Transformative Learning in a Virtual Learning Environment

Carol Moran and Andrea Moloney – Institute of Technology Sligo and Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology

Mature learners’ interests are not being served by policies intended to widen participation and more needs to be done to ensure inclusive practice leads to their educational success rather than compounding feelings of failure (Burke, 2021; Slowey, 2009; Murphy and Fleming, 2000). Emotional, practical, informational and social companionship are identified by Stevens (2003) as the four main supports needed by mature learners to enjoy a successful educational experience.
The move to remote emergency teaching as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the organisational and social support systems that mature learners can normally avail of on campus were no longer physically accessible.
This pragmatic case study research employed a qualitative approach and thematic analysis (Creswell, 2009; Brauna & Clark, 2006) to determine the extent to which evidence of transformative learning could be identified among mature learners who had to engage in remote emergency learning online due to the Covid-19 pandemic; the research examines the experiences of mature learners (n=104) in two Irish institutes of technology. The authors sought to establish if transformative learning could occur in the virtual learning environment. Participants were asked to reflect on the ten phases of transformative learning presented by Mezirow (1991) and share their experience of each phase. This critical reflection is what Mezirow believed was fundamental to allowing students question their perspectives and assumptions and increase their capacity to transform and create new meaning schema. Evidence of transformative learning was found and overwhelmingly the most common transformation reported was increased confidence.
Many participants described struggling with physical and mental health issues, both as the individual affected and as carers for others who were suffering. Others were balancing financial and family pressures with the desire to fulfil their own personal ambitions and set a good example for their children. Education was seen as the key to escaping low paid, menial work and to pursuing a fulfilling career by individuals who are coming from vastly varied and in many cases extremely challenging circumstances.
Furthermore, it was found that for some learners, the experience of remote learning had positive impacts such as greater opportunity for inclusion despite physical disability and social anxiety thus indicating that greater access to online learning has an important part to play in inclusive education and may be the channel through which more mature learners can achieve transformational learning.