Technology + Learner-Centric Programs = Adult-Friendly Colleges

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Higher education institutions can use technology to change attitudes and organizational structures so that they can become learner- and learning-centered—particularly for adult learners.

Technology plus Learner-Centric Programs equals Adult-Friendly Colleges
Credit: garagestock / EDUCAUSE © 2018

As I did the research and interviews for my most recent book, Free-Range Learning in the Digital Age: The Emerging Revolution in College, Career, and Education, my own understanding of the subject of "free-range learning" deepened as I was powerfully reminded of two core characteristics of this revolution. 

The first characteristic is that we have the capacity to change our attitudes and organizational structures so that they become learner- and learning-centered. Adult learners return to college for a reason. They have a purpose in mind, and that purpose must be honored. This requires, in turn, precise personalization of their overall experience, including the learning program.

As we know, that is not the way colleges and universities have traditionally been organized and oriented. And this is where the information-rich society that is emerging can wreak havoc on the existing structures and assumptions of most higher education institutions. The traditional organizational structure and culture is reflective of an information-poor society in which the campus is an island of information-richness—and hence power and authority. Students had to go to that place because there were no realistic alternatives. That reality, in turn, led to faculty- and institution-centric policies and practices, ranging from faculty governance to an input-based, faculty-sponsored, vertically organized curricular structure that was essentially fixed and non-negotiable.

While we do not necessarily have to jettison all of the old to make room for the new, these disruptive forces will challenge many of the traditional assumptions and structures of higher education. Importantly, the sources of these disruptive technologies and applications lie beyond the boundaries of our campuses and, therefore, beyond the reach of traditional governance and administrative practices. So, for the first time, established institutions cannot control the pace or the nature of innovations that can directly and negatively affect their operations. The larger question thus becomes: "How do we respond to this emerging revolution?"

The answer to that question is the second core characteristic of the emerging revolution. While learning is still, and will always be, a personal and social activity, it is technology—in all of its forms and applications—that supports and drives this emerging revolution, making a "free-range learning" environment possible. Technology gives us the capacity to personalize learning, create multiple delivery and support models, and develop levels of consistency across courses and other support services—a capacity that was heretofore unattainable. The same can be said for data analytics and the potential for continuous improvement and quality assurance that technology gives us. Combining these two core characteristics creates a user experience that is the postsecondary version of Nordstrom's and Amazon combined.

To further complicate matters and increase the seriousness of the threat that this revolution represents, if colleges and universities fail to adapt, there are new types of organizations and institutions—both non-profit and for-profit—ready to fill the void that lies between adults and their future opportunity, be it personal growth, life transition, career advancement, or a combination of all three.

This is why I focused on "adult-friendly" colleges and universities as part of the answer to the "free-range learning" world. Two of the presidents I interviewed—Joyce Judy (Community College of Vermont) and Chris Bustamante (Rio Salado College)—intertwine "the personal touch" with the underlying technological sophistication that both institutions are incorporating to make their programs user-friendly and learner-centric.

Interestingly, the two models differ from each other. The absence of a single, dominant model is something we will have to get used to. Because as the technology continues to evolve and improve, many adaptations will develop to create learning solutions and pathways. As a result, it is the models' characteristics, such as the technological capacities and "personal touch," that will become the identifiers of "learner-friendly" institutions. And it is the presence of these new organizational characteristics that will allow the creation of new forms of learning and learning support.

Joyce Judy

President of the Community College of Vermont

The underpinning for us, the core value that we keep in front of us all the time, is to meet students where they are at. People differ. And our primary questions are "What are your needs? Why are you here?"

The fear factor for learners in the beginning is huge. The goal is to make the initial experience for the learner personal and positive. In other words, not overwhelming. Our goal is to help them get through the logistical stuff so that they can ultimately focus on the learning.

There are several key parts to the logistics involved with coming back to school which are critical to address for each learner. Otherwise, the risk of losing the learner before you even get to the learning skyrocket. We know that making the information available in a way that learners can hear it and act on it can determine success or failure in the on-boarding process.

Here are some critical logistics we deal with.

Vermont is rural, very isolated. How do you take education to the population in a rural state? We provide twelve geographical locations learning centers, within a reasonable distance of 95 percent of all Vermonters, and, as a result, the chances for face-to-face relationships with our professional staff are very good. The centers are a network. There is no "main" campus, so everyone is in an equal position.

Of course, technology is critical. But the social factor is even more important when we are beginning the relationship with a learner. After they are launched and learning, the IT and online options are great resources. Some people come into the centers and take both on ground and online courses. For us, online education is a format, not a separate track. The degree is from CCV.

Scheduling is critical. You have to accommodate a wide variety of learners' work and personal schedules in the course scheduling process. Online class availability can really help here. For example, veterans can move to online if they are deployed. Or someone who works at night may need an afternoon course. The variations are multiple, and we have to meet the needs of the learners. The key thing is to anticipate and adapt to the reality that the learner is living.

Finances are also a big, big deal. Money is really an emotional issue for people. They are hearing that education is a deal that costs tens of thousands of dollars—very expensive. And they are very afraid of getting in over their heads. Whether it is a company or the person and financial aid, you have to really get with people and help them understand the options. We have FA counsellors in every center and we believe that this support is critical to success.

Another area where we invest heavily is academic advising. After we have a learner on board, they get an academic advisor. Our advisors' objective is to establish a personal connection and build a relationship with the learner. To be successful, we need to know where the learner is in her life. Like, what significant life events have occurred over the last few years? And what will happen in the next five years? What combination of courses and services will work for you? What is it that works best for you? Our academic advisors are great listeners.

Assessment of Prior Learning (APL) is also another terrific retention device. For people with significant life and work experience, it can save them time and money. And the one thing that virtually every person who comes through the door says is that they don't want to waste their time and money! APL isn't right for everyone. But older students bring a lot of experiential learning with them. For students who go through it, even if they only get 12 credits, there is a tremendous value addition. APL puts their life in order, confirms their journey into one connected flow. And they can see that they had forgotten or devalued their learning below the value that it really has.

This means that in the beginning we hear their story and figure out the best place to start.  For some it's remedial education and for others it might be APL. The key is to get them to chart their course and make it their own. In the end, they have to own the course they set with us.

Then we proceed with our support. Our advising is ongoing; the faculty is incredibly supportive, meeting before and after class and giving out contact information for support away from class. Having practitioners teach is a critical part of what we do. The practical application, coupled with the down-to-earth manner and language that practitioners bring, adds a whole different dimension of meaning to what is being taught. You move from knowing something to actually applying it, and that's really important. It leads to much deeper learning. Motivated learners and active practitioners working together can make magic. Advisors and faculty make it work for students.

Connections with employers are also critical to give legitimacy by connecting the capacities we are teaching to the requirements of work. Employers are worried about a number of things. For instance, where will the workforce come from in the face of rising rates of retirement and the need to refill positions? At the same time, traditional entry-level low-paying jobs like cashiers are disappearing. Instead, even today new entry-level jobs require more and higher-level skills and education. How do we prepare for the higher level of sophistication needed in entry-level jobs? Also, how do we grow our own human resources? Employers want to get people who are proven and good employees and who are local and will remain local. How can we upgrade those people?

For example, we have a certified production technician program. It's a national credential program. It is incredibly useful and a great way to upskill workers and get them on a manufacturing track. Now, that can be the end point or they can then attend Vermont Technical College and get a degree. So there is a choice that didn't exist before. And there are several good responses to that choice. I support the value of short-term training. And learners who need the job and the money can do the program and then go to work.

But learners also deserve further support and information in order to see and understand future opportunities. They deserve a flexible approach which lets them come and go from higher education as their needs and aspirations dictate. The days of the old degree programs, all lined up on Day One and you take it or leave it, are over.

We want learners to keep the connection with us, keep the door open, so learning over the longer term is always possible.

Here's an example. A recent graduate had to start three different times before he was successful. He was a high school dropout and came from a very troubled family with lots of problems including drugs and alcohol. But then he got a GED. His initial two shots at higher education at CCV didn't work. But the third time was the charm. He is working in substance abuse counseling and now has a degree and is enrolled in Castleton State College as a junior in nursing.

Now, is that a success or a failure?

We stayed with him and he stayed with us, and it finally worked. The reality of learners' needs for flexibility and patience is why the way that the federal government collects student participation data and draws conclusions about quality (IPEDS) drives me crazy. IPED has nothing to do with reality. When life gets in the way of learning, and learners come and go, is that a failure? No, not for them or for us. We have to work with that reality, even if the government calls it something else. Imagine an emergency–room doctor who only counted and treated patients who could walk into the ER. All the others are turned away. Ridiculous? Of course. But that's the way many government policies and programs treat adult learners and the institutions that serve them.

Chris Bustamante

President of Rio Salado College

The key to serving adults successfully is to be a place that is focused on the learner's needs, not the institution's needs. You need to be a team and an institution where the learners know that you care.

That means having programs and resources that adapt to learners and their needs. These include assessment of prior learning, proper placement, and a lot more handholding in the beginning. Also, we have 48 start dates a year and that flexibility is a big draw for learners. And we focus on affordability as well at only $86 per credit hour.

Sometimes you only have one shot. Having finally gotten their nerve up to come to the college, we better have people ready to serve the learner and attempt to meet their needs.

The question is: Are you building a culture that is instinctively responsive to learners' needs and realities? We have veterans' services, language services, and advising to help students explore learning and career pathways. We have to show them we care and can help them get where they want to go.

In the workforce area, we are preparing people for jobs they don't have. Or maybe they need a promotion within their current environment, so we are up-skilling. About 80 percent of our work is credential work—last year we had 750 degrees and over 4,000 credentials of all kinds that included licensure and teacher certs and then linking them to employers.

In the coming world, the link to employment is going to be way deeper than a career fair. There are direct content linkages that can be integrated into certificate programs and then linked to industry exams. This way employment and qualifications are integrated with the program, not something that happens afterwards. Apprenticeship programs are coming back as well. But the underlying value to all approaches is that the outcomes are pre-determined and agreed-upon, so there is less doubt and chance of missing the alignment with the job that exists.

For example, Kroger wanted an option to meet the needs of their shift workers in retail management. They were willing to cover the costs, assist with the curriculum development, and promote participation to their employees. The program is designed to be all for-credit and crafted to the needs of the company or the industry. Then, with proper preparation and some analytics, you can transfer the competencies into other programs. This means there can be an internal or an external career path. You are not trapped in one path necessarily because of the college credit you have already earned because it can be transferred to other career paths and opportunities.

Looking forward, companies will continue to have technologies that will be way ahead of us and more sophisticated than anything we can afford. Why not work with some of those companies, using their technologies, to get educational opportunities in front of people? Like a Netflix Channel and app for Rio Salado? You could do it on an open basis where people study and then find a home institution. Or, you could do individual institutional applications. So, instead of just having Game of Thrones available in your living room, you could also have a bevy of college services to choose from.

We are going to have to reach beyond our online framework and LMSs to harness the power of the private sector, use the home screen, choose courses, and chat. Now, that would truly be a free-range learning network.

Also, using data analytics, you will see wholesale mobility and transfer of competencies from work to learning to work. It's all the same information, and we can apply it in multiple settings and situations to serve the learner and the employer better. This will also allow us to convert to credit other learning options that are available from non-campus sources. In a world of low-cost or free content, we will be upselling assessment as a bridge to certificates and degrees.

Finally, I think you will see some colleges, like Rio Salado, act as the trusted online service provider, behind the scenes, for other colleges that don't have the money or the expertise to stand the program up for themselves.


These are just two examples, and two visions, of what lies ahead for postsecondary education. But coupled with the other examples in Free-Range Learning, they suggest the diversity of approaches, and the excellent content and assessments, that technology affords. Furthermore, they reflect the deeper potential and the professional responsibility that technology creates: that is, to respond to the needs of the learners who come to us by respecting their purposes and the knowledge they bring with them and to personalize the learning pathway that is right for each learner in a learner-centric, high-quality model.

Peter Smith is the Orkand Endowed Chair and Professor of Innovative Practices in Higher Education at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). Previously, he was the Assistant Director-General of UNESCO and the founding president of California State University at Monterey Bay. Smith was the first president of the Community College of Vermont (1970–1978). He also served Vermont as Lieutenant Governor and as representative to the U.S. House of Representatives.

© 2018 Peter Smith