When people think about college students, they mostly picture bright-eyed 18-year-olds, out of the house for the first time. But the fastest-growing group of students are “non-traditional” students, and they’re increasingly being catered to by online programs and distance learning. For college administrators (and those marketing to college students) this raises a question: how will we define “college student” in the future, and how do we best cater to such a heterogeneous group?
One shift will have to be in how we think about students’ ages and life experiences. This article from the Association for Psychological Science about non-traditional students sums it up nicely–teachers have to remember that an experience that favors one group of students over another is unfair and counter to the goals of higher education. If students are brought together online, they may be of all different ages and even from different countries; this may mean that word problems or examples that work for students in college towns don’t work for their classmates who are in the workplace–or in a different country.
One of the ways professors can help students of any age is to focus on lessons which relate to current issues affecting people of all backgrounds. Almost any field has some sort of application (that is, of course, why students are learning about it), and the best professors are those who can show their students why this learning matters. A side-effect of this is that current events–unlike most textbooks or ancient Greek texts–feature people which students can identify with. A student who knows why an academic concept matters to them is a student who will be dedicated to finding out more–these are the students want in their classrooms, and they have to do their part to make that happen.
The article suggests additional community-based assignments for students. For first-generation students, this can help build relationships to business communities in their future fields that they may not otherwise have. Business students can shadow a professional for a few hours, or math students can help tutor high schoolers–these are not terribly time-intensive, and can help students build contacts and network in ways they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Even for distance learners, this can be done: students could go out into their communities and compare notes and analyze the reasons for similarities or differences that they observed.
The very idea of what class time is for is changing, too–and with good reason. Students used to taking in information online can feel frustrated and constrained by a traditional lecture format. Instead, professors (especially in larger universities where physically fitting students into a lecture hall is impossible) are already starting to present lecture content online in the form of narrated powerpoint presentations or videos of lectures that students can watch at their leisure. In-class time can instead be spent on group projects and student presentations–things which encourage interaction between students and each other, as well as students and professors. Students learn better when they are actively engaged in the process, and for in-person learners that’s one of the most engaging uses of class time–so says this article from Barbara Davis at UC Berkley.
When students are doing their learning mostly online, collaboration is still possible, and it’s an important way for students to benefit from each other the way they would in a traditional real-time classroom. Professors need to be creative in how they adapt their technology for online learners: should each student be assigned to post something on the class blog for others to comment on each week? Should small-groups be assigned to IM with each other and present the transcript for the professor or the class? Should the professor assign students to make their own powerpoint lectures to share with the class? What will work for each class is different, but all of these share a common thread: they’re easily done online, and they encourage interaction between the individuals in a class.
Some things about being a college student (and about college students themselves) may be changing, but one thing hasn’t: the most valuable parts of college are the interactions between students and professors, and the interaction between students and their classmates.
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