GVSU joins national effort to refine learning

Schools will engage students to co-design education prototypes.
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Grand Valley State University is partnering with five other universities and colleges nationally to give students the opportunity to find solutions to some of higher education’s most challenging problems through the launch of REP4, Rapid Education Prototyping for Change, Learners, Community, Equity.

Students from Amarillo College in Texas, Boise State University in Idaho, Fort Valley State University in Georgia, San José State University in California, Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania and GVSU, along with 30 regional high school partners and community members, will co-design education prototypes and the best ideas will be scaled nationwide through the alliance to maximize impact.

GVSU initiated its first prototype during a six-week Learner Engagement Challenge that was held last summer. It brought together 25 area high school students, along with GVSU students, to reimagine the future of learning.

Philomena V. Mantella, president of Grand Valley State University, said it was apparent early on that Grand Valley needed collaborators, such as those institutions, to help realize the vision of having students design their learning.

“The objective is simple: Accelerate innovation and at the same time allow thousands of learners a transformative experience where they embrace their power to set their course and have control of their own learning journey,” she said.

Some of the issues that schools are struggling with are low completion rates, lack of access and racial gaps.

According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, citing a 2016 Pell Institute study, the country has struggled to close a persistent gap related to income and degree attainment. From the study: among students in the bottom socioeconomic quartile, 15% had earned a bachelor’s degree within eight years of their expected high school graduation, compared with 22% in the second quartile, 37% in the third quartile and 60% in the top quartile.

COVID-19 has further exacerbated the crisis. A December 2020 McKinsey & Company study estimated that “students of color could be six to 12 months behind, compared with four to eight months for white students. While all students are suffering, those who came into the pandemic with the fewest academic opportunities are on track to exit with the greatest learning loss.”

With the formation of REP4, the institutions are leaning on the insights of their students to provide solutions that can drive productive change that addresses their needs and desires.

“Universities have been subjected to grave scrutiny not just in politics but by students and their supporters in recent years,” said Marlene Tromp, president of Boise State University. “Students want to know that what they are getting is what they are going to need when they go out in the world, that they are being challenged, that they are getting the kinds of opportunities that higher education promises.”

She said out-of-the-box thinking and a focus on student success will drive the initiative.

“We are really looking forward to learning from our learners and convening with other partners in the Northwest region of the country,” she said.

Russell Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College, said REP4 is transforming the learning structure that will “save higher education from itself.” Lowery-Hart said at his institution, the students are engaged. They have written the school’s values and changed the semester structure from a 16-week to an eight-week term. 

“Higher education is at risk of irrelevance if we cannot adapt and innovate for a shifting landscape in technology and workforce development,” he said. “REP4 links transformative institutions committed to reimagining learning. Amarillo College is honored to join this work with the goal of creating 21st century skills students can take with them on new and better transfer pathways.”

GVSU has implemented two ideas from the Learner Engagement Challenge. One idea is focused on a life readiness class to help students see opportunities that lie ahead of them; the other idea calls for a theme-based curriculum with a goal of making clear connections to careers.

Each of the founding six partners will hold its own regional summit for REP4, with Grand Valley State University hosting the national convening on Aug. 5. The alliance is intended to grow over time and other institutions are invited to become involved with REP4.

“We all have a commitment to higher education,” Mantella said. “We have an appreciation, a deep appreciation for the power of insight that learners can bring, whether they are here with us or they are aspiring to come to us in the near future. We have a strong and deep commitment to community. We have a deep commitment to the equity in education. We are ready and have been embracing change and we are richly different in our setting, in our strategy, our cultures, our plans, our institutional types, which makes a really exciting environment for change to be examined, for experiments to be looked at, learning to happen and innovation to accelerate.”

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