By George Lorenzo
Innovative educators like to make thought-provoking or debate-provoking statements. Consider the following:
“Too many people with college degrees can’t write or do quantitative problem solving, and they can’t get in front of a room and present.”
“When we talk about adult learners, we are encumbered by a system that was not designed well for what we need to do. In some ways a lot of higher education has indifference toward adult learners.”
“It is easier to get a mortgage for $400,000 than it is to get a student loan for $5,000.”
“The credit hour is an arbitrary measure that is embedded in the way we think about knowledge and resource allocations, but it makes no sense. It is fiercely backwards. It has locked us into this notion of we can tell you how long someone sat in a seat, but we can’t say how well they learned.”
These comments came from President of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU – often phonetically referred to as “Snew”) Paul LeBlanc at the opening keynote speech at the recent CAEL International Conference held in Washington, D.C.
The folks at SNHU and LeBlanc are well known for their innovative, some say “game-changing” and “disruptive” practices in the field of higher education online teaching and learning and service to the adult learner. SNHU is an 80-year-old traditional, private, non-profit, residential college in Manchester, New Hampshire, with 2,500 undergraduates and about 1,000 graduate students. But beyond its traditional roots, it has built a strong online teaching and learning presence (started in 1995), currently offering more than 180 fully online undergraduate and graduate level programs to a student body approaching 22,000, the largest in New England.
In February, Fast Company named SNHU the 12th most innovative organization in the world in its World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies, touting SNHU (the only university to make the list), "for relentlessly reinventing higher education online and off." Most recently, Forbes Magazine named LeBlanc to its Impact 15 list of “Classroom Revolutionaries,” noting that he “has put his sights on exploding the three-credit class system with a new program, College for America” (CFA).
Employer Partnerships Driving Beta Version in January
CFA is a unique A.A. in General Studies competency-based program. It is geared specifically toward “serving those who are not being well served,” LeBlanc said, “those for whom the next best education option is nothing at all.” After having a successful pilot this past summer, CFA is set for a strong beta test in January 2013, starting with about 200 students enrolled through partnerships with a variety of employers who are providing tuition assistance to “a level of worker they have traditionally neglected.”
ConAgra, for instance, is rolling out the CFA program with line workers from their food processing plant in Ohio. FedEx is rolling out CFA with its graveyard-shift employees in its Memphis package-handling facility. Blue Cross and Blue Shield is enrolling students into CFA who are their home-based customer-service employees. Most of these students have no college credit and earn in the range of $24,000 annually. Most have always felt that higher education was beyond their reach financially and perhaps even intellectually. CFA, however, is going to provide easy access and enable these students to learn and earn an A.A. degree that will ultimately emphasize and prove levels of meaningful learning outcomes and knowledge and skills achievement unlike any traditional, credit-hour-based associate degree program. And they are going to accomplish this without faculty or courses. That’s their basic claim. Here’s how - in a nutshell - they are going to do it:
Curricular and Delivery Innovation and More
They are basically starting with curricular and delivery innovation. The curriculum is organized around 120 work-at-your-own-pace competencies in the form of “tasks” (also called can-do statements) that are based primarily on Lumina’s Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), but also on Department of Labor competencies, as well as a wide variety of other postsecondary education expectations and standards, such as a learning outcome that deals with information literacy and another on speaking and listening. “These are not arbitrary,” LeBlanc claimed. “They (the competencies) are all tethered to well-researched professionals within their disciplines.”
The competencies, each of which is typically comprised of three levels of tasks that grow in complexity, have been created around a framework that builds on the DQP, beginning with a “mastery triad of foundational skills, personal and social skills and content knowledge,” said Cathrael Kazin, former Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives, Educational Testing Service (ETS), and now CFA’s Chief Academic Officer.
Kazin gave an in-depth presentation all about CFA to a fully-packed room at the recent CAEL International Conference. She explained how there are clusters within the triad. Under foundational skills, for example, are communication skills, critical and creative thinking, quantitative skills, digital fluency and information literacy. “These foundational skills are necessary no matter what you are doing,” Kazin said. “We also thought that personal and social skills (personal effectiveness, ethics and social responsibility, teamwork and collaboration) were really critical for students to have because employers constantly say ‘well, their technical knowledge is okay but they can’t work in a team or they have expectations that are not reasonable.’ ” Under content knowledge are business essentials, which is an industry-specific elective, and science, society and culture, “which is the broad, integrative knowledge – the general education kind of exposures,” Kazin said.
All the tasks are archived inside an electronic portfolio under multiple criteria that are ultimately evaluated and commented on by a reviewer who uses a very simple rubric of “Yes” or “Not Yet” mastered. “Task completion is the primary form of assessment,” Kazin explained. “Students do not actually complete a competency; they complete a task which allows them to demonstrate mastery of a competency. And students can keep submitting until they get it. We don’t care about how long it takes them to get it. We just care about them getting it.”
There are 365 start dates annually, and students can begin their studies at any level they choose. Tuition is $2,500 annually – all inclusive. “We are less than the national average for the cost of a community college degree, and we want to get it down to $1,500 – that’s our target, and we are driving in that direction,” LeBlanc said. “No one should be denied because of finances.”
Another feature of the entire program that contributes to cost savings is related to course materials and content. “We are using content that is already out there, meaning no textbooks that students have to pay for,” Kazin said. “To every extent possible, we use whatever is free or low cost. Obviously it has to be curated, because there is a lot out there. We had to make sure that students did not get trapped in an endless round of Wikipedia.”
Students have multiple sources of support, including an SNHU-assigned coach, an “accountability partner” (selected by the student), a mentor (from the workplace), the aforementioned reviewer/task evaluator, and other students from the CFA community who volunteer to be part of a peer-to-peer support environment.
“We shifted from the idea of the teacher as expert, to providing other ways to get information and learn,” Kazin explained. “For example, one part of a course is called Mentors in the Workplace because now we have access to workers,” allowing students to “harness the knowledge of their peers by embedding them in a network of support. ”
So far, the new model has worked well, at least at the pilot phase from this past summer. Kazin points to some of the highly positive comments collected from the students who took part in the pilot. “These were students who thought education was not an option for them, and their feeling of transformation and possibility was extraordinary,” Kazin said. “It was transformative for them.”