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Disrupting the Adult Student Lifecycle in Online Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | Disrupting the Adult Student Lifecycle in Online Higher Education
Unless universities find models designed to serve the modern lifelong learner, it will be challenging to provide them with lasting and ongoing value in the modern labor market.

I believe the term “disruption” is often misunderstood in the context of innovation.

Disruption can be incorrectly perceived as a market breakthrough or an improvement to a typical business trajectory. In reality, disruption is the creation of a new market entirely—one that reaches and benefits consumers who otherwise would not have used a product or service.

We live in the age of disruption. Despite this, higher education is lagging behind the corporate world, slow to incorporate technology and innovative approaches to instruction. Until recently, the target demographic has primarily been considered the 18- to 25-year-old. But working adults have flooded the industry to acquire the skills required as technology forces workforce changes.

Dr. John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix, was one of the original disruptors of higher education, pioneering access to flexible online and campus learning for working adults. The university and others are working today to continue to cause disruption, but I believe nearly all would agree that there is still work yet to be done. Technology has evolved immensely since Dr. Sperling and the university first began offering education online. It continues to change even now and at an accelerated pace that remains difficult to catch.

Career-relevant education is more important than ever, but instruction today is too often focused on conceptual learning. With change and innovation happening all the time, the concepts quickly become antiquated before working adult students can even begin to put their learning into practice.

Universities today must provide relevant offerings that are on pace with the speed of industry change. They need to keep students constantly engaged or risk losing them.

Examining and applying the successes of disruptive companies could help universities incorporate the concepts, methods and technologies to provide a new market offering for education. There are lessons to be learned and best practices to be applied to the student lifecycle to help develop similar results in education.

University of Phoenix disrupted higher education more than 40 years ago as a pioneer in online education. We are working today to disrupt it again by offering degrees focused on applied learning and career preparedness, primarily for working adults. This market already exists in the online higher education space, but further disruption can help separate it from its traditional classroom counterpart. As a result of industry needs, new educational processes must form to move away from conceptual learning and include curriculum that can be applied to their careers as soon as they receive their diploma.

Online education was a great start. There are a few new markets that have emerged to change how people consume education to fit their busy lives, but more disruption is needed as demands evolve. Of course, universities across the country offer online learning opportunities, but we believe in a model that fits an underserved population—exclusively, working adults with careers and families and little time for the traditional classroom model.

At University of Phoenix, we know work and family often come before education, so we developed a program that fits students’ lives. This requires mapping out the student experience to better prepare them to enroll, take classes, graduate and pursue their careers. The core of our philosophy is a student engagement map that breaks down the student experience to remove obstacles and help them ignite their potential.

A big part of this is the inclusion of prior learning assessments (PLAs). Through PLAs, enrolling students can apply to have relevant learning, work and life experiences they gained during their professional careers evaluated for potential college credits. The average University of Phoenix student has five years of professional experience at the time of enrollment. We believe those skills and competencies should count toward education.

Another key element in changing education to fit students’ needs is employing practitioner faculty who work within the fields in which they teach. University of Phoenix’s scholarly practitioners average more than 20 years of professional experience and include professionals in c-suite and other leadership roles. The industry insight they bring to the classroom is invaluable and helps ensure our education is applicable to today’s industry needs and demands. These are not concepts, but the skills and knowledge required of today’s workforce.

Moving forward, the focus must remain on applied learning but also encourage students to become lifelong learners. Disruption will not stop; therefore education must be nimble and relevant enough to keep pace.

Education must be quick, applicable and flexible so people can quickly return and obtain the skills and competencies they need to succeed. Leaders in higher education need to be prepared to provide these offerings in an online format that is accessible to the people who cannot pursue traditional education. Further innovation and new, cutting-edge approaches are needed to take education into the future.

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