Growth of the Non-Traditional Student
When I entered the field of higher education over ten years ago, the phrase “non-traditional student” was becoming popular and I have watched it become prominent now – especially with regards to how courses and curriculum are designed for students. The essence of this phrase is meant to describe new types of students, other than those who are starting college right out of high school, who are enrolling in college level courses and programs. This one of the important factors that drove the growth of the for-profit online college industry. It is not uncommon to see online programs being offered for what is called the “working adult” – with promises made that the degrees obtained will help them advance within their chosen career.
As a general rule, the non-traditional student can be a mix of someone who is older, part of a minority group, speaks English as a second language, attends school part-time, is employed, and has prior life experience. I have had non-traditional students in my online classes with a range in ages from their 30s to 60s, with many who were also working full time. What this means for these students is that their school work is not their only responsibility and that can create periodic time management challenges for them. In addition, by having life experience these students cannot be treated like blank slates, which is someone waiting to receive knowledge being dispensed.
The Role of an Educator
Within traditional colleges and universities, the role of the educator has remained largely unchanged. This means they are at the front of the class and the center of attention during each scheduled session. It is a teacher-centered approach to instruction that is utilized in primary education. This educator typically provides a lecture and students are expected to study for quizzes and exams. In contrast, an educator who is teaching online courses is finding that their role is evolving. The very nature of a virtual learning environment puts the primary responsibility for learning on the students.
I have coached many traditional educators who have tried to make the transition to online teaching and found it to be difficult to adapt to as traditional teaching methods do not translate well. I can empathize with them as educators devote time and effort into developing their career and becoming a teaching expert – and then having to learn new methods may produce a lot of natural resistance. Online teaching requires changing the focus from teacher-led to student-centered instruction. Does this have a direct impact on student success? The answer is absolutely yes, as an educator must be comfortable in their role and understand the needs of the students they are charged with teaching.
Advisor vs. Success Initiatives
The traditional responsibility for working with students has been part of the role of the academic advisor. The advisor is someone who may assist students with a wide range of tasks that includes registration, enrollment, course selection, and the list continues. Often this was a reactive role and that means an advisor could address a wide range of questions but only when initiated by the students. Within the for-profit online college industry, I have seen the advisor’s role evolve and include responsibility for conducting follow up for those students who were at risk for failing and/or dropping their courses.
There have been other initiatives taken by online schools to help students persist and one that I was part of was a success coach program. I was responsible for conducting a periodic check-in with students, and these were students outside of the classes I was assigned to teach. Unfortunately, the project was short-lived and to this day I am not sure of the reason why it was disbanded. I have also watched an increase in the number of resources that are made available to students as a means of helping them succeed, and one of the most common resources provided is through the use of a writing center.
There is a newer non-profit online school that has been hiring mentors, who are meant to take the place of faculty. Students do not have regular classes and instead, they study to take an assessment – usually with a very low or minimal required passing score. It is similar to correspondence courses that preceded the online for-profit industry. There isn’t clear evidence yet to support that someone calling students every week, without having course specific knowledge, subject matter expertise, or higher education experience, has an impact on student persistence rates.