While many of us spent 2012 writing, reading and debating about whether massive open online courses (MOOCs) will forever change American higher education, Richard Linder was quietly and methodically becoming what historians will no doubt cite as America’s first true MOOCer. For the past four years, the 21-year-old , who left his home at age 16, was cobbling together enough MOOC-like online courses to earn an associate degree for under $3,000 -- with not one of the MOOC-like courses being taught by an accredited college.
The truth is that MOOCs are just a small and largely undefined “pebble” within online education; yet this pebble has caused a ripple that has turned many campuses on their heads and nearly cost a president her own. That president, like many college presidents today, faces what could be called “The No Wake Syndrome,” whereby key institutional stakeholders demand leadership and action on a host of mission-critical issues, yet are not willing to accept the wake caused by change, albeit small, that will ensue as a result of the action.
E-learning is one such issue; one such wake.
Having helped build one of the most successful online degree programs in higher education, it is worth sharing a few thoughts and suggestions with other like-minded institutional leaders seeking to find their way in the online world, including how best to prepare their stakeholders for the wake that will undoubtedly follow.
Over the years, dozens of college presidents have asked how Drexel University built such strong and scalable online programs. The answer is simple: it’s having the will and knowing the way.
It all starts with an open and honest discussion. We’ve learned from history that when a ship is taking on water, it does little good for the captain to simply order the band to play louder; hope is not a strategy.
Future economic and political circumstances will fundamentally change the role of a college president from one of building more buildings and growing their endowment, to one as lead advocate for the fundamental transformation of the institution’s core academic product and, in doing so, taking the hit from the “wake” of change that will undoubtedly come fast and hard from defenders of the status quo (see illustration).
Suggesting, for example, that your institution may someday offer or give credit for a $15 MOOC course, when your institution’s financial model is based on much-needed tuition revenue from large enrollment, introductory courses (e.g., Psychology 101) is both fiscally suicidal and morally disingenuous. Just ask the folks at Moody’s who recently issued a negative outlook for the entire higher education sector, stating their concern for the “ potentially destabilizing trends like the rise of massive open online courses."
The fundamental question that must first be addressed (and consciously built around) is: “Why are we doing e-learning?” Is it to increase tuition revenue? Decrease costs? Create greater access? Allow greater flexibility for our students? Experiment with new pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning, so as to better educate a different generation of students? All of the above?
Without a clear and unwavering “will,” it makes little sense for a college president to discuss the “way,” because ultimately the senior no-wake proponents on campus will delay and/or sabotage any meaningful e-learning strategy.
Once the will is established, it’s time to communicate the “why” to key stakeholders from the top to the bottom of the organization, including board members, faculty, deans, students and alumni. All must understand the risks and benefits involved in advancing an e-learning strategy. By the same token, all must understand the risks of NOT advancing one.
The key to succeeding is to incentivize faculty and senior staff. Those colleagues who help should be compensated through the sharing of tuition revenue generated from online courses and/or financial support for scholarly activities, such as paid attendance at professional conferences, new lab equipment, etc.
These same individuals must be engaged in defining and ensuring the highest level of quality of the online student experience, to include course development standards, teaching expectations, proper advisement and support services. The focus, above all else, must be on student-faculty engagement, both in and outside of the course.
Related and essential to a successful and scalable online program is a measurable retention strategy. While retention figures for online students are hard to come by, it’s generally agreed that much more attention and greater accountability is needed in this area. A baseline for retention must be established (certainly no lower then the baseline for on-campus students) and a retention “dashboard” created to enable the provost to monitor all online programs.
Here we all could take a few best practices from for-profit colleges, who learned long ago that it is cheaper to retain an existing student then it is to recruit a new one; not to mention their ethical obligation and the fact some risk losing their national accreditation for failing to maintain high retention rates.
For those institutions just jumping into the e-learning sector, it requires the thoughtful use of both internal and external resources, including independent marketing research. Much like diving into an unknown swimming pool, unless you know where the deep and shallow ends are located, you risk either drowning or breaking your neck. Here the careful use of third-party vendors and consultants to properly assess your institution’s market niche is typically a good expense.
George Orwell once wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
The struggle for today's college presidents is having the courage to navigate their stakeholders away from the no-wake syndrome and toward a more personalized, technologically advanced and affordable online degree program.
Let’s hope that that Mr. Linder’s actions will serve as good reason for the struggle, as nothing less than the future of our profession, and our nation, is at stake.
Kenneth E. Hartman
Kenneth E. Hartman is a senior fellow at Edventures and the former president of Drexel eLearning at Drexel University.
Historians of this period, possessing the clearsightedness that only time provides, will likely point to online learning as the disruptive technology platform that radically changed higher education, which had remained largely unchanged since the cathedral schools of medieval Europe -- football, beer pong and food courts notwithstanding.
Online learning is already well-understood, well-established and well-respected by those who genuinely know it. But what we now see in higher education is a new wave of innovation that uses online learning, or at least aspects of it, as a starting point. The meteoric growth of the for-profit sector, the emergence of MOOCs, new self-paced competency-based programs, adaptive learning environments, peer-to-peer learning platforms, third-party service providers, the end of geographic limitations on program delivery and more all spring from the maturation of online learning and the technology that supports it. Online learning has provided a platform for rethinking delivery models and much of accreditation is not designed to account for these new approaches.
Until now, regional accreditation has been based on a review of an integrated organization and its activities: the college or university. These were largely cohesive and relatively easy to understand organizational structures where almost everything was integrated to produce the learning experience and degree. Accreditation is now faced with assessing learning in an increasingly disaggregated world with organizations that are increasingly complex, or at least differently complex, including shifting roles, new stakeholders and participants, various contractual obligations and relationships, and new delivery models. There is likely to be increasing pressure for accreditation to move from looking only at the overall whole, the institution, to include smaller parts within the whole or alternatives to the whole: perhaps programs, providers and offerings other than degrees and maybe provided by entities other than traditional institutions. In other words, in an increasingly disaggregated world does accreditation need to become more disaggregated as well?
Take the emergence of competency-based education, which is more profound – if less discussed – than massive open online courses (MOOCs). Our own competency-based program, College for America (CfA), is the first of its kind to so wholly move from any anchoring to the three-credit hour Carnegie Unit that pervades higher education (shaping workload, units of learning, resource allocation, space utilization, salary structures, financial aid regulations, transfer policies, degree definitions and more). The irony of the three-credit hour is that it fixes time while it leaves variable the actual learning. In other words, we are really good at telling the world how long students have sat at their desks and we are really quite poor at saying how much they have learned or even what they learned. Competency-based education flips the relationship and says let time be variable, but make learning well-defined, fixed and non-negotiable.
In our CfA program, there are no courses. There are 120 competencies – “can do” statements, if you will – precisely defined by well-developed rubrics. Students demonstrate mastery of those competencies through completion of “tasks” that are then assessed by faculty reviewers using the rubrics. Students can’t “slide by” with a C or a B; they have either mastered the competencies or they are still working on them. When they are successful, the assessments are maintained in a web-based portfolio as evidence of learning. Students can begin with any competency at any level (there are three levels moving from smaller, simpler competencies to higher level, complicated competencies) and go as fast or as slow as they need to be successful. We offer the degree for $2,500 per year, so an associate degree for $5,000 if a student takes two years and for as little as $1,250 if they complete in just six months (an admittedly formidable task for most). CfA is the first program of its kind to be approved by a regional accreditor, NEASC in our case, and is the first to seek approval for Title IV funding through the “direct assessment of learning” provisions. At the time of this writing, CfA has successfully passed the first stage review by the Department of Education and is still moving through the approval process.
The radical possibility offered in the competency-based movement is that traditional higher education may lose its monopoly on delivery models. Accreditors have for some time put more emphasis on learning outcomes and assessment, but the competency-based education movement privileges them above all else. When we excel at both defining and assessing learning, we open up enormous possibilities for new delivery models, creativity and innovation. It’s not a notion that most incumbent providers welcome, but in terms of finding new answers to the cost, access, quality, productivity and relevance problems that are reaching crisis proportions in higher education, competency-based education may be the most dramatic development in higher education in hundreds of years. For example, the path to legitimacy for MOOCs probably lies in competency-based approaches, and while they can readily tackle the outcomes or competency side of the equation, they still face formidable challenges of reliable, trustworthy and rigorous assessment at scale (at least while trying to remain free). Well-developed competency-based approaches can also help undergird the badges movement, demanding that such efforts be transparent about the claims associated with a badge and the assessments used to validate learning or mastery.
Competency-based education may also provide accreditors with a framework for more fundamentally rethinking assessment. It would shift accreditation to looking much harder at learning outcomes and competencies, the claims an entity is making for the education it provides and for the mechanisms it uses for knowing and demonstrating that the learning has occurred. The good news here is that such a dual focus would free accreditors from so much attention on inputs, like organization, stakeholder roles and governance, and instead allow for the emergence of all sorts of new delivery models. The bad news is that we are still working on how to craft well designed learning outcomes and conduct effective assessment. It’s harder than many think. A greater focus on outcomes and assessment also begs other important questions for accreditors:
How will they rethink standards to account for far more complex and disaggregated business models which might have a mix of “suppliers,” some for-profit and some nonprofit, and which look very different from traditional institutions?
Will they only accredit institutions or does accreditation have to be disaggregated too? Might there by multiple forms of accreditation: for institutions, for programs, for courses, for MOOCs, for badges and so on? At what level of granularity?
CBE programs are coming. College for America is one example, but other institutions have announced efforts in this area. Major foundations are lining up behind the effort (most notably the Lumina and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations), and the Department of Education appears to be relying on accreditors to attest to the quality and rigor of those programs. While the Department of Education is moving cautiously on this question, accreditors might want to think through what a world untethered to the credit hour might look like. Might there be two paths to accreditation: the traditional “institutional path” and the “competency-based education path,” with the former looking largely unchanged and the latter using rigorous outcomes and assessment review to support more innovation than current standards now do? Innovation theory would predict that new innovative CBE accreditation pathway would come to improve the incumbent accreditation processes and standards.
This last point is important: accreditors need to think about their relationship to innovation. If the standards are largely built to assess incumbent models and enforced by incumbents, they must be by their very nature conservative and in service of the status quo. Yet the nation is in many ways frustrated with the status quo and unwilling to support it in the old ways. Frankly, they believe we are failing, and the ways they think we are failing depend on whom you ask. But never has the popular press (and thus the public and policy makers) been so consumed with the problems of traditional higher education and intrigued by the alternatives. In some ways, accreditors are being asked to shift or at least expand their role to accommodate these new models.
If regional accreditors are unable to rise to that challenge they might see new alternative accreditors emerge and be left tethered to incumbent models that are increasingly less relevant or central to how higher education takes place 10 years from now. There is time. As has been said, we frequently overestimate the amount of change in the next two years and the dramatically underestimate the amount of change in the next 10. The time is now for regional accreditors to re-engineer the paths to accreditation. In doing so they can not only be ready for that future, they can help usher it into reality.
Paul J. LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University. This essay is adapted from writing produced for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges as part of a convening to look at the future of accreditation. WASC has given permission for it to be shared more widely and without restriction.