Published on 2013/01/15
Improving Accessibility for Adult Learners
While online learning has reached higher education’s mainstream, all online programs are not equal in terms of quality or effectiveness — an area that individual institutions will need to address in the near future.

The following interview was conducted with Linda Thor, chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District. Thor was recently honored by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) with the Morris T. Keeton Award for her significant contributions to the field of adult learning, experiential learning or workforce development. She also won the Distinguished Service Award from the National University Technology Network (NUTN), its highest honor. Throughout her career, Thor has been active in helping to broaden the reach of higher education to adults and other non-traditional students. In this interview, she discusses the importance of improving accessibility to higher education and shares her thoughts on the future of online learning.

1. Why do you believe it is so critical to increase accessibility to higher education for adults?

The Obama administration and major organizations, such as Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have put a spotlight on two significant trends:

    1. The United States is being outpaced internationally in the proportion of young adults who earn certificates and degrees;
    2. More than half of the fastest growing occupations require some post-secondary education.

In order to reach the goal of returning the United States to the top spot in the world for college attainment, and to meet the needs of the high-skilled workplace, higher education must become more accessible.

There are many factors to consider in measuring accessibility, including affordability, flexibility, recognition of prior learning or different learning styles and length of time to complete a degree. As a society we must do a better job of educating the public about the options that are available and the consequences of the choices that are made. Finally, to widen accessibility, we must address the achievement gap that clearly exists for many of those from the poorest families and from underrepresented populations.

2. What types of changes do you think need to be made by state and federal governments to make it easier for adults to enroll in colleges and universities?

I would broaden that question to include not only enrollment, but also success and completion. State and federal governments can make a huge difference by expanding financial aid programs, creating incentives for employers to offer students paid internships, reducing burdensome regulations that divert scarce human and fiscal resources to bureaucratic activities, facilitating public-private partnerships and collaborations and sun-setting or updating laws, regulations and policies that were put in place when few options existed beyond in-person, semester-length courses.

Encouraging dual or concurrent enrollment, expanding statewide articulation and transfer policies, investing in workplace-based learning and other strategies for accelerating completion, such as prior learning assessment, is another important policy area.

3. The expansion of online education has certainly made a huge impact on improving accessibility for adults. What do you think needs to be done to make online learning more mainstream, as more adults begin seeking out pathways back to higher education?

I question the assumption that online learning is not already mainstreamed. For some time, online learning has been the fastest growing segment of higher education. In fact, in the study, “Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011,” it is reported that the enrollment growth rate for online education is 10 times that of overall higher education enrollment. Nearly one-third of all higher education students now take at least one course online and 65 percent of higher education institutions say that online learning is critical to their long-term strategy.

That said, not all online courses and online programs are equally effective. The differentiator for me is whether or not colleges are taking a systemic, integrated approach to online learning. For example, are courses developed using the craft model (each faculty member develops his or her own course in isolation) or using the integrated team approach (faculty members are content experts supported by instructional designers and technologists)? Another differentiator is whether the faculty member is the “be all, end all” for the student or whether a system or structure is in place to support both the student and the faculty member (technical and instructional helpdesks, as well as online student services such as tutoring, advising, counseling, financial aid, etc.)

In other words, a model online program combines quality course design with effective faculty facilitation, and ensures all student services are accessible without requiring students to be on campus.

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Readers Comments

Jason Bennett 2013/01/15 at 11:53 am

There are currently several colleges experimenting with alternative delivery to shorten the length of time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree. University of Massachusetts Amherst is one I can think of. They offer three-year degree programs for students who enroll with some college-level learning (AP credits, etc.) Students in this stream are still required to complete the same requirements as those in the four-year program, but they pay only three years’ worth of tuition. I can imagine this could widen accessibility for some lower-income students. Yet colleges seem to be hesitant to adopt this type of “compressed” degree model. I believe an attitudinal shift is needed more than anything else.

Peter Laramie 2013/01/15 at 12:07 pm

I read with interest Ms. Thor’s thoughts on mainstreaming online education. It reminded me of a New York Times article from November 2012 that discussed the growing popularity of MOOCs.

High-profile institutions such as Harvard and MIT are now offering free online courses that see enrollment rates of 100K+ per course from around the world. No doubt part of the appeal is that the courses are offered free of charge, but I wonder if this type of mass-enrollment course is the future of online learning. My understanding is that these courses cannot be used as part of a degree or diploma program, but I would expect they would, at the very least, whet the appetites of adults who are considering a return to higher education.

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