Becoming Mr. Miyagi – Part I

The Challenges of Designing the Next Generation of Higher Ed Learning Experiences

A group of students and instructor leaning over a set of computer monitors as they collaborate in an open learning space.

I often refer to the movie “Karate Kid” in my writings and with my team. It rings true to me for what the recognized successful learning experience of the future looks like. A learner, Daniel, needs to acquire a new skill, but all of the traditional pathways (traditional dojos) are closed to him because of finances or culture. The instructor he finds, Mr. Miyagi, is a master of his subject area but does not have the traditional tools, or at least recognizes those tools aren’t the way to empower Daniel, so he uses the real world in which they live to teach. It is as unorthodox as it is inspiring. It is the right approach for the right learner at the right time.

In conversations about SNHU with my fellow New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) commissioners, we discuss the future of college as we know it. One comment that continues to reverberate with me is that SNHU challenges, as it should, so many things that have traditionally been considered essential to a college—that we are “an organization devoted to human development through learning” more than we are tied to some of the traditional limitations and structures people associate with the term “college.”

When I distill the current initiatives and goals of SNHU’s Global Campus, two words repeatedly come to mind: accountability and deliberateness. Much of the public brouhaha around whether college is still worth it stems from a desire to ensure that colleges recognize that learning does not happen by accident or osmosis, but instead is an insistence that we, higher ed’s leaders, document in transparent, concise ways that we do what we say we do. Namely, to provide learners with whatever new skills and abilities they need to advance when they complete their experience.

In "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" one of the most infamous encounters described is “The Royal Nonesuch.” A pair of traveling con men convince the townspeople to pay to see what ends up being a big hoax. The townspeople are furious, but, not wanting the remaining people in the town to see them as idiots, convince others in town to go see it the next night. This only lasts for a short time before the town realizes they have been had. Likewise, it should come as no surprise to higher ed’s leaders that at some point, as costs continue to rise, the public would demand clearer outcomes of that “black box” model of 18-year olds going off to campuses where something mystical would occur.

This two-part blog will look at some of the factors we at SNHU consider in trying to respond to the public demand for transparency and defined value. Clearly measured program performance with a focus on the user experience are topics in this first part; in the second part we continue with an agile model that allows for stackability, looking at learning modalities, and efforts to develop the academic team capable of negotiating this space as colleges and their learners, like Huck Finn at the end of the novel, set out for new territories.

Program Performance

At the core of all we do at SNHU Global Campus is a series of three questions:

  1. Are we aligned on a definition of learning as the acquisition of new knowledge, skills, abilities and dispositions (KSADs)?
  2. Are we aware of how learning occurs and how to measure it?
  3. How do we continue to improve our ability to use data to tag and improve our ability to create successful learning environments?

These seem like obvious questions, yet many institutions struggle to put systems and processes in place that ensure a focus on and accountability for them. Instead, they are often relying on individual narratives and shying away from the huge leap of faith (and cash) they are asking the public to invest. We run dozens, indeed hundreds, of sections of each course, and while we always challenge our instructors to create personalized successful experiences with each of their learners (again, Mr. Miyagi), we also have tagged in all of our experiences (face to face, online and direct assessment), clear outcomes, milestones and rubric elements that allow us to look across all of the sections to see how the students, faculty and curriculum are performing in ways that feed into a continuous improvement process. Each of these are created in partnerships of academics working with relevant businesses and practitioners to hold ourselves accountable for what we tell learners they will know and be able to do, show, or be when they complete their experiences. Whether it is instructional best practices, learning resource effectiveness, student activity and engagement levels, or any number of other factors, the goal is to be better at holding ourselves accountable for effectively crafting experiences that provide students with what we told them they would acquire. One of my mentors taught me that if you aren’t measuring you are just practicing, and for our learners, trusting us with their hopes for their families and themselves, this is the most important event of their lives, so we never treat it like it’s a preseason game.

User Experience

The user experience is almost as important as the actual content of the learning experience. The SNHU user is any learner, faculty, or staff participating in the work we do. We are committed to understanding the gap between the idealized experience we have created and the reality of what happens once all stakeholders are engaged. Yes, it is equally as important to ensure that our faculty and staff are experiencing effective environments as our learners; otherwise we have lessened the likelihood that our learners will succeed.

When designing and examining the user experience, there is a constant tension in crafting experiences in a formal environment when trying to imbue learners with the skills to keep learning for life, future learning that will happen almost totally outside of a “classroom” experience. On one hand, some of the most influential actors in the learning experience are the instructors and advisors who create the human connection so critical in motivating persistence when life happens. On the other hand, the vast majority of what anyone learns happens outside of the classroom. This tension forces our teams to be very deliberate about the problem-based experiences we deploy, ensuring that we consider the varying populations and environments our students come from and how they will need to successfully demonstrate and add to their learning moving forward. As a result we often consider game design concepts, when we build experiences where success is measured by how much the platform and supports, including instructors, can fade into the background or get out of the way of the learning, but are always easily and quickly accessible to adjust the experience to aid the learner’s progress.

Focusing on user experience recalibrates accountability in learning environments in a very dramatic fashion. Whereas previously much of the responsibility for success was placed on the learner, looking at user experience as a key performance indicator places an increased amount of success on the institution, just as an engineer is held accountable for the structural stability of a bridge even though the traveler is the one who needs and chooses to cross.

Join me on my next post, which will focus on stackability, distribution channels and team development.

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