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What the Lifelong Learning Trend Means for Online Education

What the Lifelong Learning Trend Means for Online Education
As online education continues to attract non-traditional students, it will undergo changes to better meet the expectations of these older learners.

According to an infographic compiled by KnowledgeOne last April, the average age of online learners is now 34, up from 27 in 2002. This upward age trajectory suggests current online learners more closely resemble the “classic” distance (i.e. home study) learner of the past — 34 years old, married, with a degree or at least some college — than they do the on-campus students of today. I believe this shift, in part, reflects the general trend of jobs requiring more specialized skills from future workers so firms can compete effectively in today’s knowledge and information economy.

Here are three ways the lifelong learning trend will change online education in the near future:

1. Greater emphasis on continuing education and professional development

It’s hard to imagine the proliferation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) doesn’t account for at least part of the reason the average learner’s age is increasing. Preliminary data from several individual MOOCs shows most MOOC students are older than traditional college students, already have at least a bachelor’s degree and have taken additional courses in their field of study or work in order to enhance their skills in preparation for switching jobs. One interpretation is that higher education institutions around the country can breathe a sigh of relief — online courses, or at least MOOCs, won’t steal their undergraduate students. Instead, online education providers should turn their attention toward meeting the needs of this adult population.

We have already seen some MOOC providers make moves in this direction. Just last spring, Coursera announced a professional development program for teachers; anybody can still take the courses, but teachers in certain districts will receive continuing education credits for completing them. Many courses on Instructure’s Canvas network are geared toward continuing and professional development and, of course, the plethora of computer programming courses available can be used to acquire and enhance job skills.

2. More competency-based education

Adult learners who are taking courses to boost their job skills (and to impress their current and future employers) are likely more interested in competencies, as demonstrated by specific knowledge and skills, than in credit hours. As Jodi Robison of UniversityNow noted on The EvoLLLution last November, online, self-paced and asynchronous courses are ideally suited for competency-based education, as this format best allows adult students to learn while simultaneously juggling the demands of jobs and families.

Competency-based education relies on valid assessments, and a lot of work is being done in this area. Last March, the Department of Education encouraged colleges to apply for federal approval for competency-based degree programs, and it has already approved programs at Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America and at Capella University.

3. Alternative forms of credentialing

Competency-based assessments start to address the issue of awarding credentials for life skills and experience, but other options are also emerging. Digital badges represent one way to recognize and display many types of achievements, and this approach is already being used by companies, government organizations, museums and more.

Degreed is taking a different approach. To my mind, the best approach here is to quantify lifelong learning, regardless of how it is accomplished, by compiling a user’s formal and informal learning experiences into a meaningful degree alternative. Using this method, a student could effectively build a degree equivalent via traditional brick-and-mortar and online courses, MOOCs and various other forms of independent learning. Discussions about how to credential non-traditional courses have shifted into high gear over the past six months or so, and I suspect they will result in multiple accepted alternatives to the one-dimensional credit hour.

These are just some of the areas of online education that will be affected by the trend toward older students. I’d be very interested in hearing other ideas as well.

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