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Break With Tradition

July/August 2013

By Karla Hignite

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Letting go of long-held assumptions about what students should know and how they best learn is Step 1 in transforming the college curriculum. Step 2 is rethinking everything else.

The need in short order for millions more Americans with higher-level skill sets and proven proficiencies that match changing workforce demands is driving innovation across the curriculum and all that it touches—faculty roles, business models, and student services, in particular. While the traditional college experience and settings will endure, they are fast being eclipsed as the norm for how and where the majority of learners will acquire the credentials they need to fit into an evolving labor market. 

The rapid rise of MOOCs (massive open online courses)—and the lively debate that has ensued within the academy about their value and potential reach—is only one indication that the college curriculum is in the midst of an identity crisis (see “Mind the MOOCs” on page 38). The deep dive into competency-based programming and alternate pathways to degree attainment, including prior learning assessment and credit for on-the-job training, promise new avenues for millions of working Americans who want and need next-level certification but haven’t been able to piece it together. 

Meanwhile, degree programs that didn’t exist within the mainstream a decade ago—cybersecurity, gaming, and drone piloting, to name a few—are popping up across the country in response to demands for trained workers in these emerging fields. A critical deficit in skilled labor in industries like advanced manufacturing is redefining for a modern era apprenticeship and other learn-and-earn programs that allow companies to fill jobs with employees committed to earning a credential. 

In fact, greater collaboration is taking place across the board between employers and higher education institutions to identify the specific skills workers need so these can be infused into the curriculum and enhanced through cocurricular experiences and focused research opportunities at the undergraduate level. 

In the wake of such widespread academic reform and experimentation is the impending turmoil of what all this means for established roles and processes at college and university campuses nationwide. The need for faculty and facilities won’t go away, but the need to redefine their function is paramount and inextricably linked to the changing curricular landscape. Elemental questions surrounding the best approaches to learning, how to assess learning outcomes, and even what a degree should mean, are spurring discussions that require rethinking everything—the classroom, the credit hour, and the semester, along with their associated formulas for charging tuition and awarding student aid. 

As leaders slog through the nitty-gritty implications of whole new curricular models and their supporting organizational and operational structures, what won’t change is the institution’s primary mission to prepare students for work and life beyond. Breaking with tradition doesn’t mean breaking the promise of educating students for their roles in a civic society, but it will undoubtedly require adopting new approaches for getting them there. 

All around, educators are responding in myriad ways to the forces driving change in the higher education curriculum. The case studies that follow hint at the general direction in which these responses are trending: toward a more student-centric, competency-based, workforce-focused curriculum. 

PIVOT: Organize Around Students 

“If we are going to produce the number of graduates for the economy that most forecasters project we’ll need, we have to figure out as a sector how to increase student success and degree attainment,” says Arizona State University Provost Elizabeth D. Phillips. She believes ASU is a proving ground for reforms focused on meeting the nation’s need for a more educated society. 

“For starters, we reflect the demographic direction of the country, so we have to get this right,” says Phillips. The university’s 73,000 students—which include 60,000 undergraduates—are increasingly diverse not only ethnically but also in terms of college preparedness. Hispanic students represent ASU’s largest student group, and many students are the first in their families to attend college, adds Phillips. 

ASU is betting on technology to help reposition the university to revolve around student success rather than faculty roles. Three areas of particular focus aim to get students matched to the right degree program, improve student learning, and make it easier for them to complete their degrees. 

Tell Me What You Like

In 2007 ASU laid the groundwork for eAdvisor, a tool providing online advising and personalized student support. Its functionality includes a guide to ASU programming that allows students to search for degrees based on parameters important to them. “Most course catalogs are organized by degree program—from anthropology to zoology—and contain a list of course requirements and department faculty,” notes Phillips. “That’s essentially useless to new or prospective students. How does this help them determine what they should choose as a major?” 

With eAdvisor, students can select what they are good at or what they’re interested in, says Phillips. “If you say you like people, you can get a listing of all the majors preparing you for vocations that work closely with various segments of the population,” she explains. “By getting away from a department-centric model, students begin to think about their interests and skills in ways that are more expansive than subject matter alone.” 

Another important facet of eAdvisor is the order in which course requirements are listed. “We structure course progression in a way that incorporates some of the harder topics early on,” explains Phillips. If a student is interested in psychology, for instance, he or she is likely to want to take the most interesting courses first, like abnormal or developmental psychology, notes Phillips. “The fact of the matter is that a psychology student also needs to master statistics to do well in the labs. Finding out early on if a particular discipline isn’t right for you is far better than finding this out in your final year of study,” argues Phillips. ASU is already seeing success, with its overall retention rate up 7 percent and its four-year graduation rate up 5 percent since implementing eAdvisor.  

Go as you learn. “If we need more math, science, and engineering graduates in this country in order to grow our economy, then we can’t afford to have half of our students saying they don’t understand these subjects,” says Phillips. ASU selected math for its foray into adaptive learning in an attempt to help students through one of the common “killer” courses that tend to stymie degree progression when students don’t grasp the material. 

If you consider a traditional instructor-led college algebra course, you might expect that about half of the students will finish the course with a C, says Phillips. That essentially means those students learned part of the material, she adds. “What good does that do for them if the next course is based on an assumption that students learned all of the material from the previous course?” 

With adaptive learning, the curriculum presents a subject such as algebra as a progression of key concepts that students must master before they can complete the course. At ASU, students are still gathered in a classroom with an instructor, but they work at their own pace. They have immediate access to a faculty member for assistance when needed, and faculty can intervene when they see a student having difficulty advancing beyond a particular concept. “We’re finding that this model is proving equally successful for all population groups,” says Phillips. 

To build on the success the university has seen with this approach in math, plans are under way to prepare additional adaptive learning spaces and introduce this teaching model for subjects such as physics, chemistry, biology, and economics. 

The popularity of the self-paced nature of adaptive learning has contributed to yet another dramatic shift ASU is making to refocus learning around student needs. 

Flexible Semesters

“Students need greater control over their degree progression,” says Phillips. If you are a fast learner in a particular topic, then a shorter semester may be all you need. Yet, so much of the higher education system has been built around an assumption of students enrolling in five three-credit-hour classes that they will complete over the course of 15 weeks. “This is simply outmoded,” says Phillips. 

What helped ASU pivot from its 15-week mind-set is the university’s online learning programs, which currently serve 8,000 students. Like many institutions, ASU has geared its online programming to the distinct needs of an online market. “Most learners in that demographic—many of whom are full-time working professionals—understandably want and need to feel they are moving ahead quickly,” says Phillips. All of ASU’s online programs are built around a 7.5-week course calendar, with courses offered year-round in six semesters: Fall A and B, Spring A and B, and Summer A and B, explains Phillips. 

With this structure already in place for its online students, ASU’s transition to a six-semester schedule for its face-to-face students, while not seamless, was easier than starting from scratch, admits Phillips. This format lets students who master a subject more quickly to move on after 7.5 weeks, while still allowing other students the option of a full 15 weeks or even longer. 

All this has required some big changes to academic systems and to faculty requirements to restructure courses for a concentrated format, notes Phillips. “Currently we are crossing into our nonacademic side and doing some service blueprinting to assess where we can make these systems—financial aid, billing, and so forth—more student-centric,” says Phillips. “Ultimately everything must tie together if we’re going to effectively support student success.” 

FLIP: Recognize Learning

The public announcement this past April by the U.S. Department of Education that competency-based programs could be eligible for federal student aid dollars was big news for the entire higher education sector. It was especially welcome news for Southern New Hampshire University, Manchester. Approval of the university’s competency-based associate’s degree program represents a historic shift in the higher education curriculum landscape, says SNHU President Paul LeBlanc.

“For so long the credit-hour system has been used as a means to unitize knowledge, allocate department resources, account for faculty teaching loads, schedule classrooms, award financial aid, and on and on,” says LeBlanc. The three-credit unit has provided a way to say with confidence how long someone sat in a classroom, but not what someone knew at the end of that course, he adds. 

“We are flipping that model. Instead of fixating on time spent, we are unequivocally focused on what students learn.” This by no means suggests that the credit hour is dead, notes LeBlanc. “What this does signal is that the floodgates have been opened for alternative learning and delivery models to emerge.” 

Beyond the Norm 

SNHU’s College for America online competency-based program represents the newest of the institution’s three business units, which also encompass a traditional full-time residential campus experience and a robust online and continuing education college. Developed by SNHU’s Innovation Lab and established in 2012 with a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Next Generation Learning Challenges grant, College for America is targeted squarely to that group of nearly 40 million working Americans who have yet to complete their degrees or who thought college was beyond their reach, notes LeBlanc. 

SNHU’s pilot program—an associate of arts general studies degree with a focus on business administration—was rolled out this past January with 500 students and will formally launch in September 2013 with 1,000 students enrolled through their employers. There are no classes, instructors, or grades in the traditional sense. Instead, students progress through material at their own pace and are tested on their mastery of 120 competencies grouped into nine clusters. 

SNHU worked closely with its accrediting agency, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, to develop the program. NEASC approved the program in September 2012 and served as the principle arbiter of the program’s quality when it was brought before the Department of Education last October. The department approved the program in substance fairly quickly, says LeBlanc. “The tough part was working through the legislative language for direct assessment of learning, and demonstrating how the program could work to the department’s guidelines, which historically have been tied to the credit hour.” 

Part of what SNHU had to do was show how these clusters of competencies correspond to the traditional three-credit-hour course, demonstrate how the program’s definition of active learning equates to the traditional paradigm, and identify all the ways in which the program measures learning, says LeBlanc. For instance, each competency is accompanied by rich learning content and supported with peer interaction and adviser coaching, explains LeBlanc. 

Likewise, data is collected in real time throughout the process to capture the extent to which students have logged in and spent time working on mastery of the subject. “This was complicated, technical work,” warns LeBlanc. “You must be crystal clear about your process, able to defend your claims for learning, and be rock solid regarding assessment.”

Employer Readiness

Not everyone is a hard sell. “Employers immediately get what we are doing,” says LeBlanc. “This resonates with them because they see the world in terms of competencies.” In fact, the program was designed in collaboration with College for America employer partners, which include, among others, ConAgra Foods, FedEx, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, Panera Bread, and Sodexho. 

“Our program is geared to providing those critical, basic skills that employers tell us they too often find missing in their employees: strong communication, quantitative skills, and critical thinking skills, in combination with essential noncognitive soft skills like working in teams and giving and receiving feedback,” says LeBlanc.

To ensure that the competencies within the program have labor market value and that student tasks and outcomes are relevant to employer needs, SNHU recently brought on board Workforce Strategy Center, a consulting think tank established to align education and workforce development with employer needs and economic growth. This merger will assist the university with its efforts to branch out with industry-specific associates degrees in retail, data management, and nonclinical health assistance. 

SNHU is also at work developing a competency-based bachelor’s degree. This will require a new round of approvals from NEASC and the Department of Education, says LeBlanc. “For this we must bring our accountability to learning to a whole new level.” While this will no doubt pose another hurdle in the debate over student learning assessment, LeBlanc is confident that the philosophical hoop will be somewhat easier to jump through now that the complicated technical matters have been broached and the Department of Education has begun thinking through its questions and building its own understanding and expertise in this arena. 

LeBlanc is quick to attribute SNHU’s success in part to the good work of other providers that have developed programming around competencies—Excelsior College, Charter Oak State College, and Western Governors University, for instance, he says. “We are part of that evolutionary chain to crack the credit hour,” LeBlanc acknowledges. “Now that we have, this represents a real paradigm shift. We have shown one way to get at this competency-based learning, but we won’t be alone for long.” A number of other institutions and university systems are working on alternate degree models and may soon join SNHU’s lead. 

Second Shot

Many of College for America’s target student population have been out of school for quite some time. Perhaps they tried college once and it didn’t work out for them, suggests LeBlanc. “There is a high fear-of-failure factor for this working demographic, but with our program, that weight of failure is lifted,” says LeBlanc. “We don’t promise success, but the alternative is not failure because this is not tied to a final letter grade at the end of a semester. Students either master a competency or keep working with the material until they do.” 

Another critical barrier lifted is cost. The program is $1,250 every six months, all-inclusive. Under that structure, most students can earn a degree over the course of two years for $5,000. However, since there are no set time limits, particularly motivated students could shorten that window. 

And, since the tuition reimbursement allotments from many employers are more generous than the program’s cost, most students can acquire their degree at no personal financial expense, notes LeBlanc. Even for individuals whose employers don’t offer assistance or don’t cover the full amount, the recent approval from the Department of Education means some students would now be eligible for Pell Grant assistance. 

College for America is one effort in a growing movement afoot to provide working adults with an on-ramp to better and more stable work opportunities with their employers, and to provide employers with better-quality workers, says LeBlanc. “At the end of the day, we should care about what someone knows, not how they acquired that learning.”

PARTNER: Co-Create Curriculum

During the past six years, the Business–Higher Education Forum has been busy jump-starting clusters of economic and education innovation across the nation. As an organization of business CEOs and university presidents committed to bringing higher education and professional workforce interests into alignment, BHEF takes an intentionally pragmatic approach, says CEO Brian Fitzgerald. “We’re developing deep, long-term collaborations among our members to build talent pipelines for the highest-demand areas of employment and to maintain the flow of research and innovation that are vital to U.S. competitiveness.”

So far BHEF has launched 15 projects that are in various stages of development. A common theme is their focus on areas of comparative advantage for a community, state, or region. In one example, the University of Maryland System is focused on producing graduates to fill a growing workforce need in its state: cybersecurity. Maryland already has one of the highest proportions of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) workers in the nation, notes Fitzgerald. Emerging fields like cybersecurity represent an area of additional opportunity but also one of unmet need. The U.S. National Security Agency—located in Fort Meade, Maryland, and the nation’s biggest consumer of cybersecurity talent—is only one employer eager for graduates in this field. 

In this case, BHEF teamed the university with Northrop Grumman, which provided a $1 million grant to the College Park campus to create a cybersecurity undergraduate program. This effort has since expanded, with BHEF brokering relationships with other member companies, including Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. “The value proposition for business for investing their financial and intellectual capital is clear: the flow of highly educated talent returning to fill their high-demand jobs,” says Fitzgerald. “But there is also a clear business case for the state to invest in the system’s efforts to increase Maryland’s share of cybersecurity and other cyber-enabled graduates.” 

A similar initiative is afoot at the University of Wisconsin. The UW System recently launched a five-campus water initiative in partnership with industry to expand programming to position the state as a hub for water research, economic development, and education. 

Scale and Multiply

The success of this collaborative model of engagement centered around business workforce needs has led BHEF to consider how to create a robust scaling strategy—essentially starting a project at one campus and scaling it to different campuses or across multiple systems that may have different missions, different available resources, and different student populations, says Fitzgerald. “These projects allow us to take what we’re learning with cybersecurity in Maryland, or water science in Wisconsin, and work with our business partners and other systems to recreate a similar project focus elsewhere.” 

In December 2012 BHEF launched its National Undergraduate Cyber Network to encourage members to consider similar workforce projects in their regions, and the organization recently received a grant from the Sloan Foundation to scale cybersecurity across multiple campuses. Currently seven campuses in Maryland, California, and Florida have cyber-related projects in the works, reports Fitzgerald. BHEF is looking to establish similar networks in other specialty fields, including data analytics, IT, and sustainability-related industries. Another scaling strategy the organization is testing will create national partnerships among industry and academic associations. 

Pipeline Problems 

Getting the collaborative juices flowing among BHEF members may be the easiest aspect of this process, notes Fitzgerald. The lack of a student pipeline and an inability to seal the deal on degree completion pose significant challenges to developing a highly trained workforce in these emerging fields, he adds. “As we think about filling worker demand, one underlying challenge is the lack of undergraduate curricula available.” 

For instance, few undergraduate programs currently exist in cybersecurity, data analytics, or water or materials science, notes Fitzgerald. On a broad scale, there may be some upper-division classes available on these topics, but nothing to engage freshmen at the start in a transdisciplinary experience leading to a degree, he adds. 

Interestingly, the expertise and resources in these emerging fields exist more often in companies than on campuses, notes Fitzgerald. “Companies have become the new frontier of innovation in fields like data science and analytics.” Because of this, part of what must happen is better collaboration to bring this industry intellectual capacity to the campus to mentor students and in essence to co-create the curriculum with higher education, argues Fitzgerald. 

The pipeline problem starts even earlier. “Whether you’re talking about cyberengineers or the cyber-enabled workers in business and communication, you have to get these students entering their undergraduate experience aligned with interests that will move them into these high-demand fields,” notes Fitzgerald. “Most high school seniors aren’t even aware that cybersecurity or data analytics exist as career fields.” A big push behind BHEF projects is development of curriculum and cocurricular opportunities directed to the undergraduate experience that can build clear career pathways. This includes creating early on-ramps for educational opportunities, notes Fitzgerald. 

Disruptive Talent Development

CyberPatriot is a national high school cyberdefense competition created by the U.S. Air Force to inspire high school students to think about careers in cybersecurity and other STEM disciplines. Many BHEF member companies coach high school teams in these competitions, notes Fitzgerald. “Yet, the high school students provided with summer internships by BHEF companies often had no opportunities to enroll in undergraduate cybersecurity degree or certificate programs. And with no undergraduate programs specific to this field available, the talent supply chain was ruptured.”  

While that’s no longer the case with the recent arrival of undergraduate cybersecurity programming at the University of Maryland and in development on a handful of campuses across the country, the lack or low volume of targeted curriculum in key fields remains a roadblock for many would-be students, says Fitzgerald. “If you think about this systematically all the way through the talent pipeline for each of these emerging fields, there is a real need to marry these cocurricular activities with academic programming.” More can and should be done to incentivize a student’s progression into these fields, says Fitzgerald.

For example, what if a high school student competing on a CyberPatriot team could simultaneously enroll in a cyber-security certificate program and earn up to 18 credit hours that he or she could then transfer to a college degree program or take into the workforce, posits Fitzgerald. This is one example of a way that industry and higher education can partner to build the human supply chain for key fields, he adds. “We simply must be more proactive in finding ways to knit together these critical talent supply chains. These are exactly the kinds of disruptive practices for undergraduate education writ large that we must create and scale,” he argues. 

Doing so would also go a long way in addressing persistence, believes Fitzgerald. “There is plenty of evidence that engaging students early in mentorships, internships, and in research has a high impact on degree completion.” These are also the kind of high-impact practices that help build those 21st-century workplace competencies employers need, adds Fitzgerald. “This is really about creating an entire education ecosystem. And when you consider our nation’s need for highly trained workers in these globally competitive fields, we don’t have time to waste.” 

KARLA HIGNITE, Ogden, Utah, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.


ESSAY: A Curriculum to Change the World

The Community College Reincarnation

Elliott Masie’s Refrain: Try, Try Again

“By getting away from a department-centric model, students begin to think about their interests and skills in ways that are more expansive than subject matter alone.”

—Elizabeth D. Phillips, Arizona State University

“Employers immediately get what we are doing. This resonates with them because they see the world in terms of competencies.”

—Paul LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire University

“As we think about filling worker demand, one underlying challenge is the lack of undergraduate curricula available.”

—Brian Fitzgerald, Business–Higher Education Forum