The University of Akron | Customer Success | D2L Europe
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The University of Akron

Making high education affordable to all with new pilot program


Affordability means education for more people

The average cost of a private, non-profit four-year university degree is $31,231 across the U.S., while the cost for a public four-year school hovers around $10,000 per year, according to the College Board. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York puts student debt at more than $1.3 trillion, meaning it has reached a crisis level. University can be a prohibitively expensive proposition for some people. Many lower-income students often find themselves working part- or full-time in order to raise sufficient funds, or they face other barriers to entry, such as lengthy commute times because they have to live at home. This demands flexibility of their schedules, which offline courses are often unable to offer. In all, this is creating a system that is inaccessible to many who have a desire to learn, says Dr. Jodi Henderson-Ross, Assistant Professor of instruction at the University of Akron. While online learning has often been hailed as a solution to some of these challenges, there remains a stigma associated with the space. “Rightly or wrongly, there’s an assumption that online learning isn’t as academically rigorous,” she says. Against this backdrop, the University of Akron wanted to change that.

At a glance

Client: The University of Akron

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The Story

  • One class to rule them all
  • Online learning produces results

One class to rule them all

Last year, the university undertook a pilot initiative to make some of its classes less expensive and more accessible across income levels and lifestyle, turning to Brightspace to do so.

To create a single master class for the Introduction to Sociology general education course that could be adopted by multiple faculty, Dr. Henderson-Ross, alongside senior instructional designer Teresa Potter, created a template organized around weekly topics. All relevant publisher material and custom content was made available through Brightspace (which helped save students from having to purchase access to expensive publisher platforms) in a beautifully designed user interface. The page is more than just a list of links, she says: it’s a visually appealing way to learn.

It can be copied into multiple sections offering up an immense amount of time and resource savings, she says, allowing the university to provide it at a fraction of the cost of a normal class. While there was a fair bit of upfront work to get the course ready (Dr. Henderson-Ross and Potter worked with third-party experts and reviewers to create the course) now it’s a simple matter of tweaking it year-over-year, she says, which has hugely freed up her (and her fellow instructor’s) time.

But, more importantly, the tools built into the platform mean she’s able to create an academically rigorous class that supports student success without compromising academic integrity.

To start off the year, she has students take a syllabus quiz (thus ensuring they actually understand what’s expected of them), and they aren’t able to access any of the other course materials until they’ve achieved at least an 80%.

“It sets the tone right up front,” she says. “It also gives students an early opportunity to orient themselves with the basic features of the course and practice taking a quiz.”

Then, quizzes pepper the class ensuring students keep up with their readings, serving as the backbone of the course. All subsequent content is locked until they’ve taken the quiz, which has been integral to keeping students on track, she says. (Even when a quiz is past the point of counting towards grades, the content remains locked until a student takes it, which forces them to read the material and not simply skip ahead.)

“It also means that students can’t just log in late the night before something is due and breeze through an entire module,” she says.

"I was a standard chalk-and-talker, so the transition to thinking about teaching online seemed like it was going to be horrible. But I’m a convert."

Dr. Jodi Henderson-Ross, Assistant Professor of instruction at the University of Akron

Online learning produces results

Grading itself has been made easier through Brightspace, she adds. The course has more than 50 items to grade, and while this might seem time-consuming, faculty were able to use the linking function in Brightspace to grade discussions, assignments, quizzes and ePortfolio submissions, streamlining an otherwise manual process. For example, for group projects, Dr. Henderson-Ross and her colleagues are able to sort grade submissions by group, saving her the headache of having to find each group member’s name individually. “It makes my life infinitely easier.”

In Dr. Henderson-Ross’ first class this past fall, 96% of the 151 students completed the course, with an average C grade (comparable to the offline classes). The course also received a certification from Quality Matters for its standard for excellence (which measures the effectiveness of online and blended courses), so she’s satisfied that the class maintained its academic rigour.

The model created through the design and development of the master class for Introduction to Sociology was replicated across other general education courses. Brightspace was key to facilitating a sustainable platform for departments across campus to work together with instructional designers to create quality courses that could be copied into multiple sections, saving instructors time and money when creating their course. The cost savings was passed along to students, creating a less expensive option.

“I’m not a digital native,” Dr. Henderson-Ross says. “I was a standard chalk-and-talker, so the transition to thinking about teaching online seemed like it was going to be horrible. But I’m a convert.”
 

Brightspace Excellence Award winner Dr. Jodi Henderson-Ross with D2L CEO John Baker
Brightspace Excellence Award winner Dr. Jodi Henderson-Ross with D2L CEO John Baker

 

The University of Akron was a Brightspace Excellence Award Winner for 2016.

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Fueling up:

Upskilling to grow careers

Name: Zaria
Age: 27

Policy prescriptions: Invest in a Learning-Integrated Life; Transform the learning of today with new partnerships; Accelerate the shift to skills-based learning and hiring

Zaria has five years of work experience and is ready to change jobs and enter a field that has high growth potential in her region. The national government has been investing in collecting better skills-based labour market information for years and has developed a public platform to offer individuals specialized tools to assess their skills against current market needs, and to locate employers that are currently hiring.

On the employer side, the human resources team is closely examining a recent internal skills audit done at their organization and determines that the organization needs additional digital marketing specialists. They initiate a search for individuals with the skills they will soon need and spot a strong candidate in Zaria who requires only light training on regulatory issues regarding the sale of electric vehicles, along with some formal skills development courses on social media marketing strategy. After a successful interview, Zaria is offered the job.

Upon joining, Zaria will receive an educational benefits stipend from the company, and access to a company-provided platform of curated programs for skills building from approved providers. Upon completion of a set of courses, Zaria will receive a credential from a company approved program verifying her technical knowledge and marking the end of her probationary period at the company. To ensure she continues to build her skills, she will move into a formal mentor program with one of her colleagues to receive continual peer-to-peer feedback on her demonstration of skills and knowledge. information

This affordable and accessible learning through employer-funded training has enabled Zaria to begin working while also upskilling to ensure her long-term success in the company and growing industry. The employer is investing in its employees, and company leaders are thinking further into the future about the skills the company needs, and the types of job candidates who will succeed. This match, based on skills potential, was made possible because of government investment in high-quality labour market information and a national platform that matches job candidates with career opportunities based on the candidates’ skills and the identified skill needs of a given job.

Taking the road less travelled:

A networked postsecondary education

Name: Sam
Age: 18

Policy prescriptions: Transform the learning of today with new partnerships

Sam is a prospective postsecondary student who has always been interested in pursuing a global and interdisciplinary education. Sam’s siblings have all instilled in her the importance of studying abroad, having spoken fondly of their academic exchange semesters, field research trips, and intensive language immersion programs. She is inspired, but unsure whether this pathway will be available if she chooses not to complete a four-year degree at one institution.

Sam is interested in understanding how emerging technologies can be used to modernize and improve government services—an area in need of talent not only in her home country of Canada but also abroad. She could take on a general political science, public administration, engineering, or computer science degree at the university close to her home, but none of those degrees feels like the right fit to build the skills she needs to pursue this career interest.

While researching options, Sam learns of a new degree completion pathway that allows students to take courses from a network of universities, colleges, and polytechnic institutions throughout Canada and stack them for skills-based  credentials that are recognized by major Canadian employers. A set of four of these credentials grants an individual a degree-equivalent endorsed by each institution. Sam identifies the skills and knowledge she wants to work towards and charts out four credential pathways:

  1. Service delivery design
  2. Change management
  3. Applications of emerging technologies (e.g., artificial intelligence)
  4. Machinery of government

With this customized learning pathway, Sam has full flexibility to decide how she wants to structure her courses, the institutions within the network she will study at, and the format and model of courses she prefers—whether live in-class instruction or online courses.

Cost flexibility is built in as well—students pay a standard fee based on the number of competencies they intend to learn rather than the normal standard of ‘credit hours’. The province in which Sam lives has endorsed this networked model of  postsecondary education and adjusted its financial assistance program to better support students. Grants and other non-repayable assistance take into consideration the number of courses the student is taking across all institutions when assessing financial need. Previously, Sam would have been required to be a full-time student at every institution to receive support.

Sam also has the option of starting with foundational courses or applying for Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) information so her existing knowledge and skills can be tested and she can move on to more advanced topics.

Sam completes her first three credentials in three years and uses her certifications to apply for a one-year work-integrated learning experience with the federal government in Germany where she can learn first-hand about the applications of artificial intelligence in government. When she returns home, she applies for PLAR to certify her learning on the machinery of government and is granted a degree acknowledging her four-part customized education.

The collaboration between universities, polytechnics, and colleges to create a networked approach to degree completion, and its endorsement by the provincial government, allowed Sam to graduate as an alumnus of multiple postsecondary education institutions. Her exposure to different thought spaces and networks was highly valuable for ensuring she was engaged throughout her education and set up for post-graduation success. In the rapidly evolving field she has chosen, she understands how important it is to continuously upskill, and is prepared to return to formal education for more stackable credentials as she continues throughout her career.

Route guidance:

Personalized professional development

Name: ZheYuan
Age: 33

Policy prescriptions: Prepare teachers for their own lifelong learning journeys; Accelerate the shift to skills-based learning and hiring

ZheYuan is about to join Marama’s school as a new secondary school teacher. He completed his professional teacher education a decade ago, and teaching looks a bit different today than it did when he was studying. With the incorporation of learning technologies in the classroom, and expectations of teachers delivering competency-based education information, he needs personalized professional development to feel comfortable and supported in this new opportunity.

The school district has been on its own learning journey since shifting to a competency-based education model, and has had some growing pains. Over time, the district has come to recognize that success depends on school administrators working closely with teachers to co-create systems of instruction, and pathways to professional development. The district has its own online learning management system (LMS) for teacher professional development, with a catalogue of content covering a range of subjects including:

  • Strategies for student-centred instruction
  • Design thinking—how to prototype and iterate on solutions to test new approaches
  • Online content—using learning management systems to advance competency-based education
  • Data analysis—interpreting student progress

ZheYuan is excited that he can take on professional learning to suit his needs on his own schedule. He recalls an earlier time when he had to spend nine hours a month in-person taking the same professional development courses as his peers who were teaching very different subjects and had varied skill levels and pedagogical needs than him, which was less than effective.

ZheYuan can also take advantage of his teacher community in the LMS, connecting both in asynchronous chats and in live discussions with other teachers and experts from across his region to ask questions and share his experiences. He sees some upcoming dialogues hosted by his school district to share learnings and signs up for those sessions, knowing he will get a valuable peer perspective from other teachers. ZheYuan is thankful that his school leaders recognize and value professional learning and provide the supports and the time needed for improvement.

D2L Whitepaper Contributors

Lead Authors:
Malika Asthana, Manager, Strategy and Public Affairs
Joe Pickerill, Senior Director, Strategy and Public Affairs, International

Contributors:
Jeremy Auger, Chief Strategy Officer
Mark Schneiderman, Senior Director, Future of Teaching and Learning
Brendan Desetti, Senior Director, Strategy and Public Affairs, United States
Mike Semansky, Senior Director, Strategy and Public Affairs, Canada
Nia Brown, Senior Manager, Strategy and Public Affairs

In the driver’s seat:

Owning the personalized learning journey

Name: Marama
Age: 14

Policy prescriptions: Prepare teachers for their own lifelong learning journeys; Accelerate the shift to skills-based learning and hiring

Marama is enrolled in a school with a competency-based education model information. Students are responsible for owning the personalization of their learning pathways, making choices alongside their teachers in how and when they learn.iii Teachers play a central role in guiding and validating all learning, regardless of where it takes place—offering formative assessments to evaluate a student’s mastery of skills and knowledge. Teachers use data from these assessments, gathered through an online learning management system (LMS), to differentiate instruction and provide targeted supports so that all students progress toward graduation. As a student diagnosed with a learning disability, Marama is supported in her education by this personalized learning pathway.

All students complete an assessment in ninth grade to identify their natural strengths as a learner. Their teachers use the results as inputs to design tailormade educational pathways with learning materials and activities that suit the individual students’ learning needs. In Marama’s case, this includes:

  1. Supplementing lecture-based teaching with structured but independent reading
  2. Shadowing professionals who work on the concepts she is learning about
  3. Taking the stories and lessons she’s learned and sharing it back with classmates by designing a creative and interactive presentation

Over the course of the school year, Marama spends a third of her time in live lectures (sometimes online) with her teacher alongside other classmates—but the rest of her time is spent learning in the ways that suit her best. She can log into her online LMS from her mobile device to access her school resources and complete on her own schedule before the assigned deadline. When Marama finds a concept that interests her, she can ask her teachers and counsellor for support in finding a working professional to speak to, or work alongside for a couple weeks, from the network her school has curated over time. And when she has learned something, she is encouraged to reinforce her learning by applying her skills and developing content to share back with her classmates.

Marama’s personalized learning journey empowers her to own her education by learning in ways that are effective for her, with the support that allows her to be successful. Her teachers have high-quality data about student strengths and performance they can share with her parents to show them how she is mastering specific skills, and where she may need extra support. Her school experience empowers her to embrace her subject interests very early on, and she advances to deeper topics quickly as she submits evidence of learning that demonstrates her proficiency. She graduates having cultivated a mindset for self-directed learning early in her education.