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An Interview with Peter Smith on His New Book
Free-Range Learning in the Digital Age: The Emerging Revolution in College, Career, and Education By Peter Smith

By Amy Hilbelink / October 2019

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The future of higher education is one in which “adult learners who continue to learn on the job will receive both credit and respect for their informal learning” [1]. This prior learning, while not gained in the traditional sense, is the primary way for higher education to meet expectations for adult learners who have been left out of the traditional higher education system. For Peter Smith, this is not only an expectation, this is also a social justice issue. He is the Orkand Chair, Professor of Innovative Practices in Higher Education, University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC).

I have known Peter Smith for a number of years, and I had the pleasure of speaking with him recently about his new book, Free-Range Learning in the Digital Age (Select Books, 2018), and how it fits into the context of e-learning. The book is just as intriguing and enlightening as the others he has written. It, however, brings a new sense of urgency to the issue and provides a rather personal view of how traditional higher education has not well served many adult learners. Peter provides examples of individuals he interviewed over a period of years and how they struggled to gain credits from traditional institutions for their years of work. He also discusses how a variety of “adult-friendly” colleges have “gotten it right” and offers up interesting conversations with leaders of a number of education technology start-ups that are on paths to appropriately address the needs of today’s adult learners, by providing access and opportunity. For Peter, e-learning is the “vehicle” for spreading this potential to ever-expanding populations.

So, your books tend to focus on adult learning. Why is this topic important to you?

By happenstance, from the beginning, I have been working with marginalized learners, primarily adult learners who were not able to access college. The dominant college model hasn’t been friendly to many adults. This all goes back to when I created the community college system of Vermont in 1970 with 50 Head Start mothers. I saw their struggles, and that’s when I began falling in love with experiential learning and how it can make a difference for so many people. I begin the book with the interviews of the adult learners. These are individuals with tremendous talent, capacity and great intelligence who, through no fault of their own, were unable to make the system work for them. I call this “knowledge discrimination.” This means that where you learn something is more important than how well you know it and can apply it. Thus, the knowledge one learns away from college (personal learning) is valued less and often ignored; negatively impacting career opportunities. I show in the book how personal learning is acquired and how it can be powerful in changing one’s behaviors, skills, and attitudes. This is real learning.

Can you describe how, as educators, we go about addressing this population?

We hear a lot about disruptive innovation, beginning with Clayton Christiansen’s book [2], The Innovators Dilemma, and we are seeing plenty of disruption now in higher education. Disruption has a positive side because along with problems for traditional practices, it also brings new resources and approaches that allow us to reach these students when we couldn’t before. For example, there are different models now that use Skype, local libraries, or low residency programs so that learners get content and information at home online, but then meet with others every few weeks to talk through what they have learned.

We are also seeing a declining and/or static birth rate. So, there will just not be the same numbers of traditionally aged students enrolling in college. Furthermore, if we look at kids born today, and then project out to the year 2037, these kids will be 18 years old. Looking through their glasses, and the way higher education is and has been organized since before the days of the GI Bill, fewer students will want that approach.

Disruption in higher education is moving quicker than I even expected. There are two groups we need to be successful with as a society: 1) high-school graduates with no college and 2) working adults with some or no college. Some studies put this number for those two populations at 44–50 million. If our current institutions, or non-academic organizations, can crack the nut for those constrained by gender, zip code, and race, we will better serve those adults—bringing them into the mainstream. This has to happen if we are going to expand opportunity over the next 25 years. The existing system does have value, but it is fraught with issues when it comes to serving these individuals. These are good people who need different access to and support for higher education.

What do you mean by “free-range” learning?

Well, some people misunderstood the title by thinking I meant that folks could learn anything at any time. For instance, some may learn via MOOCS. MOOCS, however, are not an educational program. They are content. There are now an abundance of services, some incorporating MOOCs, that meet the students where they are, provide access, and meet their needs. This is what I meant by free-range. The resources that had been only available on campus are now available in many places. In an information-poor society, the campus was an island of information available for consumption, an oasis of organized curriculum and services, if you will. But the desert has gone green so to speak. The curricula and services can be made available anywhere, anytime. Free-range learning suggests that resources are now available for a radically more varied set of users and for providers to get into the education state with boot camps, services, new forms of education. These new resources are available beyond the traditional campus.

Explain what you mean by “adult friendly” colleges versus traditional colleges, and how they benefit today’s learners.

In the book, I interview presidents from very different places and types of institutions. The commonality among what they said was absolutely incredible. In my book, I share that “The value that tied all the comments together, in my estimation, was ‘personalization,’ the concept that policies, procedures, and practices in the adult-friendly college of the future would anticipate the personal needs and aspirations of the learner.” This puts the learner in the center: The institution adapts to the student, rather than asking the student to adapt to the institution. Another area identified by the various presidents was the concept of having convenience for the learner. This included scheduling, overall costs, shortened time to earn the degree because of assessment of prior learning, and having an institutional advocate to help with administrative snafus on a daily basis. Adult-friendly colleges also offer great advising and student support services- both academic and non-academic. There is greater convenience for the learner. An adult-friendly college will have customer service like Amazon, in that based on your current and past interests, newer areas of interest pop up that are personalized for you. Personalization doesn’t mean a million different solutions for a million people, but instead it means that all of those 1 million people know why their educational path is of value to them specifically. With mass personalization; every learner knows why, and every learner knows what they are doing.

Let’s talk a bit about some of the new services and/or technologies that you describe in the book, and some that are not in the book.

People need people to learn. Learning is social and interactive, and most learners want interaction. A company called YellowDig has created a fascinating online environment that builds community, and it has shown to improve student engagement and retention.

Edify is a company that works to supply training for and to support online teachers. Institutions can use the Edify services to support online faculty without developing the training themselves.

There are a great many opportunities now that weren’t available before. There are other institutions looking at academic competencies and job behaviors using data analytics. They begin with a gap analysis—to see where the learner behaviors vary, and they then focus on offering services to improve upon that gap. You’ll notice that in these spaces, there is no mention of content. Some newer companies in this space include Degreed, eMSI , Burning Glass , Strada and others that help learners organize content, prior learning, and multiple college transcripts so that the education experience makes sense for them and can lead to real payoff.

The big learning is disruption: There is a huge opportunity to define opportunity and access today. Clayton Christiansen noted that in higher education, the historic characteristics of the academic model’s success became, in fact, the seeds of failure when disruption hit. Therefore, in order to respond to disruption, I believe that higher education institutions need to create a separate entity for innovation to protect the change effort from the mother ship’s culture and the mother ship from the change effort’s possible failure. As one example, Champlain College in Vermont created a separate online entity and cut their online tuition in half tuition in half, reflecting the lower overhead that online has when compared to campus programs. The University of Maryland Global Campus has structured a new entity called UMGC Ventures that is separate and independent from UMUC.

What is the role of the academic advisor in helping students navigate the system, in terms of helping with goals and courses?

The old days of academic advising are over. Today great advising will include curricular-career pathing services that allow the learner to actually map the relationship between what they know, what they need to learn, and the occupational future they envision for themselves. But good academic and career advising, along with great content and teaching, while necessary to have a quality program, will not be sufficient to achieve that objective in and of themselves. The complete user experience, including 21st century customer service will be central to high quality outcomes in the years ahead.

For example, as I understand it, each student at Western Governors’ University is assigned an advisor on day one who acts like a shopper’s concierge and works with the student throughout the time they are there. If the student has questions about financial aid, or course schedules, or anything else; the advisor solves the problem for that student, freeing him/her up to do coursework. Advisors in traditional higher education tend to tell students what and why to do something. They don’t often work with the students to find a way through all the other things they struggle with. Look at Credly. They are one of those companies that is working with adult learners to build upon and to certify their skills.

What is the singular message people should get from your book?

The core message is to understand that you learn all the time, and that learning is valuable socially, civically, and economically as well as personally. I want to wake people, learners and educators, up to that fact, to learn and discover that learning, and to expect higher education to respect it. Respecting learners and having learners respect their own learning is a social justice issue. More people are educated consumers now. This is also generational, with today and tomorrow’s learners expecting to use portable usable devices. The workplace will be a key area of learning going forward. The workplace is already a community and employers are waking up to the fact that hiring people who, while they may have degrees, are not ready to work is expensive. So they are beginning to look for other solutions that meet their needs. The question is whether higher education will be a small part, or big part of that change.

When we consider that, on average, less than 10 percent of what you know is learned in school and only 4–6 percent of your life is spent on formal education, why would we stick with an approach to learning that focuses on the campus model as opposed to learning in the free-range? Formal learning is the skin and bones of your knowledge, maybe. But its heart and soul, its flesh and blood, is the learning you do beyond school, your personal learning.

Peter Smith is the author of other books on the topic including:

  • Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2010)
  • The Quiet Crisis: How Higher Education is Failing America (Anker Publishing, 2004)
  • Your Hidden Credentials: The Value of Learning Outside of College (Acropolis Books, 1986)


[1] Smith, P. Free-Range Learning in the Digital Age: The emerging revolution in college, career, and education. Select Books, New York, 2018.

[2] Christiansen, C. The Innovator’s Dilemma: When new technologies cause great firms to fail. Harvard Business Review Press, Cambridge, 1997.

About Peter Smith

Peter Smith, Ed.D., whose distinguished career in higher education includes serving as founding president of both California State University Monterey Bay and the Community College of Vermont, currently holds a five-year term as the Orkand Endowed Chair and Professor of Innovative Practices in Higher Education at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). After leaving Cal State Monterey Bay in 2005, Smith was responsible for the supervision and management of more than 700 staff located in more than 30 countries as Assistant Director General for Education for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in Paris, France. In 2007, Smith joined Kaplan University as a senior vice president for academic strategies and development and more recently served as founding president of Open College at Kaplan University. In that role, Smith used no-cost open educational resources to support learners who work toward a competency-based degree in professional studies. Smith also served his home state of Vermont as a state senator (1980-82) and as Lt. Governor (1982-86), while earning his Doctor of Education in administration planning and social policy from Harvard University in 1984. He ran successfully for the U.S. House of Representatives as Congressman-at-Large from Vermont and served from 1989-1990. While in Congress, Smith was a member of the Education and Labor and Government Operations committees and served on the post-secondary education subcommittee.

About the Author

Amy Hilbelink served as the Executive Director for Strategic Partner Initiatives within the AMEA region for Laureate International Education, Inc. Her responsibilities included advising and consulting with academic campus partners on innovative approaches to hybrid, blended, and fully online learning solutions to ensure positive student outcomes. Her work took her to India where, in addition to her campus work, she created a development center that addressed the online design and development needs of the Asia Pacific, Middle East and South Africa (AMEA) region. Additionally, Amy worked collaboratively with Monash South Africa in designing and shepherding a number of new programs for accreditation approval.

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