5 ways a flexible academic structure increases equity

In a world dominated by the convergence of information and technology, where almost anything–from fast food to cars, and even homes–can be selected and ordered 24/7 over the web, and at a time when the economy is dominated by a service-on-demand environment, higher education is, for the most part, still largely stagnant in responding to the changing needs of the populations it serves.

A large percentage of our students today do not fit the definition of “traditional” students. An increasing number of our students are first generation, already work full time or at multiple jobs side-by-side with their academic pursuits, being the breadwinner and primary caregiver for their families, or are returning to college after years in the workforce. Unlike the “traditional student” of yesteryear, these students are faced with the pressure of balancing academics with the realities of life, balancing the potential opportunity afforded by a degree with other competing–and at times more important–priorities of work, home, and family responsibilities.

The structures in place at most universities, designed around constructs of the distant past, are at best constraining for this population and at worst create an inequity of access and opportunity for success. Here are five aspects related to increasing flexibility of the structure of higher education that could help better meet the needs of some students, while increasing opportunities for all.

1. Moving away from a rigid agrarian calendar

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that universities were able, when needed, to be flexible about the calendar, changing start and end dates to best meet the exigencies faced. While a rigid set of start and end dates for a traditional semester may be appropriate in some cases, the use of two specific dates built around the agrarian calendar for the start of semesters has less relevance for courses taught online or in an accelerated/intensive formats, and even for regular courses under specific conditions. Rio Salado College in Arizona, for example, offers as many as 12 different starts in a term through its semester block calendar and both Arizona State Online and the University of Texas at Arlington offer multiple starts for their online programs. This flexibility enables students to meld their schedule of work and other responsibilities with academics rather than being constrained by a single set of dates. The “miss one and you have to wait an entire year to start” scenario should not be the barrier that it is to access and starting courses.

2. Terms of varying length

Traditional length semesters may serve some students. However, these are also a barrier to progression and completion for others, and it is advantageous to implement shorter terms with multiple starts throughout the year (rather than just the traditional fall and spring), enabling working students to balance their needs and responsibilities, and decrease the “drop-out” phenomenon that is due more to the unpredictability of life than poor academic performance. We must remember that the desire to have students undertake a “traditional” full-time curriculum competes with the realities of their lives—employment, family responsibilities, and more–that cannot be placed on hold while the student completes a degree.

The use of a carousel concept with shorter terms that would allow students to “jump on and off” their education as needed enables them to take courses when possible, stop for a short period(s), and return. This model allows students to balance work and life responsibilities with those of study and is also advantageous for working professionals. Among other factors, this helps address shift changes that cause extreme difficulty in completing courses within a semester but can be accommodated with shorter terms that match the period of the work shift. While some may well argue that shorter terms do not provide the appropriate time for learning, there are many successful implementations of shorter terms already in the trimester and quarter system, as well as through the mini-mesters, already used in winter and summer sessions at most institutions.

3. Enabling hybrid modes of attendance

The pandemic led to significant changes in modalities of teaching, resulting in courses being offered in a variety of modes–from full digital immersion to the Hyflex mode that enabled students to go back and forth between in-person and digital modes. Allowing students the flexibility of moving between modes, especially between in-person and online asynchronous modes, would be of great benefit to working students who often drop out or have difficulty keeping up because of work-related travel, periods of intense work responsibility, or for emergencies, such as those associated with children and elderly parents. The ability to seamlessly continue using a mode that best suits the circumstance as opposed to the current solution of dropping out would provide much-needed flexibility to continue progressing towards the end goal of a degree or credential.

The incorporation of these three aspects, all in some way involving the academic calendar and structures derived from it, especially when combined with the ability to offer courses year-round, would enable universities and colleges to offer multiple routes to a credential or degree in comparison to the current rigid framework that is based on the agrarian requirement of starting in early fall and ending in early summer.

4. Modularizing the curriculum

While it is critical that course content and quality not be diluted, and in fact in many cases needs to be enhanced significantly, the current structure forces all students to go through the same material over the same period of time irrespective of prior knowledge and/or ability. Thus, the individual who through work experience has already mastered 80 percent of the course material, and the student who is able to learn at a faster pace, are both “bored” for a substantial period of the course, whereas the individual who needs additional time is unlikely to get the level of attention and support needed for success.

Dividing a course into 3-4 modules could provide the needed flexibility, with students being provided the ability to “test out” or otherwise show competence for each module, with “course attendance” only being required for the needed aspect. In addition, the increased use of digital technology and precepts of adaptive learning/teaching could enable students to progress at their own pace (within broad guidelines) and based on the knowledge and skills they bring to each aspect of the curriculum.

5. Bring credit and non-credit options closer

The increased focus on providing the degree-seeking student with academic knowledge and workforce skills, and the increasing popularity of short-term programs such as credentials to enable “reskilling/upskilling” both within and outside a degree program, bring up an important structural facet of integrating short-term programs that are often offered through continuing/professional education centers, or directly by industry, with those offered as part of a degree program.

In many cases, the curricular content overlaps or is similar, with the difference being the examination at the end of the course and the practice gained through mandatory graded assignments. In most cases, students who have completed a certificate outside the formal degree program have to effectively retake the entire course, even if both are completed at the same university, to gain credit that would count towards a degree. Enabling effective collaboration between both sectors, including for records and transcripts, through an integrated data system that stored equivalencies between these offerings would allow for pathways between the noncredit and credit bearing courses. Obviously, those who took the non-credit option would need to demonstrate competency and adequate mastery of the subject at an academic level through an examination.

Basic structures in higher education remained unchanged for decades, as though chiseled in stone. Steps taken to address the effects of the pandemic have shown that many of these structures can be modified, and in doing so, they enable greater equity of access and the ability for all students to progress on a path of opportunity. Changes will be needed in policy, funding mechanisms including aspects related to financial aid, and the manner in which universities operate moving towards a flexible, year-round calendar. The advantages–especially in opening out paths to degree progression and post-degree success–for a significantly larger population are too great to ignore. A few four-year institutions and many community colleges have already shown the efficacy of structural flexibility. It should be emphasized that there is no suggestion that the changes will not require adequate resources for implementation, or that further and higher levels of faculty/staff support will not be needed, nor that these are a replacement for the richness of the experience of well-structured face-to-face education.

But given that the options described in this article can enhance equity of opportunity for a greater number of students (especially those underserved to date, opening doors to those for whom a college education was beyond reach because of structural inflexibility of the System), there is no justification not to change. There are no panaceas, but there are mechanisms of structural flexibility through which transformative educational experiences can be made possible for a much wider population, eliminating some of the inequities of the past, and through that enabling a better future for all. Surely, we owe that to the nation.

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