Students’ concerns about the return on investment in their education, coupled with a demand across industries for graduates with more practical skills, are driving changes in the ways universities offer education, according to a report from the Brookings Institution.
According to the report, both students and employers feel higher education institutions are not giving students the skills they need to be desirable employees in the modern workforce.
These sentiments are reflected in dropping student application rates at major institutions. Freshman applications to the University of California system in 2019 dipped for the first time in 15 years. Other major institutions, like Michigan State University, are also seeing declines.
In response, universities are evolving their programs to allow for more online courses and competency-based learning.
Universities Offer Competency-Based Learning to Improve Skills Gap
Universities are adopting competency-based learning curricula, focusing specifically on what students will need to be effective members of the workforce.
These demand-driven programs are a form of personalized learning that build concrete skills, augmenting current curricula that focus on abstract academic concepts.
Over 600 universities planned to adopt competency-based learning degree programs in 2018, up from 50 in 2014 according to Wiley Education Services.
At Purdue University, administrators launched a competency-based, online class within the transdisciplinary studies in technology program. Using on-campus video conferencing and recording tools, professors host and record online lectures that students can access easily from any location.
The goal is for participants in competency-based courses to acquire practical knowledge that will be directly applicable to their professions.
Colleges Expand Online Programs Independently and with Partners
Massive open online course companies have given way to a new breed of digital class providers: online program management organizations. These businesses provide a hub for students to take online courses developed by universities and major corporate partners seeking to help students develop in-demand skills at low cost.
Recently, Google and IBM announced new online data science programs that will be delivered through OPMs. Students can use these resources directly, or professors can incorporate them into face-to-face classes.
“These efforts will not only fuel a new generation of data scientist, but provide a meaningful credential to employers for searching and hiring them,” write Martin Fleming, chief analytics officer and chief economist at IBM, and Seth Dobrin, vice president and chief analytics officer for the company.
For institutions, OPMs can be a cost-effective way to expand online offerings without making significant investments. At the same time, schools must ensure that the provided curricula align with the needs of their particular student populations.
In some cases, that can be a challenge. EDUCAUSE member and CEO of iDesign Paxton Riter writes in a blog post that universities may risk prioritizing the marketing demands of OPMs over the needs of students if they rely too heavily on the content that is provided to them.
“The variability among higher education priorities and approaches often creates friction in an OPM market where uniformity and consistency drive profitability,” Riter writes.
A desire for more flexibility is one reason that institutions may elect to expand their own online programs. For guidance, the Online Learning Consortium has developed a checklist for universities that want to evaluate the quality of their support for online students.
Ultimately, institutions may find that they need to offer a variety of delivery channels to accommodate the goals and needs of diverse student populations.
“We are too early in the online learning story to know which models will work best,” writes Joshua Kim, director of digital learning initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning. “The important thing is that any online program aligns with a mission. How those programs are launched, be they fully internal or with a partner, is ultimately less important.”