04/14/2014 04:52 pm ET Updated Jun 14, 2014

Colleges: Evolve or Become Irrelevant

There's a sort of "push/pull" happening in higher education. While many traditional organizations continue to use established methods of providing degree programs, others vie to be recognized for their invention, innovation and ideas by developing and utilizing new delivery methods.

What some call "disruptive" ideas, I see as exciting developments and opportunities that cause us to question and consider our own methods for meeting the ever-changing needs of today's students.

I recently participated in a panel discussion at the 2014 SXSWedu Conference and Festival that discussed, and in some cases debated, new learning models being piloted in the U.S. and abroad. Each of the panelists introduced their unique offering, which was designed to enhance the way students learn and engage in and out of the classroom. Each had their own formula for meeting that goal by combining one or more elements including personalization, experiential learning, gamification and adaptive learning.

It was an invigorating, inspirational and intelligent conversation. It left me with an even stronger conviction that the future of higher education depends on organizations that are nimble and responsive to the needs of today's ever-changing students -- and that also challenge the status quo along the way. Historically, we've referred to working adults as "non-traditional" students and 18-year-olds as "traditional" students. However, that landscape has changed, and we need to accept that typical college students are no longer individuals entering a university in their late teens and graduating in four years, but in many cases are adults shouldering commitments to both jobs and families. By understanding a path to a degree can involve myriad twists and turns, we are better equipped to develop offerings that effectively help students learn and succeed.

Case in point -- my institution -- Western International University. 18 months ago, we were at a crossroads -- transform or become irrelevant. We knew that the competitive landscape was changing, and we needed to offer education in a practical and affordable manner, while continuing to deliver quality programs. So we made a very bold move: We reduced our tuition by almost 50 percent, and we completely transformed our learning model with the working adult student in mind. We introduced eight-week courses that engage the student by utilizing online delivery methods that include interactive exercises and assignments that have been proven to help them better absorb and utilize new information. As for the lecture, we flipped our classroom and had our faculty record their lectures in segments and then use "classroom" time to discuss the issues and concepts from the week's materials.

During the transformation process, we asked our current students and prospects a lot of questions, and we listened closely. We found that adult learners aren't wowed by bells and whistles. They simply want a degree that is affordable and attainable, and the career opportunities that come with that degree.

From these discussions, we came away understanding that we, as well as organizations of all shapes and sizes, must continue to invent and innovate to remain relevant. Only by breaking with conventional wisdom will we evolve and improve student outcomes now and into the future.