Reflections on SRHE seminar on mature students and adult learning in higher education

I have previously written in an opinion piece about my view of the role of education, and specifically online learning, to enable and empower all people as lifelong learners. This is a fundamental need in an age where careers change, technology advances and unpredictability reigns. To realise the advantage of online learning, learners need the skills and capacity (personally and through the workplace) to be able to participate in professional and industry learning. Higher education has a huge part to play with expertise in sustained programmes of learning, student support, creativity, research-informed curricular and research-practice partnerships that can advance many sectors. 

This post provides my reflections after a SRHE seminar: Hope, social mobility and personal emancipation: what does the future hold for mature students in English Higher Education? Mature students may be completing traditional degrees, foundation programmes, online learning, short courses and professional development through higher education. Accessing such forms of education as a mature student usually comes with compromises due to educational background, family and work commitments, and even location. From my perspective, that is why the flexibility and opportunities of online learning intertwine with the needs for mature students, whether they are completing professional learning or their first degree. The recent changes in how universities and colleges have delivered courses in blended, hybrid and fully online modes due to the Covid-19 pandemic, have surfaced the value of such approaches for a wider range of students than traditional face-to-face allows. However, the current context has also provided significant challenges, including how learning is supported, how students form learning communities, access to resources and ongoing competing priorities with personal and social situations exacerbated by pandemic lockdowns.

Dr Nalita James, University of Leicester, provided the first presentation of the SRHE seminar. One of James’s key points was to challenge the idea of a “new normal”, with the inherent risk that the inequalities that have developed/been reinforced as a result of our current situation, will become accepted norms. There are great opportunities from new ways of working and flexible forms of education, but they also bring with them barriers that must not be ignored. James refers to the latest OECD reports, and these documents, along with Jisc’s recent reports and research undertaken for Ofsted for the UK school sector (Ofsted, 2021), provide a valuable snapshot of the benefits and drawbacks of ‘emergency remote education’ and our transition to a new normal.

There is an interesting paragraph in the OECD report on the impact of Covid-19 on education (Schleicher, 2020). Whilst the focus of this extract is on international students, there are undoubtedly parallels for all student markets, mature students and professional learners. Extrapolating a bit here, with adult learners too, there are constraints on travel and relocation for education where there may be work or family commitments. The point though about conveying the value of education, and the propositions that different forms of educational delivery offer, ring true across many groups of learners.

“Higher education has often been considered a refuge in periods of low employment, enabling adults to develop their skills. In contrast to previous economic downturns, the lockdown measures of this current crisis have affected the delivery of learning and the experience of studying abroad in ways that have no precedent. It has also raised awareness of the vulnerability of international students in times of crisis. All of this is likely to influence students’ perception of the value they will get from studying abroad in relation to the price they are willing to pay. Faced with these challenges, higher education institutions will need to develop a new value proposition that reassesses the quality of learning and delivery mechanisms in the classroom, and that addresses the needs of an international student population that may be less willing to cross borders for the sole purpose of study.”

Schleicher, 2020.

One interpretation of this conclusion is that higher education needs to significantly redevelop its approach to education that harnesses the opportunities of online learning for all students. That poses some exciting possibilities in terms of unbundled higher education, permitting greater flexibility in forms of teaching and learning, and creativity in terms of assessment and authenticity of programmes for career and professional learning. As explored by Ivancheva, et al. (2020), even with notions of unbundling and flexibility providing greater access and opportunity for a range of learners, some will still be disadvantaged by their personal context.

Another key point James discussed, is in the creation of new forms of education there is a need to provide support for how to learn in these new ways. James emphasised that “reshuffling” courses so they work online will only be a poor replication of face-to-face teaching, so there is a need to be innovative to provide appropriate teaching and learning experiences. With innovation comes disruption, and those more adept at learning online will be able to flourish. James cites the “Matthew Effect” as applied to education (Stanovich, 1986), where those who are skilled in learning advance, and those who are not are disadvantaged. I’ve explored previously how online text-based discussions require particular learning skills, and these need developing as part of the learning design. The same applies to online learning, hybrid models which require switching of approaches and indeed higher education generally that requires very different skill sets from other forms of education. There is perhaps also a tension between the highly structured programmes of study prevalent in higher education and the shorter structures of adult learning and workplace learning that meet very specific needs. Again, perhaps the ideas of ‘unbundled’ higher education may provide an answer.

Dr Sharon Clancy, University of Nottingham, builds upon this point with an analogy of students on a “mapless journey”, through a “hidden cultural and academic hegemony”, which may reflect the sense some mature learners feel through a degree programme. 

In my view, programme design should be providing a means to address the “mapless journey”, with clearly articulated programme learning outcomes, graduate attributes, and career-linked learning designed-in. In this sense, not just the teaching, but the learning interactions and assessments at module level need to be aligned to these overall outcomes, and articulated to learners. There is also ample scope for personalisation within defined learning outcomes, to make learning relevant to individuals, their contexts and goals. Programme design doesn’t necessarily have to be the exclusive purview of higher education. Professional learning can also take advantage of the benefits that programme-level thinking provides, and indeed is reflected in the idea of professional development pathways, micro-credentials and other study routes that chain periods of learning together. My own postgraduate studies with the OU adopted this model.

These points were further articulated by Iain Jones in the post-presentation discussions, countering the view of ‘boxed’ modules and instead thinking about the role of independent learning projects for example. Jones flagged the opportunity in assessment and curriculum design to allow space for outcomes of direct relevance for individual learners, and of shared relevance to the cohort. He suggested possible opportunities in foundation degrees to bring in experiences from work and establish a learning identity. 

Also from our breakout group discussions in this session, the importance of community building was strongly emphasised. This applies to all groups of students, not just mature students and professional learners. Developing a ‘sense of belonging’ has been part of many institutional agendas (an example of practice is University of Edinburgh, 2020) and the focus of this has been heightened in the realisation that social interactions and community building is exceptionally challenging at a distance. One of the seminar participants cited evidence from their own institution where a specifically employed retention officer provides human interaction with students to support them to sustain their learning, with the net result of significant increases in retention. Jisc’s (2020) induction planning guide, adapted for mixed-mode education, places great emphasis on community and spaces for interaction. 

“If we imagine new students arriving for induction on campus, we would want the buildings, rooms and people to be welcoming and create an inclusive experience. Now, more than ever, the digital estate is as much of the organisation as the physical estate and the digital experience is not a bolt-on or something that simply supplements life as a learner there. It’s important to give care and attention to designing an induction experience that will bring all of your learners together.”

Jisc, 2020.

This is where I see the value in revisiting some of the work on distance learning, as many of these challenges were present in the pre-social media age of online education (and indeed pre-online learning itself). It’s not surprising that Salmon’s (2000) five-stage model still has relevance where, after technical access, online socialisation is the next foundation stage. I would argue though that the socialisation aspect can be part of the learning activity, not a segmented pre-cursor. Whether this is the development of specific skills to engage online, or the direct action of communicating with others, these can form meaningful learning tasks. With adult and professional learning, there is the added advantage that many students will also be within workplace contexts, so the local networks and communities that exist outside the educational setting provide further opportunities for support. In the learning design, these can be incorporated through deliberate tasks that require discussion, challenge and reflections with a peer offline. 

Even within this single seminar, we have the possibility of conflicting views on how adult learning and mature students could be supported. Do we unbundle to increase access and flexibility, or do we strengthen programme approaches to avoid a learning journey without purpose or route? I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. Even within unbundled curricula, programme wrappers and learner support can provide the guidance to keep learners on track and adapting their path as their needs and interests evolve. We should also appreciate the wider context of our learners, that they do not solely exist in our educational setting and that they bring both experiences and constraints we may not be aware of. Online and distance learning and teaching enable flexible engagement, but certainly require approaches that actively counter inherent disadvantage. Through that, we can move to a more hopeful setting for all forms of education, empowering individuals, supporting learners and enabling each student to continue their learning journey.


  1. Clancy, S. (2020) Mature Learners in Higher Education – the ‘all-too invisible’ travellers in a ‘mapless journey’. Hope, social mobility and personal emancipation: what does the future hold for mature students in English Higher Education? [online seminar], Society for Research into Higher Education.
  2. Ivancheva, M. P., Swartz, R., Morris, N. P., Walji, S., Swinnerton, B. J., Coop, T. and Czerniewicz, L. (2020). Conflicting logics of online higher education, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 41(5), 608-625.
  3. James, N. (2020) A Pedagogy of Hope for Mature Students? Adult Education in a Post-Pandemic Era. Hope, social mobility and personal emancipation: what does the future hold for mature students in English Higher Education? [online seminar], Society for Research into Higher Education.
  4. Jisc (2020). Helping learners/students feel part of a community, Planning Induction for Autumn 2020. Jisc.
  5. Ofsted (2021). Remote Education Research, Ofsted.
  6. Salmon, G. (2000). E-Moderating. London: Kogan Page.
  7. Schleicher, A. (2020). The impact of Covid-19 on education: insights from education at a glance 2020. OECD. 
  8. Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy, Reading Research Quarterly, 21(4), 360-407.
    University of Edinburgh (2020). Fostering a sense of belonging at our university: a guide for schools. Sense of Belonging Task Group, University of Edinburgh.





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