The Learners First Framework

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The future is inevitable. Holding our collective breath and waiting for things to return to normal isn’t an effective strategy for facing that future.

In fact, the changes we need to make are going to become more evident and more serious as time passes.

How do we better meet the needs of the learner so that we help deliver whatever outcome or credential they need?

Dr. Peter Smith, Professor of Innovative Practices in Higher Education and Sr. Advisor to the President at University of Maryland Global Campus, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss The Presidents Forum’s Learners First Framework and what will be necessary to expedite its acceptance across higher ed.

What Is the Learners First Framework?

The learners first framework asks how best to wrap the organization’s resources around the needs of the learner. 

Currently, wide gaps exist between employers’ expectations of graduates, students’ expectations of education, and professors’ beliefs about how prepared graduates are for the workforce. The framework exists to bridge those gaps. 

This idea originated in a presidents’ forum composed of a strong group of presidents and chancellors. These leaders were trying to think through the inevitability of the future and make sure their schools were getting ahead of the puck. 

The forum’s members believe that the future will disrupt the traditions of higher education and that we need to identify the values, pitfalls, and opportunities this future affords. 

As Peter put it, “We need to think freshly about how to serve learners in America.”

How can higher ed restructure to fit the new framework?

We can make wrapping resources around learner needs simple. Or we can make it complex. 

Take teaching American history for example. If you are Hispanic American, African-American, or indigenous American, your perception of the history you’ve experienced may be different. Is there a respect for that history in the curriculum? 

Maybe that example gets too political. Let’s go deeper.

We have to decide what it is people need to know. And then how can they apply that knowledge in a variety of real-world circumstances. 

Every student has asked, “Why do we have to learn math?” If you answered “to pass the test,” your answer isn’t good enough for them — or their prospective employers. 

Each institution has to decide for itself what’s important, but disruptive market forces mean that the thing you were good at for the last 30 years won’t be enough to carry you forward. Your historic sources of strength are now sources of weakness in terms of your ability to survive in a changing environment. 

How the Pandemic Forced a Learner-first Focus in Higher Ed

The pandemic accelerated higher education’s reinvention toward a learner-first focus. Without it, we would have moved much more slowly.

Most people are aware of how much the pandemic revealed about the state of our technology. What they may not realize is what COVID uncovered about people’s vulnerability, social inequity, societal demand for certain jobs, and previously unrealized talents in laid-off employees.

Technology can make things possible — such as working or learning from home — but the questions now are not about gadgets and gizmos. We need to ask:

  • What is possible for the 35-year-old student learning from home?
  • What is affordable for people who need to reskill or upskill?
  • What is effective? (And what does “effective” mean anyway?)
  • Wwhat is valuable for employers, students, and schools?

Next Steps to Claiming New Green Space in Higher Ed

“I have been the founding president of two institutions,” Peter told us, “and that’s very hard and difficult work. But  it’s different from trying to change the culture of an existing organization.” 

You’re building a culture when you start something. Changing a culture is much more difficult.

When changing a culture, Peter recommends identifying the 10 most important data points. These could include admissions rate, dropout rate, graduation rate, budget, number of faculty, and endowment.

Run those data points from seven years ago to the present. Assume the same progression for the next seven years. That’s where you’ll be as an institution.

“I said that to one person,” Peter recalled. “He said, ‘Oh my God, I’d never do that. That would scare the heck out of my board and everybody else’. And I said, ‘Exactly.”

You have to change, or you will be either seriously compromised or out of business.

The most important thing is to create a rock solid clarity. Then you’ve opened the door to a constructive conversation about what you can do differently to attract more learners, hold on to them, and be relevant to them. 

You want to forge stronger connections between the learner and the institution, the learner and the community, and importantly, the learner and their future. Then they’ll stick around.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Peter Smith of University of Maryland Global Campus. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.