Alternative study models ‘causing real angst’ for universities

US courses are evolving to serve ‘post-traditional’ students, conference hears

March 20, 2014

College education in the US is being shaken up by alternative models that are evolving to target students who feel “over-served” by traditional universities, a conference has heard.

Diana Oblinger, chief executive and president of the US non-profit organisation Educause, which promotes the intelligent use of technology in universities, said that less than a fifth of students in the US were now “traditional learners” – those leaving high school and going to college full time.

“By far the majority of people we have in our educational system are what we now call post-traditional,” she told the Jisc Digital Festival in Birmingham on 11 March.

Efforts to effectively target this group of students – which includes adults and those already in work – were “causing real angst” for universities, Dr Oblinger said.

“We’re finding many students feel they are over-served by the traditional education system,” she said. “Many of them want a pathway – a bridge to the additional credentials to get the next better job to improve their wage rate. They are not after the same experience that you or I might have been after.”

As a result, “very different models” of study are evolving in the US – in particular, courses with a strong focus on “competency-based education”.

“You can develop these competencies at home, in the workplace, in self-study or in the military, then you come in [to a higher education institution] and prove you have those skills,” Dr Oblinger said.

One example she gave was College for America, a programme developed by Southern New Hampshire University that charges students $2,500 (£1,500) a year. It allows students to gain credit for demonstrating their competencies, but does not impose any time limits on their doing so.

“The students develop personalised learning plans, and then it is up to them to go through it as fast as they want,” Dr Oblinger told Times Higher Education.

“One individual who was very highly motivated completed his associate degree in three months. It was incredible.”

New communication channels

Elsewhere at the festival, Martin Hall, vice-chancellor of the University of Salford and chair of Jisc, told THE that in addition to adapting to new models of learning, universities had to ensure that they were “on top of the social media space” to communicate effectively with students.

He said that about 30 per cent of Salford students never accessed their university email account, and that many found established social networks such as Facebook “passé”, making it more difficult for the university to stay in touch.

“You have to use every available social media platform,” he said.

“To be quite frank, and it might sound like a trivial point, universities should be hiring lots of consultants who are 14 years old, because the new spaces where people want to interact are defined by those aged 14 to 18. They’re the ones who are saying where they want to be.”

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