As you identify your learner target population and work to perfect “one stroke” administrative and support services, another critical question concerns the core of the academic enterprise: what model will you employ? Before the advent of technology, the choices were fairly simple: low residency vs. campus-based and instruction-based vs. a more student-directed approach like those adopted by Bennington, Goddard, Antioch, and Marlboro.
Now, however, the new universe offers us multiple variations on those choices with the opportunity to focus time and resources and use data in ways that enhance the prospects of learner success by creating a learning environment that is aligned with the learner’s needs, preferences, and behavior. Having said that, for the vast majority of learners, the academic model has to recognize that learning is, first and foremost, a social enterprise based on inter-personal interactions of consequence. Yes, there are some highly motivated and self-directed learners who can “get it all done” largely on their own. I would argue, however, that, even in those cases, the actual learning would be richer and deeper if there were increased interaction among the learner, knowledge experts, and other learners.
In the new universe, academic models must respond to the challenge of lack of connectedness. The $64 million question is: How do you create an atmosphere of collegiality and social interaction appropriate to the needs and aspirations of your learner target population in the potentially isolated and lonely world of web-based learning? Rather than create a definitive list of “how to” offer these services, let me instead suggest the types of services that should be considered in the development of any academic model. A close reading will suggest that how you address one service area will inform your approach to the others. Failure to address these issues and others like them will dramatically increase the gap in the academic program between costs and price on the one hand and quality and student success on the other.
A champion in the house. Each learner should have an academic advocate who is there to advise them when they have trouble with any aspect of their program or course of study. This academic champion would develop the learner’s plan with the learner and stay with them, as needed, throughout the learning journey.
A town square. Establish a social space where learners can meet and interact with each other and knowledge experts around project and coursework as well as everyday issues. Just as OpenStudy has created community for online learners, program designers have to decide how they will provide community for their learners.
Is course content king? Will the model rely on its own curricula, use other sources of curricula to meet evidence-based outcomes, or some combination of the two? By focusing on outcomes, advising, and assessment, colleges can reduce their curricular costs while increasing attention to student learning.
The role of flexibility and choice. For some learners, too much choice is, at best, a distraction and, at worst, an obstacle to success. Close attention should be paid to the course options made available to learners to assure alignment between aspirations and outcomes and appropriate speed to degree attainment.
Experience and Assessment inform curriculum and pedagogy. The first “distance learning” I experienced was in the back row of a large lecture hall in undergraduate school. Seriously, all learning is an experience, and the question becomes how you want that experience to affect and engage the learner. With students who are participating remotely, academic designs should consider how to engage them actively in project-based or other activity-oriented learning models. This, in turn, opens the door to using the assessment of learning as an additional teaching opportunity, helping learners learn how they learn and what they learn through active reflection based on evidence.
Career Connections. Every learner has a vision, however vague, of the career “result” she wants from learning at school. Offering exercises that help learners “make sense” of where they are and where they want to go so that their academic and career journeys are aligned, is critical.
The underlying point here is that the cost and price of a program must include services necessary and appropriate to encouraging success among a majority of learners. As I mentioned earlier, if you are successful with a high percentage of learners, you can charge less and have the quality of your program balance the budget through reduced attrition.