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The Light at the End of the Tunnel: A Study of Adult Leaners Transitioning into the Online Learning Space

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posted on 16.02.2022, 22:49 authored by Patricia PowersPatricia Powers
Adults aged 25+ currently make up a growing number of students at Australian universities. The majority of them are enrolled in online study which in this case refers to online delivery covering at least 80% of subject content. A higher first year attrition rate among this cohort compared to that of younger students, highlights the need to better understand the transition of older students into the online study space. Past research has provided important information regarding the first-year experience of university students across the board. However, the literature is limited with regard to the lived experience of adult students in the early ‘make-or-break’ period of the first trimester, including the important formation of student identity, self-efficacy and the intrinsic motivation to persist. Using an approach informed by Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, this study examines the experiences of twenty-four adult participants. It accompanies them as they transition into the higher education online study space during their first twelve-week trimester at an Australian university. Data consists of a reflective journal and two semistructured interviews. While the journals were ongoing, the first interview was conducted within the first three weeks and the second was conducted at the end of the trimester. The data were transcribed and analysed through a systematic process of coding, categorisation and the development of themes focusing upon the students’ lived experience. During analysis, the data was further filtered by the application of three characteristics of the Threshold Concepts Framework: liminality, troublesome knowledge and transformation. The Threshold Concepts Framework was employed in two ways. Firstly, it was used to illuminate the affective dimension of the multiple and complex challenges, upheavals, hurdles and achievements experienced by those involved. Secondly, it provided a framework by which to examine for evidence of an experiential threshold concept. The findings show that to 'become’ a new adult online student can be problematic, exciting, troubling and humbling. So often not understanding the meaning of what they are doing, some adult online learners are unable to tolerate the uncertainty they experience, while others embrace it. Their resilience is incremental and fragile, not only in an academic sense, but also as their identity as independent learners develops. Despite the levels of computer integration into everyday life, adult students can be ill equipped technologically and emotionally for online study and its academic and time management demands. Circumstances involving financial considerations, isolation, and even unprecedented opportunity, can further disrupt their transitional journey. This study offers a deep understanding of the ontological and conceptual shifts experienced by these adult students during their initial transition to the online space and their negotiation of the troublesome knowledge inherent to this space. In terms of retention policy and curriculum development, it informs online educational practice and policy so as to better identify learning support to counteract the specific issues faced by this cohort. Finally, it contributes to the scope of research into the Threshold Concept Framework and its relevance to the experiential domain.


Principle supervisor

Michael Grimley

Additional Supervisor 1

Tim Moss

Year of award



Doctor of Philosophy