Equipping adult learners with the data to tell their own story

Allan Golston
Blog Post

I’ve long believed in the transformative power of education. I’ve experienced it firsthand in my life and saw it every day growing up through the persistence and courage of my parents who both worked their way through a postsecondary education as adult learners. 

It’s one of the reasons I’m a passionate advocate for people navigating our education and workforce systems today. I believe everyone should have the opportunity to take control of their future and achieve their aspirations, and at the foundation, we’re working to create the conditions and structures in our education and workforce systems to help make that happen. 

Much like my parents decades ago, today’s adult learners make up a sizable portion of students in higher education. Twenty-nine percent of all undergraduate students and 77 percent of graduate students are over the age of 25. Among these older students, more than half are parents, more than half work at least 20 hours a week, and many are raising and supporting families at the same time. But our current education and workforce systems lack the information infrastructure to create solutions that center learners’ rich histories, personal situations, and aspirations. 

Because the data systems of education institutions, employers, and other key stakeholders aren’t connected and are largely incompatible, adult learners often struggle to assemble and share a comprehensive picture of their education with employers and postsecondary institutions, and they face slow and insufficient credit transfers between colleges and universities.

Beyond institutional credit transfer, we know that adult learners and earners have other emerging needs and priorities that could be supported by better technology. For example, Digital Promise collaborated with learners experiencing these transitions to explore how new tools could be leveraged to support learners directly in their journeys, and has produced design principles to help guide developers to meet these needs.

But learners aren’t the only ones hitting hurdles across systems because of disconnected data. All too often, institutions, employers, and researchers are only able to see the “tip of the iceberg” of a student’s full learning and achievement. Student advisors can’t understand a learner’s experiences, which limits their abilities to make fully-informed academic recommendations, and researchers can’t readily access information that can help students in pursuit of other education and employment opportunities. Educational institutions and training providers could benefit from a shared view of a learner to facilitate recruitment, engagement, and placement.

With a clearer, more comprehensive picture of their education and employment experiences in hand, learners can maximize their rich and unique histories toward better and more equitable academic and economic futures. 

I’m excited to share that we’re working to address this issue with our recent support of the Learner Information Framework. This effort will help institutions, employers, and adult students work together to address the challenges around retrieving and sharing adult learners’ education and employment information across systems. It builds on efforts that have happened within institutions across the country and seeks to create solutions that can work to help improve students’ educational and employment outcomes.

The Learner Information Framework will convene expert stakeholders from technology, educational, employment, and data standards communities in an exploration of how technology can be used to describe and connect dispersed information from multiple areas to help ensure learners’ experiences and achievements are fully reflected. This work will also explore guidelines and processes for how this information should be protected and accessed by stakeholders – learners, employers, and academic institutions – when needed. 

Think of a solution similar to what exists in healthcare today where technology applications have been developed to share electronic medical records across healthcare systems, empowering patients to better manage their health care, and providers to deliver the right care based on a full picture of the patient’s medical history. This is a common-sense improvement we should strive to achieve in our education and workforce systems. 

A key early partner in this work is Southern New Hampshire University.  In SNHU’s coaching-centric learning model, the ability to break down data silos and have a holistic view of their learners is critical to providing better support, improving persistence, and getting more students to graduation. SNHU serves over 185,000 learners that include working adults juggling work, family, and education, students turning to online education, thousands of military learners, and frontline workers from some of America’s largest employers. Their student population underscores the importance of being able to present data that reflects these rich and varied experiences.

This project takes into account the success of all students, and especially those learners who experience additional and often systemic barriers to achieving their aspirations, including students from low-income backgrounds and students of color.

There’s no question that the make-up of today’s student population has changed, and postsecondary institutions need adaptive tools to serve these new learners effectively.

Creating an equitable, learner-centered solution for data will help learners, educators, institutions, and researchers work together to make decisions that serve the best interests of learners as they navigate their life’s journey. This is a big vision and we’re just beginning to take steps to make it happen. But it also reinforces our commitment to ensuring everyone navigating our education and workforce systems develops the knowledge, skills, and agency needed to thrive and can lead a healthy and productive life.