The online option: College for adults who work

Technology, automation, and shifting personal and workplace expectations have all redefined how we look at jobs and careers. Unlike previous generations when success was measured by getting a “good” lifetime job with a “good” company, today’s adults rarely work for one company or even have one career per lifetime. They change jobs, they change industries, they move in and out of the workplace, they pivot to brand new careers—often more than once in their working lives. These career shifts usually require new skills and additional education. Advancement in rapidly evolving digital workplaces can require new ways of thinking and doing—and additional education. Developments in technology and the growth of automation and AI mean that some jobs will become obsolete and many workers will need to retool and shift to other occupations or careers. Once again, they need additional education to do that.

A recent McKinsey Global Institute Report estimates that automation will displace over 38 million full-time employees in the US by 2030—that translates into millions of workers who will need new skill sets and knowledge. The report goes on to say,

Providing job retraining and enabling individuals to learn marketable new skills throughout their lifetime will be a critical challenge—and for some countries, the central challenge. Midcareer retraining will become ever more important as the skill mix needed for a successful career change.

Lifetime learning may be the new mantra, but until fairly recently, college for adults who work has not been a specific focus on the educational landscape. Whether an adult heads back to school out of financial necessity, displacement, changing career goals, or even to just follow a passion, going back to the classroom poses unique challenges. When adults enroll in a college program, degree completion is a high priority, but they can find the cards stacked against achieving that goal. Adults often have family responsibilities that are an equally high priority, not to mention existing jobs and careers that cannot be set aside. In addition to budget and planning challenges, finding time can become one of the largest stumbling blocks. For a typical adult with personal and professional commitments, time is a precious commodity and always in short supply. Getting to a classroom at the end of a long workday can be difficult, if not impossible; fitting a pre-scheduled, on-campus class into an already overscheduled life can prove elusive. As a result, lack of time and inflexibility of educational options can derail the ambitions, careers, and financial security of many working adults.

Online education is changing all that. When the classroom can be wherever an adult learner must be, time and travel become less of a factor. When adults have the flexibility to take classes and learn skills at a schedule that accommodates competing responsibilities, pivoting to a new career, acquiring new skills to advance in your present career or even just growing intellectually all become attainable.

The debut of Penn LPS Online’s Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (BAAS) degree and career-focused certificates are changing the playing field for many adult learners and redefining what access to an Ivy League educational experience means. In today’s world, learning, at the highest level, is not limited to a traditional classroom setting or to one geographical location. With the launch of Penn LPS Online offerings, both adult learners and their employers are poised to reap the benefits of an evolving and enhanced educational landscape.

We sat down with Kris Rabberman, PhD, Assistant Vice Dean and Director of Academic Affairs for Professional and Liberal Education in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania and Jacqueline P. Candido, PhD, Senior Director, Online Learning & Program Design/Delivery, University of Pennsylvania to talk about how Penn LPS Online is expanding access to an Ivy League education.

What was the impetus behind creating Penn LPS Online?

JPC: The motivation for creating Penn LPS Online was to expand access to a college education for working adults and other non-traditional students. Although Penn has been serving this audience for many years, Penn LPS Online leverages Penn’s strength in arts and sciences to fulfill its access mission in effective and innovative ways.

Many adult students are attracted to programs that provide flexible, affordable paths to online degrees, hybrid (online/in-person), and compressed course formats. Today Penn has an opportunity to offer a high-quality, applied arts and sciences online degree that is unique in higher education.

KR: The Dean of Arts and Sciences, Steven Fluharty, gave SAS faculty and LPS the charge to revise undergraduate education for working adults. We wanted to provide working adults with a curriculum grounded in the arts and sciences, and accessible to people whose professional and personal commitments make it difficult for them to make it to campus for classes. We also wanted to develop a curriculum that was truly applied—in which students take courses across the humanities, social sciences, and natural and physical sciences, and also benefit from program requirements that help them to articulate to employers how they will apply what they learned in the classroom outside of the university and in the workplace.

College for adults who work—is that a new audience for Penn?

KR: Definitely not! In the last century, Penn expanded access to a college education to working adults in the Philadelphia area, allowing them to take courses part-time in the evenings.

In 1906 the University of Pennsylvania Trustees approved a proposal to grant college degree credit for courses taken in the non-degree College Courses for Teachers (CCT) program first launched in 1894. The University bulletin of the time stated, “The repute and success of these courses impelled the College Faculty to a consideration of the advisability of further extending the advantages of University training to the many teachers and others whose daily avocations make it impossible for them to attend lectures and recitations at the usual college hours.”

A first for Penn, the courses in CCT were open to both women and men and were offered in the evenings on campus and at community locations around Philadelphia. CCT later developed into LPS. In the intervening years, working adults took courses on campus, via television, and online. We have a long and successful history of serving adult learners.

What makes Penn LPS Online different from what people usually associate with online colleges?

KR: Penn LPS Online provides students with an Ivy League undergraduate education that they can pursue entirely online, with a small on-campus learning experience requirement so they have an opportunity to engage in person with faculty and fellow students. And the e-portfolio requirement and dedicated career programming and advising integrate the curriculum with students’ professional goals.

How do you translate an “Ivy League” education into an online experience?

JPC: Penn faculty approach online teaching differently from campus teaching. In general, there is much more focus on the design of the course experience for students. Adult students are more likely to have work and life experiences that they can relate to topics in the course. This allows for deeper discussions and engagement with peers and course materials. Penn LPS Online stands out from other programs because our courses bring Penn foundations and leading-edge research to students in practical ways, so new skills and knowledge can be applied to work and life situations.

KR: From our 20 years of experience developing online credit courses for LPS undergraduate and graduate students, we know how to work with Penn faculty to provide rewarding and challenging education online. Also, the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) is the traditional heart of the University of Pennsylvania. The Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences is grounded in the research and teaching that are at the core of SAS.

Let’s talk a bit more about how Penn faculty approach teaching adults online. Is it very different from teaching younger students on campus?

KR: There are principles of teaching effectively online that are true for adult and traditional-age students alike—clearly mapping out course requirements and assignments, providing ample opportunity for students to engage in meaningful ways with faculty and with each other, providing timely feedback on assignments. Penn faculty prize engagement with students and they appreciate the different perspectives that life experience brings to class discussions, a true benefit of teaching adult students. The main difference in teaching adult students online and traditional students on campus may be that we build into course design the support to help adults learn how to engage with technology to be successful—although many adult students are adept at online technologies!

What types of students benefit most from online learning?

JPC: We believe that all students can benefit from online learning. For some students, the online option offers exceptional flexibility and convenience. Additionally, all students have the opportunity to participate equally in discussions. Successfully completing an online course helps to develop skills in time management, organization, and self-discipline. Online learning does require new and different skills, so it may not be right for everyone. Resources are available to help students determine if online learning is a good choice for them and are listed on the Penn LPS Online website.

Can you give us some specific examples of how students benefit from online options?

KR: Online degrees tend to have course requirements and due dates spread out throughout the week, rather than having everything due at the time that a live class meets. This mapping of course requirements provides structure for students so that they are engaging with class material consistently.

In some cases, courses also can lead students to supplemental materials or lessons so that students can fill in gaps in their knowledge. Through lectures with embedded quizzes, students can test their knowledge and progress at their own speed. Students can move quickly through information they know and can review new information until they have mastered it. And online courses provide powerful ways for students to engage with each other through writing, videos, and live discussions in web conferencing rooms. The frequent assignments provide powerful means for faculty to provide feedback so that students can improve their work throughout the semester.

A few years ago, online degrees and classes were seen as “second best,” or not as good as a “real” on-campus experience. Why do you think this was so?

KR: Online is, in some ways, not a useful descriptor since many different kinds of courses and experiences can be designated as online. In recent years, for example, MOOCs (massive open online courses) have gotten a lot of attention. As a result, many people associated very large classes with tens of thousands of students and little interaction or feedback from faculty as representative of online courses. But that doesn’t really define the online experience at Penn LPS Online. Plus, as the population of non-traditional students has grown, so has student demand for different kinds of programs, ones where residential on-campus life is not a priority. For these students, other elements—such as meaningful engagement combined with online accessibility and flexibility in scheduling classes—are much more valuable.

In the last few years, it seems that employers have come around and no longer question the value of online education—in fact, they seem to welcome it. Why do you think attitudes have changed?

JPC: Employers in industry have had a chance to hire talented individuals from online degree programs. I think industry was more accepting of online programming and saw the benefit well before the highly traditional universities.

Penn launched early online learning programs in the year 2000. Slowly, over time, there were enough successful courses and enthusiastic professors to prove the value and importance of online learning.

There are still pockets of skepticism, but time and practice have proven that online courses can be successful, high quality, robust, and highly interactive learning experiences—and sometimes even better than a face-to-face course! Penn’s movement into online learning has really given our esteemed professors an opportunity to innovate around their course materials, assignments, and assessment strategies.

KR: I think technology has also played a huge factor. It’s possible to do more online than before. Employers see this in their organizations, so it makes sense they would expect a connection with online degrees and classes. There are also many more online programs and courses at all levels—noncredit and credit, undergraduate, and graduate. Research and Ivy League universities are developing excellent online programs, some with funding and other assistance from corporations, which has raised the profile of online education. It makes sense that employer perceptions have evolved significantly.

Do you think the definition of what is a “good” college experience has also changed?

JPC: I think the definition has broadened. A good college experience is one where you feel welcome and engaged with the community. You will feel supported as you strive to reach your goals and find your passions. Your learning experiences will be exceptional, and your interactions with peers and faculty help you to grow. A good experience nurtures students through their challenges and offers flexible options during difficult times. A good experience provides opportunities for students to try new things. A good college experience will clearly focus on students and enable each individual to choose the direction and involvement that is right for them at each stage of life. I’m happy to say that Penn LPS Online does all that.

How do you see the future for online learning progressing?

JPC: Online learning is here to stay, and college for adults who work will become more of an imperative! Technology has enhanced our lives in significant ways, and we expect ongoing developments to make education even easier and more engaging in the future. We love traditional, place-based education, such as on the Penn campus, but that just isn’t practical for everyone. We must continue to meet the needs of diverse groups of students who want an Ivy League education, and online technologies allow us to reach everyone.

KR: We are already seeing the spread of online delivery throughout K-12 and higher education. Online discussion forums and voice threads are assignments in residential as well as online programs. Students collaborate on group presentations through Google Docs and provide each other with feedback on writing assignments. Faculty provide lectures online and focus on active learning with their students in online and residential classrooms. Very soon, online learning will be known simply as learning.

If you had one piece of advice to give to a student considering an online educational experience, what would that be?

KR: I’d advise any student to brush up on time management skills. There are a lot of incremental due dates in online classes. If you work consistently on finding time to engage in class work regularly throughout the week, instead of trying to cram in a week’s worth of assignments in an hour, you will be much more successful—and will learn much more.

JPC: I would encourage a student to try it! First-time online students may have fear and reservations about venturing into this new environment, but you might be surprised by the overall experience and the amount of engagement you will have with faculty and peers. To determine if the online format is right for you, you can go to the Penn LPS Online website and check out our online learning checklist and the short online course demonstration video. Once students are enrolled, additional tutorials, advising, and services exist to support students for their online classes.

To find out more about the Penn LPS Online undergraduate Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences online degree, as well as our online certificates and courses, please visit our homepage.

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