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Why higher education needs to evolve to meet the demand for more flexible delivery models

Industry research continues to show that active learning and deep engagement in a subject matter helps students retain more knowledge and develop stronger skills than traditional lecture-based instruction. Researchers have demonstrated this across myriad fields of study, including medical science, pharmaceuticals, mathematics, engineering, leadership, and veterinary science, just to name a few.

Yet, the lecture remains the mainstay in higher education. While lectures have a role to play in education, the growing demand for more flexible delivery models is turning traditional education on its head.

Many students — adult learners in particular — are seeking more interactive ways to build their knowledge and skills so that they can apply what they learn in class today to their careers tomorrow. This has been evident in all the interviews we’ve done with our adult learners, including those who have shared their stories on our blog.

And many employers are seeking job candidates with not only hard skills, but soft skills that are better acquired in an interactive learning environment. The ability to collaborate, create, and communicate and think critically top the list of soft skill employers are seeking, according to a new survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

The development of these skills, especially among today’s fastest growing segment of learners — adult learners — can be particularly well addressed in a carefully crafted online learning environment. Tools such as online discussion boards can provide increased and ongoing engagement among instructors and students that simply can’t be achieved in a lecture. Other elements, such as real-time knowledge discovery and the ability to apply learning in real time, give adult learners practical knowledge they can immediately use in their careers.

Although online education has become mainstream — fully 77 percent of colleges offer online degree program courses — many programs are not providing the level of interaction, engagement, and motivation most students seek. I still see courses where the instruction is mainly comprised of online presentations that students read through or taped lectures that students watch and then take a quiz at the end. This is hardly an interactive or engaging model.

Higher education needs to evolve so that it’s squarely rooted in student-instructor engagement, and encourages ongoing interaction among peers. Here are the elements I see comprising this new education model. We’re also planning to unfold this topic more in Post University’s upcoming Online Learning Conference 2012, which you can register for now.

Asynchronous discussions. We should get away from a “pass the baton” approach, and move toward asynchronous discussions where students can contribute their thoughts at any time. Online discussion boards are well-suited for this, because students from different parts of the professional spectrum can add feedback, relate personal experiences, debate ideas, share advice, and post resources when it fits their daily schedule. This cannot happen in a typical lecture because you only have a window of time for discussion, after which students disperse, work on their projects, hand them in, and receive a grade. Online discussion boards, however, can foster ongoing conversation and collaboration, keeping students continually involved in the learning process, and often taking them far beyond the materials at hand.

Real-world integration. Assignments and projects should relate to what adult learners are doing in their jobs or want to do in their careers, rather than rely on hypothetical scenarios at imaginary companies. For instance, an assignment to develop a marketing plan should ask the student to develop a plan he would actually use in his job. This gets to the heart of what adult learning should be about: education for real-world scenarios. Online discussion boards have an important role to play here too. Students can tap their instructors and peers for informational resources, ideas, feedback, and advice as they tackle real-world projects. They can incorporate data into their papers or run with new ideas in their jobs immediately, gaining valuable feedback and expertise along the way. This model also encourages students to draw upon their peers’ experiences and perspectives, something that is rarely possible in a lecture.

Self-directed learning. Learning should have a personal meaning to students. Instructors should clearly define the outcomes for their students, and let them reach those outcomes in a way that is relevant to their lives and learning goals. This enables students to learn more information in a deeper and more permanent way. And since students have more control over their learning, they’re naturally more motivated to explore new information and try new ideas.

Outcomes based on the learning process. The “how” and “why” of learning are just as important as the “what.” Outcomes — and by extension, grading — should be based on students’ ability to find information and take themselves on a lifelong learning journey, as opposed to simply memorizing facts. When done well, an online classroom makes vast informational resources available to students, and encourages the students to rely on the perspectives and advice of their instructors and peers. This lets students take their learning in directions that extend far beyond what they’re actually required to demonstrate through an assignment. Rather, students can develop soft skills, including the four C’s (collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity), to apply their knowledge to solve real-world problems.

Strong advisor support systems. Advisors and instructors should have ongoing and meaningful dialogue with students so they can better guide students through their educational program in a way that works best for them. This includes helping remove the barriers to higher education often faced by adult learners. For example, an advisor can handle administrative tasks, such as reminding students when they have to register for a course, and making recommendations on which course(s) should be taken when.
In short, imagine there is a “super curriculum” on top of the curriculum. The super curriculum is the ultimate educational outcome students are seeking by completing the curriculum — that is, building the knowledge and skills needed to reach their career goals, pursue lifelong learning, and make a positive impact on their industry and personal life.

We can achieve this by evolving to a new delivery model, one that combines all of the elements presented here, and centers around interactive, practice-based and student-focused learning environments.

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