Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Online learning and the 21st century workplace

I get asked how Charter Oak State College is preparing students for the workforce at every meeting I attend, and my answer is one I enjoy giving time and time again.  I shared it at a meeting in Washington, DC last week, and one of the college presidents attending told me he was going to include it in his blog.  So I decided that I had better get my idea into print before I needed to cite someone else.

All kidding aside, the question of how higher education is preparing students for the 21st century workforce is a critical question for our industry. It is being asked with increased urgency because so many students are borrowing larger and larger sums of money to pursue their college education. So it should be no surprise that the questions about whether these loans are justified by the learning are getting louder.

My answer is this. When I look at the classroom experience of our online students, what I see is a perfect example of the 21st century workplace. Like the workplace, our online courses are distributed in time and space, are technology-driven, collaborative, and short term. In effect, the strategies and behaviors of an online class mirror the strategies and behaviors of the 21st century workplace. Let me explain.

Our online courses emphasize communication between the instructor and students.  This communication is executed through email, threaded discussions, and various types of digital presentations. The course activity occurs within the framework of a Learning Management System—Blackboard’s Learn, in our case. 

This technology is necessary because while students take the course as a cohort, they do their “work” on their own schedule.  For example, each set of assignments is due during a given week, but there is no specific time when the whole class meets.  This is called asynchronous learning.

That same Learning Management System makes student collaboration easier. Our courses use very few high stakes objective tests and a large number of collaborative (team) projects.  Students must produce work, share that work with their instructor and classmates, react to suggestions and offer them to others, play a specific role in the team’s project, and then deliver a final product by a due date.
And finally, since the vast majority of our students are working adults going to school part-time, these courses are just part of the work they do every day.

What I have just described is what an average work day is like for most people employed in this 21st century economy.  Employees often team up with colleagues who may not physically work in the same office, or even the same state or country. They collaborate constantly, and use a variety of communication technologies to support those collaborations. They may also be members of a variety of teams, none of which is their only job.

Charter Oak State College's students are being prepared for the 21st century workplace because their academic activities occur in the same online space, using the same tools, and arranged in the same collaborative teams as that workplace.

Would you agree? If you are a former or current online student, does this idea resonate with you? Please share your thoughts in comments. I would love to hear them.