Are There No More Traditional College Students?

follow-up postQuick follow-up to yesterday's post about non-traditional students online.



I came across a Tweet that led me to a blog post saying "There are no more traditional college students." The post was actually about "student recruitment strategies" but it gets into the "shifting demographics of today’s college student, particularly as the 'non-traditional' adult learner becomes the new norm" which is something I also addressed in my earlier post.

The author is considering that there no longer is a typical or “traditional” college student because in recruiting a "one-size fits all messaging strategy will not work."

The article looks at doing some research schools need to do to determine of your potential audience: Who are they? What motivates them? and Where can you reach them? 

Certainly the first two questions are relevant to those of us already teaching them. And if you change the third question to HOW can you reach them? it is very important too.


When Nontraditional Students Become the Traditional Students

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I was curious to look at this study that analyzes nontraditional students' perceptions of online course quality and what they "value." The authors categorized students into three groups: traditional, moderately nontraditional, and highly nontraditional. Those distinctions are what initially got my attention.

I hear more and more about "nontraditional students" to the degree that I'm beginning to believe that like any minority they will become a majority and then be what is "traditional." For years, I have been reading and experiencing the decline of traditional students who graduated high school and went immediately on to attend a four-year college, full time and with the majority living on campus. They are an endangered species - and that scares many schools.

In this study, they say that "There is no precise definition for nontraditional students in higher education, though there are several characteristics that are commonly used to identify individuals labeled as nontraditional.  A study by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES, 2002), identified nontraditional students as individuals who meet at least one of the following qualifiers: delays enrollment, attends part-time for at least part of the academic year, works full-time, is considered financially independent in relation to financial aid eligibility, has dependents other than a spouse, is a single parent, or does not have a high school diploma.  Horn (1996) characterized the “nontraditional-ness” of students on a continuum depending on how many of these criteria individuals meet.  In this study, respondents’ age, dependents, employment status and student status are used to define nontraditional students."

Two-year schools as a degree and job path, part-time students working full-time, older students returning to education and other "non-traditional" sources of learning (for-profits, training centers, alternative degrees, MOOCs) have all made many students "non-traditional." Some people have talked about the increasing number of "non-students" who are utilizing online training without any intention of getting credits or a certificate or degree.

The things the non-traditional students in the study value are not surprising: clear instructions on how to get started, clear assessment criteria, and access to technical support if something goes wrong. How different from the traditional students would that be?

The conclusions of the study suggest that "nontraditional students differ from more traditional students in their perceptions of quality in online courses," but they also say that "All students place great importance on having clear statements and guidelines related to how their work will be assessed." The overlap is that students always want to know "what they need to do in order to get an A."

One belief of the authors that I have observed for my 16 years of teaching online is that non-traditional students (no matter how we define them) have "multiple responsibilities and they need to ensure that the time spent on their coursework is beneficial and productive." As teachers, we would hope that this is true of all our students, even the very traditional ones who may have fewer concerns and responsibilities that are non-academic.

As a teacher or instructional designer, this reinforces the ideas that they need courses to be: well-designed, consistently presented, easily navigable, appropriately aligned, with clearly stated expectations, and information about how to and who to contact when they encounter challenges to learning. In that sense, we are all non-traditional.


A Digital Ivy League?


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Harvard Square: Harvard University, Johnston Gate by Wally Gobetz on Flickr



Last fall, Anuar Lequerica, who has been writing about MOOC trends, wrote about "Harvard and the Rise of a Digital Ivy League" on class-central.com. It was apparent in 2011/2012 when the MOOC exploded into a much wider view that many of the "elite" universities were going to be the boldest experimenters. That's still true.

The "digital Ivy League" includes schools such as MIT, University of Pennsylvania and University of Michigan. Not sticking to the traditional American Ivy League list, you can include Delft University of Technology and some Australian universities.

And then there is Harvard. The Harvard name still carries a lot of weight and they have been very active in MOOCs. They have 80+ MOOCs taught by more than 120 faculty, with over 4.5 million enrollments from over 1.5 million unique course participants in 193 countries.

Harvard was a  co-founder the MOOC platform edX.

I found it very interesting that about a third of HarvardX MOOC learners self-identify as teachers. Teacher-as-student has been a trend since those early MOOC days. My first looks into MOOCs was to see what other professors teaching courses similar to my own were doing online.  Harvard has recognized that audience and has been developing tools to help teachers incorporate and effectively use MOOC content in their classrooms.

Harvard is also experimenting with offering their MOOCs along with support in community centers.

There are still many people, including myself, taking free or paid MOOCs as students in order to learn something new either to further our professional skills or just for personal interest in growth. This past month I have taken a course on building digital dashboards on the professional side, and a course on Scandinavian cinema for the personal side.

The MOOC has matured.



 


Animating Hair Is a Lesson in STEAM

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I am a proponent of the concept of teaching in a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) framework that goes across disciplines. I have seen many attempts to use science and math in teaching art - some successful, some not.

A new project that does this in an engaging way is a collaboration between Pixar Animation Studios and Khan Academy that is sponsored by Disney. Called "Pixar in a Box," it gives a look behind-the-scenes at how artists at Pixar need to use STEM to make art.

To make balls bounce, leaves in trees move in the wind, fireworks explode or realistic rippling water takes more than drawing skills. It requires computer skills and considerations of math, science such as physics and digital humanities.



In this learning series of videos on simulations, the Pixar artists use hair as an example of an animation problem that needed to be solved. Using examples from their films, such as the character Merida in Brave with her bouncy and curly hair, you learn how millions of hairs can be simulated if you think of them as being a huge system of springs.

As the lessons progress, you can learn about animation roles and will discover what a technical director does in the animation process.

The lessons are appropriate for grades 5 and up - though I can see many adults and younger kids interested in animation from a technical or artistic side enjoying the free series.


LinkedIn Learning

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Back at the start of the new school year in September, LinkedIn announced on their blog the launch of LinkedIn Learning, an online learning platform. I first heard about it via some panic posts about it being something colleges should fear. 

With goals of "enabling individuals and organizations to discover and develop the skills through a personalized, data-driven learning experience," schools should welcome the help. Correct?

LinkedIn Learning is really an extension of what the company did when they acquired content from Lynda.com. Combining that content with LinkedIn’s professional data and network gives them 450 million member profiles. If you use that big data, you can view how people, jobs, industries, organizations and even skills evolve over time.

LinkedIn Learning provides a dashboard that someone can use to identify the skills someone might need and then deliver "courses." I never viewed Lynda.com as a threat to the university. My school subscribed and we used it for a time as a way to bring students and faculty up to speed on specific software.

I don't see their new platform as a threat to the college degree either. In fact, I would guess that professionals out in the working world (and probably already with at least an undergraduate degree), job seekers and corporate trainers would be be the main audience.

The platform could be more of a threat to the MOOC approach to learning. So, why would I choose to pay for a course at LinkedIn rather than take a free course from a MOOC provider? As with any online course, the anytime, anywhere convenience is appealing. I might do it if the courses were smaller in enrollment and therefore more personalized. I would find some kind of certification or other way to use successful completion towards advancement in my organization. I would want a reasonable price. The ability to tie together a sequence of related courses into a concentration would also be appealing.

I saw this expansion of their lynda.com purchase described by those panicked and critical educators as a recommendation engine to courses or even a "Netflix for learning." I get that, but I could also compare it with Amazon's recommendations and those of many other websites that use AI to mine users to see trends. That is not a bad thing, and it is not something college allow or do very well now.

LinkedIn has of 9,000+ digital courses, most taught by industry experts. They cover a wide range of business, creative and technical topics, from leadership “soft skills” to design principles to programming. They claim that they add at least 25 courses a week. They offer courses in German, Spanish, Japanese and French.

I suppose it is the data-driven personalization that really interests me. Imagine a college where your personal "guidance" was better designed, but also where the department, majors and degrees were better designed. Do you know how long and how much time and work would be required to add 25 courses to a college catalog?

What LinkedIn Learning has on its side is that their recommendations are positioned within a familiar online space where employees and employers already feel comfortable.

This will not displace higher education any more than MOOCs or online education. Like those trends, it will disrupt, if it is successful. And perhaps higher education will be forced to adapt sooner than later. I think LinkedIn will view higher education as a secondary market.


A New Kind of Core

apple coreNicholas Lemann, in the December 2, 2016 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote about what he is calling "a new kind of core curriculum." Lemann is a professor of journalism and dean emeritus at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Perhaps more importantly here, he is a member of the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

It seems that he first formed this idea while being dean at a professional-school where they needed to teach the specific content of an education in a field. Though he is not proposing a trade school approach to undergraduate education that is designed to get you a specific job at graduation, one of his premises is that "if you want to practice a profession, there is a body of material you must master, at least in the early part of your education."

Like many faculty, he is not fond of seeing the liberal arts gradually slip away, and he thinks the way to reverse the decline is to move in the direction of a core curriculum.

Of course, the "core curriculum" has not exactly had a lot of cheerleaders lately either. His proposal is for a methods-based, rather than a canon-based, curriculum. He has "arbitrarily limited my core curriculum to eight one-semester courses, which would amount to no more than half of an undergraduate education, so it would not eliminate the ability to have a major or to choose elective courses."

Lemann notes that the six-year graduation rates now are still at a poor 60 percent rate. He believes that is at least partly because too many entering students aren’t prepared to navigate the world of college-level work. He is not suggesting a change in secondary education though. And he is not a fan of elective systems. 

His new core has courses with names such as "Information Acquisition," "Cause and Effect," "Interpretation," "Numeracy," "Perspective," "The Language of Form," "Thinking in Time," and "Argument" sound new but their descriptions harken back to fairly traditional offerings. 

Take as an example "Argument" which he describes in this way: "Back in the 19th century, when undergraduate core curricula were the rule rather than the exception, practically everybody had to take a course in rhetoric or oratory. The requirement often had roots in the colleges’ original mission of training ministers, and it usually vanished with the advent of the elective system. This course would aim to revive the tradition by teaching students how to make a compelling and analytically sound argument, both written and spoken (and probably also, inevitably, in PowerPoint). It is an endeavor with centuries of interesting thought behind it, so one can imagine the course drawing on philosophy, law, theology, even drama — with the opportunity to consider exemplary arguments from the past. It should be obvious that the assignments would ask students to practice the skills the course is teaching them, in writing and in performance."

For all the Education 2.0 and new approaches being tried in higher education, the lifetime-earnings premium of having a college degree is still substantial enough that some students will continue to show up on campus. Keeping them there and moving them through at a reasonable pace and preparing them for life after academia is far more important than admissions.