class Central, a site that aggregates online course options for prospective students. By the end of 2019, these platforms collectively offered 13,500 online courses, 820 microcredential programs, and 50 MOOC-based degrees across 13 subjects. By August 2020, the course count had reached more than 18,000.

These programs attracted 110.5 million learners—and that number is expected to keep growing as working adults increasingly prefer to pursue education in bite-size portions. Adult learners represent a doubly important demographic to colleges and universities, as the pool of traditional-age college students continues to shrink. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollments in the U.S. in fall 2018 and spring 2019 were down 1.8 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively (a trend due in part to declining birth rates worldwide).

As these trends continue, many experts believe, colleges and universities will need to look beyond the typical 18-to-21-year-old demographic if they want to thrive. That will mean creating more programs that meet the needs of working professionals and lifelong learners.


As organizations work to keep up with the fast pace of technological change, the World Economic Forum estimates that more than 1 billion people in the world will need to be reskilled by 2030. For that reason, countries and international bodies worldwide are placing a priority on encouraging their working-age population to pursue additional training.

For example, in August, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) based in Hamburg, Germany, released “Embracing a Culture of Lifelong Learning,” a report that lays out the UIL’s vision to cultivate a global culture of lifelong learning by 2050. In the report, experts explore barriers that now inhibit lifelong learning among adults, from poverty and inequality to misinformation spread over social media. In addition, the paper highlights ten strategies for overcoming those barriers, from promoting transdisciplinary collaboration to ensuring equitable access to learning technology.

Throughout the report, the UIL makes clear that it views lifelong learning as not just a business need, but as “a common good” and “a human right.” The organization envisions “a collectively built global learning ecosystem” that integrates formal and informal learning experiences delivered both online and offline over the course of person’s life.

“This vision can be realized only through an enabling environment,” the authors write. “Securing basic needs and a strong social fabric are key to fostering lifelong learning and bridging educational gaps. It is necessary to understand learning as an innate human capability that needs to be nurtured throughout life, including in old age.”


One governmental effort aimed at creating such an ecosystem is the European Commission’s Education and Training 2020 framework. This long-term initiative is intended to make lifelong learning and student mobility more commonplace, accessible, and equitable, while promoting creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship at every level of education.

And the effort is making progress. According to the EC, in 2016, just over 44 percent of working-age adults (25 to 64 years old) were pursuing education or training. That’s up 3.5 percent since 2011, the year of the last survey, and up 33.3 percent since 2007. Among the most popular topics of study? Business, administration, and law, followed by health and welfare.

Among this group, 42.1 percent participated in nonformal training, which the EU defines as on-the-job training or courses or programs not delivered as part of an institutionalized program. These include microcredentials, stackable credentials, and certifications.

“Lifelong learning strategies imply investing in people and knowledge,” according to Eurostat, the EU’s data office. “They aim to provide people of all ages with equal access to high-quality learning opportunities, and to a variety of learning experiences designed to increase employability, social inclusion and active citizenship.”

In a 2018 industry brief, AACSB International, too, reinforces its goal to promote business schools as active hubs of lifelong learning. The brief points out that, while individuals with college degrees achieve higher lifetime earnings than those with high school diplomas alone, a one-time degree is no longer enough to see people through their careers. As society and business grow more complex, individuals will need to adopt the mindsets of lifelong learners if they are to stay employable, connected, and fulfilled.

The half-life of knowledge has has been shrinking, and organizations are inventing, combining, and recombining competencies with greater frequency, creating new and different jobs, while curtailing others,” the report emphasizes. “The global economic shift to lifelong learning has only just begun to gain traction.”


Lifelong learners are becoming an increasingly important demographic in higher education, where each month more online courses and credentialing programs for working-age adults come online. In fact, according to a global survey of more than 1,600 adults between the ages of 21 and 40 conducted jointly by AACSB, the Executive MBA Council, and UNICON, nine out of ten respondents saw value in earning a credential or badge. Many expressed interest in pursuing such credentials in place of formal degrees.

However, historically there has been no way that they or their employers could compare the quality of one credential with another. To address this issue, in April 2019, the European MOOC Consortium (EMC) launched the Common Microcredential Framework (CMF), with the help of EU funding.

The EMC’s founding partners—which include the MOOC platforms FutureLearn, France Université Numérique, OpenupEd, Miríadax, and EduOpen—created the CMF to ensure that microcredentials are transparent, consistent, and portable across international boundaries. The partners’ objective is to “create an ecosystem where learners can one day take microcredentials from within a network of universities [and apply them] towards a larger qualification, such as a postgraduate certificate or master’s degree.”

Many universities view short courses and MOOC-based certifications as a way to appeal to “degree tasters,” who want to take a few courses before committing to an entire program, says Catalina Schveninger, FutureLearn’s chief people officer. This is true especially in the business and management subject area. Courses on business topics represent the largest portion on the platform, delivered by universities ranging from the Hanken School of Economics in Finland to the University of Leeds in the U.K. to Purdue University in the U.S.

Students interested in going deeper into a topic can then pursue one of 24 degree options in business and management, including two bachelor’s programs, seven MBA programs, seven specialized master’s programs, and eight graduate and postgraduate certificates. So far, five universities have made the leap to full MOOC-based degrees on FutureLearn: Coventry University, Open University, and Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom, and Deakin University and Murdoch University in Australia. Schools such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the U.S., Macquarie University in Australia, and HEC Paris in France offer fully online master's or MBA programs on Coursera, with most allowing students to take one or two MOOCs first as a way to “try before they buy.”

“It’s a new concept but everybody is starting to buy into the idea” of microcredentials as a path to full degrees and lifelong learning, says Schveninger. “I think in the next couple of months, we’ll see more microcredentials from different universities.”


During the global lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19, demand for microcredentials has surpassed records for many providers. According to nonprofit news site The Hechinger Report, the number of individuals pursuing microcredentials on the edX platform alone reached 65,000—14 times higher than in March—and surpassed 100,000 users for the first time this summer. In May, Western Governors University enrolled 10,711 students in its bachelor’s program in information technology, which can be earned via stackable credentials. That’s up from just 4,410 in March.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management recently reported that it had enrolled a record number of students in the intake for its upcoming MITx MicroMasters program in finance, which starts September 30 on edX. As of the beginning of September, 50,000 students had signed up for the five-course series. 

Like other MOOC platforms, FutureLearn is ramping up its creation of new microcredentials to meet this increased market demand. Started in 2012 by 12 universities in the U.K., FutureLearn is now jointly owned by Open University, which focuses primarily on online undergraduate education, and the Australia-based job search platform Seek Ltd., which invested £50 million (about US$66.7 million) in the company in 2019.

In June, FutureLearn announced its partnership with Coventry University to introduce four new industry-accredited microcredentials in data analytics, financial analysis, cloud computing, and customer success. These offerings include training in popular software systems such as Tableau for data visualization and Salesforce for customer relationship management. The cloud computing microcredential will prepare students to earn Amazon Web Services certification.


Before the pandemic, professional development, teaching, and healthcare were the most popular topics among students, says Hanna Celina, FutureLearn’s director of insights. But since the start of the crisis, the platform has seen a threefold increase in user traffic. “We are seeing a switch to business and digital content, not only from learners, but also from higher education institutions and industry partners who see the pandemic as an opportunity to develop content.”

Celina and Schveninger emphasize that providers will need to build their capacity to develop new content quickly to meet the changing needs of the adult learning market. That became crystal clear this past spring, they say, when educational providers around the world had to rush to create new content for workers who suddenly needed to manage the impact of the pandemic, furloughed workers who needed to reinvent themselves, and educators who needed to learn to teach online.

FutureLearn, for example, put together and launched the short course How to Teach an Online in just two weeks. Once the course launched, its instructional designers completed its production as it went on. Such just-in-time design and delivery of timely online content is going to be a driver in the adult learning market, says Celina. “We’re going to wake up in September and realize that the way in which consumer trends in online learning have shifted is irreversible.”


Even as colleges and universities recognize the importance of adult learners, many faculty still use educational approaches more suited to teaching children than teaching adults, argues Virginia Hemby-Grubb, a professor of business education at the Jones College of Business at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) in Murfreesboro. Hemby-Grubb has spent most of her career studying the needs of adult learners. In her view, too many college faculty still think in terms of pedagogy, the act of teaching children, rather than andragogy, the act of teaching adults.

But adults learn differently than younger students, and they often take courses for different reasons (see the sidebar “Maturing Expectations” below). “They take courses not because someone tells them they have to take it, but because there is something they need to know,” says Hemby-Grubb. “They want to know, ‘How will I benefit from this course? What will it do for me in the future?’”

For this reason, older adult learners might derive little value from assignments targeting younger students, whether they're asked to write out a five-year career plan or take certain foundational professional development courses, says Hemby-Grubb. Rather, they want to complete flexible assignments that allow them to apply what they’re learning to their own jobs and goals.

On the other hand, faculty should not assume that all students possess certain skills, particularly when it comes to technology. For example, some older adult learners have never needed to master Microsoft Excel or PowerPoint for their careers.

“They are coming from different industries and they don’t necessarily have the background,” says Hemby-Grubb. To serve the older demographic, schools will need to have mechanisms in place that identify learners with knowledge gaps and direct them to resources that will help bring them up to speed.


While large universities experiment with MOOCs on edX, Coursera, and FutureLearn to attract more global audiences, small universities are looking closer to home. “I’m not sure that people here in Tennessee pay a whole lot of attention to the Coursera and the Udemys of the world,” says Hemby-Grubb. “For them, it’s mostly about what’s local that will provide them with opportunities at low or no cost.”

Sean Salter, an associate dean for assessment at MTSU’s Jones College, agrees that smaller institutions can take advantage of this trend to differentiate their programs in the market. “About 100 people have moved to Nashville every day, on average, over the last three or four years. That’s a huge influx of people,” says Salter. “Many of those moving to the city already have college degrees, but those degrees might not be immediately applicable to the business environment. They’re not going to want to spend the time and money on a graduate degree if they don’t have to.”

Several years ago, the college converted its only MBA degree to a flexible format that allows students to take courses online, in person, or via a combination of both. After launching the FlexMBA, the school marketed the program aggressively to Nashville’s growing community of working professionals. This effort grew the program from annual enrollments of less than 200 to 440 students this year—an increase of 150 percent.

“The big draw is the flexible nature of the program, specifically the ability of students to complete our FlexMBA program entirely online,” says Salter. “We have learned that convenience is the key factor for many of today’s working graduate students.”

The college also is working to attract another increasingly important demographic: older adults who want to finish degrees they started when they were younger or earn additional degrees in other disciplines. With that in mind, two years ago, the Jones College launched its bachelor of science in commerce degree for this group in particular.

Students who enroll in the program can complete a Prior Learning Assessment through MTSU’s University College. Their past business experience or military education can count for up to 24 hours of credit toward the 120-credit degree—the maximum allowed under AACSB accreditation standards. Since the program launched in 2018, student enrollments have grown from 20 to 59.


Most recently, the Jones College has begun to explore short-duration certificate programs, including its 18-hour, six-course certificate program in healthcare management, launched August 2019. Its course portfolio also includes a 12-hour accounting certificate in assurance and a 12-hour interdisciplinary certificate in data science, offered jointly with the College of Basic and Applied Science. In the future, the business school is considering additional certificate programs in emerging fields.

“We are starting to hear from constituents looking for programs that help people build specific skills that do not warrant a complete degree program,” says Salter. “If we can put together certificate programs for these people, we could fill a need that isn’t being filled right now.”

Clark Atlanta University in Georgia also is seeking to expand the appeal of its programs to working adults. In 2017, the university introduced its own version of stackable credentials, which undergraduates in all disciplines can add to their degrees, from a project management certification offered through the business school or a credential in data analytics from the School of Arts and Sciences.

Within certain courses, students can prepare to test for SAP certifications or complete a series of modules that will prepare them to earn a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt certification. Other professional certifications the school offers include those in financial planning and project management.

“Our stackable credentials are designed so that current students can insert these courses into their curriculums without having to extend the time to degree completion,” says Silvanus Udoka, dean of Clark Atlanta’s School of Business Administration. “In the future, we want to offer certification badges in blockchain technology and design thinking. We are now working on expanding these options to adult learners outside the university.”


Earlier this year, Clark Atlanta’s business school sent several faculty through the IBM Skills Academy to earn certifications in areas such as cybersecurity, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence. Once these faculty were certified, the school planned to have them deliver three-week workshops to train other faculty. By increasing faculty’s capacity in emerging fields, Udoka sees great opportunity ahead to offer a wide range of stackable credentials to the market.

“We know many people are no longer interested in earning degrees—they’re interested in gaining competencies. Some companies are even hiring people straight from high school and training them in data science,” says Udoka. The ultimate goal, he adds, is to design the curriculum so that learners can work from one credential to the next until they finish a degree. “That will require an intentional redesign of our entire curriculum,” says Udoka. “We are not there yet, but that is my vision as we go forward.”

At MTSU’s Jones College, Salter predicts faculty will continue to offer stackable certifications, as well as add more industry-based certifications to the college’s in-house programs. He believes that this strategy will greatly benefit students and employers, but its success will rely on a large-scale cultural shift among academics.

“If you’ve been a business professor for 25 years like I have, it’s tough to come to terms with the fact that we have to change our business models,” says Salter. “But we are all going to have to think differently.”



Related Reading

All for Andragogy

Designing the Alternative Education Experience

Certified to Work

Educating the Adult Learner

All-Access Bachelor's Degrees