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The impact of work and life experience on learning: A conversation with Peter Smith

By Amy J. Hilbelink / May 2022

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This interview with Peter Smith focuses on his newest book on access to education, justice, and opportunity in America. Peter Smith is Orkand Chair and Senior Advisor at the University of Maryland Global Campus. In this interview, he discusses why he felt that now is the right time for this book, how those in higher education, and involved in eLearning can help better understand the situations of many adult learners and the struggles they encounter, and how higher-education institutions can assist learners in gaining access to education.

Smith uses short stories to relate examples of how the standard higher education experience has failed so many, and how these individuals have overcome the many roadblocks they encountered along the way. He shares these stories, intimately written in the first person by the individuals who experienced these barriers.

I began our conversation by asking: “Why do you feel that now is the right time for this book?”

“Because of Covid-19, I was exposed to the many structural inequalities in the workplace, that exist in this country. We all witnessed ‘essential’ workers not making much money but who were required to work in unsafe conditions. We would walk past them and say thank you very much, but we didn’t really see the conditions of these individuals because of social, civic, and economical inequalities. The pandemic did this for all sorts of folks. It exposed structural, social, civic, and economic inequalities. I saw what we need for us to be the society we want to be. We need to be more aggressive to be inclusive in a more purposeful way. Education is critical to us all having a ‘just’ society,” he explained.

Peter looked at his own life as privileged. He had advisors, respect, mentors, and opportunity growing up. “These things ultimately happened to the 20 individuals showcased in the book, but it did not happen initially. It takes emotional intelligence for people to learn what they are capable of, and these individuals each demonstrated a different way of achieving success in higher education. Higher education can offer a partial solution to social, civic, and economical inequalities,” he continued.

Peter uses short stories to relate examples of how the standard higher education experience has failed so many, and how these individuals have overcome the many roadblocks they encountered along the way. He shares these stories, intimately written in the first person by the individuals who experienced these barriers. The common theme among the short stories is that the learners each followed a non-traditional path to get their higher education degrees. Some learners had been incarcerated early on in life and struggled to gain access to an education. Others were young single parents with limited resources and opportunities. Others felt they were not capable of achieving an education because of the lack of support they experienced early on. Others began college and dropped out a few times over and struggled to ultimately complete their degree, while others only attained a degree once their employer helped pave the way. Each of these individuals explained through their stories how they struggled, yet finally overcame their unique challenges.

We then spoke about the Bootstrap theory he details in the conclusion of the book. “The Bootstrap Fallacy assumes that all learners need to be successful is to have more ‘grit’ or ‘pluck.’ It shifts the blame for higher education failure to the individual. What the stories exemplify is that there is extraordinary intelligence walking around that we don’t recognize. The higher education institutions that we have created frequently do not serve the 35% that do not graduate. If we want a society that can become all it can be, then we need to think differently from this very hierarchical structure, that is primarily western, liberal, and male-oriented. General education is one example. Why wouldn’t we think about the reason we ask learners to take these general education courses? What do we want learners to be good at, or to be like after taking these courses? We could incorporate social-emotional skills, and respect for the culture that learners bring with them. We tend to build in the excuses and assign blame to the individual. This is not addressing the social needs of the learner. We can also bring the workplace into the conversation. The learner is typically working someplace, but not getting credit for their work. Small numbers of individuals just want to learn, but not necessarily get a degree or certificate. We need to recognize that and if we achieve success with 25% more students who come to us, we will change the landscape, so learners see [the] success that they don’t see today.”

I asked Peter his thoughts on institutions or EdTech companies that are currently working on reaching and serving these learners. “It is a longer list than I can effectively speak to,” he replied. College Unbound is very interesting to Peter, in that it predominately focuses on former felons and other adults who have experienced significant barriers to higher education. Once enrolled, learners may meet in area ‘church’ basements or other common meeting places that are not institutional in nature. There are so many schools and HE [higher ed] institutions that are in the process of changing the way they think about adult learners. Some of those include Southern New Hampshire University, Excelsior College, Arizona State University, and the University of Maryland Global Campus. Some of these have hit on a successful formula for serving adult learners that need to be redesigned and reformulated for other traditional institutions.

Coursera, Credly, and StraighterLine are other examples Peter mentioned. These are companies invested in new and innovative ways of assisting adult learners to achieve their education dreams. Coursera offers a platform where learners can access content for free or for a fee for a credential. Credly offers digital credentialing that structures learners’ outcomes into actual skills that can be used to find employment. According to Peter, there are many companies working on skill matching. Skills matching takes the skills a learner has (perhaps even volunteer work), assists with gaining credit for those skills, and aligns them to employer needs. StraighterLine offers what they call “low-cost online courses for easily transferable college credit.” These online courses can then transfer to many traditional higher ed institutions.

What call to action does Peter have for intuitions of higher education?

“If I were a traditional institution, I would ask how I could get four years of validated learning in three years on campus, and then have one beyond campus. They should offer experiences beyond the standard general education and electives, and at the same time, use technology to increase their footprint, rather than building more buildings. Institutions could give academic rewards for doing experiential things. We could ask learners, ‘what have you learned and how are you using it.’ You can’t teach reflection- but you can ask learners to think through things; to internalize what they are learning.”

As our conversation came to a close, I asked one final question: What role does digital education play in the education of the future? “All these things I have discussed can be enhanced by technology. Without technology, we have no way of knowing if the standards being used validate the learning across the board. With technology, we can have great advising, great career advice, a better instructional and emotional hierarchy of sophistication. Technology can help organize services to the learner. Online is incorporated into all the companies mentioned previously. Technology is the expediter of all sorts of understandings to be reached and capacities to be recognized. What we have experienced in the last 10 years is a new learning ecosystem. Technology is the way forward.”

About the Author

Dr. Amy J. Hilbelink is a digital education leader and consultant. Amy serves as the Campus President, Pittsburgh / Online at South College where she is responsible for overall online admissions, student support, and program development for a rapidly growing online presence. Previously, she served as the executive director for strategic partner initiatives within the AMEA region for Laureate International Education, Inc. She advised and consulted with academic campus partners on innovative approaches to hybrid, blended, and fully online learning solutions to ensure positive student outcomes. She held senior roles in the areas of academic strategy and development, as well as curriculum development, and led teams of course designers and developers. Amy's background includes work within traditional and for-profit institutions of higher education. Interests include online academic quality initiatives, project development, and management. Amy obtained her bachelor's degree from Marshall University, her master's degree and doctoral degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of South Florida.

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