Facing a changing economy, more working adults are returning to school to complete their college degree. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2015 there were 8.1 million students 25 years of age and older attending university or college in the US.
Mature students face many social and economic pressures. In addition to being older than the average co-ed entering a US post-secondary institution, they may hold down a full-time job, have families to support and bills to pay.
Once employed, it becomes increasingly difficult for an adult to step out of the workforce and return to school. To address the unique challenges facing today’s mature students, Riverland Community College, a member of the Minnesota State system is piloting FlexPace, a short, fast-paced online learning program based on competency-based learning principles that allows adults to rapidly earn their business degree while still balancing the demands of work, life, and school. To enable FlexPace, Riverland Community College uses the Brightspace learning management system (LMS) to enable the highly-personalized learning that characterizes the program.
“There were people out there who felt trapped. They felt they never had the potential to go back to school,” says Deb McManimon, Business Faculty at Riverland Community College. “To get rid of the overwhelmingness, we’re taking our business program piece-by-piece and breaking it down to prove to mature students that progress can be made quickly,” adds McManimon.
“One of our missions at the college is to serve the community,” says J.C. Turner, Director of Instructional Technology and Intellectual Property at Riverland Community College. “Our FlexPace program addresses an employer’s need to advance their employee’s education while addressing the difficulty of replacing them for the period of time if they’re in school.”
Changing Students, Changing Education
“The new student today is much more diverse than they were. They come from diverse backgrounds, ages, and experiences. We need to think about the best way to serve each student while making sure they meet the standards of each credential. The program’s flexibility and alternate pathways make this possible,” says McManimon. “We are creating not only alternative pathways to allow a student to look at the subject matter in a different way, but also to say ‘look, I’ve been working in this industry for ten years. I know this stuff already.’”
Personalized Learning Increases Success
Everybody’s story is different, but for most adult students, the issue often boils down to not being able to take the time to complete a full-time program while juggling other life obligations such as family and a full-time job.
“We had a student come to us who was taking one class at a time because that’s all she could fit into her schedule. At the rate she was going, it would’ve taken her 10 years to complete a two-year degree,” says Turner. “By utilizing the tools within Brightspace we were able to create short, six-week courses that can be taken one at a time. It allows a student to complete a full business associates degree, that would be a two-year course as a full-time student, in two years and nine months.”
One of the keys to success for the FlexPace program is that learning can be personalized to accommodate every student’s pace. Incorporating mastery-based elements, Riverland has tapped into capabilities in the Brightspace platform such as release conditions and intelligent agents to massage existing business courses into a delivery format that is well suited to working adults. Using the platform’s Competencies tool, student activities are tied to specific competencies. Students must demonstrate “mastery” of the material before moving on. Alternate pathways allow students to spend more time on what they don’t understand and skip over what they already know. “To me, ‘reach every learner’ is all about that adaptation, that customization. Everybody is unique,” says Turner. “If you give students enough time, anyone can achieve mastery. With tools such as Brightspace, we are finally able to more easily offer that kind of customization.”
In addition to the platform’s conditional release and intelligent agent capabilities, McManimon relies on checklists and the Grade book tool to manage her courses. “Brightspace gives me lots of capability to flexibly deliver things to students. Not everybody wants to look at the material in the same way. We do things in units and the Grade book lets students know when they have completed something by releasing the next level of content. It has made my job as an instructor much more manageable.”
Helping Employers and their Employees
“By 2020, 74% of the jobs are going to require some form of post-secondary education, and only 44% of the workers have that. There’s this huge skill gap because you’re working full-time, you can’t get away to school, you’re just stuck. By the same token, the employers are stuck, too, because they’re not able to get the personnel they need to fill those jobs,” says Turner.
The FlexPace program caters to working adults. Students seeking to enroll have the same entrance and admission requirements as any full-time student, but also require employer verification. “These fully-employed students are bringing a richness to the class that I haven’t seen in the past,” says McManimon.
She relates a recent conversation with an employer. “They were telling me a story about one of our students who came back to work after taking one of our classes and said, ‘give me a problem that you are working on as a manager and let me take a look at it. I’d like to come up with a solution to that problem.’ The employer was blown away.” McManimon notes, “This wasn’t an assignment. The student wanted to take what she was learning theoretically and apply it in the workforce. She saw the opportunity to immediately use the information she was learning. It’s been really fun to watch that.”
The FlexPace program is allowing mature students to realize their education goals and balance life’s responsibilities. Says McManimon, “We have a gentleman who is an entrepreneur. He has his own business. He often has to step out of class because he’s managing a huge project. This program allows him the flexibility to do that. In a normal class that would not be possible. He told me he would never have been able to return to school without FlexPace.”
Riverland Community College has been a Brightspace user since 2004. The school’s familiarity and trust in the platform was instrumental in getting the FlexPace pilot off the ground. “We’ve been on the Brightspace platform for a long time now. We’ve become familiar with the tools, and have been able to incorporate them into FlexPace and really leverage the platform. Brightspace has helped us become successful with this program. FlexPace has attracted a lot of interest and it has contributed to our enrollment. The college’s growth is really a win-win for everyone,” says Turner.
McManimon, who also teaches the traditional, semester-long courses along with FlexPace classes can readily see the difference between the two. “Each course contains the same material and activities. It’s interesting to see how each of these groups of people are going through the same material at different levels of achievement. It makes me wonder about how my traditional classes would go if I provided the same amount of flexibility with due dates and pace.” She adds, “With FlexPace, we have an 85% retention rate and 90-95% of my students are completing the program within the range that I tell them.”
At the outset of the pilot, Riverland Community College set a goal to realize a 50% increase in the number of students in the Business Certificate Program. Nearing the end of the pilot, Riverland has experienced a 115% increase in the number of students in the program. It has also realized a substantial increase in the competencies achieved.
Thanks to a second funding grant, Riverland is now adapting the FlexPace program to additional courses, including English, speech, and economics. The college is also working with other universities within the Minnesota State System who are interested in adapting their programs to a more mastery-based delivery format.
Brightspace has allowed Riverland Community College and instructors such as McManimon to reach a new population of students in innovative and exciting ways. “Reaching every learner means serving anybody who wants to go to school, or anybody who wants to learn,” says McManimon. “It’s our responsibility in education to make sure that happens. If there’s a tool that can help us achieve that goal, then we should be using it.”
 Results courtesy of Riverland Community College
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