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Personalization is the Next Phase in Higher Education’s Commoditization

AUDIO | Personalization is the Next Phase in Higher Education’s Commoditization
As students in the higher education system become increasingly older and non-traditional, personalized learning opportunities and higher education programs geared toward local business needs are going to be critical for institutions to offer.

The following interview is with Vicki Brannock, director of the School of Extended Education at Brandman University. Brannock is experienced in creating innovative strategies to promote institutional success and has extensive background in strategic planning and marketing in the higher education, business and non-profit sectors. In this interview, Brannock discusses how institutions differentiate themselves in the higher education space and whether the non-traditional higher education marketplace is commoditizing more quickly than traditional higher education. She also discusses how new technologies are forcing institutions to adapt, but also increasing the importance of local postsecondary institutions in the new marketplace.

1. What are the most significant differences between traditional and non-traditional higher education?

I really think it’s more a matter of the difference in the student rather than the education. So, first, I would like to maybe talk a moment about the definition of the traditional versus the non-traditional student.

Up until this time, we’ve defined a traditional student as being in school from 18 to 23 years old, getting an undergraduate degree. The non-traditional student has been defined as older, working or having solid work experience and returning to school after a break for the first time. So, what’s interesting is that the non-traditional student is now the student majority in higher education and I think it really defines the 21st-century student.

Up until recently, the differences haven’t been so much in the education itself but rather in the delivery. Non-traditional students need more flexibility in their scheduling and shorter-term options in online versus on-ground courses. These were once thought really novel approaches but they’ve now become the norm for both traditional and non-traditional classroom settings.

2. When looking at the non-traditional higher education marketplace specifically, how do various institutions and providers differentiate themselves from one another?

As we were just talking about — scheduling, term length, online options — those were the ones embraced to some degree. Now, it really comes down to cost, the time of completion, additional programs that can result from stackable credentials. But this isn’t really very different with what’s happening with the traditional institution either.

I believe that in our graduate programs and continuing education programs, we’re going to see a personalization. So, I think this is how it’s going to look: once you receive your basic education, the future worker will be looking for really specific skills and competencies. And there are going to be, likely, one or more one-off certificate programs; it could be group of courses that focus on a particular skill or objective that an employer needs. And it might sound, on the face of it, like an unsupportable scenario for graduate courses since … the non-degree program side of this has been far cheaper within the traditional degree or academic course. But I really believe that the costs can be kept low because of the emerging technology and use of algorithms that have been developed in recent years. As students become more comfortable with this sort of ‘self-serve’ approach to education — and that’s even going on in some of the most expensive and prestigious university settings — some of the gaps in program selections are going to be customized online to keep cost and man hours down to a minimum. And, students will be able to move in and out of programs based on need or interest, and they will be gathering this rich portfolio of skills and competencies that can be demonstrated in the workplace.

So, I’m thinking this is maybe the beginning of a personalized commodity education.

3. What impact have MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and other online education options had on local non-traditional higher education providers?

Well, I think that MOOCs are certainly getting a lot of press, and it’s primarily because of the players who have entered the field. You’ve got your MIT, Harvard [University] and Stanford [University] and many others. But I don’t think that the MOOC itself has really made a tremendous impact yet.

I think what has made the impact is the technology that allows us to access the information in order to be able to create a MOOC type of environment. Because the subject matter knowledge that was once held and refined in the university library and the minds of the academics is now really easy for anyone to access. We can just Google it!

The real game changer in education, in my opinion, will be the competency-based education and assessments. Allowing students to test out [of low-level courses] on information they’ve obtained through work and life experiences, focusing on supplementing what they already know, is going to set a non-traditional student on a path to lifelong learning. And I think that the competency-based education may have another impact that is the exact opposite of commoditization, and that’s the personalization of education that we’ve just talked about. The future worker, they’re going to be looking for very specific skills and competencies and, I think, that is where they’re going to be able to see that as a real differentiator.

4. We’re starting to see a number of competency-based programs being offered online by institutions such as the University of Wisconsin with their flex program or College for America out of Southern New Hampshire University. Do you think those kinds of programs are going to have a negative impact on local non-traditional education providers?

I don’t think so, because I think what they’re going to do is … set those baselines for the student in terms of being able to identify what they know and what they don’t know and the gap.

I think that where the local providers will be able to capture the interest of the student is to be able to, as we just discussed, personalize their education — so it can be personalized down to what is going to be relevant to a community, an area, either geographically or whatever the actual business competency that the student needs. I think that it’s going to have an, actually, a very positive impact.

5. By the same token, how are these alternate options affecting local traditional postsecondary institutions?

I think that the options are changing the expectation of what an education is and how it’s obtained. This is the kind of change that’s going to endure because it’s driven by the student and, as we discussed, it’s being driven by non-traditional students who are now the majority.

Technology has changed the way we do business. It’s changed the way we communicate, our access to information — just about everything in our lives. And, so, it’s not surprising that it’s also affecting our education as well. Now, that’s not a bad thing. But it does demand more from a traditional institution in terms of creativity, faculty flexibility and the willingness to stay relevant. Time will tell which institutions are going to meet that challenge.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the variable commoditization of non-traditional higher education as opposed to traditional higher education?

I think that we’re in a real state of flux right now and everything is changing. Technology is sort of driving those changes, and then the student expectation based on the technology available is driving that.

I believe that we’re going to feel that in the next few years, that sort of settling in on how this education is going to look. But there’s one thing that is not going to go away and that is going to be that a student now needs to be a lifelong learner. They can’t just come in and out of the system and be expected to keep up with their job and their career goal. They’re going to have to come back to the table over and over again and I think that’s where we’re going to see the biggest impact, is that higher education institutions are able to meet that challenge.

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