Innovation U

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By Mike Cullity

How a traditional New England university is creating access, cutting costs and facilitating student success – on campus, on location and online.

Shandrease Cushionberry is a 27-year-old mother of two from Virginia who aspires to make a literary mark. Ebony Byas is an 18-year-old from the Bronx who envisions helping paroled inmates reintegrate into society.

Although separated by nine years and hundreds of miles, both are working toward SNHU degrees. Laid off in 2010, Cushionberry began taking creative writing classes that fall through SNHU's College for Online and Continuing Education and is on pace to graduate in December.

Byas, meanwhile, lives on SNHU's main campus, but her curriculum is far from traditional. One of 10 first-year students enrolled in College Unbound – a three-year degree program launched last fall that combines classroom and real-world learning – Byas attends on-campus seminars three days a week and interns two days a week at a New Hampshire Department of Corrections office in Manchester.

Cushionberry and Byas are among those capitalizing on SNHU's recent educational innovations. Amid a national debate over skyrocketing college costs and complaints from American employers that many graduates lack important job skills, SNHU has introduced cutting-edge programs aimed at making college more affordable, accessible and responsive to workplace needs.

Blowing Up the Business Model

SNHU has a history of innovation that includes establishing satellite campuses and launching a groundbreaking three-year Honors Program in Business. But more recent initiatives have placed SNHU at the forefront of a movement to fundamentally change American higher education and earned it acclaim from the noted business magazine Fast Company, which placed SNHU 12th on its recent World's 50 Most Innovative Companies list. Ranked alongside business giants such as Apple, Google, Facebook and Starbucks, SNHU was the only university on the list.

In the Fast Company article highlighting SNHU's forward thinking, President Paul LeBlanc acknowledged that innovation is imperative to survival in a rapidly changing higher education landscape.

"We want to create the business model that blows up our current business model," he told the magazine, "because if we don't, someone else will."

SNHU's innovations aim to reduce costs, broaden access, improve quality and foster degree completion. Chief among them is the College of Online and Continuing Education, which has made SNHU a leader among nonprofit universities in online education.

By the middle of this year, 12,500 students will be enrolled in COCE, a number that's at least 10 times more than the number of online students SNHU educated in 2003, LeBlanc says. COCE will launch 50 new degree programs and specialty areas in 2012 – bringing its total to more than 180 – and LeBlanc's goal is to make SNHU the country’s biggest online nonprofit education system by 2014.

"Given President Obama's challenge to once again make the United States No. 1 in the world in percentage of adults with degrees, and given our belief that we can be large and continue to improve quality at the same time, we think it's important work that's very consistent with our mission," he says.

A Customer-Service Approach

Drawn to SNHU by its positive reputation and array of online creative writing classes, Cushionberry has pursued her degree while juggling work and family. An entrepreneur who launched an online business selling shoes after being laid off, she began studying during the day while her two daughters were in school; more recently, she has studied at night while interning full time with a New York literary agency.

"I can do my homework pretty much on my time," she says. "I don’t have to get up and go anywhere. And there's no way I could do an internship in New York if I was in a traditional school setting."

Cushionberry – who's interested in becoming a published author, teaching creative writing or working as a literary agent – fits the typical COCE student profile. Most are in their mid-20s to mid-30s and seeking to balance family, work and education, says Steve Hodownes, the college's CEO.

To ingratiate these online learners, COCE has adopted a customer-service approach that's more common in business than education.

"At a lot of schools, if you referred to the student as a customer, they'd kind of look at you funny," Hodownes says. "But we view the student as our customer."

A new onboarding model COCE is piloting matches newly enrolled students with advisors who have small caseloads and function like coaches.

"For a lot of these students who come back to school, it's pretty intimidating, and they're dealing with technology, so we want to make that transition as smooth as possible," Hodownes says.

COCE monitors data driven by students' online engagement in early classes to identify potential problems and initiate proactive solutions.

"We're now to the point where we look at each graded assignment and each discussion board so we can see if students are struggling, because if they aren't successful in that first or second class, the chances of them staying with us are reduced," Hodownes says.

Cushionberry has benefited from advisor Hannah Foust’s support. Foust and Cushionberry exchange e-mails frequently, particularly at the start and toward the end of each course.

"She's always giving me positive messages and encouraging words," Cushionberry says.

Room to Innovate

Operating from a downtown Manchester mill building, LeBlanc says, offers COCE psychic distance from SNHU's main campus, giving the online unit room to play by nontraditional rules – a hallmark of innovation espoused by Clayton M. Christensen, an SNHU trustee and co-author of "The Innovative University," a 2011 book advocating higher-education reform.

For example, instead of having each instructor create his or her own online course, COCE hires subject matter experts – often SNHU faculty members – to design courses that can be taught by multiple instructors. Separating course development from teaching – an example of the disaggregation Christensen has observed in mature industries, whereby suppliers with expertise in component parts of a service can deliver more effectively and often less expensively – helps ensure consistency across multiple course sections and offers better opportunities to assess
student competencies, LeBlanc says.

"We can be sure that the learning outcomes are the same across all sections, and then we can measure them and see how students perform one section to another," he says. "So all of a sudden it improves our optics and quality control."

The Innovation Lab

Imagine a new education model that would enable students to earn an SNHU associate degree for less than $3,000 per year.

Making that model a reality is the goal of the SNHU Innovation Lab, an educational incubator that is working to reduce costs, increase access and provide transformational experiences for students who have been marginalized by traditional higher education.

Established last November and staffed by four SNHU academic and technology experts, the Innovation Lab is spearheading the Pathways Project, an initiative that will seek to educate 5,000 disadvantaged students in the next five years. Slated to launch this fall, the project's pilot degree program will apply a competency-based approach that leverages technology, community support, social networking and strong assessment.

Although still in its formative stages, the self-paced Pathways program will employ free online educational tools, such as open-access materials and peer-to-peer support.

"It's really taking advantage of the best that's out there," says Yvonne Simon, the Innovation Lab's senior vice president.

Although SNHU instructors will be involved in determining how students will use open resources, creating assignments and establishing assessment criteria, Pathways courses won’t have instructors in the traditional sense, Simon says. Pathways will employ advisors to help students establish goals and set their learning pace, she adds.

Through social media and other avenues, advisors will also help students develop a mentor network by facilitating connections with SNHU alumni, community partners and people the students may have already encountered.

"Let's say that you struggle with writing, and you have a high school teacher who happened to be a great supporter of yours," Simon says. "You'd want to bring that person into your network. We're going to try to cultivate this early in the program so that students right from the beginning feel like they have a lot of support."

Pathways will strive to offer learning in small chunks, with individual competencies as the defining units rather than a traditional three-credit course.

"Students won't necessarily have to bite off an entire course at a time," Simon says. "We're trying to hook people on this notion that if you tap into your intrinsic motivation and feel that you are making progress, you will stick with it and reach the goal of graduation."

Challenging Conventions and Increasing Access

SNHU’s innovation hasn’t been limited to cyberspace. In 2008, for example, the university launched SNHU Advantage, an associate degree program in liberal arts offered at its Salem campus. The program, which the Boston Globe hailed as
“a revelation for recessionary times,” costs just $10,620 per year, about 60 percent less than full-time undergraduate day student tuition. Moreover, its classes meet exclusively in the morning, giving students a set schedule around which to plan work and family commitments.

Forty-five students are currently enrolled in the program, which offers scholarships for high-performing graduates who wish to earn an SNHU bachelor's degree.

"That's a big motivator for students here," says Laura Corddry, the program's coordinator, who added that nearly 70 percent of SNHU Advantage's 2011 graduates have remained enrolled at the university.

Last fall, SNHU introduced College Unbound, another program that challenges long-cherished higher-learning conventions.

"In College Unbound, the greater world is the primary site of learning, and the classroom experience gets plugged in as a supplement to that learning," LeBlanc says. "It directly flips the traditional relationship."

College Unbound emerged through a collaboration with Big Picture Learning, a Rhode Island-based nonprofit that operates a network of more than 90 secondary schools worldwide where internships are a prominent part of the curriculum.

"The model has proven quite successful at the high school level," LeBlanc says. "We always thought, 'If it works for high school students, might it work for college students?' And we’re trying to answer the question."

At a time when thousands of jobs across the country are going unfilled because employers can't find candidates with requisite skills, College Unbound seeks to bridge the gap with a competency-based education model. Through seminars and internships, the program encourages students to explore their areas of interest, requiring them to establish learning goals and demonstrate an ability to meet them.

"We're asking them to think about and engage in conversations that make connections between the liberal arts and their own personal interests and career aspirations," says Beth Sheehan, the program’s director. "We're saying, 'You have to demonstrate knowledge and skills. What are you interested in exploring? How are you going to learn about this through your field?' So it makes those concepts more relevant, and in some ways makes students more engaged with studying literature or psychology."

Instead of writing papers and taking tests, College Unbound students offer mid-semester and final exhibitions to faculty members, internship advisors and their peers.

"We have to present what we learned over the semester," Byas says. "Did we reach our learning goals? Did we complete all deliverables? And how did all of those things connect?"

A year-round program that includes a four-week summer travel component – each student raises money to support a learning experience abroad or in another part of the United States – College Unbound offers students a cost advantage by awarding a degree after three years of work instead of the typical four. Moreover, it provides an alternative to a historically underserved student population – those who are more geared to experiential than classroom learning.

A Willingness to Improve

Striving to produce graduates with real-world skills, College Unbound is an experiment in outcome-focused learning than can inform SNHU's more traditional offerings, Sheehan says. It's part of an inventive culture that SNHU aims to perpetuate with its Innovation Lab, a think tank of sorts that is contemplating future education models that further reduce costs and increase access to college for those who have traditionally lacked it.

By innovating, SNHU is positioning itself for the revolution LeBlanc foresees in higher education over the next decade. At its heart, however, the university's innovation is about improving service to students. "Innovation is in some measure a willingness to let go of old ways of thinking and old structures," LeBlanc says. "I think it's really always asking the question, 'How can we do this better?'"

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