An iTunes Lesson for Higher Ed

Person touching digital icons.

Working at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) provides the opportunity to see in microcosm the larger national conversation about different modalities of learning.  We have a traditional New England liberal arts college, almost a century old with about 4000 students, a national online college with 90,000 students, and a competency-based program with more than 4000 students.  The CBE programs partner with national workforces as well as international programs that educate employees of all levels and refugees in several foreign countries. These operations are the reason we state with conviction that there is no single student type and, if we are to be true to our mission of creating rigorous learning environments that increase the likelihood of student success, we must be prepared to meet students where they are rather than where we want them to be.  This requires us to commit to transformative learning for ourselves as much as we build it for our students.

At our existential core SNHU believes in the transformative power of education.  This could very easily be reduced to a trite platitude if it weren’t for the relentless deliberate reflection, focus and resources we pour into making this real for every one of our students. We acknowledge that an education can transform lives but that transformation is not rooted in the piece of paper that a student receives upon completion of their learning experience. It is in the acquisition of new knowledge and skills, the application of that knowledge and skill, and the unavoidable changes that occur as new learnings interact with old to evolve the student from who they were and what they could do to who they are and might become. Yes, in the end, this often results in a new job, increased wages, or some other tangible life changing event but this occurs because of the transformation rather than being the transformation itself.

To make transformative learning happen, SNHU must constantly be willing not only to challenge the public status quo but also its own assumptions and understandings. What is learning?  How does learning occur? Such reflection is challenging because it requires a willingness to look for whether longstanding practices are effective or simply accepted because “that is the way it has been done.”

To maximize the likelihood of student success in high quality academic programs requires that we understand why students have not previously succeeded, take explicit action to remove those obstacles, and create new experiences geared towards success. Our student affairs teams immerse themselves in data that gives them an understanding of the “life happens” factors that cause many of our students to arrive with some college credit but no degree. Our academic teams pour over factors that may lead some student populations to succeed more than others. Our psychometric team constantly considers whether alternative ways of assessment of competencies would allow more students to demonstrate mastery rather than insisting that on a one size fits all approach.

To ensure the second part of my earlier statement— “high quality academic programs”—our teams demonstrate deliberate processes in considering student learning outcomes, assessments, and learning environments to answer the three fundamental questions: (1) What should students know and do when they receive our credentials? (2) How can we measure student progress with validity? And (3) What academic support and learning environments can we create that will guide students to mastery? We pair our faculty and other academically qualified experts with practitioners in the field who serve on advisory councils to aid us in weaving our learning experiences into what we hope will become lifelong learning behaviors. We then strategically focus on five areas: students, faculty, technology and learning environments, curricula, and our team. Identifying student-focused goals for each area is critical to helping our students succeed.

One of the opportunities that we are working on is in creating learning experiences that are adaptable enough to help various student types or students who need to navigate across different modalities based upon what, how, and when they need to learn. We call this initiative our universal interoperable prototype. This prototype is built in such a way that individual learning experiences are small enough and independent enough to be used on their own for competency demonstration but also able to be seamlessly interwoven or stacked into larger experiences that may be traditional courses or other engagement types. Consider having a learning experience for effective communication at a given performance level that could be paired with other modules in such a way that effective communication learning environments and assessments might be different experiences for students in business, natural sciences, or humanities. In this paradigm, a basic “Lego block” of curriculum can be built on it based upon the needs and environments of the students rather than building large learning experiences where substantial parts of the course may or may not be relevant to the desired student outcomes or preferred modalities.

In the music industry, albums were replaced with cassettes which were in turn replaced with compact discs. In very short time periods how we listened to music as well as where and when changed. Yet for a substantial amount of time the packaging of the music remained the same—an album with a dozen or so songs was still what you got when you bought a cassette or a compact disc.

The creation of Napster shifted things and, while the traditional music industry was able to shut that down through lawsuits, it was clear there was no turning back. Soon there was iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify while tools transitioned from Mp3 players to iPods to smartphones.  No longer would consumers have to spend $15.99 for a package of 12 songs when they only wanted two of the songs from that package.  They might still buy 12 songs, but the twelve they purchased could be purchased individually and combined through playlists and podcasts, fitting the needs of the consumer rather than the insistence of the producers.

Almost overnight institutions that had banked on the durability of music production and distribution like Tower Records and MediaPlay vanished. We see a similar opportunity in creating learning experience models that would allow students to assemble learning experience “playlists” that suit their needs as well as the parallel resources that would support their experiences.

There are many factors that must be considered in this opportunity:

  • Is there a new “right size” model that will replace the 3-credit course?
  • How does one rethink a course, which is an iterative interwoven learning experience with independent stacked modules, and successfully create the surrounding adhesive supporting structures? In other words, if each learning experience is a brick that may be placed into various structures, how do we develop a capability to agilely supply mortar around such bricks to ensure a unified learning experience? One that does not have holes or gaps in learning?
  • When it comes to support, what is the best way to provide the right academic learning resources? Is it Open Educational Resources? Libraries? Partnerships with publishers who can break apart content and resell it as smaller, customized chunks?
  • How might the various roles within academic and student affairs change?


In a society where automation and technology advances are changing what is possible and what is needed, more and more people will find themselves having to raise their skill levels and knowledge multiple times throughout their lives. Coal miners, ticketing agents, and trailer truck drivers are not the only ones who will be impacted by advanced technology. A year ago at a conference workshop coding boot camps were being discussed and some participants noted that, while this was a skill set with great current demand, the job of coding would soon be turned over to more efficient machines.  Within a very short period, these human learning experiences could transition from a new program development opportunity as a human skill to the point of becoming an obsolete course of study.

One irony of this kind of rapid evolution is that the core and enduring skill sets continue to be those that make us most human—effective communication, ethics, interpersonal relationships and leadership skills—the ones that are periodically criticized for being too soft (i.e. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio’s “less philosophers and more plumbers” argument in the 2016 presidential elections) but emphasized every year by business leaders and executives who recognize the immense value of such vital skills.

Southern New Hampshire University has focused on deliberate outcomes in the general education curriculum that are workforce-related competencies, empowering students to master skills that are transferable and scalable from one job to the next. We continue to refine our frameworks; rather than focus on a given area of the social sciences (sociology, psychology, anthropology) in a buffet-style “if you take this course something magically transformative will happen” -model we look to ensure that, regardless of their profession, students become knowledgeable about how societies, cultures and organizations interact and how they can apply their skills in increasingly complex situations (personal and professional).  Similarly, we continue to refine our approaches to natural science and humanities as well.  This way, as technology continues to advance, students will continue to apply their uniquely human interpersonal skills in ways that make them perpetually valuable to organizations and industries.

These initiatives—creating a universal interoperable prototype and a relevant rigorous general education experience—are two of the ways we at SNHU are re-envisioning what education is, how it might happen, and what the next evolution of higher education will entail.

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