This chapter outlines a novel instructional design for distance education and explores its likely effects, including ethical impacts, for adult learners. The instructional design has adult distance learners nominate two learning supporters from their ‘home’ environment, such as family or friends. The teacher or facilitator role pivots from focusing on the learner toward guiding the nominated home-based supporters to support the learner. In turn, adult learners engage in some teaching of course concepts to their home-based family or friend supporters. Underlying this instructional design is a rejection of the idea of an independent adult learner in favour of seeing the learner as an interdependent person. The ‘home-support’ approach is rooted in the value of reciprocity. It addresses a key problem for adults learning in an online distance context: difficulty in achieving time on task. However, it carries risks for the learner, involving access, equity and autonomy. This chapter discusses these ethical concerns and recommends avenues to mitigate the risks.
Adults who study distance education courses online often do so because of the flexibility these courses offer. There is usually no requirement to attend a class at a set place or online class meetings at set times. Much of the online distance education journey can be self-paced rather than designed to suit the timings of lecturers or peers, and this ‘asynchronous’ aspect of distance learning is part of its appeal for adult learners with busy lives. However, the lack of requirement for ‘real-time’ human interaction is also a potential barrier to motivation and the cognitive reach of distance education. This chapter outlines the problem and proposes a novel solution. I argue that designers of online distance learning for adults should consider the potential benefits of recruiting people from the adult learner’s ‘home’ environment to support their learning. My proposal positions adult distance learners as interdependent rather than independent individuals, taking a strengths-based perspective on support people nominated by adult learners from their ‘home’ environments. I discuss some key ethical concerns arising from this novel instructional design approach, including issues of access and equity and impacts on autonomy. This chapter challenges and defends the concept of a ‘home’ support approach for online distance adult learners.
I start from the basis set out by Moore and Ellsworth, with reference to Barbour, that “… technical design cannot be meaningfully developed separate from human context” (Moore & Ellsworth, 2014, Social Responsibility section). An examination of the human context of online adult distance learners informs the design of the ‘home support’ approach I propose. I aim to explore and argue a rationale for field-testing this approach. The argument is largely conceptual in nature but draws on research in adult distance education to support key empirical claims. More than two decades of teaching and designing online distance courses for adults has helped shape the view I present of the circumstances of adult distance learners, and informs my reasoning. In the framework of moral dimensions Osguthorpe et al. (2018) applied to instructional design practice, I aim to exercise the ‘conscience of imagination’: envisioning new ways of doing things, alternative approaches not previously considered, and improving learning and teaching. My disciplinary background in philosophical ethics has also influenced my conclusions. I will explain how the ‘home’ support approach for online distance adult learners finds a grounding in the ethical theories of care ethics and virtue ethics.
The Context of Online Adult Distance Education
A discussion of online distance education for adults needs some initial definitions. In particular, it is important to clarify how online distance education differs from the online education offered as an adjunct (or accompaniment) to conventional classroom-based education. Sikander (2019) suggests distance education is characterised by the “separation of teacher and learner in time and/or place for most part [sic] of the educational transaction, mediated by technology for delivery of learning content … ” (p. 68). Conventional classroom-based education can use online technology to deliver learning, and the online learning may involve the physical separation of teachers and learners. However, this education is not planned around separating teachers and learners in time. Instead, in conventional classroom education, learners are progressed through a course with their peers as a class, according to the teacher's timetable (Nichols, 2022). In the tradition of distance education, however, “the learning experience is based on asynchronicity” (Nichols, 2022, pp.5-6). A real-time connection with teachers or peers is seen by distance education scholars as optional if it would interfere with distance education’s traditional aims of “accessibility, cost-effectiveness, flexibility, openness, and scalability” (Nichols, 2022, p.3). Planning for teachers and learners to operate on separate timetables allows more flexibility for learners: they can study at their own pace without interrupting or planning their study around the availability of others. Asynchronicity is a defining feature of online distance education that distinguishes it from the online education that takes place within the paradigm of conventional classroom education.
Many adult learners have busy lives with responsibilities toward other people; a key reason adult learners choose distance learning is the flexibility it offers them to manage studies alongside their other work (Berry & Hughes, 2020; Hodges et al., 2020; Kauffman, 2015; Brown, 2012; Hannay & Newvine, 2006). As noted, the flexibility comes through the asynchronous nature of distance education that allows ‘self-paced’ learning. Self-paced describes “learning environments that enable individuals to study online in their own time and at their own pace, from their own location” (Moore et al., 2011, p. 131). Flexibility is a double-edged sword for learners, as it can make it harder to find and sustain quality time for their study (Melkun, 2012; Romero & Barberà, 2011). Berry and Hughes (2020, p. 100) note, "Many online students are doing their education online because of full-time work or other obligations including family, and … lack of quality time for school and study is a major concern for many.” This is an important consideration as indicators of learner success emphasise the quality time they spend on their study tasks and the importance of quality study tasks (Lee, 2018; Chen & Guthrie, 2019).
Comparing the traditional classroom instructional environment with the environment for adult distance learners, it is easy to see why the latter might struggle with achieving ‘time on task’. In classroom-based learning, classes are scheduled at set times on set days in a set place. Classes have a teacher upfront and peers learning alongside. With distance education, however, there is usually no requirement to attend class on a set day at a set time. The distance instructional environment does not typically come with a real-time teacher in front of a learner or peers simultaneously present alongside the learner. Lacking a synchronous class setting with a teacher and peers, distance learners lack social encouragement to focus on their studies at a set time for a set time length. By contrast, the design of instructional environments that use a physical classroom setting helps learners manage their time toward their studies (Brown, 2012, p.41). Time management is a primary driver of academic success for online adult learners (Berry & Hughes, 2020; Broadbent & Poon, 2015; Capra, 2015; Lee, 2018). Melkun (2012, p33) notes that these learners “typically work full-time and struggle to balance competing priorities”. Competing demands on one’s time is one of the key factors leading to dropout in online courses (Hew & Cheung, 2014; Lee, 2018; Kim & Frick, 2011). Understanding the different environments for online adult distance learners helps us make sense of the lower completion rate for many courses (Ragusa & Crampton, 2018; Brown, 2012).
Instructional design aims to make the online course environment engaging for learners, drawing on best practice models. Designers should draw from models that “anchor student interaction in the instructional objectives and strategies that create, support and enhance learning environments” (Abrami et al., 2011, p88). However, learners need to enter the online learning environment and be in an appropriate psychological state to be able to be engaged. Instructional designers can provide a course timetable, including timely electronic notifications to learners with reminders of course deadlines and encouragement to study. These do not bring the same social support to study as synchronous classes. Synchronous classes pull in the learner at a particular time and fill the learner’s environment with people who can support their study at that time, such as teachers, tutors, or other learners. By contrast, the asynchronous learning environment for adult distance students is filled with competing priorities and demands on their time – paid work, housework, care for children or aging parents – around which they need to try to fit in some study. The asynchronous learning environment for online adult distance learners offers much more flexibility but much less social support for engaging in study than synchronous learning.
Do instructional design models (hereafter ID models) address the different environments adult distance learners face? Yes and no. I will follow Dousay (2018) in considering ADDIE as an overarching instructional design process enacted through various models. Well-known ID models such as the Dick and Carey Model, ASSURE, or the Kemp Design Model typically require an initial analysis of the learners early in the process. This analysis should identify the learner characteristics, and for adult distance learners, this would include a busy adult life and need for flexibility. Instructional strategies can be designed with this in mind; for example, highlighting the most relevant parts of resources for learners to focus on and flexibility around assessment due dates. However, the models have neither an explicit nor implied requirement to analyse how conducive the learner’s general environment is to study. These models thus imply, through omission, that learners’ extramural lives are peripheral to the overall design process.
Established ID models that focus more closely on instruction, such as ARCS-V, Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction or Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction, have steps in their design processes that connect instruction with learners’ extramural lives. For example, the models may require or encourage learners to connect ideas with their own experiences, or apply a piece of learning in their workplace to understand and integrate new knowledge into their lives. However, if this is the extent to which they make use of features of learners’ extramural lives, these models imply that learners’ extramural lives are, at best, ancillary parts of the learning process. This perspective is not unusual in the analysis of online learning. For example, Bernard et al. (2009) and Abrami et al. (2011) distinguish three types of interactions as relevant for online learners: student-student, student-teacher, and student-content. Belderrain (2008), drawing on others’ work, includes a fourth type: student-interface. Note that an interaction of student-home environment is not envisioned. It seems the interactions that online learners have with people in their ‘life’ environment do not fall in the ambit of consideration for online distance education.
The proposed 'home support' approach
Consider the concept of an instructional design for adult distance learners that takes account of the learning potential of the ‘life’ environment in which they learn – not just the online course space. In this model, adult learners nominate two people from amongst their family or friends to be their ‘home supporters’. The role of home supporters is to help prompt or facilitate more effective ‘time on task’ for the learner. Home supporters are not expected to explain course content or assess course work; instead, they check in with the learner about the learner’s progress in the course. They are there to offer a sympathetic sounding board for the learner’s views on managing study time, what support they need, and how they (the learner) might secure this. In return, adult distance learners share part of what they are learning with their home supporters. Teachers or facilitators monitor overall progress, help home supporters with any issues in their support role, and help the adult learners with course content in the usual way.
In the 'home support' instructional design, the online distance course is structured to facilitate this approach. Automated teacher responses are pre-programmed for all online learning activities. This strategy frees the teacher or facilitator to operate at a monitoring level that is a step up from the detailed content. Thus, the teacher or facilitator role pivots from focusing on the online learner to guiding the nominated family or friends to support the adult learner. Communications between teachers, home supporters, and adult learners are mediated by agreed communication technologies (for example, emails, texts, and social media messaging). These communications follow an agreed plan that combines a timetable and a decision-path flowchart, so all participants know what to expect when and the steps to take when things are not going to plan (see Fig. 1). Activities are developed that empower the learner to teach, or share, some course concepts with their home supporters. This sharing of knowledge, learning and support embodies the key value of reciprocity for participants that underlies the ‘home support’ design approach. Ideally, at the end of the course, successful learners achieve the course credit, and their home supporters receive digital badges that acknowledge their support work.
Example of decision-path flowchart for home supporter
It might seem like a leap of faith, allowing the adult learner to nominate family and friends as supporters and involve ‘untrained’ people in supporting their learning. Indeed, the research into school students learning by distance, where parents or guardians support the students by taking on the role of ‘learning coach’, often calls for more training of these home supporters (Hanny, 2022; Nayar, 2021; Connor-Flores, 2021; Barbour & Ferdig, 2012; Hasler-Waters & Leong, 2011). Also, research on students who receive extra coaching from people who are not their teacher suggests that the impact on academic results is often either only weakly positive or non-existent (Cracolice & Broffman, 2021; Moore, 2020; Ricker, Belenky, Koziarski, 2021). However, this is to mistake the role envisaged for family or friends in the ‘home support’ model. It is not intended that family and friends should engage in any ‘coaching’ of the adult learner, nor is it expected that the home support will result in higher grades for those who complete the course. Instead, it is simply expected that more learners will complete the course than if the ‘home support’ were not in place.
A ‘home support’ model might seem a surprise, given that interactions with the people in the adult distance learner’s ‘life’ environment were earlier noted as potential barriers to learning. A key issue for adult distance learners is quality ‘time on task’, and an adult learner’s obligations to work colleagues, friends, and family can distract attention away from study. Why not instead have the learners draw support from their peers in the course? The problem with this suggestion is that teachers would need to organise a level of ongoing synchronous contact between the adult learners in the course, which would reduce flexibility; but needing more flexibility is a key reason that these adult learners choose distance education. Unless an adult distance learner is removed from their life environment and placed in a classroom (no longer the flexible online learning situation valued by adult distance learners), then their people will be there, in their environment. It seems more useful to acknowledge this than ignore it.
Acknowledging the people in a learner's home environment also seems more appropriate from the perspectives of the ancient theory of virtue ethics and the more modern theory of care ethics. A virtue-based theory suggests the goodness of an action is not determined primarily by reference to the consequences of the action, nor by reference to, for example, whether the action respects people’s rights, but by reference to the qualities of a person of virtuous character. The philosopher Aristotle, pre-eminent amongst virtue ethicists, wrote of friendship as a quality a virtuous person would cultivate (Aristotle, Bks 9 & 10). Good friendship disposes us to act excellently toward our friends, seeing a close friend as ‘another self’ (Aristotle, Bk 9, ch4). Good friends (including kin relationships) should recognise and try to encourage the good qualities of each other. Rather than viewing the adult distance learner’s people from a ‘deficit’ perspective as potential barriers to learning, this supports the question: What strengths could an adult learner’s people bring to the learning situation? How might they draw on those strengths to help the adult learner secure more quality ‘time on task’?
The modern ethical theory of care ethics has an even greater emphasis on personal relationships, seeing persons as essentially relational beings rather than independent individuals (Burton & Dunn, 1996). The pre-eminent care theorist Nel Noddings (2013) holds that ‘ethical’ caring is an effortful attentiveness and responsiveness to the needs of people we are in contact with. Moreover, this caring needs to be reciprocated somehow by the ‘cared-for’ for the ethics of the action to be complete (Noddings, 2013). This perspective supports having family or friend supporters for adult distance learners, and also having learners give something back to their supporters. I have suggested that this take the form of adult learners sharing their learning with their home supporters.
Consequently, the ‘home support’ instructional design moves away from the perception of adult learners as largely free-floating independent units, in favour of seeing learners as interdependent adults, adults whose lives are inextricably bound up with other people’s lives. The instructional design values the presence and importance of those people for the adult learner and vice versa, hence embracing the value of reciprocity in sharing benefits from online learning. The ‘home support’ design is proposed as a strengths-based approach to distance learning for interdependent adult learners. In what follows, I will outline and discuss some ethical issues that may arise from adopting a ‘home support’ design approach for adult distance learners studying online.
Access and equity issues
Suppose we proceed under a ‘home support’ ID model for adult distance learners. Ethical issues will arise as facilitators face learners with different circumstances. Some of these will involve the learners’ nominated home supporters. The most obvious issue is what should happen when a learner’s home supporter can no longer offer support. This situation could occur if, for example:
- A supporter becomes clinically depressed or otherwise seriously ill
- A supporter takes on a new job and struggles with the workload
- A supporter is in the military and is liable to be posted somewhere remote with patchy communications
- A supporter is imprisoned
There are practical solutions for dealing with this issue. For instance, courses can be designed to be completed with just one home supporter if needed. If facilitators note that one of the two supporters has issues that could make their support less reliable, they could check that the second nominee has no foreseeable support issues. Another solution could be to request a third home supporter (with no foreseeable support issues) who remains in the wings and can step in if a supporter drops out.
A deeper problem arises from equity considerations. Some adult learners will have a pool of potential home supporters available to them who are well-educated and may offer valuable extra support with the course, helping to tutor the learner. Other adult learners will not have such a pool of supporters to draw from. The former group of learners seem to have a significant advantage conferred on them by the 'home support' course design, which seems inequitable. It should be noted that the former group will have this advantage regardless of the course design – these learners can always call on their well-educated friends and family for support. Nonetheless, a ‘home support’ design seems likely to encourage this far more than a traditional online course would. However, facilitators can give explanations about the role of the home supporter at the start of the course that are designed to mitigate this advantage. Templated instructions and processes to follow for interactions can help with this. When learners nominate supporters and teachers or facilitators explain the course process and gain informed consent, the onus is on teachers to emphasise the focus and limits of the home supporter role.
Independence and autonomy concerns
One concern with the ‘home support’ design is that the adult learner will develop a reliance on family and friends that will hinder the development of independence. While the learner is exercising some independent choice in their selection of their home supporters, if a learner cannot make progress in their studies without family and friends checking up on them or can only make an assignment deadline because of family and friends imposing earlier deadlines on them, this may be a problem. It is presumably a weakness in instructional design if it impedes an adult learner from developing independence. One response is to concede that this is a problem and deal with it by mixing elements of the ‘home support’ design with a more traditional design. For example, learners could be supported by family and friends over the first half of the course and weaned off this support in the second half.
Alternatively, we could reject the ‘hindering independence’ criticism. Instead of assessing the ‘family and friends’ approach against traditional online adult learning, we could compare it with traditional class-based tertiary education. The latter has a co-located class teacher or tutor and peers for every scheduled class. The adult learner taking these classes seems to rely as much, if not more, on other people for support than the adult learner in the ‘home support’ design. Yet, we would not expect to hear class-based tertiary education criticised as ‘hindering independence’ simply on that basis. Similarly, I propose that the ‘home support’ design also ought not to be criticised as unreasonably holding back the development of independence.
We could question whether an instructional design, even if not unduly hindering independence, should still aim for more learner independence for adult learners. However, recall the earlier point about adult distance learners having less support to carve out ‘time on task’ than traditional classroom learners. Given this, it seems unfair to try to remove some of the available support in the name of greater independence. We should also consider that there may be a separate value to interdependence. If adult distance learners are happy to nominate a couple of learning supporters from amongst their family and friends, this is indicative evidence that they see some value in this interdependence. Furthermore, given that the learning supporter role is structured to provide some reciprocal benefits to supporters within the relationship, the interdependence may also have value to supporters. It may be counterproductive to aim for more learner independence if the effect of this is to ‘crowd out’ the value of interdependence.
A concern about what might be ‘crowded out’ under an instructional design cuts both ways, however. What if a design where learners interact with their family and friends ‘crowds out’ other interactions, such as online interactions with other learners and teachers? Instructional designers incorporate such interactions in online learning courses; technologies include discussion boards, chats, blogs, wikis (Baggio, 2008, pp75-76), and online meetings. Should we be concerned if interacting with family and friends did have an effect of ‘crowding out’ these other interactions? I think we should be concerned about the potential impact on the adult learner’s progress in developing autonomy. The basic argument can be sketched out thus:
- It is likely that mandating or encouraging engagement with home supporters as part of a course will decrease the amount of time an adult learner interacts with other learners, teachers, or facilitators in the course.
- Other learners or teachers in the course will likely do a better job of prompting the learner to critically discuss and reflect on their ideas than family or friends would. It is an expectation that other learners and teachers should be prepared to engage critically with the course material, but this is not an expectation of home supporters (and this type of involvement by home supporters might even be discouraged for equity reasons).
- Critical reflection is better at promoting autonomy than interactions with family or friends.
- Having interactions from other learners and teachers ‘crowded out’ is likely to negatively impact the adult learner’s progress in developing autonomy.
Several objections can be raised against this argument. The most radical is to reject autonomy as a goal for education. This approach would find support from British philosopher Michael Hand. In ‘Against autonomy as an educational aim’ (2006), Hand asks, what is autonomy, and is it desirable as an aim of education? He suggests that for autonomy to be a reasonable goal for educators, it would need to be both learnable and desirable, where desirability is defined as a quality of character whose exercise is generally advantageous to the learner. His article offers a sustained argument that “there is no quality of character one could plausibly call autonomy at which it is reasonable for educators to aim” (Hand, 2006, p536). Hand’s article could be drawn on to argue against the autonomy concern with the ‘home support’ design. Suppose a ‘home support’ design had the effect of ‘crowding out’ some critical discussions with other learners and teachers – still, we should not concern ourselves with any likely negative impact on autonomy because autonomy is not a reasonable aim of education!
Frankly, most education theorists will be sceptical of Hand’s reasons and conclusion, so I will not try to rely on this to support my argument. In any case, I could not do so in good conscience. I have my own definition of autonomy, which is not covered in Hand’s paper. I think my definition is reasonable as an aim of education and that a ‘home support’ model may impact negatively on this autonomy, so there is an ethical issue for me to address. I define a minimum level of personal autonomy as being able to give a justification for your action or belief, or desire, that is not (merely) someone else’s justification. On this definition of autonomy, persons must have thought about their actions, beliefs or desires enough to have chosen (or be able to choose) a justification for them in order for their actions, beliefs or desires to count as autonomous. Justification requires giving reasons. As education assists us in giving reasons, it seems this is a learnable practice. Being more experienced at thinking about actions and beliefs, choosing a justification for the actions and beliefs you adhere to also seems desirable. So I suggest my ‘justification’-based definition of autonomy does not seem unreasonable as an aim of education.
My definition of autonomy is a problem for a home support approach to adult distance learning, if the home interactions crowd out interactions with others in the course. In an educational setting, we are encouraged to give reasons to argue for our preferred position. Studies of argumentation by Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier (Mercier, 2016) suggest that when we give reasons to argue for our position, we tend to be lazy – we use the minimum effort necessary to convince our interlocutor. It is natural to expect our family and friends to be more supportive of our ideas than strangers (or enemies!). We likely expect that friends and family will more readily and less critically accept our explanations or reasons – in which case, we will make less effort to present or argue for our position. In turn, we will more readily and less critically accept input from our family and friends. This approach may do little to develop our ability to give our justifications, and not support gains in our autonomy.
However, we do not expect that other learners or teachers will readily and less critically accept our explanations and arguments. Rather, we should be inclined to put more effort into thinking about, clarifying and arguing for a position on an issue when interacting with these groups. Suppose, as seems likely, that adult learners expect other learners and teachers to be more critical of their positions, than they do family and friends. More interaction with other learners and teachers should then prompt adult learners to do more work thinking things through themselves, thus improving their understanding and ability to give reasons that represent their thinking work, which is the basis of my definition of autonomy. Thus it seems that a ‘home support’ design, if it crowds out some interactions with other learners or teachers, will negatively impact an adult distance learner’s progress in developing autonomy.
However, I suggest it is unlikely that the interactions with family and friends would completely crowd out any interaction with teachers or other learners. There are more likely to be degrees of dampening of those interactions. The extent to which this dampening occurs will depend on several factors: primarily the learner and their preferences for such interactions, but also the interaction opportunities structured into the instructional materials. Moreover, instructional materials can model autonomy-enhancing practices. For example, each course topic can ensure attention on identifying whose authority is relied on for evidence (‘Who said this, and why should we believe them?’). Course materials can also emphasise the practice of examining reasons. Furthermore, consider the reciprocity strategy of adult learners having to teach ro share some course concepts to family and friend supporters. This relationship will likely help the learner develop a clearer or deeper understanding from which to work out reasons to support or reject practices or theories. By aiding this clearer or deeper understanding, the strategy thus supports the preconditions for enhancing autonomy.
A further cognitive gain from the ‘home support’ design may be experienced by the adult learner’s family and friends. Being a supportive audience for an adult learner’s explanation of some course concepts may enhance one's cognitive environment. In other words, it may make a supporter's environment more cognitively stimulating and demanding. The effects from this may differ depending on the previous education of the relevant family and friends. The cognitive benefit for friends and family may be seen as a side benefit from the perspective of traditional online learning. It is nevertheless a benefit, and from the perspective of the ‘home support’ design, it is not peripheral.
I have explored the idea of an instructional design approach to online adult distance learning that provides a role for some important people in the adult learner’s life. The motivation for this idea is drawn from elements of the adult distance learner’s context: needing flexibility not afforded by traditional classroom instruction but thereby missing the support for achieving quality time on task that the traditional setting offers. I suggested taking account of the adult learner as interdependent and recruiting some of the learner’s people – family and friends – to help provide this support, using a strengths-based approach. Based on the value of reciprocity, the ‘home support’ design aims to facilitate benefits for adult distance learners and their supporters through the learning process.
Having sketched out an argument in favour of the ‘home support’ instructional design, I then subjected it to ethical scrutiny. I identified several areas of ethical concern, namely, access, equity and autonomy. I argued that access is a practical matter that can be dealt with in the initial set-up of home supporter nominees. The equity concern is trickier, but the inequitable advantage for adult learners with highly-educated family and friends may be mitigated by establishing a clear understanding of the nature of the participation expected of home supporters. I concede that autonomy may be negatively impacted if interaction with family and friends ‘crowds out’ interactions with other learners and teachers. But I suggest that this may turn out to be a ‘dampening’ rather than a complete crowding out; that online distance courses can incorporate other autonomy-enhancing features; and, finally, that there is a potential cognitive gain for ‘family and friends’ supporters that should be taken into account. As with everything, a ‘home support’ instructional design is not risk-free. However, I think it has sufficient potential benefits to recommend exploring the design approach in practice.
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 While I believe this approach is new in the field of IDT, some indigenous traditions (such as Māori, Pacific peoples, Native American, Ubuntu African) reject the Western individualist perspective of an independent person, in favour of recognising a relational interdependency among persons. For this reason, I call the view I put forward of an interdependent adult learner a ‘re’-vision of the independent adult learner.