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Meeting the Evolving Needs of Today’s Learners

Using technology and data to adapt to changing demographics
University Business, August 2018
From left to right: Lisa McIntyre-Hite, Executive Director of Product Innovation, Walden University; Christopher Sessums, Learning Strategies Consultant, D2L
From left to right: Lisa McIntyre-Hite, Executive Director of Product Innovation, Walden University; Christopher Sessums, Learning Strategies Consultant, D2L

The demographics of today’s higher ed learners are shifting dramatically. Those once considered nontraditional learners—adults looking to change career paths, workers returning to school for certifications or students requiring flexible learning paths—have become the norm.

How must institutions respond to these changing demographics to meet the evolving demands of these ‘new traditional’ students? How can institutions use technology and data to drive student success and to support continuous improvement in this changing environment?


Lisa McIntyre-Hite
Executive Director of Product Innovation
Walden University

Christopher Sessums
Learning Strategies Consultant

Chris Sessums: In what ways are higher education institutions meeting the needs of today’s learners, and what are some of the challenges you’re seeing?

L. McIntyre-Hite: Seventy-four percent of higher ed students now have at least one nontraditional characteristic. They have at least one dependent; they work full- or part-time; they’re a first-generation college student. So, the nontraditional student is now the traditional student.

We also know that half of our first-year students live at or below the poverty level. So we have challenges. But the good news is that we are making progress. We’re seeing partnerships emerging within the K12 and employer spaces that are helping us address gaps and needs. We’re starting to see institutions partner across sectors to create a more seamless transition from high school to college to work.

This is driven by a competency-based framework. When we have stronger partnerships, we’re able to better meet the needs of both a community and its learners.

The notion of personalized learning is another way we’re meeting the needs of today’s learners. We’re starting to see fewer one-size-fits-all approaches, and we’re seeing more flexibility in pacing. This idea of learner-owned credentials is also emerging. Instead of the transcript being held closely by the institution, institutions are empowering their students to be part of owning that digital credential and being able to demonstrate evidence of their learning in a way that makes sense to an employer.

Chris Sessums: Can you tell us more about competency-based education? What’s working and what drove Walden to pursue this model?

L. McIntyre-Hite: Employers are telling institutions that we’re not meeting their needs—they feel like the graduates they hire are not prepared for the workforce. This is mostly related to soft skills. We’re starting to see many institutions using a competency-based framework as a strategy to address some of these challenges.

We work directly with employers to create a competency-based curriculum. Almost every institution has an employer advisory panel, but this is a tighter alignment. The university is still charged with making sure students understand where theory meets application, but we’re working with employers to ensure that there are learning experiences and assessments that are truly valued and applicable in the workplace.

Another plus of CBE is the potential of lowering the cost of a degree. We’re seeing more people getting into a model where instead of paying for the credit hours, they pay for a subscription and during that time can take as many competencies as they’d like or are able to. Because students are in charge of the pacing, and because they have a very tight relationship with their faculty member and academic coach, they may be able to actually accelerate their time to degree completion.

Students are also able to create a learning experience where they can say to a potential employer, “I may not have finished my whole degree yet, but here are the competencies I’m able to demonstrate that I can do.”

This framework provides an institution with a way of potentially microtizing the degree and focusing on skills instead of time.

Chris Sessums: Is there one main approach to CBE?

L. McIntyre-Hite: No, we see lots of different approaches and models emerging, but we also see common frameworks for assessing the quality of a CBE program. There are hallmarks of quality, and there are seven institutions accredited by the Department of Education to offer direct assessment modality.

Chris Sessums: What’s next? What’s on the horizon?

L. McIntyre-Hite: It is certainly not a boring time to be in higher ed. Jobs For the Future and Pearson Education are saying that personalized learning and CBE were wave two, but wave three is on its way. They call it “demand-driven education”—focusing on the need for not just skills, but the need for an education of new demands.

Also, there are lots of ways for students to get immersed for six to eight weeks, get a skill, and then immediately apply it. It will be interesting to see how higher ed creates a learning ecosystem with multiple exit and entrance ways.

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