Bridging the gap: students talk about connecting online learning to real-world workplaces

Last month, Northeastern University College of Professional Studies launched an innovative pilot class called Online Experiential Learning for Working Professionals. The class—a first of its kind—gives working graduate students who are pursuing their degrees online to directly translate what they learn in class to the workplace. How? By giving them the chance to craft and complete a relevant project that addresses an identified business need for their current employer.

As CPS dean John LaBrie said in his recent blog post on online experiential learning:

The romantic notion that adults come back to higher education for personal enrichment and self-directed intellectual pursuits does not hold water. …the vast majority are in it for a better life, which almost always translates to enhanced career outcomes.

The majority of online students at CPS are employed. This new pilot is designed to equip these students to further their education and grow their skills while attending classes online and putting their knowledge into practice—on the job. (For an overview of the concept behind the class, check out this recent post by Ellen Stoddard, who is coordinating the pilot program.)

Bridging the gap: students talk about connecting online learning to real-world workplaces

So what do the students think of the concept? Below are comments from some who are taking part in the pilot on why they chose this unique class.

[My] project could help leadership identify critical business issues which will aid in the process of making the decisions necessary to remain a stable and viable company in the future.

Another student sees the benefits of online participation:

Being exclusively an online student, I regularly seek to find the connections between my work toward my Nonprofit Management degree and my personal and professional life. …Participating in this experiential learning program [gives] me the opportunity to both enhance my learning and bring added resources to [my role].

“Real-world experience” means just that—and the student group represents a lot of parts of the world: Geographically, the students hail from down the street in Boston down to North Carolina and Florida, and as far away as Dubai.

The diversity of the group reflects the broad potential for the pilot’s applications. One student is working on his project at a name-brand plant in Ohio; another is employed full-time at a New England law firm. Two of the participants intend to apply their newly developed skills to nonprofit work.

As Dean LaBrie puts it, “…incorporating experiential learning into online and hybrid learning programs is not only a crucial step toward these goals—it’s an inevitable one.” This pilot is an example of taking that step; we’ll continue to share results as the pilot progresses over the next several months.

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Is there really such a thing as a nontraditional student?

Every so often, a really bad name for something is contrived and somehow becomes acceptable. That is, until years later, when its legitimacy is eventually questioned and, ultimately, changed. In the breakfast cereal world, for example, Golden Crisp suffered from the ultra-sweet name of Super Sugar Crisp for nearly 20 years before parents began to question whether giving “super sugar” to their children was the best idea. The cities of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. provide another good example. From 1963 to 1997, the region’s professional basketball team was named the Bullets until the team’s ownership advocated for a less violent name.

I’d like to add another example from the higher education realm to this list: the phrase “nontraditional student”—a long-used naming convention to describe a category of students attending postsecondary education who are not like the “normal” college students. But unlike Super Sugar Crisp and the Washington Bullets, the name may be more than a just poor choice: it’s more of a complete misnomer.

“Nontraditional student” is commonly used to describe an enormous category of undergraduate college students who are unlike the “traditional” students who enroll in college full-time immediately after completing a high school education, are dependent on parents for financial support and don’t work full time. The term is widely used in the press—the Washington Post even used “nontrads” in a recent article—as well as by universities and even by the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics in its reporting and research initiatives. In short, the name is a widely acceptable and an officially codified way to describe a group of students. It’s also a name that needs to be changed.

There are two main reasons why it needs to be exiled to the Island of Bad Names. First, the name is not even remotely accurate. Super Sugar Crisp may have been really sugary and Mister Salty Pretzel Twists (another terribly named product) may have been really salty. And MOOCs (another horrible name that’s sprung from the higher education world) may be online, massive and open. But “nontraditional students” are not actually nontraditional.  On the contrary, they are the established norm in higher education. The Department of Education has reported that 73 percent of undergraduate college students fall into the nontraditional category, and the Council of Graduate Schools has documented the continued rise in the numbers of nontraditional graduate students. Second, and perhaps more important, is that the phrase nontraditional is a terrible way to describe someone. Who, really, wants to be labeled as nontraditional? Is this a label that anyone would embrace?

How have we gone for so long thinking that it is a good idea to label a category of our students as non-traditionalists? There are few others in society that seem to widely embrace this adjective. Google “nontraditional” and you’ll find that eight of the first 10 search results all reference “nontraditional students.”  You know what this tells me? No other industry sector besides ours thinks it’s a good idea to label something (worse yet, someone) as nontraditional. In using this term, we are unintentionally marginalizing the population of individuals we seek to recognize.

It’s time that higher education stop using the term altogether. If students are at the center of what we do and we want to make our students—regardless of their age, enrollment status or financial standing—feel like a welcomed part of our institutions, then let’s agree to use more flattering ways to describe them. Let’s put our minds together and think about how students we seek to enroll, retain and graduate would like to be identified. If we want to encourage students of all types to enroll in our programs, let’s show them that we value them by giving them a proper name. I’ve got a few ideas that have nothing to do with breakfast cereal or professional sports teams, and I’ll share those in a future post.

If you have a suggestion, please share it here. In the meantime, I’ll continue to find ways to provide educational access for nontraditional students at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies while watching old highlights of the Washington Bullets and eating a bowl of Super Sugar Crisp cereal.…

5 Tips for Grad School Success

In just under two months, I’ll be receiving a master’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communication, with a concentration in social media, from the Northeastern University College of Professional Studies (CPS). Based on my experiences and a desire to help others get the most out of their education, I’ve put together these five short tips for how you can get the most out of your graduate school experience.

1. Don’t go back just to go back.

Times are tough. Unemployment is still at frightening levels; the constant demand for new (read: digital) skills is rapidly increasing; and the cost of everything is skyrocketing—including an education. It’s so tempting to get that next degree in an attempt to escape the perils of today’s economy and job market. But education should never be an “out.” Think of any current or past success you’ve enjoyed and ask yourself, “Am I ready to commit to this at the same level?”

Then you should begin to look at programs. When you do, take the time to do your homework and don’t settle for a program that isn’t the perfect fit. I spent a year researching before deciding on CPS.

 2. Trust your instincts.

This is probably the most significant lesson I learned. After seriously committing to CPS and my program, I had that positive gut feeling at each key moment—the application process, the acceptance letter, the first day of classes—that I had found what I was looking for. I knew it was right.

In my classwork, I took a few outside-the-box approaches that ultimately paid off. It often felt frightening to hand in some of my projects representing this kind of alternative thinking, but I feel that if B-level work is status quo—following instructions and simply meeting requirements—A-level work means making bold moves. It pays to push the proverbial envelope; to ask “Why” (or “Why not?”) —and to make it a habit.

3. Networking is everything.

For undergrads, forming relationships with professors outside of the classroom can be rare. But don’t let that set a precedent: In grad school, strong relationships should be the rule, not the exception. You’ll study under thought leaders in your field who will open doors for you, if you show your merit—not because it’s their job to do this, but because they are professionals who understand the importance of building the future of their industries.

The same goes for your classmates. Once you graduate, you could be working alongside some of the greatest minds in your field. And before that time, any of those people could be in your classroom; whether they’re in the back of the room, wearing a hoodie and jeans, or at the head of the class in Dockers and a polo shirt. Make friends, build connections and be ready and willing to learn from your peers.

4. Think of sacrifice as a necessity.

Graduate school is going to require time and money, and these things are of even higher value to you now than they were as an undergrad. But don’t think of the cost in dollars and hours. Think of it as time away from friends and family, the vacation you can’t take, the car you can’t buy. Even if your job will pay for school, working a full-time job while going to school—even part-time—is effectively holding down two full-time jobs. And if you’re not working, that probably means you’ll take on a lot of loans that won’t be going away anytime soon.

Come to terms with it. This is a commitment with costs that cannot be measured at face value, but the same can be said for the rewards.

5. Enjoy yourself.

Graduate school was responsible for what felt like the longest stretch of my life, even compared to attending undergrad for five years at two schools, with three majors. But it wasn’t the time, the cost or the balancing act between school, work and a personal life that made it feel this way: It was the fact that I never stopped learning.

Books and articles and theories and discussions will always be around, but graduate school is a time when you can—and should!—fully immerse yourself in them. The grad school environment fosters …