Re-thinking the student of today

FutureLearn’s Simon Nelson addresses the need for higher ed institutions to consider who their learners are today in order to tailor their offering

The digital shift in society has navigated its way into the higher education sector, prompting the reimagining of the delivery of education. A three or four-year undergraduate degree was once sufficient for those looking to target a career within a specific sector, but job roles are evolving so quickly that universities are looking towards new models of delivery to cater for the learners of today throughout their lives. 

Enhancing traditional education models: the degree

Higher education institutions can no longer limit their audience to the average 18–25-year-old student who can afford to attend university, so now the sector has extended its arm to the wider population. With new areas emerging, such as cyber security and data science, there’s a huge demand from employers for people to develop new skills, prompting HEIs to question how the degree can not only cater for school leavers, but also serve as the right model for those seeking employment in these relatively new subjects.

Thanks to online platforms, universities can vastly extend their reach to those in all stages of their careers looking to enhance their skillset, either in preparation for a job that already exists, or in emerging sectors. Studying a degree online empowers people to study flexibly while working or parenting, giving people the chance to revisit education in later life, or tap into it for the first time.

Student expectations are changing

There is an abundance of information available in the world and it takes new skills to find, filter, and validate the best information from a variety of sources. This results in an evolution of the expectations of today’s lifelong learners who need to become adept at filtering information quickly via digital channels. Via online platforms, students today can access bite-sized chunks of information at their own convenience on their smartphone, desktop or tablet. 

Properly integrated blended learning enables educators to combine face-to-face teaching methods with flexible online delivery. This can help develop students’ digital and scholarly skills, as they complete online activities to complement their on-campus experience.

Students also expect learning material to be relevant and fit-for-purpose, to place them in a competitive position as they enter the working world. Taster sessions offered by online platforms mean that students have a more transparent view of content and can commit to courses that are relevant to the skillset in which they’re looking to invest.

Incorporating the social element for the digital native 

Social media swallows a quarter of the time we spend online; digital natives are accustomed to tweeting, sharing and stimulating online discussion around every aspect of their lives. To ensure learners are truly engaging with educational material, it’s vital to evolve teaching from a didactic to a social experience, where learners are connected to their environment. By guiding learners through course content which incorporates videos, articles, case studies and rich media features, they are more likely to engage in conversations by discussing and challenging the educational material, to enhance their understanding and to allow them to learn from other students in any location or time zone.   

There are ample tools available to support institutions with their digital transformation so that they can serve their current pool of learners, as well as open up opportunities to new ones. It’s vital for institutions to reconsider who their learners are in order to cater more broadly for a growing social need. More and more learning is taking place beyond the classroom walls, and while there is always a place for face-to-face delivery, digital is the direction in which we need to be heading in order to encompass the needs of the students of today. 



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