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The Pivot to Learner-Centricity: Why 4 Universities Are Meeting Student Demand for Flexible, Workforce-Aligned Education

Article by Anant Agarwal

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Major forces are reshaping the higher education landscape. For centuries, universities have been producer-focused—I taught how my professors taught me, and we rarely considered what learners wanted. But the power dynamics have begun to shift from institutions to learners and employees, similar to recent shifts in other sectors.

We’ve seen industries like retail, healthcare, transportation, and entertainment entirely transform to be more consumer-centric. Telehealth is now table stakes. Consumers can stream and download music, movies, and TV shows on-demand. They can request a ride with the click of a button. And users are able to shop for food and clothes, in-person and online, and have what they need delivered within hours. Consumer expectations and demands are changing. They want flexible, convenient, on-demand, personalized services. COVID has simply been an accelerant for these trends.

So, too, must education change to be more learner-centric. In my first article on “the age of learner-centricity,” I outlined four key trends taking shape across higher education that are opening doors to remarkable opportunity for today’s learners. Through the broad adoption of online lifelong learning; the growth of modular, stackable credentials; the shift to blended learning on campus; and mapping learning to career relevancy, universities are creating more flexible, accessible, and workforce-aligned educational experiences to meet the needs of learners of all kinds.

As these trends continue to accelerate, how should universities respond? As part of my recent keynote presentation at the annual THE Digital Universities Week UK global forum, I shared the following four examples of institutions that have applied these trends to their digital transformation strategies and are delivering great outcomes for learners around the world.

Adoption of Online, Lifelong Learning in Practice: LSE

In a 2021 Cengage survey, 74% of students said they’d prefer to have online learning options post-pandemic. Not only does online learning provide more flexibility for learners, it also enables universities to connect with learners that otherwise would not have been geographically possible. The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) is one of many universities to reap the benefits of online investments and extend its global reach.

Internationally renowned for its residential learning experience, LSE began making investments in online education with us in 2017, starting with the launch of six online executive education courses, such as MBA Essentials. In doing so, the university experienced soaring enrollments for its digital offerings; in 2020, for example, these courses reached over 10,000 students.

With evidence that it could deliver the same high quality of its on-campus programs online, LSE expanded its partnership with us in 2019 and successfully launched its first fully online undergraduate degrees a year later, in collaboration with the University of London. When COVID closed campuses worldwide starting in the spring of 2020, due to the strength of its earlier investments, LSE experienced greater resiliency throughout the pandemic—and even successfully brought to market additional online degrees.

Today, our partnership with LSE includes nine online undergraduate degrees ranging from economics to data science to international relations, which since their inception have reached over 1,100 students. Featuring such topics as machine learning, public policy, and managerial finance, our partnership has also expanded to include 30 executive education courses, with plans for more courses and programs in the future.

Modular, Stackable Learning in Practice: University of Cambridge

Among aspiring adult learners, 68% prefer non-degree programs—compared to 50 percent who preferred them before the pandemic. Degrees continue to be important, but in their traditional form, they’re inflexible. Higher education needs to transform to offer flexible pathways in the form of on-ramps and off-ramps to education and work. The delivery of immediately applicable knowledge—in the right size and at the right time—is key.

In 2020, the University of Cambridge was looking to provide open, flexible, and affordable access to high-quality courses for adults from all backgrounds. The university specifically wanted to showcase an online program that was relevant to professional development and drawn from its expertise in the arts and humanities. To explore the efficacy and model of online modular teaching, Cambridge decided to pilot a MicroMasters program with us.

As I mentioned in my first article, MicroBachelors® and MicroMasters® programs are examples of modular credentials that break a degree into more manageable chunks. Learners can stop at the credential, go on to take more MicroBachelors or MicroMasters programs, or stack them into a complete bachelor’s or master’s degree.

The university’s subsequent MicroMasters program in Writing for Performance and the Entertainment Industries demonstrated that not only does online modular education work, but also quality can be preserved when designing on the edX learning platform. Thanks to this initial pilot, the university’s High Committee approved the model as an official credit pathway into Cambridge’s Master of Studies (MSt) in Writing for Performance, upon admission into the university. To date, learners from over 140 countries have enrolled in the MicroMasters program.

On-Campus Blended Learning in Practice: MEF University

Even before COVID, online learning was rising in popularity as part of students’ residential learning experiences. Two years into the pandemic, it’s clear that the impact of online is here to stay. In that same 2021 Cengage survey, approximately 50% of learners are feeling more optimistic toward courses that combine in-person and online instruction and they are demanding blended options as part of their on-campus experience.

MEF University, a private nonprofit university based in Istanbul, Turkey, is one of the first universities in the world to employ a blended learning model across its entire campus. In pursuit of this goal, MEF selected edX Online Campus as a way to give students access to custom-curated course offerings from some of the world's leading institutions and companies. Through the edX Online Campus platform, MEF grants university credit for online course bundles that students create for themselves in order to meet their elective requirements.

Since partnering with us, MEF has enrolled over 1,500 learners in our online courses and is exploring even more ways to expand its digital curriculum. The university’s success with edX Online Campus is proof that institutions need not be highly endowed or resourced in order to adopt new and innovative education models that take a more flexible and learner-centric approach.

Career-Relevant Curriculum in Practice: University of Birmingham

Many employers believe that COVID has only accelerated changes that were already underway—including escalating and advancing the pace of digital transformation in both work and learning. Because of the pandemic, 71% of C-suite executives also say they now consider an online credential generally equal to or of higher quality than one completed in person. As a result, upskilling/reskilling and ensuring students are employer-ready is more important than ever.

The University of Birmingham is one example of how institutions of higher learning can work more closely with local and regional workforce partners to align what students learn to what employers most need. The university is deeply embedded within the West Midlands region in the UK, regularly engaging with the business community in mentorship and recruitment through its Employer Advisory Board and other touchpoint forums. In response to industry input, Birmingham partnered with us to launch boot camps in coding and data analytics, featuring curricula tailored to address the local tech sector’s growing talent needs.

To increase the representation of women and people of color across the region’s tech landscape, Birmingham also won a government grant to fund scholarships for each of these groups. These scholarships, along with other funding sources, have led to significant growth in enrollment—from 45 students in 2020 to 181 in 2021 to over 300 projected by the end of 2022.

Graduates of Birmingham’s boot camps have so far been hired at a variety of top UK companies, including Capgemini, Cisco, and Gymshark. As one student put it, “I’d 100% recommend [the coding boot camp] to anyone who has an interest in becoming a developer, no matter your age or any other characteristic. The course is definitely workable for anyone with any level of knowledge.”

Learner-Centric Universities Are the Future

LSE, Cambridge, MEF, and Birmingham are only four of our 230+ partners—in Europe and around the world—that are leveraging the adaptability and scalability of online learning to respond to the rapidly evolving, interconnected worlds of work and education. The pandemic has only deepened the demand for relevant, workforce-aligned education, and with student demographics also evolving, the pivot to more learner-centric models in higher education is quickly taking hold.

I hope you are inspired, just as I am, by how so many institutions are embodying these trends and continuing to deliver great educational experiences for learners. The future is now—together, let’s seize it to create lasting change.

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Originally published on LinkedIn.