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Leveraging Technology to Support Lifelong Learning and Guide Student Learning Pathways

The EvoLLLution | Leveraging Technology to Support Lifelong Learning and Guide Student Learning Pathways
Colleges and universities can leverage technology to overcome the roadblocks that often keep learners from clearly connecting their educational experience to their career.

One particular aspect of competency-based education, workforce development and corporate learning (and its related technology) has really intrigued me for some time: finding the effective mechanisms to drive better learning and achievement of credentialed skills that can directly map into, and contribute to, advancement of an individual’s productivity and value in their chosen educational and career paths.

It’s become clear that there are still critical gaps in providing more direct student lifecycle value and cohesiveness across their academic experience. While colleges have made advances—mostly by leveraging technology to drive institutional value and efficiencies that indirectly impact the student—there is still work to be done.

It’s critical to dive into how technology can be leveraged to address this important dimension of the educational lifecycle, especially since it’s so closely tied to the return value and application of learning.

In this post, I will focus on the experience of “traditional” (18- to 22-year-old) postsecondary students enrolled in their first degree program and aiming to progress into their first true career, kicking off their lifelong learning journey. This continuum of learning and achievement is a byproduct of the modern labor market, which demands individuals evolve and advance their areas of specialization.

Regardless of when an academic cycle is active, the student’s guidance, decision-making and experiential validation of academic and related outcome scenarios is critical to drive more positive results. Arguably the most critical aspect of the student experience is the evaluation and “course correction” actions undertaken while a student is actively engaged in either a program/degree or competency-based learning path, leading up to some targeted career outcome such as employment or further academic advancement in their area of expertise.

So, let’s consider some of the more prominent challenges and opportunities that exist within the student and the institution’s academic cycle journey and related activities to achieve good academic and career outcomes.

Limited Resources Minimize Institutional Capacity to Analyze Student Outcomes

Educational institutions continue to recognize and apply resources to better understand their program/degree and competency-based offerings in terms of retaining students through completion of their academic programs, and the coverage of the curricula offered relative to the fast evolving economic and industry market. For example, resources applied to better program/degree evaluation and planning, analytics focused on retention and student success, student services and more have continued to gain attention and investment.

However, as budgets continue to be constrained, additional investment to cover the increasing need for direct student-enabled intervention is difficult to secure. Currently, the majority of resources and solutions are largely institutionally centered in the sense that they help the institution better understand their historical outcome efficacy and their ability to be accountable for the ROI of education as their fees/costs continue to increase and enrollments decrease. Analyzing and responding to the student experience in retrospect, months or years after a given cohort has completed their journey, falls short of enabling the student with more timely, effective and personalized guidance. Institutions need to provide more attention, investment and solutions to empower and enable the student directly.

Workforce-Focused Students Lack Access to Relevant Resources

There is no shortage of challenges for students. Students have limited means to self-driven awareness, monitoring, self-intervention and informed action during their active and changing academic experience. This makes it very difficult to identify, evaluate and act on the spectrum of employment and career outcome scenarios best aligned with their academic path decisions and future options. However, this outcome-focused track is tangential to, disjointed from, and less resourced and invested in, than the seemingly more prominent core academic track associated guidance and intervention (i.e. course prerequisite and selection micromanagement).

For starters, if is very difficult for students to access and better understand the increasingly complex web of program/degree related courses, prerequisites and often non-intuitive interdependencies which make it difficult to effectively identify, navigate and execute on academic scenarios and the associated potential career and employment outcomes linked with them. Students find it challenging to explore and identify the future career and employment scenarios given their chosen academic path and achievements. Exploring these scenarios requires establishing connections with mentors, advisors, businesses and organizations offering experience-based guidance and opportunities which align with the student’s current and potential alternative paths.

Students have limited access to data/analysis, counselors, advisors and other resources provided by the institutions to help them coordinate their academic track with different outcome scenarios. Advisor resource to student ratios can be as high as 1200:1 with increasingly less budget to remedy this resource-intensive approach. Currently, student-facing tools are very limitedanddonotprovidethecontextualinformation,scenarioexploration,decisionsupportand other resources needed while they are actively exploring, planning, defining and executing on their curriculum focused academic experience. Also, these tools fall short to align the academic track scenarios with the possible career outcome and skills-based scenarios. Just as the institution’s counseling and advisory resources provided are insufficient, a student’s personal support network of family, mentors, alumni and peers, who may have some knowledge and experience to assist and factor in, may not be as helpful. These resources are often difficult for astudenttofindandinteractwith,mayhaveincompleteoroutdatedknowledge,notavailableor incentivized to assist, and/or may just not align well with a student’s specific and differing domain of interest, and therefore may not be able to guide effectively.

Overall, the current experience is suboptimal for both the student and the institution as it relates to the guidance and intervention needed and delivered, retention, ongoing academic monitoring and alignment with best-fit outcome scenarios, and career placement/management. Some evidence of this can be found in lower retention rates, high degree/major declaration churn, minimal experiential learning/achievements via employment or other applied project-based opportunities, unemployment levels among graduates, and feedback from and the increasing investment in training needed by employers regarding the talent pool they onboard.

Mitigating the Effect of Student- and Institution-Facing Challenges

Let’s explore some of the opportunities to mitigate these current challenges. Most importantly, let’s consider countering the emphasis on “student success” and retention-focused tool sets for the institution and its academic and IT stakeholders, with tools and value delivered directly to and for the student. This very much aligns with the more recent call for more “student-centered” learning academically, so why not also enable students to better understand and impact their educational path and how it relates to potential career outcome scenarios? One of the primary reasons that I’ve been so involved with a broad spectrum of educational analytics technology is to provide data-driven context and intelligence to bridge the siloed dimensions of the student lifecycle to better enable student-centered learning and outcomes.

Having student facing tools that leverage the key contextual sources of near real-time and historical data as well as other decision-support resources throughout the entire student lifecycle, but most importantly at the critical decision points such as major/specialization declaration, course selection, and exploring career informing experiential opportunities, can really make a tremendous positive impact on success. Not only does this help by directly enabling the student to be more self-driven about their academic journey and outcome, but at the very least it enables the student to be much more informed and prepared when they do seek out and engage with the institution’s extremely limited advisory and career-related resources. Having student ePortfolios for evidence of achievements, and badge backed credentials for measured competency, are examples of a good start but do not resolve the underlying gaps in student-enabled capabilities to better manage and align their respective academic and career related paths, decision-making and outcomes.

To maximize positive impact, these student-facing tools can and should leverage more than just data and analysis of the academic dimension of the student lifecycle. It is important these tools include automation to enhance the exploration of careers and skills-based requirements mapping to their academic achievements, mentors, experiential based learning opportunities in the form of extra-curricular projects/activities, internships and part-time/full-time employment. To accomplish this, in addition to having data that profiles such experiential opportunities, it would be further enhanced by including capabilities for alumni and employers to participate in and selectively engage with the student journey. This added real-world context and engagement benefits both the student’s planning and decision making, as well as the employers/alumni seeking to find/hire skilled talent as well as to “give back” and influence the next generation of potential employees to be more aligned with the high demand skills needed.

The opportunities to empower the student with a more self-directed and sustained understanding and informed action tool set can greatly mitigate any current challenges. In addition, the institution and its academic and administrative stakeholders can only benefit from better informed and prepared students seeking to manage their academic paths and potential outcomes scenarios. So, let’s put the student first. Stay tuned for future posts for more coverage of this topic for realizing better student-enabled management of their learning experiences and real-word outcomes.

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