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Adult Learners and Blended Learning: A Phenomenographic Study of Variation in Adult Learners' Experiences of Blended Learning in Higher Education Open Access

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Blended learning is emerging as one of model of choice in higher education. However, adult learners face unique challenges in participating in higher education. Redefinition of blended learning from the experience of adult learners is essential to developing a theory of blended learning suited to the needs of adult learners in higher education. A phenomenographic approach to qualitative research was employed in this study to identify and describe variation in adult learners' experiences of blended learning in higher education. Phenomenography assumes that variation in the experience of a phenomenon relates to variation in the meanings learners assign the structure of the phenomenon in a given situational context. The collective experience of a phenomenon can be categorized into patterns of experience based on similarities and differences in meanings and structure. Identification of variation across patterns of experience permits description of the nature of variation in the collective experience of a phenomenon. This study identifies and describes variation in the experience of blended learning by analyzing the experiences of ten adult learners enrolled in four blended courses in an adult degree completion program at a private liberal arts university.Findings indicate three different patterns representative of variation in the experience of blended learning in higher education: Supplementary Learning, Interdependent Learning and Adaptable Learning. However, participants within this study cannot be assigned into distinct patterns; rather, in describing their experiences they employ a dominant pattern and a minority pattern based on the relative emphasis they place on the components of context, process and self-as learner. According to study participants, differences in course contexts, differences in learner orientations and differences in the experience of process in blended courses influence the meanings they ascribe to blended learning. Variation in the patterns of experience of blended learning identified in this study have important implications for the design of blended learning, for the adult learner in blended courses and for instructors facilitating blended courses.

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