A President's Reflections

The Messy Human Heart of Learning

Posted on July 15, 2012

SNHU’s Innovation Lab is working on its Pathways Project, a self-paced,competency-based,two-year (just seeing how many hyphenated words I can pack in here) degree program.  Think of it as taking the Western Governor’s University (WGU) model and pushing it further out.  Pathways is also similar to other self-paced offerings from Excelsior, StraighterLine, and New Charter University.  It just won a $1m EDUCAUSE Next Generation Learning Challenge grant and we have assembled a terrific team to lead its development.  What it seeks to do is extremely difficult: to find new ways to engage and support students in the very human dimensions of learning.

Online self-paced programs drive enormous cost out of the learning equation and offer very low cost alternatives to more traditionally delivered degree programs.  A large part of what they remove is human interaction and support, putting enormous emphasis on the self in the term “self-paced.”    Sure, many of the models offer access to advisors or faculty experts or tutorial support, but the individual student is essentially alone and they appear to struggle.  None of the self-paced programs I know manage to hold onto and graduate very many of their students. 

MOOCs are all the rage now and the prospect of hundreds of thousands of global learners having free access to very high quality online courses may be the purest expression of the self-paced learning promise.  Because most of these courses are higher level and difficult — “Cryptography and Natural Language Processing” or “Probabilistic Graphical Models” or “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” — there will be very smart, highly motivated students who  successfully complete them.   There may be thousands of bright learners who could not get into or afford Stanford or MIT, but who can now show that they can do Stanford and MIT level of work.   But the majority of adult learners won’t do those courses and there is no evidence that MOOCs can work for the unconfident adult learners that most online programs now serve and need to serve (given the evolving nature of work, the skills gap, and the millions of Americans with some or no college credits and no degree).  

Most self-paced learning programs are all about delivering the learning content: mapping out the learning outcomes and/or competencies, curating the content, often taping the lectures, mapping out the assessments, and making sure that the courses are of high quality.  Their developers try to ensure that programs align with employer needs and the latest thinking in a given field.  They increasingly try to use free or low cost content to keep costs down.  Important and even vital work. 

Yet almost all the self-paced delivery models ignore or poorly address the role of human interaction in learning.  Largely because that’s the costly part and they try to drive out costs.  However, until we find ways to address the human components of the learning equation, for all their messiness, the retention and completion rates for self-paced programs will remain poor.

Why?  Because the issue has never really been so much about access to high quality content.  The breakthrough with self-paced programs has actually been about institutional willingness to essentially say: “We will curate the learning on the front end and will access and certify the learning that took place on the back end and we will no longer care how you get to the point of demonstrated mastery.   Institutions have always  provided those services to students and high quality content has been long availble, but colleges and universities insisted on owning the delivery platform and experience (classrooms, faculty, and all else that goes into the educational experience as traditionally defined).  Now, by decoupling and surrendering the teaching and learning experience and telling students “you own it” they can dramatically lower cost. 

Therein lies the source of the poor completion rates for self-paced programs.  There is less attention to the human dimension and that largely ignores both the messiness and the magic at the heart of learning.  They take many forms:

Unconfident learners.  Pathways, like many self-paced programs, attempts to serve adult learners.  A great number of those learners are smart enough, hard working enough, and deserving.  Yet, because they have been long out of the classroom or had mixed success in high school or some college courses and they are not familiar with the way we organize our world (including myriad acronymns and processes and organizational pathways) they are unsure of their ability to succeed and less sure they belong.  They are not sure they should belong.

Unready learners.  The unconfident learner is often also unready.  Many adult learners come with either poor or very rusty academic skills and some number will also need help with time management and access to resources that can help.  They are not sure they can belong and succeed.

Unsupported learners.  So many of our online adult learners are juggling jobs, families, and other duties and trying to squeeze in their studies.  Demanding bosses, rigid work schedules, long commutes, and hungry children don’t yield to the need to read a hundred pages and write a five-page paper by tomorrow morning.  Many of our students are just holding it all together and one round of flu running through a household can quickly translate into missed assignments, a failing grade, and giving up.  They are not sure they will be able to belong and complete.

Often, our students are all three: unconfident, unready, and unsupported.  Again, it is not at all that they are not capable or in need.  Almost all know with a certainty that they “need the paper” and many love their courses when afforded enough breathing space to actually reflect on and appreciate what they are learning. 

The best curated content and materials,  finely crafted the outcomes and competencies,  authentic and accurate assessments all fail to address the essential hurdles just outlined. 

If self-paced programs too much ignores those challenges, they also too much ignore what traditional higher education superbly provides in its best moments.  Amazing teachers and staff.  Self-paced programs, leaning on theories of disaggregation, redefine faculty roles and focus on curation and as-needed expertise.  Yet they lose what I have seen from the very best faculty members:

  • A passion for the subject that lights up the room and upon which students feed.  Students will sign up for courses in which they have little interest and no knowledge for these kind of faculty because their passion animates the material, energizes the students, and carries them along on that rare wave of intellectual and emotional excitement.
  • An authentic respect for and delight in students.  These are the faculty members that care too much to lower standards, believe in students so they start to believe in themselves, and seek out the extra time with them (time they often need to master what is difficult). Students have a remarkable antennae for teachers who do not possess these fundamental qualities.  Any faculty member can have this relationship with their star students; the remarkable ones have it with their most difficult students.
  • An ability to understand the particular student struggle before them and how to best intervene in those “teaching moments.”  Sometimes that means untangling a misperception, supplying a missing concept, finding a better example, or maybe a pat on the back or a little cajoling. 

None of what I’ve described has to do with level of degree, academic pedigree, or publishing record.  It is the rare faculty member who possesses all the just listed qualities, but we all have had them and most of us would number them among the most influential people in our lives.  All of them engage with students in a way that says “you matter to me” and in that sense they provide the key missing response to the needs of our adult learners.  It is because we mattered so much to them that they matter so much to us even decades later.

We should also not ignore the power of affinity groups and the importance of students to students.  Traditional campuses offer an eco-system that when it works instills a sense of belonging, of values, of expectation, and of support.  Students respond to other students in countless ways that include study groups, praising or grumbling about a professor or class, socializing, raising or lowering the intellectual bar, and more.  We have long known that students often learn best from one another.  Every experienced faculty member knows that even a few excellent students in a class tends to improve the performance of most others.

Grappling with how to provide the human element is the central challenge of the next generation learning models and we are only now getting to it.  Everything else has been relatively easy – – this is the hard part because human nature and human interaction are hard to quantify, measure, manage, and understand.  If the faculty and staff roles we associate with traditional delivery models are not available to us in self-paced models because of their unsustainable cost, we need to think hard about how we support the adult learner’s very human challenges and replace the very human responses that faculty, staff, and learning communities often provide.

With Pathways, we are thinking about how we can leverage the social capital already present in students’ lives: employers, community organizations, neighbors and friends and family.  We are looking at social networking platforms for building affinity groups and access to support.  OpenStudy, for example, offers a powerful learning support network of over 100,000 users and a struggling student can get almost immediate help with a problem assignment, but we are also interested in the ways that OpenStudy users build relationships with others outside of the immediate learning problem.  We have seen the importance of the advisor relationship in our traditional online program (funny to think about online as “traditional” at this point, but it is), where they really are the linchpin of our strong retention rates. If Pathways can define new suport models it will make an enormous contribution to next generation learning efforts.

We have so much more work to do in this area, but if Pathways and other self-paced programs are to be successful they have to get back into the largely unmapped and often misunderstood (and romanticized) terrain of the human heart and mind where the uncomfortable drivers of motivation, pride, resiliency, joy, passion, fear, and mattering often spell the difference between success and failure for students.

One thought on “The Messy Human Heart of Learning

  1. Dr. Ryan Carstens says:

    We are working with a team of faculty at Salt Lake Community College to articulate a framework for course redesign along the lines that you discuss. Could we arrange to visit with you by phone? Or bring you out to Utah to visit? Or, we could entertain the idea of coming to visit your site and speak with the faculty and staff who are engaged in developing the Pathways Project. We would appreciate hearing more about lessons learned, etc.

    — Ryan Carstens
    Associate Provost
    Salt Lake Community College

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