Recent press in Australia has really put “New Learners” (as Blackboard has come to refer to them) in the spotlight. News stories highlight booming enrolments in recent years, especially from non-traditional sources. The bad news is that many New Learners are voting with their feet on their experience of “education as a service” and are dropping out in record numbers. As an industry we need to try to turn this around.

The Federal Government is struggling with ballooning student loans as a consequence of recent steps towards de-regulating the industry. The growing student-loan debt being carried by the Australian Government is so serious that some commentators, such as Federation University Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Quality) Marcia Devlin, are now openly contemplating the possibility of a government move towards a funding model based on student completion, rather than enrolment.

The reason behind this is that nearly one in seven students leaves in their first year and less than half of them have reported being satisfied with support being offered. Simply put, our success in increasing student enrolment isn’t being matched by the experience the student gets once enrolled.

Numerous commentators are considering ways to minimise risk at the pre-enrolment stage in order to reduce the problem of student loan debt on government. Some proposals even look at ways to exclude higher risk students from enrolment. However, technological innovation now allows us to offer much greater flexibility in the way students have access to learning. A generation of New Learners willing to study is an exciting prospect and many in our industry are energised by the idea of admitting part-time students, mature age, return from work and external students, and students from broader socio-economic profiles and geographic catchments.

So why isn’t our traditional education model coping with this new cohort of students? A New Learner’s journey is highly personal and it’s likely life-long. It is rooted in context, which may include family, working, financial, cultural and location-based challenges and, importantly, career aspirations. They expect to be supported as life changes and evolves, expect flexibility in their studies, and expect the institution to curate a learning path that they can invest in to achieve their life goals.

How can we provide a more holistic and integrated response to these needs and what is standing in our way?

One: It’s not just about technology.
Often, a change in technology produces only a marginal change in student satisfaction but consumes vast human and financial resources. Instead, applying those resources in a way that considers students’ personal learning journeys, which are broader than the way they interface with technology, is be a better investment. At Blackboard, in addition to rolling out a new generation of cloud based and mobilised learning technologies, we have invested significantly in a great team of people across Asia Pacific that bring experience and expertise in several areas, including academic innovation, instructional design and change management. Our consultants, including Dr. Caroline Steel, former president of ascilite, frequently partner with institutions to explore challenges together, co-design solutions and help deliver projects that make a difference. The solutions they design are often a combination of process, people and technology.

Two: It’s about trusted relationships.
Let’s face it: academia has a reputation for being inherently skeptical of commercial partnerships. How can we move past the vendor-client relationship and team up to tackle problems together?
It is always inspiring to hear about projects where great partnerships have been formed and important work gets done. At Blackboard we work hard to build personal relationships of trust with education professionals, willing to listen and to partner with them, and measure success on the experience of the students.

Three: If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.
In a large organisation like a university, visibility and measurement are key challenges. The needs of New Learners are unique, disparate and personal. That’s why we’re investing heavily in analytics technologies, like X-Ray Analytics for Moodle or Analytics for Learn, that better highlight, and even predict, where students’ needs are not being met and where they are likely to face learning risks. Institutions throughout the APAC region are partnering with Blackboard to test the relevance of different measures and reports, and pilot interventions and responses to risks revealed by data.

Four: Taking the personal approach, at massive scale.
Using technology to identify individual need leads to a final consideration. Addressing the gap between student support expectations and their actual experience is something that requires a different model of student engagement. Moving well beyond a one-to-many lecture format, we can now offer a more personalised, one-to-one student support and coaching but at a massive scale.

The increase in student numbers and the drive for efficiency present daunting challenges of scale and resources. However, external providers are now ready to supplement university resources to deliver the personal support students demand. Blackboard has a strong record of personal student support via phone / messenger / email / knowledge base through its Student Services. Now, thanks to a regional partnership with Global Learning Support, we’re exploring with universities a model for linking information that indicates students as at risk of drop out with people that can coach, support, and ultimately motivate them. One-to-one study coaches working at scale are helping students navigate through their challenges and are increasing the chances of course completion and achievement of student learning goals. Additionally, we’re exploring models that can help students make good course selections up front, identify risk factors on enrolment and allocate supporting resources in response.

External service providers can enhance an organisation’s ability to be agile and respond quickly, allocating pre-skilled resources to current problems at a scale not considered possible in the past.

What’s next?
Given our new funding climate, meeting the needs of the New Learner in Australia and beyond and addressing the alarming dropout rates is a challenge for all of us in the education sector.

As a collective industry, we have access to technology, people and expertise and I’ve no doubt a response will be found. Whether it will be regional institutions that do this or a growing cohort of highly innovative international education providers that move in to service this market better, we can be sure of one thing: the New Learner will not wait.

Steve Watt is Blackboard Regional Vice President for the Australia and New Zealand Region. Previously Senior Director in the Moodle services business, NetSpot, Steve has over 15 years experience in the education technology industry.

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