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10 Things I Know About You, Higher Education

image of a pile of colorful numbers

As we pass the one-year anniversary of the launch of Academically Speaking and 2017 is well under way, it’s a great moment to consider some of the observations we have made or refined about online education and models for nontraditional students over the last year.

As I noted when we began the blog, Southern New Hampshire University is a microcosm of the national higher education conversation, serving 80,000 students on our century-old, traditional campus; in one of the largest non-profit online colleges in the nation; and in our direct-assessment, competency-based college.

We are often asked about the lessons we have learned or the advice we would give about our experiences. We shared some of that in our annual report, Beyond the Ivory Tower, at the end of last year and here on our blog. Here are some of the key topics that seem to come up in our dialogues when our team presents at conferences or networks at events.

1. Learning Science has become one of those fashionable terms that people throw around almost as much as CBE or adaptive or personalized learning, and like those terms there seems to be little agreement on what exactly it means.

I continue to receive blank or confused stares when I ask well-established academicians to (1) define what it means to learn, (2) explain how learning happens, and (3) tell me what standard for assessment they have employed on their campuses to make sure that it happened (no, grades don’t count).

This lack of purpose and process clarity often is ignored when brilliant minds are employed to teach and exacerbated as those minds settle in and delve further—not into these questions, but into their areas of study. This creates an ironic situation: The smarter they get, the further they get from being able to communicate with novices in their fields.

2. The basic diagram for our educational experiences centers around three things:

  1. Using expert practitioners working in the field paired with academicians teaching in the classroom to determine appropriate standard outcomes at institutional, program and course levels.
  2. Using experts in psychometrics and assessment to figure out the most valid and accurate ways to measure those outcomes.
  3. Creating the most effective (accessible, affordable, adaptable, etc.) learning environment for the various student demographics to acquire the new knowledge or skills necessary to demonstrate mastery on the outcomes when they are assessed. While these seem to be distinct, a key learning we found early on is the critical need for collaboration in all three of these phases. Outcomes remain almost the alpha and omega in this model, yet the design of those outcomes has to consider what measures of assessment are available and even the type of assessment needs to take into consideration the parameters available for a learning environment. JFK set an outcome of getting to the moon, but the outcome would have been unrealistic if he hadn’t recognized the learning process and time it would take to get there. When we first began, theoretically it made sense to have an instructional design team with their expertise working separately from an assessment team: different expertise, after all. But the result was great assessments that couldn’t be mastered in the time frame or given our student body. Upon increasing the collaboration between the two teams, a far more effective learning and assessment environment was achieved, sometimes by re-chunking experiences, sometimes by developing more relatable assessments (NEVER by compromising on ultimate outcomes).

3. When we began to consider accelerated education models for our student body, we committed an error that, in hindsight, was hilarious because it was exactly what we had cautioned many of our colleagues who were entering the online space at other institutions of higher education against.

You can’t just start with what you have and repurpose it. You really do have to take the time to get back to basics; reflect on mission, purpose, outcomes at every level from the institution down to the course section; and then create the student experience based on the new factors involved in the new environment.

Likewise, with acceleration we tried to build modules from current courses, breaking them apart with diagnostics to allow students to “test out” of the formative areas they already had mastery of en route to a common summative experience. Very quickly we realized that the scaffolded and interwoven design of learning in the more traditional versions of online courses did not allow for easy dissection into clean independent units, and even after we did create something viable, it was clear form a gap analysis and early student experiences that the parts did not add up to the sum in a satisfactory way.

Result: same as with converting from face to face to online. Take the time to do it right or you will have to take the time to do it over.

4. Any school that wants to do any type of large-scale, competency-based education program needs to have an early conversation about whether they want to be an institution that simply certifies previously accrued competencies or wants to create an environment where students can build competencies.

The model is very different and far more complicated for the latter, especially if you have a relatively open admission policy. Many students need guiderails as well as structure to progress; that very group of students will require a far more supportive learning environment if they are trying to master competencies for which they have not developed skills. Be prepared for that.

Online education requires a major reality check for those who think they can easily engage and generate quick revenue; competency-based-education requires not just a gut check but a full-bore inspection. Otherwise it will become a money-pit sucking down not only those involved directly but those on the periphery as well.

5. Deliberate design of our disaggregated faculty model has truly exposed some of the unrealistic expectations placed on faculty to be one-size-fits-all expert generalists: advisor, instructor, grader, designer, researcher, committee member and more.

There was evidence of this in my own experience as a faculty member, when students would show up in my office with personal, non-academic issues that I was in no way professionally trained to handle.

It has become far more apparent as we have considered the professional skill sets necessary for each of these roles. Something as seemingly obvious as writing valid assessment questions for a test or creating a supportive learning environment for students with disabilities take skill sets far beyond what most faculty members are prepared for. Future iterations of student experience will require far more collaboration, diversification and specialization than we have considered in the past.

6. There often is a substantial difference between what practitioners in the field and academics in the classroom expect for outcomes in a course of study.

When we begin any new program development we bring in a group comprised of both of these stakeholders, and often they take a while to get to consensus on knowledge, skills, dispositions and abilities expected for success on the first day of a job or profession. Engaging in such an exercise can open eyes on both sides to the limits and possibilities of the classroom.

7. A no-holds-barred conversation about the purpose of general education has resulted in some of our best work to date.

When we came to the table we rather quickly arrived at some common points of agreement, such as:

  1. General education is valuable for the acculturation of traditional college students to broader worldviews and the skill sets necessary to navigate daily life employing those world views.
  2. If we were going to have general education outcomes, there needed to be some clear, common, measurable KPIS in each and every course.

 The real challenge came when we considered broad content areas for adult students and began building outcomes and learning environments for them. We still agreed on tackling broad worldviews in areas such as the humanities and social and natural sciences, but it was a real struggle to get out of the weeds to a curriculum that tackled core skills and knowledge — all the more so because every content expert wanted to privilege his/her area of study.

For example, when we raised the question, “What about employing social scientific approach to the world does every graduate need to master?”, the sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, etc., all retreated to their corners and began crafting discipline-specific outcomes rather than thinking about the way the social scientific worldview approaches interactions of cultures, organizations and individuals.

I think several of my literature colleagues stopped breathing for several seconds when I stated that as much as I loved Shakespeare and studied him for my master’s degree, it was not so important that every adult student read Shakespeare, but rather that we equipped them with the ability to read critically whatever it was that they were going to be reading in their lives. We did eventually get there, and then the real hard work began. If you think finding experts to build a general education curriculum with this framework was hard, try finding faculty who can step beyond their area of study and teach such an approach.

8. Good communication, particularly writing, is perhaps the single most important skill college graduates will learn.

Conversely, the essay is probably the single least effective and yet most popular way to assess skill sets when trying to determine competency in professional fields. Writing about something and doing it are not the same, unless of course what you are assessing is actually how well someone writes.

One of the challenges our outcomes and assessment team has worked on is balancing every faculty member’s insistence on effective communication with accurate evaluation of the other skill sets being evaluated, while our faculty training group has worked with instructors to not discard great thinking or performance simply because of poor writing or communication. In these instances the extra academic support provided beyond the immediate content area of the student will often be the difference between success and failure in both the short term and possibly for life.

9. Few things have impressed me more than the accomplishments of both students and faculty in the online environment who have traditionally been labeled disabled.

We have tackled head-on the need to support our most challenged students, and they have repaid our efforts by inspiring us with their brilliance, their determination, and above all, their unique contributions to the various bodies of knowledge. That is equally true of our faculty who, working from their homes, reach out and engage students who have never been successful anywhere before. For the nontraditional student body, it is even more true that motivation trumps intelligence, and the greatest ambassadors I have ever seen are the faculty and students whose voices now have the power to be heard.

10. In a fast-moving culture that prides itself on being agile and responsive, leadership has to ensure that communication is as transparent and effective as possible so team members at every level feel that change is happening with them rather than to them.

My team has often heard me say that God gave us two ears and two eyes but only one mouth for a reason—we should always watch and listen twice as much as we speak. Mastering the listening part of communication is invaluable, particularly in institutions where rapid innovation through iterations is as innate as breathing.

Change in the needs, nature and demands of students as well as the roles of faculty, vendors, technology and administration will only accelerate. To play on a paradigm quote attributed to Henry Ford, there is no need to keep arguing about finding a faster horse: the automobile that is modern education has been invented. It will improve over time, but I wouldn’t be investing in saddles if I were you.

So welcome to a new year! I look forward to continuing the conversation and networking we have started, and to all of us creating the next evolution of higher education.