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Adapting Digestible Program Models for the Modern Learner

The modern learner needs on-the-go, digestible education that they can get on their own time. By adapting program models, institutions are able to meet these new learner needs. 

Today’s learners can’t sit through a four-year degree to stay relevant in the workforce. The needs and demands of learners today require institutions to adapt their program models for a more digestible, short-term delivery format learners expect. In this interview, Marthann Schulte, Roxanne Gonzales and Mary Earwick discuss today’s program delivery models, how to adapt these models to meet the needs of modern learners and their impact on the student experience. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the common obstacles students face when it comes to traditional program delivery models?

Roxanne Gonzales (RG): COVID-19 brought to the forefront the challenges students face with traditional delivery modalities in a manner no one expected. Not only was access to technology a challenge, but the lack of training to work and teach online by most teachers and parents became evident. New Mexico is predominantly a rural state; we don’t have the full infrastructure for important services such as the internet, which was required during COVID. This is not an uncommon problem in rural areas nationally. Students at all learning levels had difficulty accessing the needed technology to complete schoolwork–teachers as well. Another challenge is that our K-12 system in New Mexico, like many across the country, has experienced the loss of classroom teachers and a drop in enrollments in state schools. 

Of course, with COVID, real-time learning was not feasible for parents or teachers, and they didn’t have hours to devote to learning the skills needed to navigate teaching at a distance. To respond, NMHU developed a program addressing the issues of skill deficiency in teaching online, through distance self-paced modules built upon each other for a variety of outcomes.         

Mark Earick (ME): One of the areas that we knew we had to address was meeting students’ needs in real time, when it was most meaningful, not at a time that someone prefers having office hours or being in a classroom. I’ll give you an example: In the School of Education, approximately 90% of our students either have an associate degree or are coming in for a graduate program, maybe an alternative licensure, and most of them have full-time jobs. 

We knew that we were meeting some of their needs—we’d already shifted coursework to later in the day—but we also needed to provide opportunities for them to address learning loss and meet the needs of racially, linguistically, ethnically and neuro-diverse students in a timely manner. We were so fortunate to be able to bring in Dr. Schulte, because no one at Highlands had that unique skill set and expertise. With Dr. Schulte joining Highlands, we were able to begin building these microcredential libraries, which will assist students in understanding how we’re going to meet their personalized needs and look at their strengths. Optimizing microcredentials for a phone allows this generation to efficiently and successfully access this information.

Marthann Schulte (MS): We’re educators, and the School of Education is building educators, but using technology learning support specialists, we’re also reaching out to community members. Those people at home—a mother, a grandmother, an uncle, a sibling—who are now trying to better use these components. We’re trying to optimize handheld devices. No longer is a computer required. We’re trying to make very usable and digestible education within the stackable credentials MOOC model. You can use this as you’re on the bus or waiting for your child to get out of a practice, or something like that. So, those are a few examples of where we’re wanting to go with the examples of where we’ve been, both in the past and during COVID.

Evo: Why do these stackable programs meet the needs and the expectations of the modern learner?

MS: The modern learner doesn’t necessarily need college credits—not that we want to minimize or delete credentials of that nature. But we need on-the-go, real-time learning, and the MOOC model is built on that. Over the past ten years or so that we’ve had MOOCs, better and better traction has been laid, not only where you have the learner getting the knowledge, but having that knowledge acknowledged by those seeking jobs. You can put it on your resume as a bullet point, and your employer acknowledges that that is a real skill that you have attained. 

We have this with college degrees, professional trades and skills, professional jobs such as fire, military, policing, but we’re still trying to get that traction. Part of this grant is a consortium where our Northern New Mexico partners have said, Yes, we will acknowledge this credential, and we will ensure that it can be taken forward, as someone who completes the module seeks that professional development, those jobs skills, things like that.

ME: Another piece of this is that we’ve developed different on-ramps because that’s what stackable programs allow—multiple paths to completion. Someone could literally say, “I simply want this information, so I can help people living in my home with me do well in school.” The second level is they could now take that completion and put it on a resume, so there’s an opportunity to enter the job market. With the very unique skill sets that are needed post-COVID, it’s important to have that on-ramp to a position. We’ve spoken to superintendents and principals, who said it will be value added if a credential is on someone’s resume.

Then we have two other on-ramps. What if someone went into this and said, “Wow, I love teaching. This is cool. I want to be a teacher.” Well, we have a way for them to flip those microcredentials as that first course toward a program in education. Having this on-ramp to higher education gives you that moment where you could try it out and see whether it’s a good fit. We’re also working with districts on another on-ramp to in-service teachers who may not have that skillset because historically they’ve never had to teach this way. There are leaders in the school who say, “We can apply this stackable model in real time in our high schools or somewhere else.” So, we’re trying to have multiple on-ramps, leading to multiple pathways to success.

RG: Back in the day, quick training to meet a current workforce need was called “just in time.” In my head, a stackable credential or microcredential, a snippet out of a larger curriculum, is just that. The intent is to meet the workforce needs at that point in time, whether it’s how to do CPR, learn a new software program or how to write grants. Traditional higher education is moving more and more toward addressing the needs of the workforce, but we have not yet transitioned to the quick turnaround needed to meet needs. However, divisions of Continuing Education do this all the time, and they do it well with non-credit options. 

Higher education has been providing options through Continuing Education, but now the traditional side of our institutions is understanding the need to adapt and provide flexibility to retain enrollments. A major aspect of the stackable credential or microcredential is that business and industries accept these as a standalone verification of skills and knowledge.  We are formalizing a stair-step-up approach to learning that leads to something different: a building block. In the past, we have had separate trainings that may or may not have led to a credential. Now we’re intentionally making a stratification up.  This type of approach allows the student to gain the skills they need when they need them and put them toward a specific goal.  

Evo: What impact do programs like these have on the university’s ability to serve the community?

RG: Here at our university, it’s providing our faculty and administration with new ways of seeing how we can reach our communities to meet workforce and our curricular needs. For example, we recently developed a new degree completion bachelor’s program with two certificate programs as additional options. New to NMHU are options: “Here are two different on-ramps that you can use to get a degree, or you can get a certificate, or you can just take that one-off course.”

We’re getting ready to launch a certificate in entrepreneurship with a focus on hemp production. The certificate is intended to go two directions: the growing side and the operations side. Students can also take the one-off course if they choose. So again, it’s really taking a look at where students are in their need for skills. Somebody might have a bachelor’s degree in management and want to get into the hemp production but lack knowledge on the growing side. Other skills students may need are offered, such as on the policy and legal challenges.

Learner success isn’t necessarily rooted in completing a degree. It’s reaching a goal that they set at the very beginning of their learning journey. This approach is very common at community colleges, “I just need that one course in computer-whatever.” That’s the beauty of the GEER program—it’s student-driven, workforce-driven, so in the end it really helps everybody. With programs delivered in this model, NMHU is able to meet the needs of the student, workforce and overall community.  

ME: It’s also about low investment for high yield. We can develop these in a short cycle prototyping model. Your investment of resources has not been so high that you feel you’ve lost money. That’s when you can produce many, many more opportunities for the community to get what they need when they need it most.

MS: I’ve been talking to a number of different partners, who are saying, “I work with special needs students and families, do you think I could get some value out of this?” And we’ll have the discussions, and I’ll offer them “Well, these are what the modules are,” but then the next step is, “What more can we give you?” Maybe not from this grant per se, but we hope that this grant is just the beginning. Provost Gonzales and Dean Earick mentioned that we think that there’s something more here. And as we continue to have these conversations, I’m a true believer now that that is definitely the case, that there is much more to go on, that it’s not “Here’s a course offering. Congratulations.” Over the past six years, maybe even longer, when businesses talk to schools, they’re telling them that graduates don’t have the skillset to do business in a company. This is an extension of that. We were getting the feedback from companies, but with technology learning support specialists we’re getting even more. 

Evo: What impact does this type of program delivery model then have on the student experience?

MS: Each module is intended to be completed in 60 to 90 minutes, so they are very digestible for short attention spans, or those that just don’t have a lot of time. And since they are in a MOOC model, they are self-led. Ultimately, we’ll have these courses count for college credit, so there has to be something there, even with a stackable credential. So, there are assessments within the MOOC, but they’re for practical application. How will you use this with your child tonight? 

ME: Dr. Schulte’s built these to be very intuitive for people in the field. It hasn’t been one of these theoretical projects. Because they’re done in short digestible components, this is building academic and technological efficacy that so many people need right now. 

RG: The child whom the parent is helping or the student who is in the classroom with a teacher who has gone through the GEER program will have a facilitator of that online, distance class, who is skilled and more confident in what they are doing via distance.  Participants from the program gain skills that build confidence, which translates into students’ confidence. For the kindergartner, the high schooler, whoever it happens to be, the virtual classroom will be much more rewarding at the end if they have a teacher who’s comfortable with it. We know through years of research that with distance learning, if a student has a well-developed course and well-trained teachers who know what they’re doing, the student is going to be successful. 

Finally, the delivery model itself is positive for students. They are able to take a program one course at a time on his or her schedule–flexibility is critical.  Additionally, students who want more than the courses have the ability to build a program for a degree and teacher licensure.          

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about developing and launching stackable programming?

RG: One of the things I get excited about with this particular grant and program, is the hope that out of all of this, we create a whole new line of education paraprofessionals for New Mexico and hopefully the rest of the country, with a new focus on distance learning. We have paraprofessionals in the classroom but until COVID-19, they did not engage in distance learning. We’re really hoping that this becomes a new career field for paraprofessionals to help with programs that utilize distance or have some component of distance learning, that help create new job skills, new career fields that will be eventually recognized and possibly even certified.

In terms of NMHU and other higher education institutions, the model of micro and stackable credentials is winning. It allows for a broader student market, is more attractive to business and industry partners and provides a flexibility that allows students to work towards their goals on their own timeline.  It’s a win-win for everyone! 

MS: As I think about how MOOCs and distance learning in K-12 education has been evolving, you need a plan and persistence, but you also need to be pragmatic. And that’s where the stackable credentials model is finding its way. You can have stumbles and starts over how many years, and good intentions, but if you’d have a true plan—not just “Let’s throw this into a MOOC and see what happens”—if you have persistence, you will succeed more easily. That’s the pragmatic piece and important too.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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