In March of 2013, the State University of New York (SUNY) board of trustees announced a bold vision outlining how prior-learning assessment, competency-based programs, and MOOCs will inform a plan to ensure that students complete degrees on time and for reduced cost. According to the announcement, the new initiative—Open SUNY—would “bring all online courses offered at each of the system’s 64 campuses onto a shared and comprehensive online environment, making them accessible to all of the system’s 468,000 students and 88,000 faculty.”
Significantly, the pre-existing prior-learning assessment and competency-based programs of SUNY’s Empire State College were to serve as the mechanism driving that initiative. Nancy L. Zimpher, SUNY chancellor, cited SUNY Empire State College’s expertise in this area as the foundation for the system-wide initiative: “The prior-learning expertise at Empire State would make it possible for the New York system to undertake the new effort.”
Carol Geary Schneider had it right. In her Fall 2012 Liberal Education essay “Is It Finally Time to Kill the Credit Hour?” Schneider makes a persuasive case that we are very far from a coherent national plan for education. In light of that reality, taking the opportunity to review examples of existing competency-based learning programs is time well spent. “We need to take the time and learn from the assessment experiments that are going on all over higher education. We also need to build broad and compelling agreement on what twenty-first-century markers of student accomplishment actually look like. And, soberingly, that work is still in draft form.”
Models for Review and Consideration. Competency-based education is not new. Examining the development and attributes of programs currently in place will be critical to understanding their relationship to emerging online education, curricular development, and the roles of faculty and learner. Most important, such a review will provide context for making informed strategic decisions about digital scholarship and online education at your campus.
Some interesting models include the Western Governors University, founded in 1997 by nineteen state governors, which has been steadily developing and extending a program of online degree offerings for over a decade; Southern New Hampshire University, which more recently made significant strides in implementing new models accommodating the needs and academic ambitions of contemporary learners; and—fully a quarter century before the founding of WGU—Alverno College and Empire State College, which began developing bold approaches to ability-based learning assessment. In order to properly study the question of whether or not, or to what extent, to implement competency-based programs, we need to review established ones, including their intellectual, pedagogical, technical, and policy frameworks. The following review of examples highlight what can be accomplished after hard and honest evaluation of institutional strategy and educational opportunity.
Alverno College. The roots of competency-based education stem from traditional face-to-face learning in brick-and-mortar campuses. In 1973, after nine years of focused development, Alverno College launched its Competence Based Learning program. The new program had at its core the idea of “teaching students to learn, internalize, and then externalize and apply knowledge gained in the classroom to their life and their workplace.” The genesis and development of the program is recounted in the July 1985 Alverno Magazine: “Beginning in 1964 and continuing through 1969, the Alverno administration recognized the impact that rapid changes in technology, the economy, politics and sociological shifts were having on the process of educating college students. The complexities of modern society were eroding away the effectiveness of traditional teaching techniques that had been used for centuries.”
Collaboration is a powerful strategy for achieving shared goals and approaching shared opportunities and solving problems. Collaborations are opportunities to accomplish together what can’t be done alone. They represent opportunity to solve a shared problem, or meet a common challenge that is clearly and easily relatable to the needs of the participants and the goals of the institution (as illustrated in the Statement of Shared Purpose).
But when we talk about collaboration we tend to use the term rather loosely. When we reference collaboration, we actually mean something more like cooperation, coordination, or simple networking. All of these strategies have distinct attributes, benefits, risks, and organizational principles as outlined in the Collaboration Continuum:
Networking: exchanging information for mutual benefit. This is easy to do; it requires low initial level of trust, limited time availability and no sharing of turf.
Coordinating: exchanging information and altering some activities for mutual benefit and to achieve a common purpose. Coordination requires more organizational involvement than networking with a slightly higher level of trust and some sharing of one’s “turf.”
Cooperating: exchanging information, altering activities and sharing resources for mutual benefit and to achieve a common purpose. Cooperation is more formal than coordination and thus requires increased organizational commitment and support and may involve written agreements (Memoranda of Understanding, Project Charters, etc.). Shared resources can include human, financial and technical contributions across organizational boundaries. Cooperation may require a substantial amount of time, high level of trust and significant sharing of turf. Positions may need to be modified to provide time for participation.
Collaborating: real collaboration involves exchanging information, altering activities, sharing resources and enhancing each other’s capacity for mutual benefit and to achieve a common goal. The qualitative difference between collaboration and cooperating is that partners are willing to learn from each other to become better at what they do, together. Collaborators are clear that the importance of partners’ success is as great as their own – their own success depends on their partners’ success. Collaborating means that that partners share the risks, responsibilities and rewards. It requires a substantial time commitment, very high level of trust, and sharing of turf.
Collaborative efforts are successful when they are supported from the top down and the bottom up. Administrative support and sponsorship is needed to allow all partners to make decisions about process and resources in a collaborative manner. In this environment both faculty and staff are open and willing to go beyond “business as usual.”
In the development of successful digital curriculum, faculty and staff partner in a truly collaborative manner. Staff partners may include academic technologists, instructional designers, media specialists, students, and librarians. In this model staff are more than “helpful staffers,” they are fundamental to the process. College faculty and staff working to support the digital learning initiative will need to develop these skills together.
On many college campuses there is pressure to develop “innovative” initiatives such as digital scholarship, blended learning, and flipped classrooms. Among other things this will stem from a general awareness (or uneasiness) that colleges must take advantage of the opportunities afforded by digital approaches to research and pedagogy. However, without a programmatic approach with a clear statement of shared purpose to inform the implementation of best practices in digital scholarship and pedagogy, “innovative” experimentation will remain as insulated and isolating projects rather than successful programs.
The statement of purpose is not a mission or vision statement. It is a touchstone program document that outlines the specifics of the opportunity, a problem to be solved, why a solution will benefit faculty, staff, and students, and the organizational roles that will be affected. It is foundational to articulating a shared vision that can be readily communicated to participants and supporters such as funding agencies. It is an initial step in explaining the “why” and in minimizing confusion. It does not attempt to describe specific solutions.
Components of the statement
Drafting the statement of purpose is an important first step in developing a sustainable program. It will help identify the shared (or intersecting) goals that justify the effort and expense of such a significant project. It describes the purpose – outlining why the institution is making the effort and what problem the effort will solve.
A statement of purpose should be concise and include the following:
A brief description of the opportunity or issue at hand.
Where the issue or opportunity is observed e.g., departments, institution-wide, and/or processes.
The time frame over which the opportunity has been observed and anticipated duration.
The anticipated scope or magnitude of the opportunity – the impact to be realized.
Uses of the statement
The statement of purpose:
Clarifies the situation by specifically identifying the issues or opportunities at hand.
Clarifies the urgency and time sensitivity associated with the effort.
Provides a vehicle to ensure increasing buy-in.
Helps secure support, develop funding potential, and identify and cultivate champions.
Helps leadership, partners, and funders grasp and appreciate what you are working to accomplish (and why) and helps to communicate the opportunity to other interested parties.
Many campuses have already accomplished much of the work of developing a statement of purpose through the work of various committees and task forces. That effort often results in several general observations and questions including the need to:
Develop a program that will enhance and improve the experience of the current population of students.
Identify how to enhance the liberal education offered by the college using digital technologies.
Determine how the college will improve its effectiveness through the use of digital learning tools and strategies.
Identify best practices with digital learning strategies as they relate to liberal education.
Develop a system to identify programs and courses that constitute exemplars for digital pedagogy.
Review organizational development necessary for sustaining these curricular models.
Review required improvements to the college infrastructure.
Identify what it will it take to institute these changes.
The next step is to convert the existing work into a clear statement of shared purpose that lays out the attributes described above. The completed statement will specify the affected institutional roles and articulate why the program is being developed. The effort put into this document will serve to secure support for the skills, incentives and resources necessary to develop a sustained Digital Scholarship and Pedagogy program for faculty, students and staff.
There is a long history of teaching machines—mechanical, multimedia, and computers—extending back to an 1809 patent for an educational appliance for the teaching of reading. By 1936, there were nearly seven hundred patents for teaching devices. The history of these devices can be traced from the original patented machines of the nineteenth century through the teaching/testing devices of Sidney Pressey in the 1920s to the more sophisticated teaching machines of Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner in the 1950s.
Where initial devices were more about testing, late-twentieth-century efforts focused on teaching that enables students to adapt to machine-provided feedback. B.F. Skinner created a mechanical “teaching machine” in the mid-1950s that broke learning into sequenced steps and allowed students to pace themselves as they worked through a series of questions. The steps resembled processes that tutors use to engage students and guide them, via feedback, toward increasingly accurate responses and new knowledge. The machine posed questions and offered new questions only when the student answered correctly; an incorrect answer caused the machine to repeat the question. Skinner’s efforts eventually fell out of favor in part because few companies were willing to invest in designing and developing materials for a product with an indeterminate future, but interest in adaptive learning persisted through the latter half of the century with the emergence of affordable personal computers.
Contemporary instructional designers adhere to Skinner’s basic tenets, offering adaptive learning tools that present course materials to students who do not move on to subsequent questions until their performance, based on data generated in the adaptive learning process, indicates competency and knowledge. Adaptive learning combines individualized instruction (or rather, something that feels like it to the student), peer interaction, effective and engaging simulations, and applications that dynamically adapt to the learner’s abilities.
2012, according to the media, was The Year of the MOOC. Massive Open Online Courses were declared to be a revolution in college education. The flow of media coverage hyped MOOCs as either the salvation of a beleaguered educational system or the corrosive agent that would dilute it beyond recognition and value.At the same time, venture funding poured into the coffers of education technology companies intent on cashing in on the newly disrupted higher education market. That investment is reshaping the development of learning and content delivery platforms being marketed to your campus, your faculty, and your students. And rapidly forming partnerships between for-profit firms and universities are providing technology vendors with a powerful vehicle for selling to higher education and inserting themselves into the dialogue about the future of educational content and delivery.But college and university administrators do not have to sit passively by, waiting for the MOOC wave to wash over them. There are still seats at the table for those intent on guiding higher education into the future. Campus leaders would do well to shoulder their way in now, rather than wait for an invitation to help shape that future.
MOOCs: Opportunities, Impacts, and Challenges, being a survey of the issues and opportunities associated with Massive Open Online Courses, is an invaluable guide to those responsible for their institution’s mission. Armed with the information in this book, you will be able to sort out the substance from the hype in the roiling MOOC debate, and effectively fold the future into the strategic mission of your campus.
The chapters to this book will be live on this blog again in April, 2014. The book is available in Kindle and print formats from Amazon. It is currently part of the Amazon KDP Select program and, as a result, it is not permitted to be published in any digital format, anywhere for the 90 day duration of the program. Once that time is up, I will make the chapters available here once again. Given that MOOCs are such a moving target, I will also be updating the content here, and in the Amazon Kindle version. Thanks for your patience!
Get the complete book Thinking Strategically about MOOCs: The Role of Massive Open Online Courses in the College and University at Amazon in print or kindle version. The emergence of MOOCs has been and will continue to be a catalyst for more … Continue reading →