The learning curve just changed shape

The vast majority of HE students are now non-traditional learners, but are universities adapting to accommodate them?

Matthew Small, managing director, international, at Blackboard, looks ahead and reveals how focussing on the learner is changing the shape of education

The global economy has had a significant impact on the type of people who are entering higher education. Mature students looking to retrain to improve their employment options, foreign students looking for the perfect course wherever it is delivered in the world, undergraduates who need to work full-time to fund their own study. Each of these non-traditional learners makes up the 85% of individuals who are currently in higher education. With strong demand for flexible courses, information accessibility and internationally-recognised qualifications, universities are under extreme pressure to adapt to be competitive.

Recruiting and retaining students when competition comes from an ever-widening pool of learning options, means that students can have their own say about what they want to study, when they are available to study and where they want to be when they study. The old university of ‘dreaming spires’, social clubs and societies has been left behind for a shrinking number of students who are able to actually attend university in person, take part in face to face lectures and submit their work by hand.

Change in demand

Blackboard noticed this change as demand for its online collaborative learning environment rocketed and more and more higher education institutes signed up to use Blackboard’s solutions. We spent time researching the new educational environment. Our research, which included time spent with students in class and in their free time, revealed that learners are now more proactive about customising their own study and focussed on qualifications as a route to their ideal career.

We found that students are savvier than they’ve ever been, exercising choice and expecting more. Technology comes as second nature to today’s students and they rely on it to manage their lives. They don’t feel study should be any different. If every aspect of their lives can be handled through a handheld device then they expect their education to be the same.

Some universities have only made a cursory effort to update their delivery mechanisms. They use technology as a notice-board, broadcasting learning without enabling the students themselves to drive activity. Many operate within a traditional educational delivery and support system that was designed to serve traditional learners in traditional learning models. Those traditional learners are now in the minority and it’s certainly time for change.

By ignoring the non-traditional learner, the university risks facing more than just a student’s frustration. Without the flexibility to take part in flipped classroom activity, submit assessments online or engage with students and faculty members through the internet, some students are falling behind as they try to weave their education into their everyday lives. As a result, more students are dropping out, struggling to reach life and career goals, and questioning the value of an education.

Student-centric education

A major need for student-centric education stems from the increase of international students and the trend towards mixing and matching courses across universities, and sometimes even across countries, to get the exact education a student desires. The UK is the second most popular destination for international students (13% of all international students are enrolled on a course in the UK). We need to keep these students, and the funding they bring, attached to a UK university. We can only do that by offering something better than they can get elsewhere.

So what happens next? Some universities are changing how they develop their courses, changing how they deliver lectures and changing how they engage with their students. A lot of this is done through technology. The world has its first paperless university, Higher Colleges of Technology in United Arab Emirates, and it’s only a matter of time before more follow suit. But the technology doesn’t take the lead. It enables the university to follow the student. Whether that student is a 51-year-old professional who needs new certifications to stay relevant at her job; a 44-year-old who can’t get access to affordable workforce training; a 21-year-old graduate who can’t articulate his skills to potential employers; a 19-year-old who wants to stretch out her studies to fit in with work experience and international travel.

The traditional student is becoming a rarity. And the universities who recognise that and meet the needs of the new breed of learner will succeed in changing the shape of education for good.

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