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“Thinking At The Mission:” Meeting Students’ Needs Through Integrated Extended Learning Programs

The EvoLLLution | “Thinking At The Mission:” Meeting Students’ Needs Through Integrated Extended Learning Programs
As non-traditional students become the new norm, colleges and universities have a responsibility to develop integrated extended learning models that create pathways designed with today’s student in mind.

If the majority of all undergraduate students nowadays can be classified as non-traditional, it may be time for a name change. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over 70 percent of currently enrolled students meet at least one of the characteristics that would traditionally define them as non-traditional or adult students: being a single parent or caregiver, having dependents, working full time, being financially independent.

These students’ paths toward college are generally not linear, nor are their paths towards degree completion necessarily continuous. Their entry into college may have been delayed or an alternative high school diploma may have been earned. Likely, there were some stops and starts along the way at different institutions. Accelerated programs affording flexibility in scheduling and delivery formats have been institutions’ response to meet the needs of these students. Set apart from the rest of the campus, the traditional side of the house, these programs also carry the designation “adult” or “non-traditional.”

What’s in a Name?

Given the majority status of the group they describe, the terms adult and non-traditional in higher education no longer seem to have any validity. I say this after having worked with a so-called non-traditional student population for well over a decade. During my tenure, I have witnessed time and again how being referred to as adult or non-traditional serves to alienate students from the university community by making them feel less included.

Furthermore, a dichotomization of programming into traditional and non-traditional also may have outlived its functionality and usefulness. Predicating program designation on an assumed developmental status, such as age and work, can limit access significantly. This approach restricts students’ ability to choose educational paths based on their own life and career goals. Such a practice neglects to capture the dimensionality of students’ experiences and their needs. As a result, trust in higher education erodes.

A recent survey by the New America Foundation uncovered a feeling of discontent with the higher education system overall. Referring to the “undelivered promise” of American higher education, the report highlights Americans’ sense that institutions seem to have lost sight of their students’ needs and appear to focus more on their own long-term interests. According to Complete College America, degree completion times nationally have increased and only 35 percent of undergraduate students obtain their bachelor degree within four years. Moreover, students’ concerns about tuition pricing and workplace value of degree programs have made them keener consumers, demanding services beyond advising and instruction.

The Dimensionality of Students’ Experiences

Recognizing the dimensionality of students’ experiences allows for the adoption of a student-centric approach that is inclusive, collaborative and success-oriented. Such an approach reflects an institution’s commitment to enter into a partnership with students to build educational pathways. Through demonstrated institutional support and investment, these pathways focus on leading students into the workplace, toward a promotion and to a deeper connection with their community. Expanding extended learning models can be an important mechanism to further this approach.

Towards Integrated Extended Learning Models

Extended learning generally refers to off-campus, credit-bearing, and continuing education programs, including face-to-face, online, and hybrid instruction, as well as professional development and personal enrichment courses. The community-embedded nature of extended learning models lends itself to the adoption of an inclusive, collaborative, success-oriented and student-centric approach. Doing so can allow institutions to more comprehensively meet the needs of college students from all walks of life, while also increasing their footprint in the community.

Building such an integrated extended learning model based on the recognition that students’ experiences are dimensional rather than linear can be supported and guided by the following suggestions:

1. Infuse Andragogical Principles Throughout the Curriculum

Andragogy (Knowles, 1984), or the study of how adults learn, provides useful approaches for teaching most, if not all, college students and should be considered in the development and revision of curriculum. Paying heed to students’ desire to be actively involved in their educational planning and instruction, including experiential learning components, while ensuring that programs are both relevant, as well as problem-centered, will aid students’ engagement and retention.

2. Demarginalize Online Education

As an established teaching modality, online education rightfully claims its unconditional institutional seal of approval. Online students long for a connection and access to their campus and university community. Successful online programs are engaging, interactive, and integrate cutting-edge, multimodal delivery formats aimed at maximizing student/instructor interaction. They connect students to relevant campus resources, such as learning and career centers. Successful online program-providing institutions do not define the difference between content and delivery of programs qualitatively.

3. Redefine Student Success

The concept of educational pathways can be multiply defined and includes an exploration of how student success can be achieved. Competency-based programs allow students to achieve their goals in more individualized ways. Other examples include prior-learning assessment programs, such as experiential learning portfolios granting students college credit for work experience. Adaptive learning modules affording a more self-paced form of learning can be integrated into online or hybrid courses. Student success can also be re-defined programmatically by offering a more dimensional menu of courses and programs altogether. Whether it’s in the form of a degree, certificate or continuing education package, individualizing students’ experiences in an effort to ensure goal attainment should be the focal point.

4. Foster Mission-Mindedness

Minding the institution’s margin has undoubtedly become one of the more important strategic objectives in higher education. However, an institution’s mission is its most authentic philosophical and organizational guidepost. Providing grounding, focus, and renewed direction, our mission reminds us of our “Why.”  Mission-mindedness involves reflection and adaptation; it requires movement and change. It allows the process of knowledge dissemination to remain dynamic and, in doing so, fulfills our promise to our students.

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