Monday, July 25, 2011

Low Hanging Fruit #2: Pedagogy and Advanced Placement Through Assessment

Many institutions can significantly increase their capacity to educate more learners, without increasing costs, by effectively granting them “advanced placement” towards the degree they are seeking. And research indicates that, for the learners that go through a portfolio development course that assesses their formal and experiential prior learning, the process is in fact a significant pedagogy and learning experience in its own right. Yet our current practices do the opposite, slowing students down, making them spend more time and money, and ignoring the educational value of a reflective assessment process. .

For example, Kaplan University, where I serve as a senior administrator, has developed a portfolio-based assessment of prior experiential learning course, using the “Principles of Good Practice for Alternative and External Degree Programs for Adults” developed by CAEL years ago. After several years of experience, we know that the average portfolio is approved for 35 credits, or the equivalent of six courses. That represents a cost savings to the average learner of more than $10,000 and a time savings of at least two quarters of academic work, according to our analysis. So, our learners save money through forgone tuition as well as by reducing time to the degree.

But there are additional, significant educational advantages as well. Learners who complete this process display more positive characteristics than their peers as students going forward. They perform better academically, persisting and graduating at rates over 70 percent. Their aspiration and motivation levels are reinforced by the practice of reflecting on the learning they have done, considering its value for equivalent academic credit, assembling it in a portfolio, and applying it as one part of academic and degree planning going forward. In fact, a recently-released CAEL study confirmed these more localized findings using over 50,000 learners over 20 years. Of the institutions included in CAEL’s study, overall graduation rates were higher for students who engaged in prior-learning-assessment offerings. Fifty-six percent of students who participated in prior learning activities graduated with a college degree in less than seven years, compared to 21 percent of students who did not pursue prior learning activities. The findings also confirm that time to degree for students with prior learning is less than those without prior learning, as students with prior learning save between 2.5 and 10.1 months in pursuit of their degrees.

Programs like the one that I’ve described, applied broadly, are not only good for learners, they increase the efficiency of the institution. When institutions refocus policy and practice on what students know, give them advanced placement based on their other assessed learning, and enhance their progress to the degree, they can educate more people over the same period of time. In business terms, this is an increase in efficiency and effectiveness. In educational terms, it is a  long-overdue learner and learning-focused practice. From a societal perspective, generating more graduates ready to work for the same amount of overhead with a reduced cost to the student is a good deal all the way around.

Although some would argue that it is not easy to do this kind of advanced placement based on assessment of prior learning, using course equivalents and a portfolio approach, scaled through technology make it entirely possible. The hard fact is that many faculty members do not want to let this kind of learning “in” to the degree stream. Why? Because they fear that it is not rigorous enough. Most faculty members assume that acceptable learning only occurs in their classroom, under their supervision, and through archaic means—like the lecture hall.

But just because learning hasn’t been supervised doesn’t mean it wasn’t acquired. We’ve come too far in our research and pedagogy to believe that any more. College-level learning can occur in any arena, and it’s time that we educators recognize it to assist students with degree attainment. Students in Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) programs are held to the same high standards as any traditional student. They still have to prove—one way or another—that they meet the same course outcomes that other students have to meet to pass that course. If you focus on the assessment of learning and hold students to the same standards, the quality of learning will speak for itself.

Next Week: Low Hanging Fruit #3: Pricing

Monday, July 18, 2011

Low Hanging Fruit #1: Portability

Recently, I published an article in the Association of Governing Board’s periodical, Trusteeship, entitled “Low-Hanging Fruit: How Boards can Improve Education Now Through Pedagogy, Portability, and Price”. Recently, at the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) meeting in Boulder, Stan Jones, President of Complete College America, described several practices that higher education routinely employs that delay progress to the degree, increase expenses, and otherwise frustrate learners. Since they are practices that can be reviewed and changed at the institutional and system level, I want to describe them in a series of three blogs .
Higher education in the 21st century is increasingly characterized by student mobility and flexibility. More than half of today’s college graduates, not to mention those who never graduate, attend two or more institutions on their degree journey.  Yet most degree programs are written “from the bottom up”. Faculty members craft the sequence of courses, from basic to advanced, as if the student were going to be in the same institution for his or her entire career. That curricular structure leads to heavy discounting of credit for transfer students with learning achieved in other settings. Specifically, institutional transfer policies and general-education requirements pose enormous obstacles to including all learning on one transcript and counting that learning towards the degree
Take the case of Shirley, who responded to a blog I wrote on this subject several years ago. She attended college in medical-office management and wanted to transfer to another institution.  But she had to take certain classes again. “I have had many classmates transfer from one college to the next, pay a truckload of cash, and the end result is that not all of your credits transfer,” she wrote me. “So you have to take the material that YOU ALREADY KNOW all over. For what? I now have to pick between choosing another B.A. program or waste my money and more importantly my time. I mean, if it’s money they want, why don’t they figure out some other way to scam us out of it? But, time, we cannot afford to waste.”

Look at the different ways this practice negatively affects Shirley, and millions of others in the same position.
·         She is considering actually changing her program to accommodate the credit-transfer requirements.
·         She is suffering financially from the redundant costs that arise from taking a course that she has already taken successfully.
·         She is losing ground in her time to degree.
·         And she is frustrated, demoralized, and angry.

These are all reasons why people leave college and do not return. And they have nothing to do with the individual’s capacity to learn or academic success in other settings.

It is estimated that such practices require many students to attend, at a minimum, one additional semester. For others, it requires an extra year or more.  That approach increases student indebtedness, demands more investment in federal and state financial aid, raises the cost of post-secondary education for everyone, and expands the time it takes students to actually graduate and join the workforce. On top of the extra time and duplicate costs, the foregone income and tax revenue that such students represent, as well as diminished productivity, is significant as well. 
The Gates Foundation has argued that 50% of all annual higher-education expenditures, including financial aid, go for services to people who never receive a certificate or a degree. These people are a natural resource of enormous value, waiting to be discovered and recognized for the learning they have done and the capacities they exhibit every day. We need their knowledge and skills recognized so they can be more productive in the workforce.

In fact, for the first time in our history, America has high-skilled jobs chasing workers. In the old days, colleges screened people out. Failure was a disqualifier to determine who would get the scarcer high-skilled jobs. Today, however, colleges need to create merit. We must develop higher levels of capability in many more people so they can take the emerging new jobs. But we can’t do that without vastly improved portability of recognized learning.  Higher-education institutions and state systems must use more aggressive approaches to support students in managing the transfer of credit more fairly, more efficiently, and more accurately.

What specifically can an institution do?  

·         Conduct an immediate review of how we currently recognize student learning that has been achieved in the military or in corporate training, accepted by the American Council on Education (ACE) College Credit Recommendation Service (CREDIT) and College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams, or assessed from experience through programs like KNEXT.
·         Develop a transparent and streamlined process that allows and encourages acceptance of learning that has been done in other colleges and universities as well as recognized non-collegiate settings.
·         In order to place the learning on the transcript so that it counts towards the degree, use available elective credits, review major pre-requisites and convert them to electives wherever possible, and accept other accredited institutions’ general-education programs as equivalent to our own.

Institutions that take these steps, putting the learner and learning first, will become far more attractive to current-day learners, while increasing their own productivity.

Next Week: Low-Hanging Fruit #2: Pedagogy and Advanced Placement

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wouldn’t It Be Wonderful……

If the US News and World Report’s announcement to begin “rating” online colleges and universities turned into something of value and substance?  For years, the USNWR annual edition on college ratings has generated a wide variety of responses. 

·         The true elite institutions, or top “Medallion Institutions” as Jane Wellman of the Delta Project  has labeled them, don’t worry much about the ratings, because they know they will come out at or near the top in what is essentially a non-analytic process based largely on reputation.
·         Next come the institutions “in the middle”  that publicly decry the ratings and the processes used to determine them, while privately spending time, energy, and money going all-out to change their results so that their institution looks better the next year.
·         And finally there is everyone else, those who lie beyond the shadow or sunshine cast by USNWR’s Annual Report and don’t worry too much about something that they cannot affect or that ignores them entirely.
As most close watchers of this annual event know, the methods used are remarkably “old school” (pun intended). As such, they are largely reputational and input-based, not results-oriented and outcomes-based. This is achieved by polling, asking selected others what they think about specific colleges, special strengths, the quality of their library, and so on. This non-analytic approach does nothing to assist either colleges in their attempts to improve teaching and learning or potential students  (and their parents when they are younger) in learning more about their academic quality, impact on graduates, and their actual effectiveness and efficiency in delivering their academic services.    By their very nature, however, online programs, whether they are non-profit (Rio Salado Community College, Western Governors’ University, The University of Maryland University College) or for-profit (Capella University, Walden University, or Kaplan University), are more analytical and metrics-oriented in their quality assessments of student learning and overall institutional effectiveness. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, as the Gates and Lumina Foundations search for better practices  that attain improved academic assessment, effectiveness and efficiency, and the National Governor’s Association works to develop and promote common core standards, if the USNWR  aligned its new report with these efforts and published findings that based an institution’s reputation on performance with specific student populations organized by risk factors? If they looked at the time to degree, cost of the degree, student satisfaction, change in ability to read, write, and analyze as well as their actual level of preparedness in the certificate or degree programs of their choice? That would be wonderful, indeed, for learners, policy-makers, employers, and all the other people who spend their own or someone else’s money to make educational quality available to the majority in America at a price they can afford.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Private Higher Education is Being Called to the Table: Connecting the Dots

Consider these three recent events.                                     
  1. 1.       William Tierney, a highly respected educational policy analyst calls for a partnership between private non-profits and for-profits in California. Why? Because he thinks it is the only practical way to fill the gap between the growing demand for higher education and the supply the state can provide on its own.  With funding cuts and enrollment caps at Califiornia’s community college and university systems, the gap is widening steadily.
  2. 2.       The British government has recently been forced to enact severe budget reductions that impacted their higher education system significantly.  And it will shortly release a much-discussed White Paper on the future and more significant role of proprietary institutions in the UK.
  3. 3.       And Adelaide, Australia welcomes Kaplan and Laureate, among others, to participate in its “Higher Education Hub”.

Certainly, each of these situations has its own history and peculiarities. More intriguing to me, however, is connecting the dots to see what they have in common. And, as I reflected on possible commonalities, I came up with several which I have categorized as “Pushes” and “Pulls” that lead to a new balance between public non-profit, private n0n-profits, and the private for-profits in higher education.

The “Pushes” have two main characteristics.
  • ·         First, there is not enough money at the state and federal level to continue the traditional funding models at traditional public post-secondary institutions. So California, with declining revenues and soaring deficits, increased tuition and stagnant state aid, and enrollment caps, needs assistance to sustain its historic commitment  to access and attainment for the state’s middle and working class populations. William Tierney sees value in bringing the added capacity of the private for-profit and non-profit institutions to the table. He understands that the clock is ticking on California’s future. And, if the access and attainment agenda goes sideways or backwards over the next several years, the state will pay a steep social, civic, and economic price far into the future. This pushes private non-profit and for-profit institutions into the middle of the access and attainment stage.
  • ·         Second, behind the daily news, the traditional higher education model has reached its limits of efficiency and effectiveness. It is expensive to maintain and develop the human and physical resources on campuses so that they are up-to-date and effective. That includes both the salaries for good faculty and support staff and the capital required to perform maintenance. Thinking about purchasing and installing modern technology and equipment is another order of magnitude more difficult. And, as California has discovered with its new UC at Merced, the cost of expanding the current model is prohibitive. Consider the British. As the British government has slashed budgets, including university budgets, they are forced to look everywhere for new solutions as well. So, the White Paper contemplates a broader role for proprietary institutions in that arena as well.

Coinciding with the Pushes, the “Pulls” are equally interesting.
  • ·         First, higher education is not only good for business, it IS business. In our country, Silicon Valley, Route 128, and the Raleigh-Durham corridor are proof positive of that. And when you add to those positives the growing need for additional education to support the “knowledge society”, one consequence is an environment that cannot allow educational access, attainment, and completion rates to decline. Indeed the opposite is required. So, Adelaide, Australia commits to becoming a “Higher Education Hub”, in which every type of accredited institution is welcome. Their motives include both generating a sustained growth curve in educational attainment while continuing to attract foreign students to attend college down under.
  • ·         Second, technology and web 2.0 herald the opening of a new era in many areas, including higher education. There must be innovation to plumb the depths and extent of the opportunity that these new forces provide. They give us the capacity to do far more, with higher consistency and quality, for less money per success story. So, just as the costs of maintaining, let alone expanding, the traditional model soar out of sight,  and its effectiveness is being questioned, solutions that have the ability to  increase effectiveness and efficiency, provide greater personalization and customization, and attain greater consistency  – all at lower prices – emerges. 

 What Tierney, the Brits, and the Aussies share in common is a practical desire to stabilize public investment so that it can be managed and controlled over time,  while expanding opportunity to previously un-served populations. There are fairly simple, and practical ways to do just that, including the California Completion Coalition that I proposed in an earlier blog. The interesting thing is that using the strengths of technology and social networking, we can, together, offer cost-effective solutions to this problem that leave the publicly financed institutions  filled to capacity while assuring that other students have the opportunity to access and graduate from college as well. All it takes is a willingness to be transparent and to work together in a respectful way.