How virtual learning is enabling lifelong skill building

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Canvas LMS, an educational technology company that seeks to promote student success, explains five things that institutions must do to begin the transition to a lifelong learning model.

On-campus and online. In-person and virtual. Mutually exclusive modalities are a thing of the past. Fluid, lifelong learning is the new reality for higher ed institutions post-pandemic.

Dr. Judy Olian, president, Quinnipiac University, said: “We are moving into an era of a six-decade-long learning cycle as opposed to four years. At Quinnipiac, students range in age from 19-68 and online learning was the norm even pre-pandemic. For us to think that people have to come in physically to do these things is just dreaming.”

Olian was one of four panelists on US News and World Report’s recent webinar, How Virtual Learning is Enabling Lifelong Skill-Building. Panelists from top online universities – Quinnipiac, University of Florida and California Virtual Campus – offered best practices for transitioning campuses from a four-year model to a lifelong learning model.

Five best practices for transitioning to a lifelong learning model:

Rethink the traditional student

The university experience is no longer reserved for the four-year residential student. Learners of all ages, stages and locations need continual skill-building to navigate a modern workplace. Online learning – for both on- and off-campus students – enables that.

Marina Aminy, Executive Director of California Virtual Campus, said online learning helped her institution expand its reach exponentially. Its innovative CVC exchange, powered by Canvas LMS, is a cross-enrollment tool allowing California Community College students to enroll on any online course at another campus.

“It takes students from having 1-2 choices for courses to having 100,000,” said Aminy.

Partner with employers for upskilling

Career readiness doesn’t just apply to an undergrad’s first job, it also includes adult learners upskilling and reskilling to compete in an ever-changing market.

Olian urged institutions to reach outside the walls of higher education to determine what the labor market’s learning demands are. “Look outwards instead of inwards to define course and certificate offerings,” she said.

Panelists offered examples of how their institutions are partnering with employers to reskill and upskill the workforce:

  • Quinnipiac University’s new partnership with Hartford HealthCare builds college-to-career pipelines and encourages lifelong learning for current employees.
  • University of Florida’s new partnership with Amazon covers tuition and fees for one of 25 UF bachelor’s degrees via UF Online.
  • California Virtual Campus developed 80 fully online Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs.
  • Utah State University’s partnership with Northrup Grumman allows employees to turn their vocation into a degree.

Institutions want to attract students. Employers want to train their workers. It’s a win-win solution. But only if a university’s robust virtual learning makes it possible.

Personalize the virtual experience with a low student-to-advisor ratio

Dr. Evangeline Tsibris Cummings, Assistant Provost and Director of University of Florida (UF) Online, said: “A one-size-fits-all approach to virtual learning is impossible.”

To serve a student population ranging in age from 12 to 75, UF Online invested in a cadre of academic advisors. This low advisor-to-student ratio ensures students feel connected to campus and gives UF valuable insight into the student experience.

Cummings says for a massive institution like the UF, tethering students to a buddy is invaluable for personalizing a virtual experience and helps UF retain students.

Ensure online course quality with peer review

Aminy encouraged institutions to set up their own local processes for ensuring the quality of online courses.

With CVC’s Peer Online Course Review (POCR) rubric as their guide, faculties review courses for content presentation, interaction and assessments. In addition, the review determines if accessibility requirements are met.

“Campuses can use CVC’s rubric as a roadmap for designing new online courses, improving existing courses, or as a foundation for setting up their own local review process,” said Aminy.

Use data for diversity

Cummings said the prevalence of online learning presents an amazing moment for campuses not only to pivot and be more competitive but also to be more welcoming to non-traditional students.

“The accessibility, flexibility and multi-pathway nature of online learning should be inextricably linked to your focus on diversity and equity,” said Cummings.

Using data is a key step in meeting diversity goals. Aminy said institutions too often make assumptions about what students need. This ‘parentalism’ – requiring prerequisites for instance – can be a detriment to students’ educational goals.

Chase the data to determine if an online course is designed for successful student outcomes. Ask questions like: How many students are passing this course? Is there retention? Are prerequisite policies impacting certain minorities disproportionately? Are working students dropping a certain modality of learning and why?

Panelists predicted that 10 years from now we will see an even more fluid, more personalized higher education experience. To remain relevant, institutions need to embrace online learning beyond a pandemic necessity and as a new reality.