Re-engaging Learners with the Lifelong Learning Model
With the large amount of noise in the higher ed environment—especially online—it can be hard to stand out and re-engage your learners. Adapting to the lifelong learning model, institutions position themselves for success by delivering the education modern learners need throughout their careers. With this model in hand, it’s important to leverage the digital environment to show learners what offerings you have to keep them coming back. In this interview, Jennifer Lindon discusses the importance of shifting to a lifelong learning model, learner engagement, and how Hazard Community and Technical College was able to re-engage its learners during unprecedented times.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why does learner engagement, that of both current students and those who were enrolled in the past, need to be a priority for modern community colleges?
Jennifer Lindon (JL): Learner engagement is critical for both the retention of current students and the return of students, and colleges should really promote what they do in terms of student engagement. Engagement is also important in current students referring new students. You want to create that ongoing cycle.
You also want that engagement and interaction to create a sense of belonging. It is very important, especially throughout this pandemic, for students not to feel isolated—we all as humans have that need for belonging. We want to promote lifelong learning and that sense of belonging helps with that. It is also important to have a very strong alumni base, whether you are in a university or a community or technical college. You want your students, their children and grandchildren to return. This will help with advancement efforts and donor relations as well.
Evo: How does shifting to a lifelong learning model create a different approach to thinking about the financial viability of the institution?
JL: Well, certainly as a community and technical college in a rural community setting, we are a focal point for the community. So, there are a variety of ways to keep increasing your engagement with your students even after they graduate. It is a business model. When looking at a return of students for offerings that you might give them through continuing education courses, they may return for a painting workshop, or they may send their child for piano lessons offered through the college. There are opportunities for community education in the business model. If you maintain that engagement with your student, they may return and book your facility for a job fair, for their place of employment, etc.
If you keep that relationship and that communication going, then perhaps there will be a donation to a particular scholarship fund at your college that you can then use to bring in new students. It is easier to keep your current customers/students if you keep them satisfied, engaged and wanting to return for additional services.
Evo: Can you walk us through a few of the steps that HCTC took to ensure that learner stayed engaged with the college?
JL: We are in a very rural setting in the mountains of Southeastern Kentucky in what I call Central Appalachia, so we had some obstacles to overcome when everything went virtual last March. We have always done online learning but not to the extent that we are currently. We brought back many of our technical programs in-person, but much of what we are doing both with teaching and learning and with the work environment in general remains online. In these remote settings, sometimes it is difficult to have fast enough internet speeds to run simulations for our courses or to be able to perform different types of work. The required internet speeds are not in the nooks and crannies between the mountains, so that has been a challenge.
Not only are we in a rural area but we are in an area where there are high rates of poverty. In many cases, our students and even our employees did not have access to the actual hardware—laptops, and so forth—so we have worked hard to order all our employees laptops, so they could work online. We also have an extensive laptop loan program for students. Something else we started was an internet access hub, so students in some of our outlying counties could access the Internet there. And of course, they could come to any of our five campuses and connect with the Wi-Fi hotspots.
It was really a challenge to get the technology needed to maintain a teaching, learning and working environment but as I mentioned, we have been doing online learning for quite some time, so we really started looking at what else could we do to keep students engaged and reach new audiences. We did tons of mailings, postcards, letters, things like that, to our students and to parents of our dual credit high school students. We implemented check-in calls, not only to see how students were doing with their classes but just how they were doing in general. Recently, we have been able to partner with an organization to offer therapy online because many of our students did indicate that mental health was a concern for them.
During this pandemic, with all the isolation, we’ve had a virtual advising hub where students can check in, get advised on their classes and ask other academic-related questions, as well as a student services hub. We have both of those links still online on our website, and we have various people manning those hubs, so that students can talk to a person virtually as soon as they go online. We have online chat on our webpage and offer two-way texting with students through a company called Signal Vine. We have done quite a few focus groups with students to find the best way to engage with them.
We have partnered with the local Rotary Club to have an online Rotary Day full of videos and opportunities for games and prizes. We have had many different types of student contests, like a Halloween costume contest and a gingerbread house decorating contest. We really tried to think outside the box for engagement opportunities for our students and employees.
Evo: How important was it for the website to reflect the nature of the institution as more of a passive asset?
JL: The website became the face of the college, even more so than personal interaction. We realized quickly how dependent we were on that personal interaction. I am not sure if it’s because we’re in such a rural setting that we have relied on face-to-face. I do not think that is the case, but traditionally that’s how higher education likes to recruit. We like to take out our recruiters, go to different events, to different high schools, etc. But the website became critical during the pandemic.
That is how and why we have that new forward-facing chat feature right there on the home page. We recently implemented that because of what we were hearing from students and focus groups: you expect to be able to log on and get help immediately. You do not want to wait. I do not want to wait. That chat feature became important, and just making sure that everything we had on the web was easy, only required a few clicks, and was not embedded way down on the page.
It became very important to make sure that what we developed and designed for our website was easy to use on the phone because that’s how students are looking at it.
Evo: How were you able to leverage online programming?
JL: We have a huge Facebook presence, but we also know that our Facebook only reaches a certain population–the 25 and up age group. And we have a huge number of dual credit classes, so we have ton of students taking high school and college classes at the same time. Kentucky legislators recently passed Senate Bill 128. With this bill, any K-12 student can repeat the 20-21 school year. Many have struggled in Kentucky in our remote areas with technology access. It was really a hard year, and some did not achieve what they needed to in terms of learning.
We think we are going to have even more high school students taking additional dual credit classes. The younger generation is using TikTok and Instagram. We’ve been on Instagram a while but have not really gotten into the TikTok videos.
What is important is having students producing your content. They have followers already, so it is important to capitalize on that. We have student ambassadors, and we screen what they are doing for the college and work with them on posting to accounts. Think about what students you might be able to get out there on TikTok. Certainly, we filter what is out there, look at it and approve it to make sure that the content reflects us well.
Evo: How can you create closer linkages between workforce training and degree bearing sides of the college to create more opportunities for lifelong engagement?
JL: There needs to be conversation at the college level between workforce and academic or credit sides. Now more than ever, there’s a blending of the two, with both workforce credit and non-credit options being offered to students, so it’s very critical for both sides of the college’s house to listen to the employer and to both be present at those initial meetings with the employer. This way, they can determine the best course of action, whether it’s industry certification or a full-on academic degree program.
Now, how do we as a college be as flexible as possible for the employer and provide quality training with a quick turnaround time? We need to enable our new and incumbent workers to excel in the workplace. We must have both academics and workforce working together to determine the best package and route moving forward for that particular employer and their employees.
Evo: Why is it so difficult to create that seamless learner experience between credit-bearing and non-credit?
JL: That’s a tough one. I wish I had the answer for that, because I did come up through workforce and yes, there has always been that division.
They do not understand each other fully, maybe. Some folks still believe, yes, you need that bachelor’s, that master’s degree to excel in life. Sometimes they see workforces, workforce training courses and short-term courses as competition, a bit of a threat, although it is not meant to be. We need each area working in tandem, and workforce programs can in turn be that feeder for the academic program, for those who want to move up into management or who need that higher-level degree.
But there is still that stigma about technical and workforce education out there. I do not know how we change that, but for example, an electrician can make such a high wage and do so well for themselves, and the math involved in the exam to be a certified electrician is very difficult. There is stigma that you go into technical trades because you cannot do academia, but that’s not the case. We are in such desperate need in the world for skilled trades–electricians, plumbers, construction, manufacturing. The demand is there.
Academia and workforce folks just need to listen to each other more and talk to each other. Again, it goes back to working with employers from the beginning to figure out the best package. But if you look at credit for prior learning, more needs to be done at higher education institutions, so they can feed into academic programs as needed. Apprenticeship models, for example, are wonderful and give employers the best of both worlds. They get to have an employee, get a preview of their work, then the student on the flip side gets to earn an income while they are going to school.
Evo: What are some lessons learned about learner engagement, programmatic diversification, and the philosophy of the college that you would share with other leaders navigating very similar challenges?
JL: Overall, the pandemic has taught us that education can move quicker than what we had thought to adapt to a changing environment. We need to keep that momentum, as teaching, learning and the environment surrounding both has changed for everyone. We do not need to go back to a post-pandemic, higher education arena. We need to move forward into a new chapter.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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