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Defining the Modern Learner Lifecycle In This New Normal

As higher education looks to establish a new normal, it’s important for institutions to adapt to the lifelong learner cycle to provide programming and support that meets learners needs at every stage of their careers. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an enormous amount of disruption for higher education, and we’re still navigating through it. Many obstacles around learner access and success have emerged, accelerating slow-moving trends in enrollment and student expectations that institutions are still trying to overcome. 

This article is a segment from the webinar “Insights on Higher Ed’s Next Normal”, which focuses on higher education’s new normal and shares insights from presidents of higher ed institutions about what this new normal will look like and what institution’s need to do to survive and thrive in this new environment.

Amrit Ahluwalia (AA): What is the modern learner lifecycle?

Frank Dooley (FD): The challenge is that there’s not just one modern learner. We’ve traditionally viewed ourselves as working with the 18- to 24-year-old segment. As we all know, there are all kinds of students. COVID, if anything, has really reinforced what’s that. At the same time, the conversation around microcredentials and other initiatives is coming at us from every direction.

You can go back in time and hear many presidents and universities talking about preparing lifelong learners, but for whatever reason, it never gained traction. It’s a challenge, but it would be great if we could settle on a common definition of the modern learner. 

AA: How do you define the modern learner, and how does one serve that lifecycle, given the complexity and diversity?

Sue Ellspermann (SE): It’s about upskilling the learner—whether they’re in high school and looking for a first credential or a frontline employee looking for credentials to move up the ladder. It became very apparent during the pandemic. In Indiana, the government offered free reskilling on some high-demand credentials to those who had been displaced—over half had degrees. They needed something more. That constant upskilling and reskilling is going to look non-traditional compared to how we think of it. It’s important to understand that we’re going to see a student many times, in different settings. It’s going to look different, and that’s okay. 

We are 75% non-traditional. But that is truly our community college—it’s what we’re all experiencing at this point. We will never meet those big Lumina goals, aiming to have 60% of our workforce earn post-secondary degrees or credentials, without putting more attention on the adult learner and how we meet their needs—not just once but multiple times in their career.

AA: What does that mean when building a life cycle?

Thomas Stith (TS): I learned about the modern learner personally, with my daughters. They had a career counselling session for parents and students, and the number of careers and jobs they projected was stark to me. I came out of a generation, where you get your credential or degree, then you’re done. That doesn’t exist anymore. 

Learners will have multiple careers throughout their professional lives. They’re looking for quick pathways. They’re retooling, reskilling, or upskilling. They want to measure knowledge in a very short time period, and we’re seeing an increase of requests for credit for prior learning. Students want to stack their credentials and be prepared to either progress in their existing career or entirely change careers.  

The definition of a learner now is very different than it was when I matriculated through the educational system. Modern learners want flexibility and recognition  of the knowlesge they gain in the workplace. As we look at this, we must make adjustments according to learner expectations.  

Phil Regier (PR): This should be an item of national priority. Right now, five or six out of seven Americans don’t believe they have the ability to improve their standard of living. Secondly, you have automation threatening about half the jobs in the U.S. workforce. Thirdly, jobs are rapidly changing. In many professions,  half a job is about five years. Now, if we don’t fix that as educational institutions, people will be coming after us. It is incredibly concerning, and we cannot expect the private sector to assist.

As public institutions, we have a civic responsibility to address these issues. We have to make America an open and welcoming place for everyone. Learner agency is also important. We used to set the degree programs in front of a learner and ask which one they wanted. From there, we’d tell them how to get that degree. It’s clear now that we need much more flexible systems that allow people to come into the system and gain an understanding of what they need to advance. We let them choose and move on. It’s a very different perspective than what universities are used to dealing with, which requires a change of mindset.

Madeline Purmariega (MP): Credit and non-credit are blurring together. Our industry is about credit accumulation that leads to a credential. The future is about skills acquisition that leads to a high-wage job that keeps you competitive in the workforce. We’ve seen the need for several skills accelerate during the pandemic, especially in emerging jobs. 

We have to think about how we build our systems to be able to allow a learner to transition from credit into non-credit. They want a pathway that will get them a credential and put them in a competitive position to get a job. 

So, there’s an opportunity for us to work together as systems and get rid of the silos, to start blurring that line of transition between credit and non-credit, skills acquisition and credit-bearing. The future of work is will require a skill set of all employees. We can begin to address these skills through microcredentials. 

With all of the innovation and technology arising from the pandemic, it’s been remarkable. We had to pivot to a digital enterprise, both in terms of support services and teaching.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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