A Comparison of Online Distance Education Today with the Practice of Myles Horton at Highlander

Myles Horton (1905-1990) lived a remarkable life and was a pioneer not only in the field of adult education, but also as an historically important agent of social change in the face of the unjust circumstances of his time in America. His Highlander school, founded in 1932 in the mountains of Tennessee, serves ordinary adults and was a factor in union organizing, the civil rights movement, and the very popular Citizenship Schools, which addressed literacy for Black Americans in the South (National-Louis University, 2007; McCarthy, 1981). His philosophy centered around the simple but powerful concept of helping people to learn through peer teaching, as opposed to teaching them things (McCarthy, 1981). This philosophy equates to Malcolm Knowles’ theory of andragogy, in which it is contended that adults are more oriented to problem-centered than subject-centered learning (Spencer, 2006). Horton also believed in education from action, and believed that traditional schools at the time served more to mold people than to liberate them. Equating Horton’s practice to my own practice in distance education, I believe there are elements borrowed from Horton in terms of problem- and peer-centered learning though we have a long way to go. Comparing my particular field to Horton’s in terms of Spencer’s (2006) accommodative/adaptive learning vs. transformational learning, my practice is heavily accommodative/adaptive, with only occasional and exceptional leanings towards the transformational. With the introduction of emerging technologies into course learning spaces, courses that the World Campus produces may begin to see even more of a leaning towards the transformational.

At Penn State’s World Campus, the past few years have seen a dramatic change in the way distance courses are offered. While World Campus used to rely heavily on courses that were offered via print study guides and allowed only student-instructor interaction, today all World Campus courses are offered online and more and more are employing the interactive features this medium offers. What this means is that students can now talk to other students – collaborating and forming teams and communities within learning spaces, engaging in “peer teaching” as Horton describes (McCarthy, 1981). Indeed, many World Campus courses are beginning to use emerging technologies that make user-generated content and community building easier than ever before. Even within the World Campus Instructional Design and Development workplace, a blog is being used to share and critically reflect on resources and ideas key to the unit’s work, and a wiki is being used to collaboratively document critical processes, meetings and resource collections. This is exactly what Brookfield (2000) describes as critical reflection in the workplace, and perhaps has hints of the grassroots organizing that has taken place at Highlander. This is not to suggest that the purpose of World Campus’ workplace, as reflected in its courses and learning spaces, is to elicit the kind of radical change that often had roots at Highlander. The purpose of Penn State courses for adults, whether online or in the classroom, will probably always be to ready adults for participation in new and better lines of work. Nonetheless, much is owed to the ideas of Myles Horton in terms of community building and peer teaching.

In conclusion, it is probably fair to say that the World Campus workplace and learning environment are more accommodative/adaptive in nature while Miles Horton’s Highlander is more transformational. Both, however, meet the needs of their learners – learners at Highlander and learners at typical adult distance learning institutions alike are seeking ways to transform themselves and their communities. Learners at Highlander, however, wish to do so through radical means and ideas, while World Campus learners probably seek more subtle transformation through collaboration with a diverse community of peers. Heaney (2005) writes scathingly of modern, mainstream adult education as having lost the spirit of grassroots organizing and social learning espoused by radical early adult education theorists such as Horton and Paulo Friere. The shift is occurring now in the distance education field away from dry, mass-produced content and towards the production and support of collaborative learning spaces. Still, it would probably be wise to consider the success of Highlander as being based on its consideration of the larger social and political context in which it operates. Heaney writes that “education for change is always part of something larger, always defined and shaped in a social a political context which it, in turn, helps to define but never controls.” As well, we would do well to consider Heaney’s words when he describes the occlusion of thought that occurs in adult educators’ potential “clamor for status” in joining the “gray-suited ranks.” A strong spirit of innovation must be cultivated in the workplace so that learning spaces may adapt to changing technologies, changing students and a changing world.


Brookfield, S. (2000). The Concept of Critically Reflective Practice. In Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (pp. 33-49).

Heaney, T. (2005). When Adult Education Stood for Democracy. Retrieved September 25, 2007, from http://www3.nl.edu/academics/cas/ace/facultypapers/ThomasHeaney_Democracy.cfm

McCarthy, B. (Producer). (1981, June 5 & 11). The Adventures of a Radical Hillbilly: An Interview with Myles Horton [Television broadcast]. New York: Public Broadcasting Service.

National-Louis University. (2007). Myles Horton. Retrieved September 25, 2007, from http://www3.nl.edu/academics/cas/ace/resources/myleshorton.cfm

Spencer, B. (2006). Education for Adults. In The Purposes of Adult Education: A Short Introduction. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing (pp. 1-24).