Today’s Adult Learner and the Disappearing “Traditional” Student

Kristen Betts, Director of Online and Blended Learning
Armstrong Atlantic State University
January 26th / 8:30 am PST, 11:30AM EST

View the on-demand presentation

Dr. Kristen Betts is Armstrong Atlantic State University’s first Director of Online and Blended Learning. In this position, Dr. Betts is leading innovative initiatives to support student and faculty success in online and blended education. Dr. Betts has over 15 year of experience in online instruction and program development with private and public institutions. She is a recognized speaker and author as well as serves as a reviewer for several online journals. Prior to coming to Armstrong, Dr. Betts served as the Senior Director for eLearning at Drexel University.

At no time in history has there been a greater need for higher education. However, economic and demographic shifts are changing the higher education landscape. Colleges and universities continue to face budget cuts and student loan rates are nearing the $1 trillion mark. Additionally, recent projections by the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that the majority of enrollment growth for 2020 will be adults 25 to 34 years old (21%) and 35 years old and older (16%) with only a 9% increase for students 18 to 24 years old.

How can higher education institutions meet the needs of a growing adult learner population with the needs of the disappearing traditional student population? How can higher education preserve the liberal arts curriculum while balancing demands for online and blended education formats? With a growing percentage of the unemployed becoming unemployable, how can higher education play a pivotal role in career development?

The economic crisis continues to provide extensive challenges for higher education. However, with challenges come opportunities. Through innovation and collaboration, higher education leaders can develop and expand their programs and services to serve as catalysts to stimulate and sustain the emergent workforce while meeting the needs of today’s diverse student population.

Below are Dr. Betts’ answers to the questions submitted by participants during her presentation

1.    Do you see that institutions are adding more blended courses and, if so, are there institutions that would be viewed as “leading the way” in blended course development and delivery?

This is a great question since it is quite complex. Increasingly institutions are offering blended courses, but I am not sure how you can actually quantify the overall percentage of growth. Since there is no standardized set of definitions for distance education courses, sometimes courses that may be considered blended by one institution are referred to as online by another institution. Many institutions say that a course in which 80% or more of the course is offered through the internet or a myriad of technologies is an “online” course. However, other institutions may refer to this as a blended or hybrid course since it blends both online and on-campus. From my perspective, the institutions that are “leading the way” are the ones meeting the needs of their students, which could be either/or blended and online courses. BUT these leaders have quality, academic rigor, and engagement as top priorities as they continue to scale programs and services to support student and faculty success. I project that in the next five to seven years most education will be offered through blended or online programs, since blended can simply be one or two online class sessions during a semester or quarter. Flexibility will be key. Additionally, the costs relating to building new classrooms, maintenance, and deferred maintenance will drive many institutions to consider different options for optimizing and maximizing campus classroom space.

2.    One challenge is that many “outside-the-box” strategies can be difficult to implement. What are some suggestions to having an open institutional discussion about adapting to the “new normal?”

The “new normal” is not easy for many campuses because it is big shift from what has always been in place. The best place to start is with student data and admissions data. Faculty often do not realize that a large percentage of their students or those applying are actually “non-traditional.” You can also focus on retention and graduation rates. You can ask your Office of Institutional Research to run data queries that will highlight graduation and persistent rates and break them down by specified demographics that may reveal information that faculty are not aware of. In some cases, an institution may have very high retention and graduation rates so in fact their on-campus programs may be meeting the needs of the students whocould be quite traditional. However, in other cases there are institutions that do not have high graduation or retention rates so drilling down in the data is very important to find out “who is leaving,” “when they are leaving,” and “why they leaving.” Data dashboards provide a wonderful overview that can assist faculty and administrators with realizing that simply integrating blended and/or online courses into existing programs can actually retain students and increase graduation rates. Also, make sure that “thinking outside of the box” continues to focus on quality and academic rigor, not the bells and whistles. One of the biggest concerns is that online courses may not offer the same quality experience as the on-campus experience, so find ways to work with faculty to develop exemplar online and/or blended/hybrid courses. You can then host a Faculty Showcase and invite the campus to see the courses as part of a demonstration led by the faculty. The more you can engage faculty in moving toward the new normal, the better. Online and blended programs will not be successful without faculty so reach and engage faculty as often as possible. They can be and need to be some of your strongest advocates.

3.   Are US higher education trends happening in other countries around the world?

Distance education is prevalent in many countries around the world. However, distance education is actually less “online” in some countries than others due to poor internet connection in rural areas. In many cases, distance education provides educational opportunities to students who are seeking programs that are more self-directed and may operate more like correspondence courses due to the format of the engagement. The US Department of Education and accrediting agencies focus on faculty-to-student and student-to-student engagement which is very different than some distance education programs worldwide. In terms of education and the future workforce, similar trends worldwide show education to be critically linked to employment/career opportunities. Additionally, access and flexibility are also key trends for increasing the number of individuals with some college and college degrees.

4.    Does the research show what types of programs might be needed in the future?

The types of programs needed in the future will depend upon the field. For a field that is heavy in the sciences a more blended approach may be best since it is critical that graduates have hands-on experience and not simply experience in simulation labs. Some other fields can easily be transformed into online programs as long as the curriculum is developed properly so the content, assignments, and assessments align with what is needed for graduates in the particular areas of placement or advancement. Backwards design is key to programmatic success. While online education offers extensive opportunities, it cannot replace some of the learning that must take place in face-to-face settings.

5.    What are some good resources for Academic Advisors of online learners?

Academic Advising is one of the hottest and most important areas within online and blended education. Academic Advisors work with students from point of first contact through enrollment, so they are a vital part of any retention efforts. NACADA is a fabulous resource. I am including here a link for NACADA’s resource webpage that provides links for websites, journals, listservs, etc. I recommend networking as well. You will find that the professionals who work in advising collaborate extensively and share best practices readily. It is a wonderful field for individuals seeking a career in higher education. Other resources include associations that focus on online and blended education as well as continuing education such as Sloan, EDUCAUSE, Association of Continuing Higher Education, University Professional and Continuing Education Association, etc.

6.    Are there rubrics to help define the skills that can be aligned with certain courses?

There are some rubrics out there that can be used to align curriculum with workforce needs but they are typically developed for a particular field or for transition into higher education. For example, there is a new rubric that came out in December 2011 that focuses on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs.  If you do a search for rubrics and alignment with careers or the workforce, you will find that a large percentage focus on research that has been conducted with K-12 through the states and through grants. This is certainly an area that needs greater focus within higher education.

7.    Given the continual budget cuts in public higher education (and the State of the Union address in which President Obama put schools “on notice” regarding costs), do you have tips on handling the $/personnel investment in online and blended education in a budget-starved public college environment?

I am assuming that personnel investment is referring to the support that is needed for online and blended programs. With this in mind, personnel investment is a critical part of higher education—in some ways it is even more important for online students and blended students who may never or infrequently come to campus. While cross-training is certainly an option, many institutions have individuals cross-trained in so many areas that they become burned out and institutions are unable to retain these individuals who are tremendous resources. Scaling is going to be key to optimizing costs. It is better to build out online and blended programs slowly and strategically then to simply offer a plethora of programs at once. The saying “Build it and they will come” can truly wreak havoc on new programs. While there is extensive competition online, there is a great need in certain fields for new programs to meet specific workforce demands so enrollments can grow exponentially. Without a commitment to strategic growth and scaling, the direct, indirect, and opportunity costs related to students having a bad experience can be exponential. Cost-share models are certainly something to consider, since a percentage of the revenue stream can be delineated to cover personnel to support online and blended programs. The challenge is that online revenue often comes in and unless there is a plan for managing growth, the money simply gets spent since there are so many costs to cover. I recommend conducting research on institutions that have successful online and blended infrastructures in place. There is so much that can be learned by looking at other institutions and it can also keep institutions from trying to reinvent the “wheel” or help them to identify what pitfalls to avoid.