We’re all busy. In addition to work and family responsibilities, adult students must also carve out time for their courses from their hectic schedules. But, some students don’t have the discipline or loyalty to do so.
In this interview, Amy Stevens, Associate Vice President, eLearning at Southern New Hampshire University, shares how she keeps the university’s adult students engaged and active even when they’re faced with other distractions.
What are the biggest extrinsic and intrinsic barriers to retaining adult students who may have full-time jobs and other obligations that make it difficult to stick to their online learning courses? How can these barriers be abated?
One of the greatest things about higher education today is the diversity of our student body, while there is no one set of demographics that describe them; there are some commonalities we see among our students. Online Masters Students are, for the most part, career driven, focused and able to leverage the success they had in completing their undergraduate experience and apply some of those lessons learned to success at the graduate level. Students who are career changers and who may be transitioning into growth fields like Health Professions and STEM face additional challenges because they most likely didn’t have any of the more demanding science or math experience that would make them fully prepared for the rigors of the field. We know these students will be more successful, for example, if we can get them into foundations courses that will help them meet the competencies demanded for the core courses in their new programs. However, those courses add to the overall time and cost.
Again, there is tremendous diversity among undergraduate students, many of whom had really negative educational experiences along the way. Being really clear in the admissions process, understanding the student’s goals and then constantly making that alignment clear to the students can prevent/situate some of the challenges that students are likely to encounter. The other challenge is that those negative educational experiences have a tendency to make students resistant to taking risks in the classroom. It is essential to create an environment where they feel safe to make some mistakes, and not do so in front of their classmates.
How do you engage a typically diverse and sometimes disloyal online student body?
First and foremost, the educational experience must feel relevant to them and align with their goals. If a student feels like the work they are being asked to do doesn’t have real world applications, or won’t help them get ahead, they will not benefit from the experience. So even when we are dealing with things like General Education requirements, we really try to make sure our students understand that while this may not have immediate ties to their chosen profession, employers tell us that they want graduates who are critical thinkers, great communicators and confident problem solvers and these courses are a way to gain those competencies. It also helps if the student feels you are invested in their success and that is a message that can’t just be delivered from their faculty members, but needs to be consistent across their entire experience.
What can faculty do to create a culture of engagement with their distance learning students?
Engagement is essential; students need to feel part of the process. For example, they really appreciate high levels of individualized feedback, and they appreciate when faculty bring their real world experiences into the course to illustrate concepts and bring theory to life.
It took one initiative: Making Red Hat University Managers more aware and passionate about using education as a retention tool for great talent to make a significant impact on their employees. Michael Paquin, Director of Red Hat University, says the number of unique sales department students to attend their university training classrooms, LMS and other sites increased from a few hundred to over 2,000 in one year alone. This, just from inserting some excitement in their managers. Further, the average quantity of training consumed per-person also jumped from low single-digits to mid-teens globally. Read on for more information on Michael’s achievements or see how you can hear him in person.
HH: What were your biggest ‘wins’ and ‘lessons learned’ from launching a global training and performance enablement program from the ground up?
MP: The most important lesson I’ve learned recently is that collaboration attracts commitment. The most successful programs we’ve launched recently are those that have honored the expertise of subject matter experts, enabled these experts to share their experience in training solutions they co-authored with us and engaged the students of these programs as valued contributors to future iterations of the program. Our corporate university is accountable for the existence of impactful training and performance enablement programs and I’ve learned success comes most easily when the business is actively responsible for their development and adoption.
A “win” I intend to carry on through the rest of my career is defining the role of the corporate university as a connector between training demand and sources of quality training. We are having great success as the creator of a bazaar-like community in which we may initiate and foster the growth of training programs but our community of associates are welcomed and encouraged to create their own as well. This is how we are turning training from being an event to becoming a natural part of our ongoing development and daily life at Red Hat.
HH: Your team not only creates the content and curriculum, but it also executes on internal and external instruction. Would you walk us through the steps it took to modify the skill set and priorities of the team to result in a 20x increase in student count and a 50x increase in content development productivity?
MP: Our corporate university was established with the mission of creating high-quality learning content to orient, onboard and prepare Red Hat associates to succeed in key responsibilities of their jobs. We built an impressive library of excellent instructor-led and web-based offerings that was highly praised and well attended.
The problem was Red Hat associates were not coming back to the corporate university in quantity after their first 90 days on the job. For an HR organization attempting to build an integrated approach to managing enterprise talent this lack of ongoing talent development data posed a huge problem. Furthermore, we identified our content design and development methodology was too slow and intense for rapidly building new content and giving associates a reason to come back to the university.
We chose to invest in re-branding and advertising the corporate university but the most significant accomplishment contributing to growing associate participation with our corporate university was a year spent strengthening the talent management competency in our corporate managers. As an example, in one year focusing on our sales department managers we increased our unique student count from their department in university training classrooms, LMS, and other sites from a few hundred to over two thousand and increased the average quantity of training consumed per-person from low single-digits to mid-teens globally just by making managers more aware and passionate about using education as a retention tool for great talent.
As associate visits to the university increased, so did the demand for learning content. To meet demand, we needed to change our assumptions about what training content looked like, where it came from and how it was made available to associates. As a result we changed our instructional design methodology to emphasize reusability of learning objects across training programs, changed our tools to more mainstream products to make it easier to find highly skilled talent to recruit, and we aggressively pursued reusable content from other teams and enabled them to distribute their quality training materials through our corporate university brand. The result was a learning library that grew significantly faster than before and each member of our content development team roughly doubled the quantity of training hours they produced by minimizing redundancy and simplifying the technical structure of our learning content.
HH: What factors do you think are most important in maintaining the relevance of a corporate university in the current business climate?
MP: Above all else, the corporate university must establish a consultative relationship with their primary customers and stakeholders within the business. A corporate university is valuable as a training delivery organization but when the future impact of learning can be understood as business goals are being created then the university becomes an important and strategically relevant contributor to the business.
University leaders must also manage the change in learning expectations from Baby Boomers to Millennials in order to remain a trusted and relevant service for associates. I believe the key isn’t found in technology but rather in effectively collaborating on content. New “social learning” tools will come and go but core demands by Millennials such as transparency and the right to participate require their relationship with the corporate university to be bi-directional and welcoming to their unique contributions in order to maintain trust that the university is a relevant source to learn from. Our role as the university is to make associates successful and we can only remain a trusted and relevant partner when we respect what “learning” means to associates and keep the focus on their business and career success.
HH: How can a business know when it’s time to update its learning measurement program?
MP: Every business goes through cycles of growth, sustain, regroup, aggressive attack, etc. How learning should be measured entirely depends on what the business is trying to achieve at that point in time.
At every point when business strategy changes, when new business goals are set, or new organizational objectives are designed the learning measurement strategy should be questioned and reviewed. If the learning leader has any difficulty connecting current learning data and analytics with a measurable business outcome then it’s probably time to update the measurement program.
Without strong executive support there is no way we could have achieved even a fraction of our current state with leadership training. Financially these programs are very expensive and our executives were very generous to fund them, but the most important contribution from our executives was the acceptance and public support of the “enterprise talent” concept.
If given the preference managers would tend to hold on to their talent and over time accumulate more in order to keep pace with high-growth business demands. The concept that talent belongs to the enterprise and we as managers are responsible for aligning the right talent to the right opportunity, even if that opportunity lies elsewhere in the company, took a lot of selling. Once we had a common understanding of what it meant to grow Red Hat with an enterprise talent vision then the investments we made into the actual leadership programs became valuable.
Our leadership development strategy and programs are constantly evolving. Many of our programs have achieved a steady state in terms of structure and curricula but who is targeted, in what region, and in what quantity requires constant updating to remain aligned to business growth forecasts so we spend our corporate dollars wisely. We are also constantly educating and motivating managers to build succession plans for themselves and key team members which keeps the demand for leadership development high.