Change is needed in education. I am not telling you anything you don’t already know. In a survey done last year by The Chronicle of Higher Education, 98 percent of higher education presidents and provosts believe that change is needed in higher education, and 67 percent believe that change needs to be disruptive. And we hear similar calls for change across the education spectrum, around the globe.

We are clearly at a point in education where we have this widespread acceptance that change is needed. This gives us all a unique opportunity to drive change – because change is always more possible when we know we need it.

I shared this thought on the main stage at BbWorld 2015. At Blackboard, we hold a fundamental belief that the change we drive in education needs to be firmly grounded in the needs of learners, putting the learner at the center of how we think about change – from small to disruptive.

Because the focus on learners and their success is so central to effect change in education, it was extremely important to us that we have a group of learners join me on the main stage to share some of their expectations of what education should provide. Here are a few of my biggest takeaways from this great group of individuals:

1. Learners are hungry for more real-world application of their classroom learning.

Ifateyo Kitwala, a high school student leader from the Baltimore School for the Arts, shared that she and her peers are looking for more ways to take skills they learn and implement them in different real-world situations. She often hears her peers ask questions like “what can I do now?” She was not alone. This was a universal top priority for all of our panelists. They want to learn and understand how that learning can be applied to life skills.

2. Learners expect more connections with alumni and employers.

Kunal Bhadane, a graduate student at the University of Maryland, shared that for where he is in his educational journey, networking holds the same importance as the core academic part of his education. He and his peers are looking for avenues for personalized networking – with alumni and employers who know them, who understand their skills and competencies, who have already been through the process they are going through, and with whom they can make more meaningful connections and receive guidance about their pathways. Now we can argue about whether connections should trump the academic component of education – but what we cannot dispute is that, to the learners, these connections feel as relevant to their success as the academics. And as more and more people are in our education systems with the goal of career placement or advancement, this need will likely continue to grow.

3. Schools need to be adaptable for individual learners.

Zak Malamed, founder of Student Voice and a student at the University of Maryland, shared an experience that he hopes can be more widely repeated at other institutions. Zak was part of a select group of students at his university who were allowed to create their own majors, after he struggled with trying to pinpoint the right one for him. This has helped him 1) get a better, more well-rounded education through classes and opportunities not offered at his university, and 2) allowed him to expose himself to an industry that is largely based in a market – New York City – outside of where his university physically resides. Certainly not all students are as self-motivated as Zak- but shouldn’t every learner be given the opportunity and the guidance to pursue learning pathways that are individually meaningful?

4. Flexibility is key.

Aaron Wagner, a student at Georgetown University, is an adult learner. He says the biggest thing he and other adult learners look for is institutions and instructors that can be flexible enough to accommodate their complex schedules and other everyday realities. Life happens. Aaron’s experience as a veteran is shared by many adult learners across the country who are not only struggling to relearn how to operate in a classroom environment, but also striving to adapt in the civilian space. So he especially needs his institution and academic mentors to be adaptable and accommodating. For Aaron, the flexibility of a competency-based course that allowed he and his classmates to move at their own pace within the construct was his favorite. Maybe because it also was structured such that the students could decide which area of the discipline they were most interested in pursuing in depth.

5. There needs to be clear value for the money.

Joelle Stangler, the student body president at the University of Minnesota, believes that educational value is different for different students. Some find value in having a research experience. Some find value in being able to transfer among multiple institutions to find the most relevant coursework for their fields of study. Whatever the case may be, she says, we need to be very individualized in our approaches to defining value – and that it is not just about sticker price and total debt. Joelle is studying politics and she told us that she learned more from commenting on her senator’s whitepaper on higher education than she did from big class lectures. And that needs to be okay, in her opinion, because that’s where she sees the most value. Our educational systems need to provide more clarity and transparency so that learners can make informed judgments about value, whether it’s deciding how to spend their limited time, which credentials to pursue, or how much debt to incur.

To hear more about what these learners think of the education system they are in and what they believe education should be, view the entire panel session at

Share your thoughts and stories about what learners want out of their educational experiences, and how we can all help to reimagine education to better fit that image.



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