It took a global pandemic to push more people in accepting that online learning is a mainstay in today’s higher education landscape. In addition to convenience, it expands learning opportunities to students whose schedules do not align with traditional in-person learning schedules.
Online learning meets the needs of many students, including students with personal or professional obligations, adults with demanding work schedules, and those who want to continue their learning to better position themselves for workforce advancement.
Online, workforce-relevant degrees are flexible and attainable. And with the “nontraditional” student–someone who doesn’t complete a degree in four years directly after high school–becoming the majority in the nation, online learning programs that accommodate the needs of these students are in demand.
The University of Massachusetts Global is striving to meet the needs of these students as they seek opportunities to further their education and advance their workforce competitiveness.
UMass Global is a private, nonprofit institution accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission that offers undergraduate, graduate, credential, and certificate programs designed to be relevant to more than 90 career paths. UMass Global serves nearly 23,000 students, about 16,000 of whom are enrolled in academic credit programs.
Dr. David Andrews, chancellor of UMass Global, sees online learning opportunities as a critical part of the next iteration of higher education, particularly in several key areas. In a chat with eCampus News, he shared valuable insights and predictions.
Workforce development and relevant degrees are paramount
UMass Global students are incredibly diverse and come from all different backgrounds and experiences. Ninety-five percent of the school’s students are working full time. Most UMass Global students are at the undergraduate level and have already been to college–some students have 3-5 transcripts, 100 credit hours, but no degree, and some have a lot of debt.
“The idea is: How do you get them over the finish line–towards not only a degree, but a degree that has workforce value? The vast majority of working adults want to finish for some workforce reasons: a better job or to change jobs,” Andrews said.
“We’ve been unapologetic that our focus is on online, workforce-relevant degrees in a relatively open access environment. We’re taking the friction out of that process so they can enroll, go back to school, not accrue more debt, and finish in a way that has a value proposition around a better workforce opportunity.”
As Andrews sees it, his institution is helping form the next wave of learning innovation. “Online learning was moving in that direction anyway, and the institutions serving this student group have realized that it needs really flexible on-demand types of opportunities,” he said. “Can you provide an online environment that’s accessible to students in their own timeframes, that’s asynchronous, and can you make sure the synchronous interactions are precious? We need to use those in the most advantageous way, and use predictive analytics to reach out to students and get them to the next level.”
One of the biggest parts of ensuring students don’t just go to college, but complete their education, is making sure they have access to learning opportunities. This means opportunities need to suit students with various schedules and responsibilities.
“I had an interaction with a student who was doing her work at 2:30 in the morning. She has a full-time job, 3 kids, and a disabled husband, and that’s when she can do her work,” Andrews said. “She told me, ‘If I don’t finish my associate’s, I’m going to lose my job.’ That’s a powerful story, and if we offered courses only at 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, even if they were offered online, it does her no good. They aren’t accessible to that population.”
Students at UMass Global, and today’s students in general, are seeking institutions that are able to adapt to their life circumstances.
“You have to bring it to the student on their terms, or at least on terms that are feasible for them, and a lot of that is just around scheduling. We’re not saying that real-time interactions aren’t important; we’re saying you need to schedule them in ways that makes it such that people can access them,” Andrews said.
Students want to be online
Research, surveys, polls—they’ve all made clear that students want online learning options, and the pandemic escalated this desire. While UMass Global is predominantly an online institution, the school offers several physical campus locations and face-to-face courses and partnerships in its nursing and teacher prep programs. Andrews noted that, as the pandemic eased and face-to-face learning became safer, students weren’t necessarily racing back to campus.
“We were already 85 percent online, and we have about 97 percent of students online now. As we were coming out of the pandemic, when we tried to bring some of those [face-to-face] courses back, students weren’t interested. Students have said they’re not interested in going back to class face-to-face, nor do they want advising face-to-face,” he said. “It really puts pressure on the justification of keeping those locations open. We’re downsizing our campuses and physical locations dramatically in order to stay predominantly online, with an open access mentality.”
Remote work has pushed acceptance of remote learning
As remote learning became more acceptable among working adults, many considered the “real” college courses those that remained face-to-face. But the massive shift to remote work during and in the wake of the pandemic has many reconsidering where and how learning takes place.
“Clearly, some people had very bad experiences with online learning when they first tried it. But this is not our first rodeo. The first time I try to do anything, it’s usually not very good. It takes a while. As people get their sea legs around the online space, we see a lot more acceptance, even in the traditional space,” Andrews noted.
“But what also happened is that we went to remote work, and that really changes the need for physical locations–now we have remote learning combined with remote work. It’s changed the mindset pretty substantially.”
As is often typical, education was behind the curve in this mindset. “There are so many industries where this is not new. But in education, it was unthinkable, because we have such a mindset of going to school.”
Remote learning also expands job opportunities to a wider range of highly skilled candidates.
“We’re bringing work to people regardless of where they live. We’ve seen a dramatic shift in posting for positions. If you don’t post that a position is remote, you get a fraction of the responses. The talent pool you need to serve students exists all over the country, especially if you’re utilizing adjunct instructors. I think that’s changing the definition of instruction and where it comes from,” Andrews said. “It used to be that you can take the university to remote learners through online learning, but the expectation was that faculty were huddled somewhere together and now the faculty are as distributed as the students.”
Creative solutions for persistent challenges
Changing ideas of how long it should take to complete a degree is key when it comes to serving adult learners who have outside obligations.
“Working adults are going to take a little longer to finish their degrees. The most excited and proud graduates sometimes took 8 years, but they were persistent. Their families were supportive,” Andrews said. “In the traditional space, you get criticized for that because you’ve needed a longer period of time to get your work done.”
Limiting students to terms has been commonplace, but Andrews said flexible term lengths could benefit more students.
“We have students who need longer time than is available in a term. We have 8-week terms, and if you need 10 weeks, we have to figure out a way to do that and we’re not quite there yet,” he said. “We have to figure out a way [withing jeopardizing financial aid]. It’s not easy to be that adaptive in our current regulatory environment, but I think that’s going to change over time. We need to push boundaries with our accreditors and the Department of Education. We don’t want to keep people forever, but what’s two more weeks?”
Credentialing is growing across institutions and the workplace
UMass Global is moving toward competency-based education in a number of different ways, creating smaller modules and microcredentials for students to stack as the notion of job relevance grows in higher education.
“I think you’ll see, in the working adult space, many more business-institution partnerships, specifically partnerships with employers that are providing tuition assistance–that’s one way to reduce costs for working adults,” Andrews said.
“We’re seeing a movement where institutions can reduce tuition because they’re working with employers who are bringing students to them, which is reducing institutions’ cost of acquiring the students. Much of the cost of serving the student is the upfront cost of marketing and getting them to the institution–the best way to reduce those costs is through specific partnerships,” he noted.
“It’s those kinds of deep partnerships that will change the way [things are done]. You have to be accommodating for both the student and the employer. It creates a richer experience for the student, but it also creates a better outcome for the employer.”
Andrews emphasized that the acceptance of online learning is changing—even quiet acceptance in more traditional settings.
“During the pandemic we put everything online, and then the expectation was that the online option would remain available. The notion is that learning should be interactive–one-way communication won’t suffice,” he said. “It’s a really different mindset for a lot of people. But I don’t think it’s temporary. I think it’s here to stay.”