How Technology Investments Can Better Engage Adult Learners

At Finger Lakes Community College in Canandaigua, New York, culinary instructor Patrick Rae is conducting a lecture on the science of a cooking technique.

He’s using an instructional method called HyFlex. Some students are in the classroom, and others, attending remotely, have their faces projected onto a screen on the back wall. Rae can interact with all the students to answer questions and hold discussions. Students who are unable to attend the class live can watch a recording at any time.

Like many community colleges across the country, many of Rae’s students are adult learners — also called “nontraditional” students — who are typically defined as being older than the usual full-time 18- to 22-year-old student and may be working full or part time. Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics shows that approximately 40 percent of students at two-year postsecondary institutions are 22 years old or older.

Teaching modalities like HyFlex can help retain older learners, whose numbers have dropped during the pandemic. According to Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit that champions evidence-based institutional improvement, between 2019 and 2021, community college enrollment fell 17.5 percent for students 25 to 29 years old, and 12.1 percent for students older than 29.

Technology can help. However, Ruanda Garth-McCullough, director of program development at ATD, advises colleges to be intentional about how they use and implement new learning tools. “For adult learners, time is precious. It’s important to design courses well and provide staff with time and resources for professional development,” she says. “It’s a lot more work, but it’s worth it when students don’t feel their time is being wasted.”

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A HyFlex Teaching Model Makes Learning Accessible to Adult Students

Ryan McCabe, associate vice president of academic technology and high-impact practice at Finger Lakes Community College, describes the college’s population as “on the small side,” at approximately 5,500 full- and part-time students. About 40 percent are 22 years old or older. HyFlex courses have been beneficial.

“Adults seem the most interested in HyFlex,” says McCabe. “They have children, work, transportation issues. HyFlex offers them the opportunity to fully participate and not lose a step.”

FLCC had already started experimenting with HyFlex classes when the pandemic hit. The institution quickly added more, using primarily Cisco and Webex products and setting up the rooms with screens, motion-tracking cameras and microphones.

FIND OUT: How universities are reimagining teaching labs for a virtual future.

“Incorporating HyFlex didn’t cost us anything, other than the initial spending on hardware and software. Now, the rooms are ready to go,” says McCabe.

Prior to the pandemic, about 25 percent of FLCC’s classes were available online. Currently, about 50 percent of classes are online, with about five to 10 percent delivered as HyFlex courses. Both McCabe and Rae, the culinary instructor, don’t see HyFlex going away anytime soon.

McCabe also wants to make sure that his school is focused on the needs of adult learners.

“At the end of the day, we don’t want our adult learners to be put in the position of deciding between living their lives and getting an education,” he says. “We want to make sure they have the support to handle all of life’s responsibilities, get a job, get a degree and increase their lifetime income significantly.”

Adult Learning Is Central to Retention Strategy

With more than 90,000 students, Alamo Colleges District is the largest provider of higher education in South Texas. About 40 percent of learners are over age 22, and adult students make up 60 percent of fully online learners.

When he was recruited to ACD four years ago as chief learning officer, Luke Dowden was tasked creating a strategy to integrate online learning into the district.

“We needed to create an impact strategy that would elevate what already existed while improving our competitiveness and closing retention gaps,” says Dowden.

As part of his strategy, Dowden and his team created AlamoONLINE, an integrated support services unit with a mission to market a fully online program with a wide offering of courses and multiple degree pathways.

RELATED: Using data to improve student and faculty retention in higher ed.

The timing was fortunate. Just as Dowden was getting started, the pandemic eliminated on-campus activities. However, the number of credit hours for online students steadily increased. The team was able to ramp up quickly because of a robust IT infrastructure.

“We use Canvas as an LMS and enterprise tools like Microsoft 365. Together with Cidi Labs, we’re able to create courses with a similar look and feel,” Dowden says. “We also have a faculty development group which provides support for instructors. Overall, we were able to convert 600 sections of courses to remote classes within two weeks.”

A newer initiative, UpSkill, provides students with digital microcredentials.

“It’s a bite-size investment that provides students with confidence,” he says. “It’s one of the strategies that helps us meet our goals, which are to generate enrollment, improve the quality of learning, serve a diverse community and fight poverty.”

Technology Helps Adult Learners Transition to Degree Programs

Austin Community College District serves more than 70,000 people in Central Texas and is renewing its focus on adult learners.

ACC was recently awarded a Prioritizing Adult Community College Enrollment grant from ATD. Already, this urban community college, which is designated as a Hispanic-serving institution, is currently implementing Salesforce as its customer relationship management solution, as well as a chatbot to answer common questions.

School administrators are aiming these efforts at adult students who are currently enrolled in nondegree programs, such as studying English as a second language or participating in high school equivalency programs.

LEARN MORE: Microsoft’s “Metaverse” to transform online learning.

“There are a lot of barriers for adult learners to transition to degree programs,” says Melissa Curtis, associate vice chancellor of enrollment management. “We want them to know that getting a credential or degree is the next best step in their education, and that we’re right here, ready to support them and help find funding.”

Curtis says the grant will provide administrators and instructors with coaching to be as student-focused as possible and will make ACC’s communication technology available 24/7.

“Technology opens up new possibilities,” says Curtis. “It helps us gather data so that we better know who we need to help and how successful we are. Each number represents an individual trying to reach a dream. It’s very meaningful for us to have that opportunity.”

nces.ed.gov, “Trend Generator,” April 4, 2022

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