Rich Douglas, Ph.D., PMP

Nontraditional Higher Education

What is Nontraditional Higher Education?

It might be easier to say what it isn't! Traditional education is an extension of high school. Full-time, classroom-based study leading to a college degree. Nontraditional Higher Education (NTHE) is everything else. Correspondence courses, online learning, self-designed study. These are just a few examples. We'll talk about more below. It's important to note that the concept of "nontraditional" is a moving target--what was once considered very nontraditional, like night school--is now quite the norm!

How can degree programs be "nontraditional"?
It really boils down to two things: delivery and content. Most people are familiar with the first, but not so much about the second.
Degree programs can be delivered in many ways besides tradtional classes held for full-time students in the day. Degrees can now be earned while remaining employed, advancing both your education and career at the same time. You can take classes at night or on the weekends, attend programs with short on-campus residencies, study online (both individually and in virtual "classes"), even do independent study and research. In other words, it mattersl less how you study and more that you do it!
Speaking of doing it, there are some degree programs out there that focus more on how working adults learn and what they feel is important to study. In higher education, these three elements make up the learning:
  • Content. What will you learn?
  • Method. How will you learn it? (We talked about that above.)
  • Mastery. How will you demonstrate that you've learned it?

 Most degree programs dictate all three of these to their students. They say what you will learn, how you will learn it, and how you will show that you have. But nontraditional programs sometimes give the students (or "learners") some flexibility over one or more of the above. Maybe they let their students determine what they need to learn (content). Some schools might help students develop individual learning plans that include a variety of ways to learn the material (method). Or they might let students decide what papers, projects, presentations, etc. they'll do to show they've done the learning. A few schools--with the guidance of the faculty--give students flexibility in all three!

My Story
I've never been a "traditional student." I've worked since my youth, having done my education (two bachelor's, an MBA, and two doctorates) all while employed full-time. Plus, I've worked with thousands of nontraditional students as a counselor, faculty member in several programs, and as a business and government leader. Finally, I made Nontraditional Higher Education the subject of my self-designed Ph.D. at The Union Institute. Frankly, this matters to me.

Why is NTHE important to Strategic Human Resource Development (SHRD)?
For two reasons: the development of employess and for the development of themselves. By being knowledgable about NTHE and adult learning, the SHRD leader can effectively take into account the learning styles and needs of the employees she/he supports. But learning leaders are learners as well--or, at least, they should be. And if they're going to continue to develop their abilities while also continuing to develop their careers, that learning must take place nontraditionally.
I think there are a set of essential development areas necessary to become a strategic learning leader and HRD practitioner: HRD core abilities, SHRD skills, executive leadership, and their own development as adults. Who packages and delivers this? No one. But someone should. See the link on the left for a proposed Professional Doctorate in HRD, which combines these elements (along with HRD scholarship and research skills).