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Peter Smith has been working in and around higher education for over 50 years. He and I first met a few years back when he was in a leadership role at Kaplan Education. Peter recently reached out to share information about his latest project associated with his work as a senior academic adviser at Yellowdig. I wanted to talk to Peter about his higher education career trajectory, a conversation we turned into this Q&A.

Peter Smith, an older light-skinned man wearing glasses and a business suit.

Q: Let’s start with your current work with Yellowdig. How did you get involved with the company, and what are you doing with them?

A: When I retired from the University of Maryland Global Campus last December, Yellowdig’s CEO, Shaunak Roy, who is a friend, approached me with the idea of my acting as senior academic adviser. Long story short, I ultimately agreed to do so. Why? Because I think that Yellowdig has become a unique and remarkable academic asset. Yellowdig can support learners at any stage of their lifelong learning journey with an institution, from onboarding to postgraduation status. And their Education 3.0—Yellowdig’s Learning Conference scheduled virtually for Aug. 2—will describe these assets through panel discussions and other forms, drawing on the experiences of partners and independent observers.

Taking courses as one example, as I wrote in my most recent blog post. Yellowdig’s engagement and community-building approach increases retention and completion for all, including formerly under- and unserved populations, and it also encourages deeper learning. It does both by creating a modern day “Community of Inquiry,” first described by John Dewey over 100 years ago. COIs encourage and support wide-ranging discussions, deep engagement and community-building that promote higher completion and deeper learning.

Furthermore, Yellowdig does not interfere with already-determined course content and learning outcomes. Rather, it supports and encourages deeper conversation among learners around those elements at a level that discussion boards cannot approach. So, the faculty member is still in charge, and there is a high level of consistency among different sections of the same course and among courses in the same program. In short, the online and hybrid environment becomes richer, with higher quality and consistency in a way that was impossible to achieve before technologically supported online and hybrid courses came on the scene.

I call it the trifecta of quality: higher completion rates and success for learners, deeper learning, and additional financial success for the institution due to higher retention.

Q: Help me understand your higher ed career trajectory. You’ve been a college president (for both nonprofit and for-profit universities), a lieutenant governor (Vt.), a professor, a congressperson (Vt.), a consultant, a board member and a dean. What is the common thread that ties all of your roles together?

A: With the exception of my political career, which in hindsight looks and feels like a brief detour from my larger life purpose (and that is a whole story in and of itself), the through line is wanting to open the doors to opportunity for people for whom it has been closed. I was born into opportunity and privilege, and, as I explored my career options, education and learning became paramount interests. And then, the power of life experience as an ongoing learning event led me to see that the enormous talent and intelligence held by millions of people was being ignored by our educational institutions and society in general. And I came to see that wasting this talent hurt society grievously as well as hurting those people.

The progression of thinking through my five books illustrates this personal journey and my learning along the way. First came Your Hidden Credentials: The Value of Learning Outside of College (Acropolis Books, 1986). I had been surprised and powerfully impacted by the fact that assessment of experiential learning had a huge impact on the learner herself not only awarding credit but leading to a deeper understanding of the life she had lived.

Then came The Quiet Crisis: How Higher Education Is Failing America (Anker, 2004). In Quiet Crisis, I was trying to show the different ways that the current dominant approach simply was not working for many populations and individuals.

Next, Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2010) began the search for new alternatives to deliver better services to more people. And Free-Range Learning in the Digital Age: The Emerging Revolution in College, Career, and Education (Select Books, 2018) pursued the exploration for new pathways and models.

Finally (so far, anyway), Stories From the Educational Underground: The New Frontier for Learning and Work (Kendall Hunt, 2021) featured 20 life stories of people with “previously wasted talent” that had been “failed by higher education” until the “emerging revolution” evolved sufficiently to meet their needs. Significantly, the “value of experiential learning outside of college” runs through them all.

That has been the focus of my passion and work since I led the development of the Community College of Vermont in 1970. I have worked at public and private universities, at the community college and state university level, and at Kaplan University on the proprietary side. Seeing learning from all those angles has been an education in and of itself.

Q: For those of us navigating nontraditional academic careers, there is no map that we can follow. It often feels as if we are making our careers up as we go. With the benefit of working in and around higher education for the past five decades, what career advice can you provide?

A: The most important things are to understand what forces are driving change, to keep your head up and your eyes open, and to look to a redefinition of quality as the core and necessary ingredient in any model.

I believe that we are in the early stages (i.e., not halfway yet) of a massive reset of how higher education is perceived and delivered in the U.S. and around the world. Many existing institutions will continue to serve, some in new and amended ways and others in more familiar ways. And, yes, some will go out of business.

What is important to understand, however, is that the historic premise for colleges—being oases of information surrounded by information-poor communities—has changed fundamentally and forever. And, understanding that fundamental change is ongoing and dynamic. So, while there will still be subjects that are so specialized that they require a special learning environment, most colleges will have to rethink just how it is that they can be useful to learners, employers and the general social, civic and economic life of their communities.

With this in mind, future versions of college as well as new iterations of learning communities will have to focus not only on quality content and learning outcomes, but also how to adapt to new situations and support learners as they come and go throughout life. The days of one-and-done are over. Also, learning how to build further education on the knowledge and experience that learners bring with them will be essential.

And the connective tissue will, I think, be the broadening of our understanding of quality to include some new elements.

  • First, before we consider certificates and degrees, there will be a more foundational criterion: Did the learner get what s/he came for? This is different from did s/he get what we had to offer? Satisfying the legitimate learning needs of our learners will be the bedrock baseline for quality.
  • Second, assessment of learning will become increasingly three-dimensional. Moving away from right-wrong answers and essays, it will include mastery of the content taught; demonstration of cross-cutting intellectual capacities such as critical thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills; and socio-emotional capacities such as empathy, leadership and the ability to work on a team. Now, reasonable people might quarrel with either the assignment of these traits to each of these categories and/or they might see slightly different categories and traits as important. Be that as it may, what is coming is an understanding of assessment of learning as a deeply educational tool and experience, not a value judgment made at the end of a course.
  • Finally, excellent assessment will be ongoing and focused on the learner developing the capacity to reflect on their learning. In my mind, reflection is the process of extracting meaning from experience. While you cannot teach it, you can encourage that learners are always thinking about their learning in terms of what it means to them and for them per the three-dimensional approach discussed above. People who can reflect on their learning will become lifelong learners, and that should be the goal, regardless of the subject matter.

So, while where the learning happens and how content is accessed, delivered and assessed will all evolve, the quality, consequence and sequence of the learning and the support that learners receive will become ever more important elements of success for learners, employers and the society at large. As people try to ski this slope of dynamic change, it will feel as if they are doing so, often, without goggles. Constantly framing and reframing an understanding of where we are and the next steps in where we are going will be essential.

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