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Webinar Wrap-Up w/ Northeastern University: Scaling Personalized Support for Online & Adult Learners

Amma Marfo
May 16, 2018 at 11:10 AM
3 minute read

At long last, the conversation about adult and online learners–one Shearwater has strived to actively participate in–is starting to change. The needs of adult and online students are often underestimated, and many narratives circulating about this population assume these students come solely for the credits. Contrary to those assumptions, research shows socio-emotional support is crucial to their success as well, and institutions who recognize and address this will rise in prominence and student appreciation.

In his interview with National Public Radio about Great Colleges for the New Majority, The New School administrator David Scobey said of adult learners, “Adult, nontraditional students have to fit their studies into complex lives with multiple roles and stressors, rather than being able to organize their work and social life around a central role as a college student.”

It is in this context that Shearwater teamed up with Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies (CPS) for “Scaling Personalized Support for Online and Adult Learners,” a webinar focused on strategies and successes observed in this cohort of students. 

Shearwater co-founder Jackson Boyar was joined by Northeastern’s Leah Ben-Ami to talk about what this group of students needs and how CPS has employed a number of strategies (including mentorship) to facilitate success for its students. In Boyar’s experience, personalized support in particular is “critical now because the next big wave of students need more support, because personalization drives engagement and experience, and because experience drives enrollment and reputation.” He puts the charge to schools simply: allowing students to clearly and warmly answer the question, “What did my institution bring me that allowed me to be successful?”

Ben-Ami shared a comprehensive and thoughtful vision from her stead as Director of Operations for CPS’s Lowell Institute School, an academic school within the larger College expressly founded and funded to improve outcomes in STEM for adult and returning learners online, in person, or in a hybrid fashion. While many see mentorship as a service with greater utility for more traditionally aged students, the overwhelmingly positive feedback from Ben-Ami’s colleagues and students defies that stereotype. 

Among the tidbits she detailed:
  • short-term outcomes CPS identifies for its students (including acclimation, engagement in and out of the classroom, and growth of professional networks);
  • a student support model which includes mentorship, experiential learning, industry-aligned curriculum, scholar-practitioner faculty, and high-touch academic and career coaching;
  • and their specific approach to the program, which has included an expansion into pairings with industry mentors from companies like GM and Vertex, as well as online and in-person socials to further contact between mentors and mentees. Students clearly appreciate the effort–over 350 (nearly ⅓ of their participating population) participated in these supplemental events.

“The breadth of assessment that Northeastern is using to look at something as specific as mentorship is impressive,” Boyar remarked as Ben-Ami elaborated on CPS’s iteration of Shearwater’s mentorship program.“Most people look at mentorship and assume the things you look at are how many matches are made, or how many sessions are completed.” Put simply by Boyar: “CPS has pushed Shearwater to rethink and redefine who can benefit from a mentor relationship that provides personalized support."

“Growth, acclimation, and reducing isolation are all goals that CPS takes great pains to address,” Ben-Ami noted. The combined efforts of Shearwater and Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies, as shared in this webinar, demonstrate that a need for consistent, constructive, and caring support knows no age limit or experience level.