Adults: A prime pocket of non-consumption

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Jul 2, 2008

An April article in eSchool News titled “Schools mull needs of adult distance learners” discusses the growing demand from adults to take online courses.

This is a classic area of non-consumption. Many adults would like to have some form of ongoing education for any number of reasons –- to gain new skills for a future job, for general enrichment and curiosity, and so on — but often there have not been good options to fulfill these jobs. Most colleges have historically been tailored for the 18- to 22-year-old demographic, for example, and it’s hard to attend a school full time if you need to work or have a family. Night school often is not a satisfactory option.

With its convenience of allowing a student to take it any time, any place, and at any pace, online education is stepping in to fill the need. According to Capella University Vice Chairman Michael Offerman, the average student at Capella is 40 years old –- which shows there is a big untapped market here. As further proof of its power, Bill Gates recently told NBC’s Tom Brokaw in a June interview that he takes online education courses –- and finds them very useful.

As Offerman writes in his blog, “Despite clear changes in the demographics of American higher education, public discussion and public policy consideration are still based on the tradition of the 18-year-old going directly from high school to full-time, on-campus study.”

We’re just at the beginning of seeing how the Internet can revolutionize learning. Disruptive approaches to learning such as targeting adults will help improve the medium and push the conversation forward.

In classic disruptive fashion, according to the article, at the moment adult online education works best for the more motivated students, just as K-12 online education does. But over time, we can imagine it improving. Providers are fashioning it to be student centric. If the technology is honed in this foothold market in this fashion, this could have a big payoff for K-12 education down the line if providers transfer the relevant portions of what they learn from serving adults.

– Michael B. Horn

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.