One Big Idea for Scaling and Sustaining Personalized Adult Learning

Photo Credit: Smiles by Christopher Connell

Photo Credit: Smiles by Christopher Connell

I’m going on a rant for a couple of paragraphs. Bear with me.

For all the talk about student-centricity, personalization and adult learning, the customer service experience for people trying to re-enter higher education and persist through to degree completion just plain stinks.

In this day and age, given the plethora of information and case studies related to exemplar customer service experiences (from Nordstrom to Zappos to the Henry Ford Health System) where’s the high-tech, high-touch student service delivery model for adult learners?

Goodness knows they need one.

For a variety of reasons, adult learners have had to step off the pipeline that feeds the higher education system, isolating them from support systems, and leaving them largely on their own to navigate the complexity of attaining a degree. While studies show they prefer self-direction, learning that’s problem-centric, and have a high level of internal motivation, adult learners often lack the necessary self-confidence to propel themselves to completion. Many have to overcome fears or conquer feelings of inadequacy as they return to a system that has not delivered a well-designed, intentional adult learning experience.

There are some adult learning programs in play for deeply personalizing education for each individual (College Unbound and College For America comes to mind) which honors an adult learner’s life context and earned life competencies, weaving education and work day responsibilities together. Strong program components designed around the needs of adult learners and ready to be rolled out to the estimated 37 million adults who are struggling to obtain a degree. But it’s not enough. Students are still locked into academic programs delivered through a single institution.

Here’s what I would like to see: A 2-pronged approach to business model innovation that maintains the tenets of several personalized student-centric philosophies out there while contemplating a new high-tech, high-touch student service delivery model that both unbundles curricula opportunities within colleges and universities nationwide and embeds employer-based experiential learning opportunities. Imagine a new model that would:

  1. Shift the center of student gravity from traditional student service offerings of “academic and financial aid” and toward “life aid.” Through the creation of an exemplar customer service experience enabled by technology yet mastered by human touch, I envision a new platform that re-thinks the “aid” packages that adult learners receive to include help with work and life obligations which ease the stress many students succumb to as they try to balance education and the circumstances of their lives.
  2. Break the tyranny associated with individual institutions laying sole claim to a student’s ability to receive a degree. By shifting the lens from “bound students” toward “unbound degrees,” adult learners would find themselves in a position that maintains the philosophy of personalized learning while delivering greater access to a network of institutions, employers, experiences and situations.

The difference here is that the support experience becomes the hub of connection for adult learners, linking colleges and universities, employers and adult learners everywhere. In this unbound personal learning environment, adult learners have guidance at their fingertips whenever it is needed to help them navigate the complexity of degree completion through an intentional service experience designed exclusively for them.

Is higher education ready for such a breakthrough approach? I believe so. In “burning platform” fashion, the industry as a whole is at its own crossroads. Nearly half of the nation’s colleges and universities are no longer generating enough tuition revenue to keep pace with inflation. (Source: Wall Street Journal, 11/22/13) New financial, operating and delivery models must arise else many institutions will find themselves in the graveyard of bankruptcy. Now is the time for experimentation and model innovation. Imagine a new networked organization that delivers a unique and highly scalable approach to degree delivery on behalf of adult learners, economic growth on behalf of the industry and ultimately, a workforce that meets the needs of the nation’s – perhaps the world’s – employers.

Somebody needs to step up to the plate. I just don’t see the solution coming from any single higher education institution. The state of Florida is taking a step in the right direction. In 2013, its state legislature passed the Complete Florida legislation to recruit and retain the state’s 2.2 million adult learners who have earned some college credit.  Eleven public and private institutions across the state have come together to design and implement a holistic program that will result in more Florida adult learners completing college.

In the end, I recognize that for any such unbundled model to succeed, we must first create an environment of clarity, trust and shared purpose. The potential though is boundless – as higher education institutions begin to focus on tuning the curricula and experiential opportunities they deliver to support learning and performance for adult learners.

Now that’s a model we can all get behind.


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