How OERs can help adult learners

Carley McDougallBlogs

Adult learners
Adult learners in the classroom

From visual learners to auditory learners, different students learn better from varying styles – but did you know that age can be a key factor in how a student learns best as well? Due to the wealth of experiences they bring with them to class, adult learners often have very different needs and requirements from a course than their younger counterparts would.

While accommodating different students’ needs can be challenging, having tools that are flexible and adaptable will help set instructors up for success. Open educational resources (OERs) or open textbooks can help make education more affordable and accessible for all students, and their adaptable nature makes them well suited to use when teaching students from varying backgrounds.

In addition to choosing the best tools, instructors can benefit from understanding the differences in teaching adults versus youth and determine how they can best accommodate those students’ needs. The first step is to consider the reasons why an adult might be enrolled in a post-secondary course.

Why might an adult be taking a post-secondary course?

While most younger students enter post-secondary institutions directly from high school, there are many reasons why adults might be returning to school at a college or university, including:

  • Currently unemployed or laid off from their most recent role;
  • Wanting to upgrade their skills to help them get a new position or job;
  • Seeking a change in career paths;
  • Wanting to complete a degree that they previously started before entering the workforce.

Characteristics of an adult learner vs. a youth learner

When an adult learner returns to school, they bring with them a wide variety of life and work experiences. As a result, their optimal learning styles tend to be different from those of younger students. According to an article from Faculty Focus (written by Patti Shank, PhD CPT), a younger learner may be more used to theoretical studies, but an adult often wants to discuss the practical application first so that they can better understand how what they’re learning relates to their past experiences.

“When you’re working with the adult learner, you’re looking at the experiences they bring to the table.”

– Doug Cameron, open resource author

An adult learner’s goals from completing a course often differ from that of a younger student as well. The Faculty Focus article continues by noting that while a more adolescent student is sometimes taking a course because it’s required to complete their degree, an adult student may have a more specific need for the knowledge or skill. Some younger students are seeking their degree without yet knowing what their career path will be, while most adult students will have a specific career or life goal they are attempting to achieve.

Why OERs are beneficial in adult learning environments

OERs are free, online resources that are fully adaptable to be used by teachers and students in whatever way best suits their needs. As opposed to digital or traditional textbooks, OERs aren’t static – they can be updated or edited by anyone. With an OER, instructors can more easily adapt the content they’re teaching to better accommodate adult learners – once they’ve modified the content, they can even redistribute it to help other instructors and students in the future.

Adult learners have a variety of demands

Photo by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash

Another article written by Patti Shank, PhD, on the subject of adult learners states that an additional consideration to be mindful of with adult students is that they often have the additional challenge of fitting schooling in with other life demands, such as family obligations or work. OERs can be beneficial to adult students in this regard, as they often feature a variety of instructional methods. In an online resource, you can include rich media, such as videos or audio clips that a busy adult learner may be able to watch or listen to on their commute or while completing other tasks.

Affordability and accessibility are also key benefits of OERs for all students: While traditional digital textbooks must be purchased by students via a subscription code, open textbooks are always freely available, thus reducing the financial burden of education.

Interested in learning more about teaching adult learners? An OER pilot project titled “Teaching Instructional Methods in Adult Education” is currently underway. We chatted with the project’s leaders in a recent blog post to learn about the process of developing an OER and what this project means for open education in Manitoba.


Campus Manitoba is a consortium of Manitoba’s public universities and colleges. Through collaborative projects and shared services, we facilitate student mobility and expand access to post-secondary programs for students in Manitoba. In addition to campusmanitoba.ca, our websites include ecoursesmb.casetyourcourse.ca, and openedmb.ca.