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How does online learning support non-traditional students?

How does online learning support non-traditional students?

Learning management systems (LMS) have many purposes and uses, but the main one should be to support all students on their learning journey. However, often the thought that goes into the LMS is around the “typical” student. This is generally someone who has come more-or-less directly from school to college, is full-time, based on campus, and pays for their tuition with support from their parents.

The reality is somewhat different. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that around 74% of students could be considered non-traditional in 2015. The NCES also projected that around 13.3 million non-traditional students by 2026. Meanwhile, only 66% of students in the US are aged under 24 years. The student population, therefore, is anything but typical.

Students from non-traditional backgrounds often need additional support, whether that be additional study skills training, encouragement to engage with their peers and the college community, financial aid, or difficulties with scheduling and workload due to the need to work full time. These students are often more engaged than their colleagues but need that extra support if they are to avoid dropping out or underachieving. If used well, the LMS is an important element of supporting non-traditional students and an easy win for institutions.

Who are the non-traditional students?

Non-traditional students can be many different things and are certainly not a homogenous group. As the NCES suggests, often being over 24 years old is a signifier of being non-traditional, as this suggests that the student has returned to education later in life. However, that is one variable —there are many others, such as:

  • Independent for financial aid purposes;
  • Have one or more dependents;
  • Is a single caregiver;
  • Does not have a traditional high school diploma;
  • Delayed postsecondary enrollment;
  • Attends part-time;
  • Employed full-time.

Other non-traditional student characteristics include race and gender, residence (distance learners), and being enrolled in a non-degree occupational program. All postsecondary institutions will have a large cohort of non-traditional students alongside typical students. However, enrollment statistics suggest that community colleges and for-profit institutions are the most attractive for non-traditional students. This is partly due to more flexibility in scheduling, an offer of shorter degrees and online options, and more focus on career opportunities than pure academic engagement.

How can Higher Ed institutions address the challenges of non-traditional students?

What, then, are the unique and specific challenges that these students face? Dr. Kris MacDonald has broken down the answer to this question as:

  • Balance: balancing family, work, education and finances;
  • Academics: needing to recall/relearn study skills, writing, and getting to grips with new technologies;
  • Emotions: anxieties related to their age and/or experiences compared to “typical” students, leading to low self-esteem;
  • First-generation students: lack of knowledge and understanding amongst family and friends about what college is like or for, leading to insecurity and feeling misunderstood.

Considering non-traditional students in the higher education onboarding process helps them feel as if they fit in and understand what they need to succeed. Creating networking opportunities is also highly beneficial, alongside mentorship.

But, institutions can do much more, such as alter the course structure and content to be inclusive to all students, whatever their background. For instance, providing a combination of in-person and online tuition (hyflex classes), offering choice in how and when learning is done, and even flipping the learning.

Non-traditional students are more likely to have more real-world experience. Sharing these experiences within the context of the course can help them feel involved and connected — it’s also highly beneficial to general learning in the group. This can even be taken further to include prior learning assessment, which offers credit for work-based learning and competencies.

How can an LMS support non-traditional students?

This is where the LMS can be important, if not vital. The combination of online and offline learning has the benefit of offering learning opportunities at a time largely suited to the student. Therefore, those needing to juggle life and work with their studies will be able to learn at times that suit them. Here are a few ideas:

Setting up reflective and goal-setting opportunities

Students who are returning to education later in life tend to do better if they understand their reasons for undertaking tasks and learning. Thus, setting up a reflective exercise where students set their own goals for a course and consider their strengths and weaknesses.

Intelligent learning platforms (ILPs) allow you to set specific goals for students, which can be related to their career aspirations. For instance, if a student wants to become a tax advisor, they can set this job as a goal, and the platform will recommend the content and courses they need to take to achieve it.

Moreover, through competency-based learning, students will be able to pinpoint exactly what skills they need in order to reach their goals. This is a powerful exercise in focusing students on the classes and learning content that truly matters to them.

Using flipped learning and self-paced classes

The flipped learning approach is more flexible and frees up time during the in-person session for deeper learning. For example, pre-record lectures in a series of short-length videos and place them alongside quizzes or other interactive activities in an online class or learning path. If they can’t make it to an in-person class, they can still review the content and test their knowledge whenever they have the time.

Moreover, instructors can check to see where difficulties with learning emerge by keeping an eye on quiz results and activity participation. They can offer feedback throughout the entire course or semester, and the students will also be more aware of their challenges, which makes it more likely for them to ask for help.

Embedding skills development

While much of postsecondary education is about knowledge transfer in specific disciplines, learning how to study, how to research, or how to use specific tools (both digital and analog) are equally, if not more important, for non-traditional students. Embedding skills development into courses as part of the approach to assessment can be a powerful method of enabling learners to reach the same standard.

For instance, you can create an interactive course or multiple ones to teach a specific study skill (e.g. searching library catalogs or essay writing skills). These types of courses can be followed by a formative assessment, where students are asked to demonstrate what they have learned by doing. Of course, going back to goal setting, these study skills can also be formulated as goals and have associated competencies. In this way, students can get content recommendations directly from the platform, depending on their learning gaps.

LMSs support non-traditional students

As the statistics show, non-traditional students are more commonly becoming the de facto typical student. Therefore, institutions should become more flexible and offer learning opportunities outside the traditional lecture room.
LMSs can offer self-paced learning opportunities rather than forcing all learning to be done together at one single point in time and in one location. Additionally, skills development allows non-traditional students to focus on their career goals, which offers a boost of motivation and better learning outcomes.

That’s why intelligent learning platforms like NEO LMS have all the tools you need to create flexible learning environments that support non-traditional students. To learn more, schedule a demo today!

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