Scaling up: How to serve a growing population of adult learners

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Working adults are flocking to college in record numbers, and for a variety of reasons. Some seek credits and degrees, while others do not. Many are eager to advance in their careers, but a significant portion want to switch vocations. Though their goals are diverse, many of these learners have one thing in common: They enter higher education through continuing studies programs such as those at UW-Madison.

Jeffrey S. Russell
Jeffrey S. Russell: ‘People are looking for a way to engage and have meaningful learning experiences.’

Jeffrey S. Russell, UW-Madison’s dean of Continuing Studies and vice provost for Lifelong Learning, says it’s critical to scale up these programs in ways that best serve adult learners. He dissected the issue in a recent interview with the EvoLLLution (Evo).

Understanding the marketplace

Delivering a course to more learners is no easy task, especially when their needs change often. Doing so while maintaining or boosting the course’s quality is even harder. But Russell says continuing education programs can succeed in addressing these issues. The answer involves a combination of innovation, collaboration, savvy technology use, and more sophisticated needs assessments.

“We clearly have a culture of being needs-based and learner-centered, but I think that’s becoming even more nuanced around the infrastructure and the tools that you need around tracking and understanding the [higher education] marketplace,” he told Evo. “The rate of change is so fast that it’s critical to have systems and technologies in place…that provide more feedback and engagement to the learner.”

Russell identifies learning management systems (LMS) and marketing automation software as two key tools in the scaling process. In addition to illuminating the ways students expect to experience a learning opportunity’s benefits, these tools can provide insights on how a course, program, or institution differentiates itself from competitors.

“You have to find the market opportunity and the need, then ask what you’re going to focus on,” Russell said in the interview, stressing the importance of making data-driven programming decisions. “There has to be more clarity and focus around areas that you’re going to pick to actually scale.”

That said, gathering data takes time. Making sense of it and making decisions based on may take even longer. Russell is very familiar with this struggle, but he thinks colleges and universities can improve in this area.

“Given the cycle time that it takes for us to develop some of our courses and then deliver them and then get feedback on them, we’re not as nimble as we could be,” he explained.

Determining learner needs and responding effectively

Continuing education programs might become more nimble with help from other campus programs and non-campus partners such as companies, professional organizations, and industry groups. Russell says partners can be beneficial when identifying learner needs in a particular discipline or industry.

Maintaining a learner-centered approach also benefits the needs-assessment process. Continuing education programs must listen carefully to their learners to solve problems, identify emerging needs, and verify which needs recur. According to Russell, one recurring need involves the search for fulfillment.

“People are looking for a way to engage and have meaningful learning experiences,” he told Evo.

Of course, many factors contribute to the overall impact of a learning experience. Scaling up broadens a course’s reach, helping it make a mark on a greater number of students. But the quality of the course itself—from the content and how it’s delivered to the instructor’s teaching style to the level of personalization—also plays a major role. Russell acknowledges how tricky balancing these considerations can be.

“We [want to] give more students the opportunity for learning, while on the flip side retain the elements that are intimate, that are really important and unique and fulfilling to the student,” he said.