Seven or eight years ago, somewhere in the far, dark corners of a private, nonprofit liberal arts college in Salt Lake City, a relatively rogue collection of educational buzzwords surfaced among a small group of faculty and administrators.
These educators were toying with the idea of starting a new online master’s degree program to fill the needs of an ever-changing educational landscape. What they may not have fully realized at the time, though, was that the amalgamation of terms they were toying with was a stroke of epistemic and curricular brilliance for student learning -- and one of the most difficult pedagogical scaffoldings for faculty members and administrators to execute.
The assemblage of terms is a bit of a mouthful. What they envisioned was a program that emphasized competency-based instruction in a self-directed learning model -- a hybrid online, low-residency, high-touch program that was project based, client focused and cohort designed, team driven where faculty would assume roles as coaches and mentors, not instructors.
The theory was that, particularly at a liberal arts college, a flexible online graduate program didn’t have to carry the “low-quality,” “low-rigor” stigma that many asynchronous distance-education programs often do. Rather, what they foresaw was a malleable educational learning environment where full-time working professionals, parents and otherwise schedule-conflicted adults could have frequent, substantive interaction with instructors and peers to study theoretical and critical underpinnings of a subject while contributing important work to nonprofits, communities and small businesses.
I was not privy to those initial discussions; living over 2,000 miles away as a doctoral student at Clemson University, I had no idea that these conversations were even happening -- or that my academic career would soon catapult me into this new program, so vastly different from any educational model I could have ever conceived, let alone been a part of.
Fast-forward to 2018 and I currently, somewhat as a consequence of happenstance, co-chair this toddler-aged master’s of strategic communication (MSC) program at Westminster College in Utah. Five years into the program, I’m seeing what the original visionaries had in mind: without question, it’s one of the most distinctive and innovative educational structures I’ve observed, and I’ve felt fortunate to have fallen into its developmental process.
When I compare this multifaceted, hybrid online, self-directed, competency-based model to traditional education (and by “traditional” I mean either brick-and-mortar instruction or asynchronous online learning), I can’t help but hear the words of John Dewey echo into my pedagogical ears: “The path of least resistance and trouble is a mental rut already made.”
In an age of information overload and almost limitless access to knowledge, the traditional instructional model seems increasingly archaic but, for most colleges, it remains the path of least resistance (and, hence, the continually preferred approach). I completely understand why, of course: while programs like the ones in which I find myself now teaching are pedagogically and epistemologically exciting -- and while they produce enormous benefits for adult learners in a busy and complex professional world -- there are significant obstacles to developing and teaching in programs like these.
The greatest obstacle, it seems, is adapting to instructional methods far different from the way we were both trained and educated ourselves. As we attempt to breathe life into innovative curricula that adapt to 21st-century challenges (and a whole new generation of digital learners to boot), we simultaneously impart death upon our understanding of what it means to be “faculty in higher education” as we know it. That is to say, digital and hybrid education aren’t killing faculty jobs (as some have proposed) but, if done well, they will likely obliterate the old faculty job description as we have long understood it. The future of education, it seems, will likely need a whole new approach to preparing and hiring teachers, as it requires a completely different type of interaction with students.
To clarify, let me briefly summarize what our MSC program at Westminster College looks like in practice. Then, allow me to share what I’ve found to be so difficult in hiring for and executing this program.
- Hybrid online format: Designed for students living in any location. Students come to campus once per semester to attend an all-day residency. Here, they meet faculty mentors, coaches and students in their cohort. They network with students in other cohorts, and they are provided an overview of the material they will be studying throughout the semester. They are given textbooks and scores of online resources through an online learning management system. They work with people in their cohort (sometimes meeting virtually, sometimes in person), they interact with clients and they meet with faculty either in person or online, but all work is submitted online.
- Curriculum: Students study five broad subject areas (strategic messaging, visual communication and brand strategy, organizational communication and culture, integrated marketing, instructional design and a capstone project). Each subject area is divided into separate individual and team projects, amounting to eight credit hours of work each semester, for a total of 40 credit hours of projects over five semesters.
- Clients: Students select organizations -- businesses, nonprofits, governments, etc. -- that they complete work for. Collaborating with these entities and learning content and theory from faculty mentors, students study the material, develop project management plans, conduct research and produce practical, results-driven deliverables. Students work with two clients every semester -- one individually, and one as part of a team.
- Teamwork: As student teams work with a client, they learn to coordinate schedules, develop project management skills, work through conflict-resolution techniques and embrace one another’s skills to produce high-quality work.
- Assessment and mastery: Since this is a competency-based program, students don’t work for grades, but rather for mastery in a subject. Rather than submitting an assignment, receiving a grade and moving on (like in most traditional models), students work with faculty mentors and performance coaches to submit and revise work until it is professional and client ready. Faculty mentors review work to meet pre-established “competencies” and request revisions until the work meets or exceeds appropriate standards. Students may not move forward until they meet the competency standards for each sequential project.
- Mentoring, coaching and self-direction: Faculty members in this program are trained through a coaching and mentoring support center that guides them through the process of interacting with students individually by way of coaching and mentoring calls. While most faculty in the program also teach in other, traditional formats in different programs, full-time faculty in the MSC program must rethink their role as instructor in a self-directed learning environment. As mentors, they provide scores of online resources (videos, web links, commentary, case studies, connections to professionals, etc.); set up regular video conference calls in Skype or Google Hangouts; collaborate with performance coaches who assist students on “learning pillars” like project and time management, conflict resolution, writing, research, presentation, and professional development; and provide regular, substantive feedback on student work and content-specific questions and issues. Faculty mentors are typically content and theory experts with Ph.D.s. Performance coaches have master’s degrees but are primarily working professionals with extensive professional experience. Students access resources and textbooks on their own time and come to mentors and coaches with content and “pillars” questions.
- Schedule: Project submissions are deadline flexible, to a point. While all work must be completed by the end of the semester, the spirit of competency-based education and self-directed learning allows students to work at their pace around their own schedule, and they submit work until it passes competency standards.
Based on student feedback, programmatic review of assessment, topic mastery, general observance of student improvement over time, job placement and my anecdotal experience working with and mentoring students, the learning outcomes have been undeniably successful. Students repeatedly tell us that “this is the way I always thought education should be,” or “I’ve learned far more in this program than I could have imagined.” Poll results have shown us that most of our students are either promoted or they receive a higher-paying job than when they started (average salary increase from start to finish is $8,600). Creativity, adaptability, critical awareness, project management and writing skills are reviewed from semester to semester, and a clear indication of significant improvement has been observed through “competency” assessment and rubrics over five semesters.
Students, simply, make enormous progress from start to finish unlike anything I’ve seen in other programs (for the record, I’ve taught at three colleges over 13 years in four undergraduate programs and two master’s programs). The structure of this program seems to provide opportunities for students to produce better work, to think more creatively and critically, and to delve into subject matter with more personal investment than traditional classroom-based, assignment-focused, time-constrained, grades-assessed instruction. And the tangible work -- when students truly get it and embrace the purpose of the projects -- is nothing short of remarkable, far exceeding anything I have seen come from traditional classroom work.
But for all its merits, teaching in and co-chairing this program hasn’t been all rose-colored and bowls of peaches. Most college educators, myself included, were not trained to understand formalized education as an environment where students take the reins, where deadlines are flexible, where projects and assignments are highly customized and diverse, where they assess in collaboration with coaches, and where grades are not the epitome of assessment.
In addition, incessant student engagement in team projects for organizations creates a complex service-learning approach that many educators are reluctant to tackle, especially regularly (in a given semester, a faculty mentor may have 15 students working with up to 20 different clients). More students than might be expected aren’t very good at self-directed learning; many teams and cohorts struggle to coordinate schedules; personality conflicts are common; and scheduling time to call students, videoconference with them and work through challenges can feel very irregular and difficult to manage. Adapting to each of these issues has been a significant learning curve for me as an educator.
Most significant, though, grading in a true competency-based fashion (which we strive to achieve at the highest levels) means providing repeated and intense amounts of feedback on projects that are frequently between 40 and 60 pages long. When cohorts run to 15 students, it can feel like managing over a dozen mini thesis projects at once, every semester, complicated by the fact that students with clients in many different industries face unique project-specific problems in research, writing and development.
It makes for complex scheduling with mentor phone calls (most students work full-time, so they want to call early in the morning, during lunch, at night or on weekends); it requires substantial preparation in advance of the semester; and it requires an incredible amount of patience with procrastinating students or students who don’t manage projects well. It requires a great deal of encouragement, nudging and even occasional professional tough love. Because students can’t move forward until their work is strong, there is far more engagement with each individual’s work than in most classrooms.
In essence, teaching in a program like this isn’t like teaching in the classroom or in traditional online courses at all. It’s fundamentally different and it’s very hard to get used to. The schedule of a faculty member in a traditional educational environment, for example, will include three or four three-credit courses per semester, each with predetermined “seat time” in brick-and-mortar classrooms. Faculty members who teach in traditional online programs may not have seat time and face-to-face instruction, but they typically work asynchronously on a grading schedule they almost entirely control.
Hybrid education, on the other hand, is far more unpredictable and it changes every semester depending on student and client needs. It requires regular and substantive scheduled mentoring and coaching calls; it requires feedback turnaround of less than 72 hours (in order to allow students to revise and resubmit); it requires patience and adaptability as malleable deadlines inherently mean student submissions will come in in unpredictable waves; and it requires that some student interactions will happen during nontraditional business hours. (For the record, we have established a thorough policy manual that helps protect faculty members from students who hope for 24-7 assistance.)
If we’re going to move beyond the path of least resistance toward an educational model that truly embraces the idea that students should control their own learning, we have to fundamentally be willing to change the way we view our roles as faculty members. Beyond even that, though, administrators must be willing to adapt to -- and compensate for -- the structural changes in workload and occupational dynamics that come with such a change.
Oddly, one of the greatest hurdles we recognized, for example, was that, while administrators initially helped conceive of this program structure, there wasn’t much foresight into the support that would have to be given to faculty make the program work. Because grading was fundamentally different, for example, the registrar’s office had to rethink the way transcripts would be processed. That was a difficult endeavor that took years to iron out (and I can’t say we’re fully there yet!).
In addition, teaching sequences of projects isn’t the same as teaching in a brick-and-mortar classroom with specific seat time. Load distribution and pay had to be rethought (and fought for) -- we couldn’t be paid strictly by number of courses taught. Being paid for one course with 15 graduate students in such a high-touch, competency-based format was not sustainable. We also found that, in the self-directed learning model, many students struggled with things that went beyond the course content. Students needed to learn to write better, to manage projects, to conduct research, to give presentations and to manage time. For faculty members to assist with all that in addition to the course material and intensive, substantive assessment and feedback, we needed to hire the aforementioned performance coaches to work alongside faculty mentors.
Also, the program flexibility opened many loopholes we didn’t initially expect, as students would delay submitting work or submit multiple projects at once, particularly at semester’s close. Several program policies had to be established to help guide students through self-directed learning, policies that aimed to both help students and protect instructors. Many students, for example, would assume that faculty members were available all the time. If they were working on a project at 10:00 p.m. on a Sunday, we would get phone calls with questions. The spirit of competency-based education naturally led to an open-door policy that was also unsustainable.
The list of challenges we have faced is long and could fill several more essays, but the reward has been noteworthy. Breathing life into innovative education is needed in a world that is vastly different than it was even 20 years ago. But as we embrace change and innovation, we must be willing to rethink what it means to teach in higher ed. And that may very well mean the death of our current understanding of what it means to be a college faculty member.
When we embrace innovative, hybrid educational models like the one we’re attempting to build at Westminster, we are relinquishing control, allowing students, projects, clients and teamwork dynamics to mold the learning process. We are, essentially, developing the system that Paulo Friere ostensibly had in mind when he argued that students “will not gain … liberation by chance but through the praxis of their quest for it, through their recognition of the necessity to fight for it.” We’re essentially liberating students to discover how learning works in a very uncontrolled, unpredictable environment. We’re not “teaching” anymore, at least not in the “banking-model” format where students are receptacles and teachers are simply filling them with knowledge; rather, we’re mentoring. We’re not creating lesson plans and assignment descriptions and we’re not in control of the end result. We’re merely a guide, helping people learn how to learn.
The student results seriously suggest models like these may be better for learning. As faculty members in traditional institutions, though, we have to ask ourselves: Is it worth moving away from the path of least resistance? And, if we don’t adapt, will we be left behind?
I haven’t yet determined the answers to these questions. For myself, the hybrid learning model is as invigorating as it is exhausting. My own experiences as an educator suggest that this model really does help people learn how to learn better than the traditional, somewhat hand-holding model does, particularly with graduate students. Hearing student feedback and observing student progress is exhilarating and rewarding.
But adapting -- as both educators and administrators -- has been bumpy, to say the least. Fortunately, I work for an institution that is seeking innovative change in 21st-century pedagogy, and its leaders have, despite the challenges, been relatively supportive. While we may very well be at the precipice of a pedagogical “adapt-or-perish” environment, I think the key question is how can we, as individuals and as institutions, make adapting sustainable? And this raises a world of questions about how we rethink the role of the physical institution (which, I submit, still has a very strong and meaningful role in hybrid education), the process for determining faculty compensation, how support centers can increase their involvement in the instruction itself, what level of onus is placed on students paying for their educations, and on and on.
It’s not an easy path forward. But if we don’t attempt it, I fear Dewey’s “mental rut” will continue to stagnate us in a century where a new generation of learners simply don’t think and learn the way humans traditionally have. It’s a new world with new learners who, I believe, will thrive better in hybrid environments.