Visit Modern Campus

Recession Resources: Creating a New Learner Experience for Higher Ed’s New Normal

The EvoLLLution | Recession Resources: Creating a New Learner Experience for Higher Ed’s New Normal
As unemployment soars, institutions will need to find innovative and flexible models to meet the demand of more diverse learner demographics.

As COVID-19 sends people into isolation, it also shutters thousands of “non-essential” businesses. As a result, millions of people have been pushed into unemployment and are looking for a way out. Higher education has a responsibility to help the unemployed find a more recession-proof job. Delivering online courses for the adult learner demographic is– and will continue to be–critical as we head into a recession. In this interview, Tim Renick discusses the resources they use at Georgia State University to deliver the online experience, what the “new normal” may look like and how institutions should adapt to fit new learner needs.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has the shift to remote working and learning going at Georgia State?

Tim Renick (TR): Like every other school, we’ve moved entirely online. One of the distinctive traits at Georgia State is that we’ve invested in a lot of cutting-edge technologies over the last decade. Most of these technologies are designed to deliver personalized services to students at scale. A leg up we’ve had over the last few weeks has been deploying these technologies for our students.

Over the past few years, we’ve pioneered the use of predictive analytics for advising students and have been tracking their progress. Since 85% of our students work, we have already had virtual counseling sessions in place for years. This week, we have 1,350 virtual counseling sessions set up with our students, and it’s business-as-usual for many advisors because they’re used to working with students in remote locations.

We adapted our predictive analytics tracking system to add alerts for student engagement on our learning management platform (LMS). We’re looking for students who are not logging into their classes and so forth. Those alerts are automatically going to advisors, so they can reach out and address issues more easily. Our counseling center established remote group counseling for our students. Last week, we had a virtual stress management session that had 75 students participating. These approaches have been seen as cutting-edge for the past decade and had already proven to be essential in delivering our basic services both inside and outside of the classroom.

Evo: Do you think there will be more interest from other institutions in adopting the tools you and your colleagues have pioneered as start to define our post-pandemic new normal?

TR: This is going to accelerate the rate by which campuses move in these directions. We enroll over 50,000 students every semester, and our institution is not well-resourced and neither are. So, one of the things that Georgia State had to do was find ways around the “old normal” in higher education. When you want to deliver personalized services, you hire more faculty, hire more staff and have more one-on-one interactions. A lot of the advising that’s been going on over the last decade at many universities is the same responsive model of advising we’ve used for the last 30 or 40 years. In this model, you wait for a student to knock on a door, sit down in front of a real person, and tell them what their problem is. Then you work on a solution.

What Georgia State—and a number of other institutions—has been doing is trying to scale that personalized service. We’re tracking students to identify problems ourselves early on, even before they realize they’re having a problem. We’re not expecting them to come in and talk to somebody one-on-one, we’re reaching out to them proactively when we see a problem. This model has worked very well for Georgia State; our four-year graduation rate has risen by 62% in the last 10 years. It is going to be increasingly turned to. In fact, we’ve had calls from some of our colleagues at much better-resourced universities asking for some advice because they’re trying to move away from that old model.

Evo: How should universities, and especially universities that are geared to serving underserved audiences, be preparing for a likely increase in demand caused by the coming recession?

TR: That’s a tough issue because this circumstance may be unlike other recessions. Clearly, it is more sweeping. The unemployment rate is soaring at a much more rapid rate than we’ve seen before—even in the 2008 recession. And there are other permutations to what might be influencing people’s behavior. It’s critical to underline the importance of higher education throughout this crisis. Not only are knowledge and expertise key, but the skillsets needed to navigate these types of issues require the learning that goes on in institutions of higher learning.

We oversee 20,000 students seeking associate’s degrees in community colleges, we have high-level doctoral programs, and we offer everything in between. There’s going to be not only a demand for new expertise and new credentials, but we’re going to have to deliver those credentials in the most innovative ways as possible. We can no longer assume that every student can afford to be sitting in a classroom from 9AM to 5PM.

On the other hand, we’re seeing just how important some of these face-to-face interactions are. There’s a lot from campus being missed as we’ve moved to this entirely online environment. A balance between face-to-face and online is still going to be necessary. Some students will favour online learning, and hopefully we’ll be able to better serve them at the end of this crisis. Others will continue to benefit from that in-person experience.

Evo: How can these learning and support approaches be adapted and scaled to create access for adults looking to upskill and reskill in the future?

TR: Part of the challenge historically has been not just delivering online programs but delivering online programs to adults and other populations that can’t physically be on campus. A lot of the emphasis has been placed on getting platforms up and having the offerings out there.

What we’re seeing now, and what we’re working on at Georgia State, is the importance of having    meaningful college experiences. It’s having interactions on a regular basis with academic advisors who understand you. It’s having access to counseling services when needed and building a strong career services office. We’re working on making sure that full college experience can be delivered to students, not only in a face-to-face environment, but online as well.

A number of campuses have never been forced to think about these things. As a result, higher education can come out of this stronger.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on April 2, 2020. 

Author Perspective: