Champion for Adult Students Says Colleges Must Change How They Teach

Digital Learning

Champion for Adult Students Says Colleges Must Change How They Teach

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jun 8, 2017

Champion for Adult Students Says Colleges Must Change How They Teach

This article is part of the guide: Thought Leaders Discuss The College (And Classroom) Of the Future.

Marie Cini started her career in the 1980s, when the small college she worked for made a push to attract more working adult students. As she met with them, she realized how much college was designed for 18-year-olds who had nothing to do but study.

“When our adult students came, other than giving them evening courses and a couple of offices that would be open until seven on Monday night, there was no support,” she says. “And that sent me on a mission.”

That mission brought her to the University of Maryland University College, an institution that specializes in serving older students, and she has been called one of the foremost thought leaders in adult education. She’s just made the jump from provost to a senior academic innovation fellow, tasked with looking to big new ideas in learning and experimental efforts in both teaching and student success.

We caught up with Cini recently for a far-ranging chat about what tools (like OER) are helping adult students and how the latest technology (like AI) could further move the needle.

The conversation was part of our Thought Leader Interview series on the future of education. Below is an edited and condensed version of the conversation, or watch the complete interview.

EdSurge: With all the changes we’re seeing and news coming out, what’s the biggest single challenge that’s facing higher ed right now?

Cini: From my perspective the biggest challenge is really bringing together a combination of high-quality education to students the way they need it, where and when they need it, and to create the best learning experience. We sort of assume that higher ed is what it’s been for years, and we just bring it to new people. But we have to actually change the experience of learning. A lot of the folks here are working on that, but we haven’t solved it yet. There are a lot of little experiments going on, but I think you’re going to see a lot more of this coming together.

This conference attracts plenty of venture capitalists and companies in education. And yet when you go onto a campus, there’s a lot of skepticism of the corporatization of higher ed. How do you see that balance, and how do you wrestle with that yourself?

First I just have to say that I love the fact that you said, “So you go onto a college campus.” I think we have to get to a point where we start to separate out the campus experience as college from higher education and learning. I don’t actually go into banks anymore. I don’t go into shopping centers. Now that’s not to say that there won’t be some students who are actually going to a college campus. But how do we actually take learning, big learning, outside of just the physical place and take it to where students really are? We’ve really gotta rethink higher education.

The second part of this question is how do we do this in a way that is good for our students? And it has to start with students. I’m gonna go back to the learning experience. We need faculty more than ever. We need faculty who can design good learning experiences with good content, but then we need to go and partner with the best people who are solving certain problems that universities might not be able to solve on their own. University presidents and leaders now need to think about how do you pull all of that together. But you have to start with what experience you want for the student. And then the rest of it isn’t easy but at least you have a clear pathway.

One of the things that you’ve looked at is OER, or Open Education Resources—moving away from commercial textbooks and looking for openly licensed (often free) materials online. How does that factor into your focus on adult students?

About 40 percent of our students were either not buying the textbook or buying really outdated textbooks, or maybe sharing a textbook with someone. And so, if you think about it as an access issue, our students didn’t have access to any kind of good learning materials.

The rub with OER, though, is that some people feel these free materials aren’t as good as published textbooks. What do you say to faculty or others who are skeptical that this can be as good?

The first thing that I would ask them is, “Why would you believe that publisher textbooks would necessarily be a higher level of quality than OERs, which are curated by faculty?” This is not just a walk through Wikipedia. Faculty have created these. They put them out in the open licensed space, and other faculty have added to them. Don’t think of this as badly done handouts. These are videos and all kinds of learning simulations. There’s a lot of really good stuff going on out there.

Remind people how big the OER effort is at UMUC.

We have 85,000 students around the world, and over a thousand courses. And we did move from publisher’s textbooks to all OERs over three years. This was huge.

So this is not just a couple of pilot experiments. You are doing OER in a thousand courses?

We went big. Part of the issue when you’re this big is if you only do it for some of the students, it’s really unfair to the rest. So we wanted to give that ability for all the students to have the material right there. At the same time we are counting how much we’re saving students and we’re up to about $19 million saved for students.

Shifting gears a little bit, I hear your role is changing at UMUC, and that you’re taking on a new job where you’ll be looking at next-generation ideas like AI and learning analytics. What is the type of project you’ll do as you get a little bit out of the day-to-day provost and more into that role?

Yes, I’ll be transitioning from provost to Senior Fellow for Academic Innovation. It’s just the ability to think big. I’ve been the provost for five years, it’s been wonderful. We’ve done a lot of good things for the students. But my real passion is, how do we serve adult students at scale in ways that we have just never even thought about before?

Let me give you an example. A couple of years ago I got one of these personal assistants at home. You might call it Google Home or Amazon Echo, you know, a couple of these. And the more I use it the more I realize how that will become the way we interact with our world. Very quickly, actually. So it’s beyond just ordering things from a company. You can control lighting, you can control front doors and sensors, and you can call a Lyft or an Uber. And I keep thinking, “Well, wouldn’t it be great if I’m an adult student and I’m at home trying to work on things, wouldn’t it be great if I had an assistant who could be my tutor who could help me sign up for future courses?” That could connect me through to talk to a live person as I’m making dinner, for example.

So I think we have to, in higher ed, really start to think about three to five years from now that all can really happen.

What do you see as the biggest concerns raised by this technology? Privacy comes to my mind.

Yeah. Privacy is one. And I don’t want to make it sound as if I think it’s all about technology. I don’t. One of the things that I think universities need to do a better job of is to think through what their learning model is. What is it that they believe is the way that students should learn best, given what they want the outcomes to be for their students? At UMUC we’ve actually created our learning model, which is based on experiential education. A kind of combination of problem-based learning and project based learning. And once you know how you believe students go through a cycle of learning, then you can bring in the technology that will support that. But you can’t just bring in technology and hope that it’s all gonna work together.

How did you get into this work?

I’ll go back to 1983. I was working at a small college north of Pittsburgh, and I stumbled into it because it was a small college that was trying to reinvent itself because it wasn’t bringing in as many residential students—kind of like what we’re experiencing now. And so they moved into working with returning women. It was funny at the time; we didn’t think that men went back to school. We just thought women did. So there were these returning women’s groups, and I started working with adult students who were coming back. And, in fact, there were men too. And I realized that our entire college was built around the 18-year-old who would live on campus [with] Mom and Dad paying the bills.

When our adult students came, other than giving them evening courses and a couple of offices that would be open until seven on Monday night, there was no support. We realized it completely wasn’t working for adult students. And that sent me on a mission. Always in my career there’s this pattern, a pivot moment where, if I’m working at an institution and we have gotten as far as we can get serving adult students, that’s when I start to think, “I really want to go someplace now where I can serve them even more.” And at a level where I can impact their lives better.

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