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Getting Adult Learners Back in the Workforce

The EvoLLLution | Getting Adult Learners Back in the Workforce
It’s not all about the enrollment rates—it’s about developing the right systems and programs that allow adult learners to upskill and reskill their way back into a viable career while maintaining their current lifestyle.

As more learners will be looking to upskill, institutions need to quickly respond to get them back into the workforce. Although they may have an idea of what skills learners should acquire, faculty need to lean on employers to know exactly what to deliver. With the shift to a new normal, there will also be a shift in programming structures both internally and externally that can be built from the lessons learned in this remote environment. In this interview, Angie Besendorfer discusses higher ed’s adoption of student centricity, the pandemic’s impact on the reputation of online learning and how institutions can really focus on getting their learners back into the workforce.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Do you think some of the innovations and tools that have been introduced to support the shift to remote learning are going to be adopted into the post-pandemic new normal?

Angie Besendorfer (AB): I hope so. We’re in a space that allows us some grace to try things and take risks outside traditional settings, so it lends itself well to innovation. In all of this, it’s very important to recognize the difference between remote and online. There’s a dramatic difference between making a quick shift because of a crisis compared to planned online programs.

As we look at the new tools and see how professors are adapting, experiences vary because of everyone’s different skill sets. Some are more engaging than others, and that’s the case in the traditional learning world. We need to avoid painting with broad brush strokes when discussing online and saying it’s all the same. Professors are exploring new tools and have been forced to simultaneously try many different things, which is not how fully developed online programs operate.

Professors may find some things that will enhance either online learning for themselves in the future, or in their face-to-face classrooms, but we need to be careful as we transition back into that new normal because we’re not just measuring time. One of the things that Western Governors University (WGU) did in our online learning was to embrace competency-based education and do away with the measurement of time. That’s a very significant difference. In a 2019 Strada survey, students in the online environment said that they weren’t engaging with the material, so that time was wasted, so to speak. The concept of trying to make up the time is a really dangerous one. We need to be careful that we’re not just doing busy work to try to pretend like we’re doing class. It’s not the same.

We need to transition into measuring learning, and discussion boards aren’t a virtual proxy for it. You need to think about  how you’re going to measure learning. There are great things happening right now, and hopefully we can learn from those to determine what does and doesn’t work.

Evo: Do you think elements of student centricity are going to become part of higher education’s culture in a different way?

AB: It depends on how faculty are approaching this current crisis. If they’re still trying to structure everything just like they do in the classroom, then it may not change things. However, if they’re willing to let go of the assumptions they’ve always had, then I do think that higher ed can make a transition to really focusing on the student, their learning and how they can prove their learning. Those are the real pieces.

We get so hung up on grades and GPA, and how we categorize students according to them, as opposed to determining whether they actually master the content. That’s the real difference between sitting through a class long enough to get a grade and pass and mastering the important content.

Competency-based learning is much more rigorous type. Some people may think it’s easier because you get multiple chances. While that may be true, a student can’t just fail a test and never have to learn the material it evaluates. You have to keep studying until you can prove mastery. That is the foundational principle that could be really beneficial in reframing our philosophy of learning in higher ed.

Evo: Are you concerned that the quality of remote learning offerings that are currently on the market will negatively affect the broader perception of what’s possible in online learning?

AB: Absolutely. It’s important to realize that we’re only a few weeks into the remote learning. There are already critical parts of it that students are saying are not working. Students aren’t experiencing what we would want them to experience. so, we need to realize that there’s a steep learning curve to seamlessly delivering quality courses online. It’s much too steep a learning curve for everyone do grasp a dime, like we’ve asked our professors to do across the nation right now. We should applaud our friends in education who have taken on this huge task and recognize them making this transition on both the technical and teaching sides.

WGU has 23 years of experience in teaching online. It required careful planning, and we’ve learned a lot over the years, so, we do some things differently. But we need to understand that the exposure to this remote learning should not reflect upon the quality of online learning that is available today. Some professors might’ve had great online teaching skills already, and they’re going to make this transition really quickly, but others may not. It’s not all the same, and we need to approach it that way.

At WGU, we have strong evidence of our students learning well through our competency-based model. The model’s success lies in giving students the option to move through their education at their own pace. It’s very student-centric, and it works. Survey results from our employers, students and graduates clearly demonstrate that we provide quality programs and that students feel empowered by them. We hope that we can be an example of what’s possible as we transition back to a new normal; if we want to adopt more online opportunities, that we can provide examples of engaging high-quality, personalized student-centered experiences.

Evo: Are there any lessons from the 2008 recession that we can draw or is this just a fundamentally different experience?

AB: While there are possible lessons learned from the past, it’s really too soon to tell how the economy is going to be different. In fact, the length of the restrictions, the process of opening up the economy and whether it’s phased or opened up immediately will determine the extent of the virus’ economic impact. It may come back in phases and/or in different sectors. All of that will be important for us to watch. We have to pay attention to the workforce. We can’t just do our thing and offer what we offer—we need to be responsive.

A more competitive job market results in many more people needing to upskill or re-skill, which will be comparable to what we saw in 2008. To serve them, we’ve got to think about what we’re going to do to help these people to quickly get back to work. During past recessions, colleges have seen enrollment rates rise because workers see that opportunity. There’s funding opportunity and some people believe that they need more education or training to replace a lost job that pays similar wage and salary as to what they’ve had.  Things like microcredentials and certifications can help people apply for jobs before they have the full degree. The other thing to think about is affordability. People now have to do with less. We think they have access to these government programs that help, but there’s a limit to how and what that provides them. When talking about adults, they’re often supporting a family, so we need to be very cognizant of how  cost and creating systems and processes that accommodate adult learners’ financial situations.

Evo: How do we need to prepare ourselves as postsecondary institutions for what is a very different product and level of demand than what we were experiencing before the pandemic?

AB: It’s not completely different from topics we’re currently discussing, like stackable credentials. We could talk about WGU launching our first microbachelors’. There’s a lot of innovation in this space, but we’re going to have to increase our speed  and building these programs.

Our IT programs are also a good model. They have built-in certifications that are automatically embedded within the degree, that immediately begin to build a student’s resume in order for them to get the job. We need to be able to find ways for students to have differentiators that will show employers they’re ready.

Sometimes the traditional higher ed system belief is that once a student gets a job, they quit university, which is bad for all of us.  We want them to be able to get back to supporting their families while continuing to upskill. In doing that, we have to think about how we offer these programs in a way that fits the students we’re going to be serving.

Evo: Can you share some advice or tips on how leaders can take online learning approaches and adapt and scale them to create access for adults looking for upskill and re-skill opportunities, who don’t have lot of time or money at their disposal?

AB: All universities have courses, and if we can bundle courses together into a certificate with market value as a response to a workforce need, that’s the key. On the tool side of it, we need to market to learners by telling them what jobs they can get, and to employers, letting them know what skills these individuals will have.

Taking that one step further, think about a competency-based model with a personalized pace, that allows students to move through more quickly. A lot of times, adult learners have pre-existing skills and knowledge, so we need to let them prove that and then move them through at a matching pace so that they can learn their credits. That can reduce the overall amount of time during which we’re supporting them. A competency-based model doesn’t just hand out credits based on previous job experience but allows them to prove competency within certain areas. So, it’s about defining the key competencies that people need to prove they have to in turn show they master a certain skillset. If we can start bundling things together, we can start stacking credentials that build into degrees. We don’t need to start from scratch but rather look at what we have and go from there.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it will take to ensure the postsecondary industry is prepared for an intense recession?

AB: The future of the enrollment population will be working learners. That new population will change the model of higher education entirely. Higher education innovation needs to focus on increasing the alignment between learning outcomes and workforce needs–and successful upskilling requires paying close attention to existing and emerging workforce needs.

In saying that, universities need to work intimately with employers to make sure that their programs align with what employers need, not what they think students should have. They need to focus on jobs and that personalized, individualized learning that is going to help us increase the number of people that successfully complete programs. It’s not just about enrollment, it’s about getting them across the finish line. They need to complete the program or degree that’s going to help them to move into the career they want to have a financially stable life and contribute to rebuilding our economy.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on April 21, 2020.

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