Are we paying close enough attention to the lessons we can learn from our colleagues in for-profit higher education?
Will the for-profits invest the resources and maintain the long-term focus necessary to develop educational platforms and post-secondary services that elevate them into the elite tier of higher education?
If the for-profits succeed in going up-market, in either traditional degree granting or certificate (non-degree and executive education programs), will they begin to compete with the traditional non-profits for mindspace and market share in these sectors?
It is with these questions in mind that I have been engaging the leadership of the University of Phoenix around their newest non-degree, executive education online course Innovator's Accelerator.
U of P graciously allowed me full access to review all course materials and interact with the new online learning platform that they developed in partnership with IDEO.
This non-degree, non-credit course, which is designed for leaders and emerging leaders across business sectors, is a mix of high quality short video lessons from Clay Christensen, Jeff Dyer, and Hal Gregersen, and facilitated online group projects, formative assessment, and asynchronous collaboration.
The instructor in my course, as each course is a cohort based class lasting six weeks, holds both JD and MBA degrees works full-time as an executive in the health care sector.
In evaluating the course I was struck by two things.
1. The Advantages of A Clean Slate:
U of P and IDEO have had the advantage of approaching learning platform and course design with a clean slate. The results are impressive, and honestly a bit worrying if we compare "traditional" online courses with what U of P has been able to do with IDEO.
The course proceeds within a narrative structure that is both immersive and logical, one that is clearly designed around how we absorb information on the web. Too often our online course designs attempt to mimic what works best in face-to-face classroom. IDEO and U of P have been able to step back and reevaluate this model, and the result is a learning experience that feels both rigorous and inviting.
In each module there is a "lesson overview", a "listen and think lecture" (which are really beautifully staged and paced), a "see it in practice" case study, a set of discussion questions, and a lesson summary.
The courses are project and team based. In the course I reviewed the team project for week one was to create an innovation to improve work meetings. Project work involved team checkins, synchronous meetings, and a team based deliverable.
2. Effective Leveraging of Gamification Theory and Tools:
Rather than utilize traditional measures of grading or scoring, the Innovator's Accelerator courses utilized two concepts incentivize learning, presence, and participation.
The first is an "Impact Score", basically a dashboard that dynamically indicates the your affect on the other learners in your class. The score changes in relation not only to how much you participate in class discussions, but the degree to which your ideas spark others to comment, debate and favorite your posts.
The second evaluation tool that the Innovator's Accelerator course introduces is visual indicator of mastery of five core innovation skills. These five skills, questioning, observing, networking, experimenting, and associating, are tracked throughout the course. Students receive a visual indicator as these skills are practiced and as evidence of mastery is demonstrated.
What can we take away from University of Phoenix's Innovator's Accelerator course?
My first takeaway is that all of us can learn a great deal about course design from what IDEO and U of P have produced. The care, effort, resources, and attention are abundantly clear in the learning platform and course layout that this partnership has produced.
The course is beyond visually appealing. It feels to me like a glimpse into the future of online learning.
Beyond the advances such as the impact score and the visual indictors of a learner's core innovation skills, the course design strikes a balance between immersive learning content and rigorous individual and team project assignments.
The question will be to what degree the University of Phoenix will make this learning platform and course design visible to the rest of the post-secondary community. I would highly recommend that the leadership of U of P err on the side of transparency.
The fact that U of P gave me full access to the course, and did not insist on any restrictions in what I write (and that they are reading this for the first time when you are), argues that they may indeed be moving in a direction towards greater openness.
What form this greater transparency about the platform and course design can take I'm not exactly sure - but this approach would benefit all of us that design courses and perhaps elevate the U of P brand.
My second conclusion is that the University of Phoenix is an organization in transition. Building a course around well known and high quality faculty (expensive teaching talent) is a departure from U of P's traditional model. We should all take notice that investments in our knowledge producing faculty offer our best opportunity to create long-term value.
This Innovator's Accelerator course is also not aimed at the traditional University of Phoenix market of degree completing and graduate degree seeking full-time working professionals. The course is not for credit, and is positioned at the high end of executive education. I think that U of P is smart to innovate in this market, as demand is both strong for this type of learning and any lessons and best practices learned from this initiative will filter into the full range of U of P's educational offerings.
Finally, if we are willing listen hard, this Innovator's Accelerator course may be something of a wakeup call for all of us working across higher ed.
The quality of an online course is not determined by the tax status of the institution that produces it.
How can we learn from the for-profits?
What is your interest in learning more about this Innovator's Accelerator course?