Flexing the future of higher ed: Embracing flexible learning pathways for access, quality and equity

Many working students are in employment situations that are already self-paced or remote, so forcing an on-campus experience is no longer manageable. The question is, how do you manage flexibility without undermining quality?
Dana Godek & Van Williams
Dana Godek & Van Williamshttps://www.palmbeachstate.edu/
Dana Godek is the CEO and Managing Partner at Edu Solve. Dr. Van P. Williams is the Provost and Dean of Student Services for Palm Beach State Boca Raton Campus, the third largest of five campuses serving Palm Beach County, Fla.

There is nothing novel about the current approaches to improving access, quality and equity in higher education. However, fresh approaches to these aims may have a new, unexpected ally: flexible learning pathways. 

Flexin’ flexibility

Post-pandemic users are in a sustained trend towards online and blended learning, and there’s an emerging need to balance formal and informal learning approaches. During the pandemic, students in high school, as well as other digital natives, honed their abilities to respond to technical content delivery while balancing the need to work and sustain their daily lives through a personalized schedule. Strengthened learning pathways with clear progressions allow for a wide range of learning programs that cater to individual talents, interests, and market relevance in creative ways. Yet, this developing flexibility is underdeveloped in many community colleges where technical and in-person training is staunchly preserved. 

The concept of learning pathways, which outlines the sequential and comparative progression of learning across different levels and types, is fundamental to achieving these objectives. Traditional education systems that are characterized by limited options and closed progression routes are being reevaluated through initiatives like UNESCO’s “Beyond Limits: New Ways to Reinvent Higher Education.” This new global roadmap, alongside the efforts of the Digital Transformation Collaborative, aims to expand educational opportunities for youth and adults by connecting various levels and types of learning, thereby contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

The key is to keep flexibility and self-paced learning front and center. Many working students are in employment situations that are already self-paced or remote, so forcing an on-campus experience is no longer manageable. The question is, how do you manage flexibility without undermining quality?

More from UB: Adapt or die: 3 ways to transform your institution in a changing landscape

Qualifying quality

The roadmap is a rallying cry for shorter courses and micro-credentials. This is a smart queue from private credentialing providers who have grown in the thousands over the last five years. Higher education’s best differentiator is delivering on the promise of quality for students. Smaller universities and community colleges are tapping into this power by ensuring that credible and high-performing instructors are teaching the best courses that are tightly aligned to industry. Competitive strategies include extension workshops that push into a local employer’s training space and then convert employees into college-going, nontraditional students. These students are going to demand even more flexibility. 

As affirmed by a 2022 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation commissioned study aimed at a better understanding of what is driving declines in enrollment in two- and four-year colleges, the no. 1 concern of students is cost, but a close second is simply that they don’t like going to school. This is a nuanced difference between learning from school and going to school. Students also feel a disconnect with social and emotional supports, to include the agency to make their own pathway decisions. These decisions should be structured across a continuum of opportunities that are student-centered and can support flexibility.

Expanding access opportunities improves the capacity of higher education systems to accommodate an increasing student population and address the unique challenges faced by disadvantaged students. Possessing a general qualification from upper secondary school and occasionally passing an additional exam continues to be the conventional pathway into higher education. Policies aimed at facilitating diverse entry into higher education encompass a variety of strategies, from preparatory courses to Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) and open admission routes. These flexible entry methods also integrate secondary technical and vocational education and training (TVET) with higher education programs.

Equity means responsive

Community colleges remain hyper-local in their pathway design and need to be more consistent with the needs and preferences of the students they serve. Part of this phenomenon is that community colleges are built on the tradition that they are defined by the local community as much as they represent a community. But if the students’ new community is genuinely a global community, how do these institutions present them with viable options for this shift?

Several universities and colleges are intentionally localizing the world’s stage.

Miami Dade College facilitates flexible learning pathways and also accommodates global learners both to and from the States. International students get direct assistance with visas, housing, and employment opportunities. Domestic students can enter learning cohorts with guided experiential learning in other countries. Marcus Ortega, who leads enrollment management at the College, talks about a shift in learning by stating, “We are in the midst of a large-scale change in how education is administered. Suppose we expect the students’ relationship with schools and their love of learning to survive. In that case, we need to understand what students need seriously, are willing to accept and tolerate, and what it takes to recreate community within the learning environment.” The K12 crisis in absenteeism is on its way to higher ed. Responsive institutions will be able to navigate the effects of stop-out students and improve first-year experiences as students transition.

Palm Beach State College offers its Guided Pathways Model, which is a blended, substantially structured methodology that affords students with a concise course prescription that enhances matriculation plans and positions students for improved time to degree completion, as well as the emerging global economy that awaits them in the future. The pathways model is further enhanced by integrating support services to remove other impediments that often prevent student access to each career pathway.  

The massification of higher education necessitates diversifying learning programs to ensure universal access while meeting the specific needs of learners and the labor market. Technological advancements have played a crucial role in enhancing access and diversifying delivery modalities, promoting flexibility and personalization in learning. 

According to Dr. Nika Coleman-Ferrell, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Palm Beach State College, “As leaders in higher education, we are called to be stewards of academic excellence; therefore, we must recognize the evolving landscape of higher education.   At Palm Beach State College(PBSC), we are committed to embracing and leveraging all technologies to broaden educational access for all students. This evolution demands our attention to technology’s transformative power, thus perpetuating a proverbial pivot. We must create opportunities for students to advance their credentials by utilizing various instructional platforms and providing a modality-diverse schedule tailored to learning experiences. We aim to provide access and enrich learning experiences while cultivating career pathways aligned with student interests and industry demands. This student-driven model allows us to meet the unique needs of our learners while responding to the dynamic labor market. Through innovative initiatives, we aim to ensure every student thrives and excels in their educational journey.”

The quest to enhance access, quality and equity in higher education is an ongoing journey that is witnessing a transformative phase through adopting flexible learning pathways. With the sustained shift towards online and blended learning models in the post-pandemic world, the education landscape is ripe for innovation that can accommodate formal and informal learning methodologies. This evolution is especially pertinent for students who have come of age during the pandemic by adapting to digital modes of education while managing work and personal commitments. Enhancing learning pathways, incorporating personalized schedules, and catering to individual strengths, interests, and market needs present higher education institutions with a promising frontier. However, implementing such flexibility remains challenging in community colleges where traditional, in-person training models prevail.


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