How ‘personalized learning’ can put college in reach for nontraditional students

Posted by Nancy Rogan on

A program in Arizona supports nontraditional students who want to pursue degrees at their own speed. Much like a Netflix subscription, the new program lets students pay a flat fee for a personalized curriculum that works within their schedules. Hari Sreenivasan reports on how Northern Arizona University is putting bachelor's degrees within reach for many.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We conclude our special education series Rethinking College.

Tonight, how one university offers customized learning to fit the busy lives of nontraditional students.

Hari Sreenivasan has our report, part of our weekly segment Making the Grade.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Terence Burley lives on the Navajo reservation in Northern Arizona, a place where college often seems beyond the horizon.

TERENCE BURLEY, Personalized Learning Student, Northern Arizona University: I wanted to go to college, and it didn’t work out.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Only 7 percent of residents on the reservation get college degrees.

TERENCE BURLEY: It was a money issue. My parents weren’t really making a lot of money.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now a 42-year-old father, Terence is pursuing his bachelor’s degree, hoping to advance his career in computer technology.

TERENCE BURLEY: I want to make myself more marketable.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Burley is using federal grants to pay tuition at Northern Arizona University, a campus that is 160 miles away.

He’s enrolled in an unusual online program called personalized learning.

Rita Cheng is the president of Northern Arizona University.

RITA CHENG, President, Northern Arizona University: Personalized learning is a perfect approach to students who may have competency they have gained from their work experience. It is a demonstration of mastery.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The program allows Terence to quickly move through college courses because it’s based on a subscription, like Netflix. Students pay one flat fee every six months, and take as many courses as they have time for.

RITA CHENG: If they can master something very quickly, they can speed through segments of the curriculum.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Terence is studying information technology, and as a software administrator, he’s been able to use what he’s learned on the job to advance.

TERENCE BURLEY: The courses reemphasizes what you know already. I’m tested for my competency. If I pass my test, I’m able to pass my courses.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He must still take the core curriculum required of all on-campus university students.

Cori Gordon is the coordinator for NAU’s personalized learning program.

CORI GORDON, Personalized Learning Coordinator, Northern Arizona University: Everything is online, and it was all curated by a professor. We will use online textbooks. We use videos. We use case studies. We use simulations, interactive software.

What’s different about us, though, is that the students really have the keys. So, everything is available when the student starts, and they determine when they’re ready to move on to the next concept. They determine when they’re ready to take the test.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But there are challenges with Terence Burley’s remote learning. He lives in his mother’s house, which currently has no electricity or Internet.

TERENCE BURLEY: I use my cell phone to get connected. And on a good day, I usually get two bars.

HARI SREENIVASAN: When his laptop runs out of power, Burley recharges it by plugging into his truck. And his day is long.

TERENCE BURLEY: Usually, I wake up at 4:00 in the morning, be on the road by 4:30 a.m. I get home. By 6:00 p.m., I start my class again from 8:00 p.m. up to 10:00 p.m.

RITA CHENG: There are so many working adults. This allows students to go at their own pace, balance their family, work and stay on the job, demonstrate what they have learned in their career, and complete the degree.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Northern Arizona University was the first public college to receive accreditation and federal aid for four-year degree students who can move through courses by proving competencies.

But the program is still very small. So far, only 172 students have graduated.

Selina Larson is one of them. Selina graduated on the same day as her 22-year-old daughter, Raven. Larson decided on personalized learning after her daughter began classes at NAU’s Flagstaff campus.

SELINA LARSON, Graduate, Northern Arizona University: I said, you know what, I’m going back to school, and I’m going to finish before you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Larson did graduate before Raven, by five hours.

RAVEN LARSON, Graduate, Northern Arizona University: Here’s my hero graduating from college.

SELINA LARSON: Five hours before you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Larson did all the course work for a liberal arts bachelor’s degree at their family home in Phoenix. It took her three years.

SELINA LARSON: I did appreciate having my own timeline. I think that gives you a lot of control, but you have to be very motivated.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The university points to anecdotal success stories, but there’s been little research to show if this new way of learning benefits students. And, for Larson, the process wasn’t always easy. There were technical glitches.

SELINA LARSON: There could be a struggle with software, where something just went wrong. It doesn’t open. And you can’t get in, and their I.T. can’t help you. So you’re going around in circles sometimes. There’s no office to go to, to talk to somebody.

HARI SREENIVASAN: President Cheng acknowledges early problems with the software, but says technology has been improving.

RITA CHENG: Every year, we’re getting better with the technology. And NAU has always been known to adapt to the latest in technology, and we will continue.

HARI SREENIVASAN: President Cheng herself was a nontraditional student, relying on the U.S. post office and correspondence courses for much of her college work.

RITA CHENG: I spent seven years and five universities getting a bachelor’s degree. Affordability and access were always important to me.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For Selina Larson, the bachelor’s degree has given her new confidence.

SELINA LARSON: We’re just this huge, prideful family right now.

She was super, super proud. I don’t know that it changed how she saw me, but I know that she has, like, this huge sense of pride that I have in her, now she has in me.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And while Terence Burley estimates he still has two years to go, he believes a bachelor’s degree is finally within reach.

TERENCE BURLEY: I will just take it course by course, and, eventually, I will get there.

From PBS NewsHour.  Click here to watch the video.

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