The Adult Need for "Personal Control" Provides a Cogent Guiding Concept for Distance Education


Maureen R. Garland

VOL. 9, No. 1, 45-59


Ethnographic analysis of the situational, institutional, dispositional, and epistemological problems that pose barriers to course completion reveals an underlying cultural theme: the social contradiction between the role of student and the role of adult. Mature distance education students find this conflict in roles problematic. They have acquired the status and power of adults; their difficulty is psychologically maintaining this status and power while undertaking the role of student. Their needs for respect, personal control, and fulfilment are often frustrated, which can lead to withdrawal. Meeting student needs for personal control means providing them with the appropriate resources and support they need to be self-efficacious. In a tertiary educational context, it does not mean students having control over the content and methods of learning but rather taking responsibility for their own learning and moving toward epistemological autonomy. Key is the notion that students are learning individually not independently. Understanding the social contradiction in roles and students' needs for personal control to maintain psychological power can help distance educa-tors create a dialogic learning environment, molded by the epistemological nature of the content itself, that is responsive to the individual learner.


Une analyse ethnographique des problèmes d'ordre situationnel, institu-tionnel, structural et épistémologique faisant obstacle à l'achèvement d'un cours révèle un leitmotiv culturel sous-jacent, nommément une contadic-tion sociale entre le statut d'étudiant et celui d'adulte. Les apprenants adultes souffrent de ce conflit de rôles, car ils éprouvent des difficultés psycholo-giques à conserver les pouvoirs et le statut d'adultes quand ils adoptent le rôle d'étudiant. La frustration de leurs besoins en termes de respect, de contrôle personnel et de réalisation peut les amener à se retirer d'un pro-gramme d'études.

Pour satisfaire aux besoins de contrôle personnel des étudiants, il faut mettre à leur disposition les ressources et appuis qui leur permettront de développer une efficacité autonome. Dans un contexte d'études tertiaires, ceci ne signifie pas que les étudiants contrôleront les contenus ni les méthodes d'apprentissage, mais plutôt qu'ils assumeront la responsabilité de leur processus d'apprentissage et qu'ils viseront l'autonomie épistémo-logique. Pour individuel qu'il soit, l'apprentissage ne sera pas indépendant. Une compréhension de cette contradiction sociale et du besoin de contrôle personnel chez les apprenants peut aider les enseignants à établir un environnement d'apprentissage dialogique, marqué par la nature même du contenu épistémologique, et qui réprondra aux aspirations individuelles des apprenants.


Garland’s ethnographic study of distance education persistence in five tertiary academic courses in the natural resource sciences revealed situational, institutional, dispositional, and epistemological problems that posed barriers to course completion for both students who withdrew and those who persisted. These complex variables, and others, act additively and synergistically in a multitude of context-dependent ways to contribute to a withdrawal decision that Garland (1993b) describes as essentially idiosyncratic in nature.

Situational problems stem from a student’s milieu and can include such factors as a lack of support from peers and family or time constraints resulting from a student’s multiple roles as parent, spouse, and employee. Institutional barriers comprise such things as cost, bureaucratic procedures, poor scheduling or pacing, problems with the tutorial assistance, and inap-propriate instructional design. Dispositional problems are related to the student’s psychological and sociological makeup. They include stress, pro-crastination, adult pride, learning style, and weak self-confidence. Episte-mological problems reflect a lack of congruency between the student’s cognitive and affective perceptions of knowledge and the nature of the knowledge presented in the content. Course epistemological stances de-scribed as too scientific and technical, too abstract and theoretical, not personally relevant, or as requiring extensive prerequisite knowledge were all difficult for some students. Many situational, institutional, and episte-mological problems are interactive with dispositional aspects; that is, their problematic nature depends on the student’s attitudes, proclivities, tem-perament, personality, expectations, and styles.

Garland’s study involved face-to-face, in-depth interviews with 30 persisting (those who wrote the final exam) and 17 withdrawal students. An inductive approach was used, with the ethnoscience methodology of Spradley (1979) guiding both the interviews and the data analysis. His operationally explicit procedures involve componential analysis of semantic domains. Simply, the things people say are used to derive, in a systematic way, insights into how they construe their world of experience. Withdrawal and persisting student cohorts were analyzed separately. Previous reports provide the methodological underpinnings of the ethnographic research (Garland, 1993a) and outcomes in terms of the barriers to completion revealed in the study (Garland, 1993b). This article continues the discussion of relevant findings. It focuses particularly on aspects of the students’ understandings that appear to have broad explanatory power in elucidating barriers to persistence. These concepts are further considered in the con-text of current issues and concerns affecting distance education theory and practice, such as the notions of “control,” “self-directedness,” and “au-tonomy.”

A Relevant Cultural Theme in Distance Education: The Social Contradiction of Roles

Close consideration of the situational, institutional, dispositional, and epis-temological variables identified by withdrawal and persisting students as problematic (delineated in Garland, 1993b) reveals that many share an underlying aspect related to such universal cultural themes as social con-flict, cultural contradiction, and the acquisition and maintenance of status. Basic to many of these barriers to persistence is the social contradiction between the role of student and the role of adult. That is, an underlying theme in the problems these mature students experienced, elucidated by the ethnographic methodologies employed in this research, is the conflict between the societally humble role of student, whose needs are considered relatively subordinate, and the societally honourable, autonomous role of mature adult, whose needs for respect, personal control, and fulfillment are considered paramount. Personal control means students being in con-trol of their personal learning situation, that is, being in a position to be self-efficacious. It does not mean their being in control of the entire educational transaction.

This conflict in roles was reflected in student statements such as:

As well, the tension resulting from the contradiction in roles was evident in the highly emotional nature of the students’ understandings, expressed, for instance, in the number of emotionally charged words or phrases, both positive and negative, that both withdrawal and persisting students used in describing their experiences. Examples include “encour-aging,” “fantastic,” “wonderful,” “fascinating,” “excited,” “dove into it,” “passionate,” and “screamed with glee” vs. “ticked off,” “tense,” “choked up,” “freaked out,” “frustrating,” “was smoked,” “gruelling,” “embar-rassed,” “very upset,” “banging my head against a wall,” and “struggle.” The problematic nature of the social contradiction in student and adult roles as an underlying theme in the situational, institutional, dispositional, and epistemological problems the students experience is an intuitively sat-isfying insight with cogent explanatory power. Acquiring and maintaining status is a universal cultural theme. These mature distance education stu-dents have acquired the status of adults; their difficulty is psychologically maintaining this status and power while undertaking the role of student. Their needs for respect, personal control, and fulfilment are often frustrated. Meeting these needs maintains their psychological sense of em-powerment. The adult need for respect underlies the problems some students expe-rienced with:

Their need for personal control was challenged by:

The need for personal fulfilment overlaps somewhat needs for respect and personal control but is reflected in the problems a number of students experienced with:

It is no wonder many of these adults found their experience as distance education students fraught with a great deal of anxiety. Those who seemed to have the most fragile self-concept were the most sensitive to affronts to their adult dignity and had the greatest difficulty handling their situation. Related to this are aspects of stress management, the students’ acceptance of suffering in their personal lives, their locus of control beliefs, and emo-tional responses that are linked to coping mechanisms. According to Heinze (1983), adult students adapt to the change in identity through:

These concepts may explain some of the approaches and the coping and striving mechanisms that persisters are able to employ when faced with the same sorts of problems as those encountered by withdrawals. Note that results in this research suggest that the psychological aspects of the conflict in student and adult roles may be more pressing for distance students than for typical adult students. Indeed, their problems seem to have been exacerbated by the distance mode, that is, by the fact that they were not necessarily perceived by the institution, course authors, and tutors as mature adults. In the absence of face-to-face interaction, students seem to have been generally thought of, in spite of knowledge about the nature of the students who enrol in these courses, as typical on-campus students. Without arguing the appropriateness of how 18-22-year-old students may sometimes be treated, one can speculate that a visibly mature, competent-looking adult might be treated with more respect and consideration in a classroom situation.

Meeting the Needs of Adults in the Role of Student

Understanding and meeting adult needs is a major theme in the adult edu-cation literature. Particularly salient here are the points that adult learners have a wide range of sharply etched individual differences (Schlossberg, Lynch, & Chickering, 1989); an accumulation of experience that can be a base for new learning or a source of obstacles (Smith, 1982); anxiety and ambivalence as they cope with change and with existential issues, such as competence, autonomy, identity, relationships, goals, and integrity (Schlossberg et al., 1989; Smith, 1982); and their particular need to matter and be appreciated (Schlossberg et al., 1989). Meeting these student’s needs for respect is fundamental. Sensitivity to these needs, consideration, empathy, and unconditional positive regard can overcome bureaucratic or tutor-related problems that leave the student feeling offended, hurt, or just plain angry. Similarly, many needs for personal control can be met through better instructional design and feedback. Personal fulfilment can be enhanced through encouragement and better links to the student’s experience. McIlroy and Walker (1993) link the business concept of total quality management to distance education, envisioning students as customers; meeting their diverse needs and sensitivities is paramount.

However, not all the felt needs of adults can or should be met. Even adults may not be the best judges of their own interests. Meeting the need for respect is unquestioned. The need for fulfilment can be satisfied, inpart, through respect and personal control as well as through achievement and provision of content that provides greater personal relevance. How-ever, meeting adult desires for control is considerably more complex. This complexity is why the concept of personal control is a particularly salient one in distance education theory and practice.

Adult needs for control may have to be modulated in a learning con-text such as this-formal instruction in a tertiary academic program. Smith (1982) points out that the amount of autonomy exercised by the learner is congruent with that of the educational mode or method used. Brookfield (1985) says that no adult can be fully self-directed while working within an accredited educational institution. Particularly pertinent here are the comments of Brauner (1989), Brookfield (1986), Garrison (1988), and Sammons (1988) regarding a proper view of the educational transaction, that is, the importance of appropriate knowledge and academic rigor, the provision of normative advice, and the role of the teacher in mediating student perceptions, negotiating meaning, and assuring the meeting of educational goals.

How Much Control?

The learner should not exert control over the knowledge requirement in this tertiary context. Nor do students expect to. In a formal education situation, they expect the locus of control over knowledge expectations to reside with the provider. Their control should properly be exerted over their learning, problematic enough in itself. Leslie (1987) points out that learn-ers who enrol in formal courses do not want flexibility and learner choice in materials, they want unambiguous directions, with clear objectives and direct routes to get there. They want to be able to exert personal control, in other words.

Garrison’s (1989) concept of control is a triadic relationship consist-ing of independence, proficiency, and support existing within the larger relationship of teacher, learner, and content. To him, independence means students are free to select learning goals, learning activities, and forms of evaluation. Proficiency is the ability to learn independently and to have the intellectual, attitudinal, and dispositional abilities to carry out the learning activity. Support is concerned with the range of human and nonhuman resources that guide and facilitate the educational transaction. The sharing of control is negotiated through dialogue, says Garrison (1989). While proficiency and support are certainly key aspects of the educational trans-action open to negotiation of control through dialogue, Garrison’s inde-pendence dimension offers little relevance in the context of tertiary educa-tion. Nor should it. Indeed, there is tension within Garrison’s own model, for he advocates the necessary role of the teacher in the educational trans-action.

The essential ambiguity of the term “independent” in a distance education context remains. Certainly, students in a formal tertiary program of studies that leads to a recognized qualification must relinquish most freedom to select learning goals, learning activities, and forms of evalua-tion. They can assert their independence only by choosing whether or not to participate in a relatively pre-determined learning task. So, while student control of the content, processes, and goals of learn-ing is inappropriate here, the adult need to be, or at least the need to be perceived to be, what is variously called self-directed, autonomous, inde-pendent, or exerting learner control in the more limited concept of personal control is central to the problem of conflicting roles and remains a major concern in adult and distance education. The clearest example in this study of why personal control is of concern is provided by withdrawal and persisting students who wanted to do the course without seeking the tutor’s help and who found this problematic. This was particularly so if they also needed interactivity to facilitate their learning. In the absence of alternate learning resources or pro-active tutorial support, these students were unable to be self-efficacious. As Smith (1982) comments:

When adult learners have too little autonomy, their dignity can be af-fronted, their motivation inhibited, and their pleasure in learning stifled. But learners suddenly confronted with more responsibility for their own learning than they expected or are used to usually respond with anxiety, and sometimes withdrawal. (p. 45)

Smith (1982) says that adults have deep-seated needs to move towards autonomy and self-direction and to be so perceived by self and others. However, as we strive for independence, we retain dependency needs-for help, for approval and support, for leadership from others in areas that we lack experience or expertise, and for interdependence in terms of sharing efforts and responsibility. He points out that these can be as functional as independence and autonomy. They are the realities of adulthood, not the pretensions.

Self-Directed Learning as a Goal

Relevant here is the view of Boud (1988), Brookfield (1986), Mezirow (1981), Paul (1990), and others that self-directed learning should be a goal rather than an assumption in adult education. Pratt (1988) says that the adult educator ought to acknowledge states of dependency as potentially legitimate because dependency is a situational attribute. It is also the prod-uct of a particular individual-learning situation interaction and is change-able. It is pertinent to observe, too, that in making choices as to whether to be dependent or independent learners, based on how they perceive their needs, students are asserting a form of autonomy.

Daniel and Marquis (1983) say that if students can accept and inter-nalize their learning role as part of their adult life, then they will do better in their studies. These thoughts suggest some change of identity on the part of the adult learner, a reciprocal process of behaviour modification and changes in personal context that go beyond the coping mechanisms discussed earlier. It can involve pain, anxiety, and insecurity as they reorient themselves, both in seeing themselves in new ways and in unlearning old ideas and ways of thinking in order to develop both cognitively and affectively. It may even involve transformations such as Freire’s (1970) “conscientization” or Mezirow’s (1981) “perspective transformation.” Although Brookfield (1986) identifies one type of self-directed learn-ing as involving specifying goals, identifying resources, implementing strat-egies, and evaluating progress, he also says:

Self-directed learning is concerned much more with an internal change of consciousness than with the external management of instructional events. This consciousness involves an appreciation of the contextuality of knowl-edge and an awareness of the culturally constructed form of value frame-works, belief systems, and moral codes that influence behavior and the creation of social structures. The most complete form of self-directed learning occurs when process and reflection are married in the adult’s pursuit of meaning. (Brookfield, 1985, p. 15)

What Brookfield is obviously talking about is what is now commonly called a “deep” approach in learning. During this process students become aware of the interrelated and interdependent nature of knowledge and its relativistic and contextual nature. It is during this process, too, that they adopt a deep-learning epistemological stance. This epistemological autonomy is different from situational autonomy, Brookfield says. Both are key in the development of active and independent learners.

What is Epistemological Autonomy?

Candy (1988) ties the notion of autonomy more clearly to content when he says that autonomy is more than students being able to find resources themselves, manage their time, and set their own goals. It implies a degree of subject matter competence, an understanding of how to learn in a criti-cal manner, and the ability to distinguish between plausible and implau-sible knowledge claims or convincing and unconvincing evidence. Thus, autonomy has both situational and epistemological components. Haughey (1991) uses the metaphor of travel to capture the epistemological au-tonomy considered here. She likens it to a learner’s individual journey, albeit with travelling companions and guided by the instructor/tutor, along a curriculum route. This metaphor is in contrast to the metaphor of pro-duction, embodied in the industrial model of distance education, or the metaphor of growth, with the learner nurtured in the curriculum green-house by the careful attention of the instructor/tutor. The travelling guide’s role is more challenging than that of the gardener because “the guide has to help place the traveller within the landscape, and yet provide the context for a transformation of the way the traveller understands what he or she thinks” (Haughey, 1991, p. 20).

It seems clear, as far as the epistemological problems are concerned- and closely interrelated to the educational transaction as a whole-that this is another aspect in which not all adult felt needs can be met. A few students in this study found the lack of personal/practical relevance in the natural resource sciences content distressing. As well, some found it too scientific and technical, while others said it was too theoretical and ab-stract. However, their desire for epistemological congruence is problem-atic. Students should not be allowed to remain in their own comfortable ways of thinking but should be encouraged to explore alternatives. This is a fundamental premise of higher education.

The adult’s concern with the practical application of new knowledge, identified by Cross (1981), Schlossberg et al. (1989), and others, and also found in this study, is problematic in this tertiary education context. To accommodate applied content fully would deny the concepts of learning and the nature of appropriate knowledge that are the foundations of univer-sity level study. This is not to say that knowledge at this level should not be related to the students’ practical world, either as part of the course content itself or in leading students to perceive these links, but conveying practical knowledge per se is not the purpose of tertiary education. Of even greater consequence is the students’ epistemological stance. If students are to move toward the epistemological autonomy described by Brookfield (1985) and Candy (1988), then it is important that they are flexible, that is, able to cope with scientific and technical empiricism as well as with holistic abstraction, and that they are able to exercise higher level thinking skills, such as making inferences from presented content and linking it to other knowledge to create personal understandings. What is crucial in meeting needs for personal control and removing barriers to persistence in distance education is ensuring that students receive cues and help in making these shifts in the way they think and in moving from a “surface” to a “deep” approach to learning. Some students, through dispo-sition or lack of ability, may never be able to make these transitions, even with help, but they must be afforded the same type of assistance as is provided by instructors and peers on-campus.

Clarifying the Concept of “Personal Control”

The issue of “control” is a complex one. It is confounded by semantic problems related to the different meanings attached to the term and the way the word is used interchangeably with such terms as self-directed and independent. Because of this, some aspects of what is referred to as per-sonal control warrant further clarification. Personal control refers to adult students: being in control of their personal learning situation; having the appropriate resources and support they may need not only available but easily accessible; and, above all, being treated as adults. They want a solid body of knowledge with links to prior understandings, practical experience and application, unambiguous learning expectations, guides for studying, easy access to resources to fill in prerequisite knowledge, opportunities for interactivity, good feedback, and, if problems arise, empathetic counsel. Burge’s (1989) assertion that what matters in a learner-centred approach is not learner self-directedness but learner self-responsibility seems valid. Being in personal control of their learning situation means that learners are in a position to assume responsibility and to be self-efficacious. The ethnographies revealed that students want to be in control of their active involvement in learning and to be pro-active, empowered adults rather than reactive individuals, buffeted by uncontrollable circumstances. The adult is used to controlling his or her environment-limiting the number and type of unexpected things that can happen to him or her-and feels less vulnerable in predictable situations. Being able to control a stressor makes it easier to cope.

Personal control, then, does not refer to a kind of self-reliance that excludes all external interaction or resources. Rather it refers to students having resources easily available for their discretionary use. Moreover, in a tertiary distance education context, personal control does not mean learner control over content and methods of learning. Rather, after the norms and limits of the learning activity are known, this term implies that the student exhibits an understanding and awareness of the range of alternate possibili-ties and is critically reflective. Both Boud (1988) and Schlossberg et al. (1989) say autonomy is a recognition and acceptance of interdependence. Note that the interindividual self is the final stage in Kegan’s (1982) evo-lution of the self. Key in personal control is the notion that students are learning individually, not independently. Thus, the concept does not in-clude Garrison’s (1989) independence dimension. It does, however, em-body the support and proficiency aspects of his model. His dimension of support, that is, the range of human and material resources that guide and facilitate the educational transaction is a vital component of personal con-trol. Vital, too, is proficiency, which Garrison defines as having the intel-lectual, attitudinal, and dispositional abilities to carry out the learning task. The latter characteristic is congruent with what has been described here as having situational and epistemological autonomy.

The concept of the adult need for personal control when he or she is in the socially contradictory role of student provides considerable explana-tory power in understanding the problems that adults experience, which may, in turn, lead to withdrawal. Being aware of the apparent contradiction between adults valuing independence and autonomy and their concurrent needs for support and interaction-and being able to respond with appro-priate instruction and support provisions-is what Daniel and Marquis (1983) call “getting the mixture right.”

Implications of the Adult Need for “Personal Control” in Distance Education Theory and Practice

Barriers to completion in distance education can be lowered by providing a learning environment for students that is responsive to their individual needs. This can be accomplished by first creating a widespread sensitivity on the part of distance educators to the issues involved, specifically an understanding of the complex set of variables that interact to affect with-drawal/persistence. There is a need to heighten awareness of what is a fundamental problem for many mature learners: the conflicting roles of adult and student. This conflict may be manifest in such aspects as their poor learning environment, stress, fragile motivation, time constraints, and time management problems that ensue from their multiple roles. Underly-ing many of the situational, dispositional, and epistemological problems students experience are their thwarted adult needs for respect, personal control, and fulfilment. Institutional procedures and policies, including learning resources, tutorial support, provision for interactivity, and the way in which course epistemology is handled, are areas of concern that can frustrate students and pose barriers to persistence.

Instructors or tutors should guide students along an appropriate cur-riculum path within a dialogic construct of empathetic response to the views, frames of reference, and varying states of dependency of their individual adult learners. An understanding of the experiences of these students, specifically the experiences of adults with particular life circum-stances and dispositions in the role of students, is required. This is con-gruent with the notion of the development of student autonomy or self-sufficiency or self-reliance embodied in the concept of personal control and is compatible with the dialogue Garrison (1989) envisions in his model.

However, this dialogic construct needs to be shaped by the nature of the learning content itself, that is, the knowledge domain and its demands. Verduin and Clark (1991) refer to this as the structure/specialized compe-tence dimension. It is identified here as epistemological variables (Garland, 1993b). Indeed, this epistemological dimension may be considered the overarching construct determining both the curriculum path and the dialogic milieu because it is the interaction of the student with the content that is key to the learning process.

This type of dialogic construct, molded by the specific epistemologi-cal environment, would allow adults to internalize their role of student and meet their needs for respect, personal control, and fulfilment. Boud (1988), Brookfield (1986), Burge (1988), Daniel and Marquis (1983), Elton (1988), Gibbs (1981), Hayes (1990), Haughey (1991), Kember (1990), Paul (1990), and others provide suggestions as to how this might be accomplished. These include a set of exercises, local tutorials, a learning skills program, integrating study notes in the content, and better facilitation on the part of educators. Fundamental to these efforts is more, and better quality, dia-logue; dialogue of the type defined by Evans and Nation (1989), which “involves the idea that humans in communication are engaged actively in the making and exchange of meanings, it is not merely about the transmis-sion of messages” (p. 37).

The diversity of learners, the wide variation in learning contexts, and the problems of financial constraints and student accessibility preclude simple or universal solutions, although more facilitative instructional de-sign of learning resources, with the assumption of immediate and indi-vidualized communication and sustained personal support, would seem intrinsic to any model that minimizes student problems in order to facili-tate persistence. The focus must be on creating the uniquely optimal con-ditions for each and every learner to persevere while acknowledging that we may not understand all the factors at work. The climate of learning must be one of respect, support, and safety, one that enables adult students to maintain their sense of status and power. The key is being responsive to the individual adult learner, treating each as a valued customer, and ena-bling him or her to exercise personal control over learning.


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Maureen R. Garland is Director of Continuing Education and Communications for the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences at the University of British Columbia. Her role in coordinating development of distance education courses in the natural re-source sciences led to her research on student persistence. She received an interdis-ciplinary Ph.D. from UBC in 1992.