Lessons Learned from Listening to Learners: an online program’s early days
Published by: Lindsey Downs | 8/4/2022
Whenever we hear of intriguingly innovative programs happening in the digital learning space, we hasten to share the details with you. That’s why we’re excited to help showcase a new online program focused in on the lifelong learning space that we found exciting!
In today’s post, ReadyTrack, a pilot program run in association with Western Governors University, shares some lessons learned from working with adult learners in the continuing education space.
Enjoy the read,
Lindsey Downs, WCET
Creating a new course offers sobering reminders of the complexity of learning. It is the ever-invigorating quest of the educator to spark intrinsic motivation and identify the dose of struggle that generates productive friction without discouraging the learner. Fostering that experience for an individual learner is already a daunting challenge—scaling that experience can be downright flummoxing.
“It is the ever-invigorating quest of the educator to spark intrinsic motivation and identify the dose of struggle that generates productive friction without discouraging the learner.“
Juggling those demands has been my daily challenge this past year as the Head of Learning for ReadyTrack, a pilot program run in association with Western Governors University. ReadyTrack is still in its nascent launch stage, but the team has already experienced several victories and taken its lumps. In the spirit of reframing lumps as learnings, below we share three lessons learned from our first year, lessons which have boosted student participant retention rates from 40% to 56%.
ReadyTrack’s mission is to equip aspiring talent—focusing on women and people of color making under $35,000 annually—with the skills and relationships needed to launch front-end and back-end engineering careers. ReadyTrack assumes no prior technical training beyond basic familiarity with a computer and relative comfort navigating a web-based experience, and the program is currently provided at no cost to learners, whose tuition is covered via sponsors, grants, government assistance, and other collaborations with community-based organizations.
The model entails partnering with workforce boards and community-based organizations who identify program candidates and support them holistically during the learning experience. ReadyTrack learners, also known as Track Stars, who complete the training portion of the program seek out paid work-based learning experiences with ReadyTrack partners, typically in the form of mentor-guided apprenticeships. The entire experience is designed to last 13 months, with 30 weeks of technical training followed by six months of apprenticeship. In that time, ReadyTrack seeks to connect Track Stars with the resources they need to learn confidently and progress toward their goals.
ReadyTrack courses consist of a combination of live online sessions and asynchronous work hosted in D2L’s Brightspace LMS. The sessions are guided by Practitioner Mentors (PMs), who are subject matter experts that monitor learner progress and assist Track Stars as needed. In addition to encouraging collaborative work and providing just-in-time support during the live sessions, PMs hold office hours and make themselves available for 1-on-1 time. There are also weekly sessions dedicated to cultivating “soft skills”—which we refer to as Power Skills—led by ReadyTrack’s Career Coach and Strategist.
Progression through coursework is bounded asynchronous—Track Stars do not have to progress in lockstep on a day-to-day or even week-to-week basis. Instead, they complete tasks within each of the three 10-week courses, and they must complete at least 80% of assigned coursework to progress to the next one. Along the way, Track Stars that fall one-to-two weeks behind receive personalized outreach to discover if they are stuck, discouraged, or putting out fires in other areas of their life. The outreach includes targeted interventions. Some key projects have deadlines that are common to all learners to facilitate group efforts and to create opportunities for peer review and feedback. The flexibility of the Brightspace LMS allows us to capture these various use-cases.
Our first pilot cohort saw 40% of onboarded learners complete the 30-week training program. The second pilot cohort benefited from adjustments that ReadyTrack made based on the first cohort, such that 56% completed the training portion. ReadyTrack recently enrolled its first non-pilot, fully externally sponsored cohort, and has 66% retention with four weeks left.
The first two pilot cohorts of Track Stars have already revealed some interesting challenges and tensions. We believe that such tensions point to potentially transformative opportunities for any educational provider working with adult learners.
The typical Track Star has a lot on their plate. They juggle work, childcare, and other community responsibilities. Studying full-time isn’t an option and nailing down a regular daily study schedule isn’t a given. ReadyTrack’s training experience accounts for this by heavily weighing work that can be done asynchronously.
On the flip side, cohort structures provide significant benefits that can supercharge learning, including social capital building and opportunities to simulate workplace team dynamics. Harnessing those benefits requires Track Stars to not be too spread out in the material relative to each other. Unfortunately, Track Stars have consistently drifted far apart within each 10-week course, making group projects slated for the back end of the courses difficult to execute.
While we are bolstering mentorship and establishing more frequent checkpoints to reduce that spread, we are finding that helping Track Stars teach each other is key. Peer learning converts individual learning into individual mastery plus collective learning. Helping learners actively invest in the cohort’s collective progress is transforming our pacing tension from a bug to a program feature.
While several learners have expressed appreciation for a more flexible experience, both in scheduling and in favoring formative knowledge checks and ungraded coding projects, a handful of Track Stars say that they prefer more regimented live sessions with lectures and stricter grading. One Track Star surprised himself in expressing this preference, given that he disliked that aspect of his K-12 experience. They also cited a concern that the lack of grades made the program feel less legitimate and motivating.
It is still unclear why some learners prefer a more traditional structure. It may partially be a matter of gravitating towards the familiar. But more likely, ReadyTrack needs more of its assignments to honor learner autonomy—helping learners apply their new skills to what they most care about—and to clearly demonstrate to them their growing competence. In other words, learners’ desires for extrinsic motivators can reflect that a program is insufficiently nourishing intrinsic motivation, and/or that the program needs to better help learners see their own growth.
Beyond the technical training, ReadyTrack holds sessions to encourage a success-oriented mindset via the development of Power Skills. We cover topics such as building self-confidence, identifying and leading with strengths, learning how to tell your story, and even learning how to ask for help. One topic that particularly drives interest is recognizing Impostor Syndrome. Many Track Stars begin pinpointing feelings of inadequacy as an obstacle to their learning or for their transition into the tech workforce.
Learners consistently gush about how helpful and affirming these sessions have been. We suspect that incorporating explicit Power Skills lessons starting with the second pilot cohort accounts for a considerable portion of ReadyTrack’s improved retention numbers. Beyond learners being hungry for these skills, employers demand and appreciate them. Education and training providers of all stripes should consider explicitly covering Power Skills, regardless of discipline.
As ReadyTrack has pressed forward, the above learnings have coalesced into a hypothesis that taking traditional course offerings and simply layering on …wraparound supports is inadequate. That approach presupposes that traditional learning environments and practices in the tech space have been inclusive on all axes minus socioeconomic status, which we already know to be dubious given the lack of diversity that continues to plague the tech industry.
Incorporating our Track Stars’ voices and embracing the fullness of their complex learning needs will thus be at the frontier of our course building. ReadyTrack is eager to work with our Track Stars to create the expansive and rigorous learning environment they need to launch their careers.
Personalize learning, increase engagement, and help learners achieve more than they imagined possible. D2L Brightspace offers flexible and robust learning solutions for every stage of life, from the earliest days of school to higher education and the working world.