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Behind the Consciousness of Creating the Modern Learner Experience

Change in higher education is inevitable, especially in a post-pandemic world, but mindfully developing the learning experience to support students and faculty through this change and relying on them to help shape it helps ensure everyone navigates change successfully.

In this rapidly evolving and growing society, learner trends are changing fast—not only on a large scale but also in your own backyard. What’s important is to be in-tune with these trends to deliver an experience students expect and need. In this interview, Michael Cottam discusses the trends we can expect to see in higher ed, meeting students where they are and supporting staff and faculty in the process.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What trends will most significantly impact higher ed over the next five years?

Michael Cottam (MC): In our diverse and rapidly changing society, we need to look at demographic and learning trends at the broad, national level, as well as more specific, local levels. Our institutions serve within different geographies, and we serve different populations of students with different needs. A national study of student trends is not sufficient to guide our leadership decisions in on-campus, hybrid, and online learning, nor is a completely local view sufficient to guide us as we serve our current communities.

National demographic trends and the shifting population in higher ed are well documented. An April 2022 Chronicle of Higher Ed article documented some of these changes. The number of traditional-aged freshman students coming into higher ed is going to experience a significant decline in the next few years.

The demographic makeup of our graduating high school classes is also changing and will impact the way we serve our students. Many learners entering the university will be first-generation college students who may not have the family or network support that often helps students succeed. If students do not have family or community stories and traditions around university transitions and the difficult adjustments young adults go through in their college years, it can be particularly challenging to adjust and thrive in a university setting. Such a diverse student body will introduce new demands for unique learning experiences and student support systems that better meet their needs.  

Of course, beyond the demographic shifts quickly approaching the university, the social and learning isolation experienced during the pandemic has impacted every learner—but not equally. While post-traditional college students experienced change and challenges, the obstacles presented to young adults were perhaps more significant. For traditional college-aged students, social distancing came at a crucial developmental time.

During the pandemic, our use of learning technology changed significantly. Some universities, including APUS, have transitioned to primarily remote operations and support services. Although, as a fully online university, APUS was already accustomed to virtual collaboration and prepared to offer remote services, the pandemic accelerated that move for our administration and staff, beyond what our academic teams and faculty routinely experienced.

Emergency remote learning in K-12 and university systems across the country forced accelerated change in how we use media, how we interact and how we learn, both synchronously and asynchronously. In the absence of our treasured face-to-face connections, we have learned new ways to work and learn. The way we collaborate, train and develop soft skills and lead learning opportunities has changed. It will continue to evolve, and I do not believe we will go back to “normal.”

For example, I have noticed that people are much more comfortable with video now than they used to be. It used to be difficult to recruit faculty and staff to participate in video conferences or to record video for their students. Students resisted being on camera or recording themselves for learning activities or assignments. Since the pandemic accelerated our use of media, video conferences have become the norm, despite the Zoom fatigue that many of us feel. Attitudes toward media have shifted, and I think they will continue to shift as we redesign and redevelop media-rich online learning experiences.

Linked to the increased adoption of virtual communications and multimedia are increased challenges related to access and to accessibility for all learners. We must adapt differently in the online and hybrid class environment to student and staff needs than we do on-campus. Accommodations for learners with specific needs should be replaced with Universal Design principles, so fewer accommodations are needed and all learners can succeed in our virtual and physical classroom spaces.

Without such thoughtful design, we may have wrongly assumed universal student access when we offered virtual meetings, collaborations, workshops or group learning activities. Yet, many students may not have access to technology or high-speed Internet. Some may not have access to adaptive technology or resources to meet their unique needs. In the next few years, we need to catch up to student needs. We need to figure out how to more effectively connect with and serve the diverse members of our university communities.

Evo: Do you think meeting students where they are, like through text-based services, could have an impact on student success rates and other areas?

MC: We need to provide multiple options for students. As institutions, we do not know enough about what each individual needs to succeed academically. Text-based services seem to reach our current student population better than phone or email. In my experience, sometimes a text message will get through when a phone call will not.

However, in our pandemic-impacted world, students are often struggling with issues beyond academic performance. Faculty may be the first to see and hear indicators that a student is struggling. Yet, faculty are not always prepared to help outside of their academic discipline. The key for students in-need is to get the professionals in touch with them at the earliest signs of crisis. College counselors, chaplains or other professionals are often the best people to address such difficult situations.

Perhaps we should create and adopt something like an emotional or psychological first aid kit for faculty and staff. We each need the skills and tools to help quickly when the need arises, whether that is in the LMS or through email, text or phone calls.

If you notice something going on, if you see the warning signs, what do you do first? And then how do you get them to professional help?

I think we owe it to our learners and our university communities to prepare ourselves to help one another and to reach out to professionals for services that will help everyone to survive and thrive during challenging college years.

Evo: What are the indicators signaling that all these aspects are actually progressing, changing and evolving?

MC: I try to watch the national data or trends we get from trusted organizations for general demographic shifts. I follow organizations and attend events from the Online Learning Consortium, EDUCAUSE or others to see trends in technology and online education. However, national trends may play out differently at the local level. I need to examine my own campus, my own student success data, my own end-of-course and end-of-program survey data. We need a local view into whom our students are and what they may need.

Enrollment and learning needs are local. I currently serve in a fully online institution, but when I led multiple campuses across the country, we noticed that online enrollments tended to be centered around 50 to 100 miles of physical campus locations. Watching the trends in those locations is important, as they are not all the same from Florida to California. We all serve within the context of a thriving local community of diverse individuals. As leaders, we must research in our communities close to home.

Informally, I like to play the anthropologist around town to see what high-school- and college-aged adults are doing and saying about their learning experiences and goals. What are they thinking about in terms of college enrollment on-campus or online? What programs are they interested in? How are their online and hybrid classes going? What drives them crazy? What are they excited about?

I pay attention in the stands at the high school football game, and I hear a lot of candid feedback about education that I would not hear anywhere else. Parents and youth in those football stands often share strong opinions about what we do in our schools and at the university. Their perceptions are based on real-world experience, and we can learn from them if we care to listen.

Evo: Why is it so important for academic leaders to be more conscious about the design, the development and the delivery of the learning experience when it comes to engaging with the modern learner?

MC: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” That statement, often attributed to W. Edwards Demming, has always struck me as instructive for my design and leadership practice. If you look at your results, your student learning outcomes, your student, faculty and staff perceptions of your work and your enrollment patterns, you can trace them back to your design, customary practices and process execution to find the factors that contributed to your results.

How are students performing academically? How do they feel about their performance? How are your faculty performing? How do they feel about their work these days? How are your staff members doing in this changed world? How well do we, as leaders, listen to and respond to the needs of the communities we serve?

The answers to those questions guide us upstream to the factors in our design, practices and execution of change that create their experiences. If certain students are having a hard time in our courses or programs, it’s because our systems are a bad fit for them. We need to invest time to design the systems, the processes, the classes, the curriculum, our support services and everything we do to match student needs.

Helping the student is the reason we exist. They have a goal. They have a quest. They want to achieve something significant in their lives. They come to us in higher education to mentor them, to teach them, to guide them and to help them achieve their goal. If we see how students are achieving, how they are struggling and listen to their preferences, then we can redesign a more appropriate university system that for them.

Evo: How can administrators ensure they’re prepared to support faculty and staff through these kinds of changes?

MC: It is impossible to prepare for every change that might come our way. I consider our preparation and practices in terms of culture, systems and mindsets.

I tend to rely on a design thinking approach and collaborative agile systems to support staff and faculty, especially in times of rapid change. I recognize that I do not have the perfect answer for any situation we face, but the genius is often in the room when we collaborate with our colleagues across the institution and community.

I have adopted an empathetic and iterative approach that has worked for many years in diverse teams of faculty and staff. In our design thinking approach, we observe, empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, implement and iterate until we find a better system.

For example, at American Public University System, we established an academic quality design framework with inclusive partnerships among professional staff, instructional designers and our faculty leadership over the past few years. We collaboratively generated a set of shared, essential tenets of quality design and teaching, then we asked faculty to show us what is working in the virtual classroom to make those principles a reality in practice. Faculty share their success and their learning from tactics that did not work with their peers. In our Center for Teaching and Learning, in town halls and workshops we publish their tips and trick to the university community. Lessons from the field from fellow faculty tend to carry more credibility than a lesson from a technical specialist or an instructional designer whom they may not know.

Even in a remote work and virtual collaboration space, the design thinking approach and agile systems to execute change have grown our engagement among faculty and staff. Our faculty and staff experts work together to solve problems in our programs, courses and in the learning management system. We build a community around quality without assuming that one person or group holds all of the answers.

How can we be prepared to support faculty and staff through the radical changes in higher education? We can build a culture of learning, an agile goal-setting and progress-tracking system and engender leadership mindsets among all of our university contributors.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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