Hidden Voices of Adult Learners in Open and Distance Learning Program: Problems and Strategies to Overcome the Problems

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Most recent studies on adult learners in open and distance learning (ODL) programs in Malaysia have been focusing on students’ ICT skills, learning strategies, and interconnectivity but studies on problems encountered by adult learners while studying as fulltime or part-time students are scarce. This paper describes hidden voices of adult learners who revealed some of the problems, which they experienced in OUM academic program in terms of time management, family, career, and motivation. It will also present some of the strategies that the students employed to overcome their problems.

Traditional distance education which offers correspondence courses in 60s and 70s has now faded away, and is being replaced by online distance learning and/or open and distance learning (ODL). In addition to Raffles College, Malaysia Correspondence College (MCC), Maktab Adabi and Maktab Federal, USM (Universiti Sains Malaysia) was the earliest local university that started to offer “off campus studies” to working adults in 1971 (Yusof & Syarifah, 1999). The number of adult learners in continuing education in Malaysia is increasing when more universities such as UPSI (Universiti Perguruan Sultan Idris), UKM (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia), UPM (Universiti Putra Malaysia), UiTM (Universiti Teknologi MARA) opened up distance education program for adult learners in mid 90s. The number of adult learners has moved from 17,756 in 1996 to 20,000 in year 2000 (Mokhtar et. al, 2003). Later when OUM (Open University Malaysia) was established in August 2000, the number of adult learners keeps increasing as technological advancement allows for more access to online education courses, communication and exchange of information. The number of OUM students alone increased from 1000 to 12,000 within 3 years (Mansor, 2003). Under the 8th Malaysian Plan (2001-2005), Malaysia is expected to have 60,000 distance learners annually. This phenomenon is not new in Europe and America since life-long learning process among adult learners who are working full-time and studying part-time has become a common culture in their societies. In Malaysia, the concept of lifelong learning process may not be new but the practice is still at infant stage. With the establishment of OUM specifically, more working adults can pursue their higher education. OUM offers a blended approach in its teaching-learning environment where interactions between teachers and students take place physically and virtually. As the number of adult learners is increasing exponentially, the need to provide quality education is very demanding. Administrative aspects, students’ support services, learning materials, accessibility to online resources, evaluation procedures, teachers’ qualifications, and contemporary methodological approaches contribute equally to quality teaching and learning. Still, one aspect that is also crucial to be observed is the problems faced by these adult learners. By understanding some of the adult learners’ problems, ODL institutions can provide better student support services, and eventually lead to better student performance.

Past Studies
Recent studies in open and distance learning program (ODL) has been focusing on adult learners’ ICT skills, learning strategies, and interconnectivity but studies on adult learners’ problems that the learners encountered while studying as full-time or part-time students are scarce. Among the few, Zuraidah & Ahmad (2002) studied the type of supports (access to computer and networking, technical help), training support, learning support (online materials and references, tutorial and counseling) and administrative support needed by ODL at USM. They revealed that 58 percent of USM students who enrolled in ODL program had difficulty in accessing the materials online, 40 percent said the computers in campus were inadequate and 54 percent complained that the downloading of the materials was time consuming. However, 40...
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