Wednesday, 11 February 2015 21:32

Connected Learning: Two Case Studies

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Post secondary institutions can no longer afford to continue operating the way that they have operated and are “recogniz[ing] the need to constantly look for new approaches to meet the needs of […] learners and the community in fiscally challenging times” (Lethbridge College, 2014). For many institutions this may mean a deficit budget while the institution undergoes bold restructuring in the manner that they serve students and the community. Lethbridge College’s Comprehensive Institutional Plan includes an aggressive plan for product development and applied research. Both of these strategies include a close working relationship with the industries that students are entering into reflecting the third principle of connected learning, authentic learning experiences. The plan also includes a move towards modularized learning and an intensive plan for prior assessment of learning for incoming students. Lethbridge College is in the infancy stages of using connected learning strategies to increase revenue and retention, however there are a number of institutions that have already been successful in doing so.

Learning Lab

The following cases illustrate some of the ways in which universities and colleges are using connected learning to make it financially viable to deliver a post-secondary education.

Arizona State University
Arizona State University (ASU) offers a unique and future focused model of connected learning to ensure student success. They meet the three characteristics of connected learning in the following manner. Each prospective student is assigned an admissions representative at first contact. Each school has their own advising center to advise students as they complete their degree and first year students are assigned an advisor for advising on academics and school life. ASU has a software to track student progress as they move to complete their degree.
A vast array of degrees and online learning opportunities allow for personalized learning. Personalized learning often is synonymous with flexible learning, offering students a personalized that allows them to complete their degree in a reasonable amount of time, with as little debt as possible and to the best of their ability. For many students, online learning allows them the flexibility to work, raise a family or take the classes that they desire without worrying about scheduling conflicts. This has the added bonus for institutions of requiring less physical space on campus, providing an opportunity to decrease operating costs. At ASU’s Tempe campus, nearly half of the students in a face-to-face class are also taking at least one online course each semester. Students are still able to experience the ‘student life’ with the added flexibility allowing for them to manage other demands.
ASU does not ignore the last tenant of connected learning, in fact they may take it the most seriously. The learning experiences are connected to industry in both the practice and financially. In some cases, students are given real funds to create real applications for sale, benefitting both the student and the university. The university offers a number of multidisciplinary programs where students from different programs work alongside each other. “One of the school’s answers brings together students from computer engineering, design, business and journalism to collaborate in creating new media. In the New Media Innovation Lab, these students tackle real problems in real time, using a variety of knowledge bases. They analyze the past and create the future” (Arizona State University, 2010, p. 14). Student work on solar energy will soon meet thirty percent of the campus’ energy needs. So not only are students gaining real life experience, the university is reducing its expenditure and increasing its revenue through student learning. It is becoming a self-sustained, rather than government dependent, institution.

Southern New Hampshire University
Southern New Hampshire University used an ambitious online education division to combat decreasing enrollment, poor branding and financial trouble (Kahn, 2014). The transition began in 2009 when president Paul LeBlanc inspired by the Innovator’s Dilemma, doubled down on their online education division by developing a robust online education department that now boasts an enrollment of “21 000 students and $118 million in revenue” (Selingo, 2013, p. 115). Although the school is revenue generating, they are by no means intending to gouge students for funds in order to keep the institution afloat. In fact, LeBlanc’s current goal is to create a degree that students will be able to complete for $10 000.
SNHU has gone to a competency based model of education to allow for the seamless integration of advising and the personalized model of learning. Competency based learning means students demonstrate their knowledge, skills or abilities around a specific area of learning and are enabled through technologies (Calkins & Vogt, 2013).
Competencies tend to demand an authentic learning environment. SNHU “has fashioned partnerships with several local employers that help design the curriculum and provide students to the program” (p.116) allowing the students to remain engaged in a curriculum that is current, relevant and provides them with first hand experience of the industry that they plan to be employed in. SNHU student Pedro Malhando spends more time off campus in his internship than he does in classrooms. “I’ll be ready for a career because this whole program is meant to narrow my interests and inform my choices” (p. 163) says Maldonado and as an added bonus, the university is using community resources to engage students in their learning. The university spends less, the student learns more and the community partner gets additional staff that they will very likely hire after graduation; a win-win-win.
Competency based models also allow students to demonstrate prior knowledge and earn credit for competencies that they may have already gained prior to enrolling. Although this may mean less tuition for the college, it also means more flexibility and a higher chance of completing the degree for the student, making it more likely for them to enroll and stick with it.

The institutions that have truly taken hold of the connected learning approach have used the strategies to improve student outcomes, student experience, industry needs and their budgets. Institutions like ASU and SNHU have taken hold of the tenants of connected learning, broken through the bureaucratic red tape and been bold enough to reimagine what an educational institution can be. As a result, they have effectively addressed a number of the financial, social, industry and student pressures that have recently plagued post secondary institutions.

Check out the first part of our connected learning series: What is Connected Learning?

Arizona State University. (2010). An American University. Arizona Board of Regents.

Calkins A. and Vogt K. (2013). Next Generation Learning: Pathways to Possibility. Educause.

Kahn, G. (2014, January 2). The Amazon of Higher Education. Retrieved

Lethbridge College. (2014). Leading and Transforming Education in Alberta (unpublished). Lethbridge College, Lethbridge.

Selingo, J. (2013) College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students. New York, NY: Amazon Publishing.

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