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Flexible Admissions in Higher Education- Adapting to the future

February 2, 2021

" Admissions say I need at least a score of 80 to get into my degree program at the University of New Brunswick", said Ayla, a high school student in Alberta, Canada. Ayla told us of the final year of her high school, where all of her classes were shifted online and she just was not able to cope with the change.

Her grades, normally in the mid-'80s, dropped by 30%. Now she is resigned to the fact that university will just not happen this year, and that her intended career in Physiotherapy will have to wait. Ayla will, instead, spend the next academic year "upgrading" at the same high school, again taking her courses online.

Ayla is not the only one. Across the world, learners with self-discipline, curiosity, passion, and analytical skills to excel in the world of higher education, just cannot get through the gate. Were Ayla to spend the next year interning at a physio clinic, she would learn far more of foundational use in her forthcoming university education, but the flexibility just is not there.

Instead of presenting a year's worth of experience and reflection in a directly related field, and the testimonial of her employer, she must instead repeat even the subjects which are only indirectly related to her future career. The goal is a score of 80, and she is told that nothing else counts.

If you are, like us, feeling disheartened and perhaps even a little upset at reading this, then perhaps it is a good time to look at how things are changing in a more positive direction, and how universities are beginning to broaden access by introducing more flexibility in how learners evidence what they know and what they can do.

The big question of Micro-credentialling

Microcredentials, as this helpful article by Forbes Magazine explains, are basically digital badges that evidence a particular, specific skill. They can be found at all "levels" of study, from postgraduate level credentials like managing uncertainty or cybersecurity. Now the stacking up of graduate and postgraduate micro-credentials are, according to the CEO of Futurelearn, competing with the traditional degree by providing a "range of new skills that are in high demand", much as we discussed in our article on liquid learning.

We will get back to that. Right now, that does not really help Ayla, who is determined to become the first in her family to get a degree and has to meet the rigid admissions criteria to do so.

In a learning analytics workshop in 2017, two academics from the University of Michigan brought together a diverse range of colleagues from both academics and admissions across the region. The aim was to look at how to support learners to evidence a diverse range of skills in order to access university, rather than just the standard high school score.

They found that there was a broad consensus that things had to change, but that it was difficult to really set out a structure or process that could support it. In terms of the reliability of micro-credentials as evidence of learning, the technology and security aspects are ready to go. The question is: what would universities be willing to accept?

A learner may present a list of micro-credentials to a university detailing skills such as time management and critical thinking alongside knowledge clusters such as social media marketing, but there is the question of how they fit together. In a ground breaking 2016 blueprint for fairer access to higher education in Scotland, the report outlined the difficulties of presenting "snapshots" of learning and recommended that:

"a more systematic approach to the use of data is required and fundamental to that is the ability to track learners throughout their education journey...to help sectors share information to support learners as they transition from one stage of learning to another."

Microcredentials are a viable way to capture learning in non-traditional settings, which makes access to higher education fairer and more equitable to everyone, but there is a reluctance to formally adopt them for entry criteria just yet. While institutions such as the University of Michigan are positive about Microcredentialling as a "promising tool for recognizing student learning in ways that are not currently captured by more typical measures such as standardized tests and high school GPAs", the change seems a few years away at best.

We suspect, that Australia might be the first to move into this new flexibility, but in the current pandemic/accelerated pace of change, anything is possible. Just not in time to help Ayla.

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Learning portfolios for flexible admissions

Talk about learning portfolios to most people, and they will relate them to subjects from "the creative arts". But yet, can we truly say that maths and microbiology are less "creative" than painting and photography? We do not think so. At all.

Creativity in learning environments is something that is arguably missing from a lot of mainstream education settings, but we can hopefully agree that creativity is present in all people. Curiosity is innate, play as a means of discovery is the intuitive methodology of learning for all of us, until we are asked to put down the building blocks and pick up a pencil. Ayla is clearly capable of studying at university. She is passionate about her subject, has well-developed learning skills, is self-directed and curious, but none of that can be evidenced in the score she has to show the admissions department. A difficult year and an unstable learning environment in 2020 have no reflection on her capacity to succeed. Elevate Academy, a K-12 school in Idaho, works principally with project-based learning. Their curriculum is competency-based; meaning that the objective is to master skills and abilities, rather than scores in segmented subjects. They do this with the help of Lift; a bespoke digital platform that helps schools design "living, digital “skill portfolios”. Learners know exactly what growth looks like for every competency, and they have a library of projects and resources to unlock as they level up". Learners end their studies with competency transcripts and a digital portfolio of successful projects and the resultant reflective learning. With innovative schools like Elevate joining the rapidly growing alliance of progressive institutions at the K-12 level worldwide, the transformation to a more flexible and learner-directed paradigm is clearly gaining momentum. It is at the Higher Education level where the bottleneck occurs, and so hugely innovative schools such as Learnlife still offer the option of bolt-on "formal" examinations at the end of an incredibly learner-directed experience in their groundbreaking approach to K-12 education, as some stakeholders simply feel reassured by this. Higher education offers little choice in this respect, and parents often feel the pressure to make sure their child's education conforms; even if that has to be "bolted on" at the end. The rigors and structures of accreditation at this level do not change easily or quickly. David Lipkin, Founder of Lift told us that "Higher Ed and employers are seeking candidates with demonstrated abilities and soft-skills, so there is increasing demand and acceptance of portfolio- and competency-based transcripts. In the US, the mind-shift from emphasizing GPA and class completion to demonstrated skills is well underway and could unlock more creativity in secondary school practice".

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Flexible admissions reflects the reality of our world

Change is a constant. Our pathways through life are rarely straight and rigid, but the one thing we can be sure of is that every corner, every twist, and turn presents a learning opportunity. Finding ways to support learners like Ayla to evidence this, to paint a picture of a lifelong learning journey, and to show institutions and employers who they are and what they can do; this has to be the future.

So many people are working hard to make this a reality, from K-12 schools to University and College admissions professionals, researchers, and industry experts from education to technology. The impulse is there, the need is apparent, and now we look to the decision-makers to take us forward.

At NEO Academy, we try to do our part by amplifying the voices of innovative institutions and organizations by raising their profiles, streamlining their marketing & admissions operations, and leaving them with more space and time to dedicate to progress and innovation.

If you work for a school, university, or education organization and find yourself in agreement with our call for change, then please do reach out to share ideas, take part in our discussions or just be a part of the conversation.

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