Breaking Ground in Higher Ed: A Look at New Models

The debate about the need for change in America’s K-12 education system has been raging for decades. Teachers, parents, administrators and government leaders alike have been grappling with how to transform a system that has been failing too many students for too long, according to a recent Center for Education Policy study. Until recently, the higher education system, on the other hand, has been largely left out of this public conversation.

Yet, there has been a significant evolution taking place in higher education institutions across the country. This transformation has been led by smaller, lesser-known and often private universities, for-profits and community colleges. These schools have been exploring new models of providing higher education that extend far beyond the traditional college courses that have been the mainstay of the postsecondary educational experience for centuries. They have been responding to the demand among the growing population of adult learners for more flexible, student-focused, applied and accessible higher education options. They have been embracing technology as a means of offering highly interactive, quality education over the Internet.

It is only recently that the more elite, well-known schools have started experimenting with these more innovative education models. Their entry into the online learning space brings needed attention, brand and recognition to what is happening in today’s higher education arena. But they are barely scratching the surface of the real power and promise of today’s online learning models.

Offering students access to lectures and presentations from some of the nation’s most well-respected universities and professors is one thing. Offering students access to highly interactive, student-focused and fully developed online learning degree programs is something else altogether. The former opens the door to ideas and information to students who require nothing more than a taped lecture and list of reading materials to grasp the concepts being presented. The latter offers the collegial interaction, academic support services, and personalized attention required by most students seeking to truly develop new knowledge and skills. In addition, we would argue, as individuals who have taught both on-ground, face-to-face courses at major universities and fully online courses, that the latter are more intense, and require students to all sit in the front row (metaphorically speaking, of course). The more frequent and deeper-level conversations taking place among faculty and students, and the ability to readily tell when student voices are not being heard makes this modality very appealing.

Colleges and universities in New England and across the country are quickly recognizing that to remain viable in a changing world, they must provide access to quality lifelong learning opportunities that are accessible in a variety of formats. Indeed, the fastest-growing segment of learners is adults between the ages of 22 and 65. This future higher education majority is coming to colleges and universities with rich knowledge and experience. And they are demanding relevant, practical, engaging educational content delivered through flexible and convenient learning environments. That’s why at Post University, the focus is on transforming the way we think about education, not just how we deliver it.

Responding to a new education narrative

There is a great cultural shift happening in education. At our annual Online Learning Conference in April, education futurist Steve Hargadon shared his ideas on the cultural shifts that are shaping the future of education. We have moved into a culture of participation that relies heavily on the web and the personal connection students are making with one another, he explained. We also are seeing a culture of sharing, of immediate access to information, and of mobility—all of which come together to drive this new educational narrative. Students expect to have more control over how, when and where they learn. They want to engage and be engaged.

Clearly, the world has changed faster than the halls of academia. Authority is suspect in today’s world. Social arrangements have become democratized. This can be unsettling for many in the academy where intellectual authority has been at the center of the whole endeavor for centuries. It would be easy to simply dismiss this democratization as a dumbing down or diminishing of the quality of what we do and instead spend our energies rallying the academic troops to rail against the barbarians at our gates. This kind of thinking misses the opportunity to recognize what is really happening and transform learning as a result. If we engage in the learning process with our students rather than teaching at them, our perspective on changes in culture and society take on new meaning, opening doors to new strategies for engagement in learning.

When we look through these new lenses of opportunity, the need for high-quality online learning options that break away from the traditional classroom model is indisputable.

Transforming the lecture hall

Current-day neuroscience and psychology research is providing great insight into how people learn and remember. The standard lecture that has been relied upon by professors for centuries is actually among the least effective ways to teach when looked at through the lens of student outcomes and how human brains work and learn.

Educators are learning that quality education requires more than pre-planned lectures where professors impart information, students take notes, study the notes, read the assigned texts, and then take the test or write the paper. New applied and highly interactive teaching methods are replacing passive learning models, requiring students to do more than repeat back what they have heard. This new way of teaching is particularly evident in well-conceived online learning environments.

At Post, our courses are rich with multimedia content and structured to foster “ideation,” require critical thinking, and elicit regular and meaningful interaction among all course participants, including professors. Students can spend as much or as little time as they need reading, watching and exploring course content each week, and are expected to demonstrate formative and summative learning outcomes through authentic assessment methods, including participation in the online discussion board.

Role of educators

The traditional model of education has been more faculty-focused rather than student-focused, and often heavily reliant on theory rather than practice. At Post, we have moved to an approach that fosters deeper learning by focusing not only core curricular concepts, but also on clearly defined learning outcomes. To do this, we have hired a team of “Academic Program Managers” who, in addition to teaching, also develop new programs, concentrations and course content; hire and supervise part-time instructors; and are responsible for setting and measuring educational outcomes. Their focus is on creating student-centered learning environments, assessing the effectiveness of those environments, and developing a process for continuous improvement. The profile of our most successful APMs is the scholar-practitioner who possesses a balance of substantial professional experience in the field and advanced academic credentials.

In addition, more innovative universities are recognizing the need for all university departments to play an active role in a student’s educational success. At Post, through a new CRM system, we are developing ways to provide each department with a 360-degree view of each student, complete with the communication and process flow needed to react to and address individual student needs in real time. Whether in the classroom or in the back office, we all must think of ourselves as educators.

Changing the definition of educational excellence

As business needs change, so must the higher education landscape and our definition of educational excellence. For university educators, there must be a heightened focus on better meeting students’ learning needs in whatever way makes the most sense for them. This means a greater reliance on well-conceived and delivered online learning environments. It means better faculty training and development opportunities. And it means a stronger emphasis on helping students develop their “hard” and “soft” skills. The “hard” skills emphasized during the Industrial Age can take students only so far in today’s technology-driven, rapidly changing world.

Our challenge today is to not only prepare students for today’s business realities, but also for tomorrow’s possibilities. At Post, in addition to teaching the hard skills, we also place a significant emphasis on the 4 Cs—creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration—skills identified by the American Management Association as necessary for employers and employees. These skills are critical in an Innovation Age that requires everyone to be lifelong learners with the ability to quickly adapt to new business challenges.

Shifting assumptions

So the way we think about and approach higher education is changing in a critical and positive way. With these changes comes a need for a new consensus about what constitutes excellence in teaching and learning. This, in turn, requires openness to newer higher education models, including the fully formed online and hybrid learning environments being offered by some lesser-known colleges and universities. Institutions that have been hesitant to fully embrace online and hybrid learning models can no longer afford to do so. It is no longer a question of whether or not colleges and universities should offer online education; it’s a matter of how well they are going to do it.

When done well, these models provide access to the content today’s students need while also fostering critical thinking, stimulating the discussion and deep human connections we value so highly in higher education, developing social engagement, improving written communication skills, allowing students to be self-reflective in an open and welcoming environment, and engaging students in thinking about individual, group, and societal values.

As educators, it is our obligation to respond to these changes by exploring innovative models of teaching and learning, and to continue working together to better meet students’ needs.

Donald Mroz is provost of Post University and dean of the School of Business at Post. Francis X. Mulgrew is president of the Online Education Institute of Post.

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