Marc Perry in the Wired Campus blog on The Chronicle of Higher Education site discussed (8/31/2011) how Southern New Hampshire University is exploring qualified assessment as the next disruption to the disruption of online learning (see Online Education Is Everywhere. What’s the Next Big Thing?).
This line of inquiry reflects a strategic context for the changes that are coming and the pace of those changes. Where many institutions may offer online learning, and still have various forms of online learning in their vision documents, they have yet to take the leap that as online becomes a primary way to engage students, meet their financial objectives, and reinvent their role for a connected world. They may have to rethink their strategies.
Read this paragraph:
“The whole model hinges on excellent assessment, a rock-solid confidence that the student has mastered the student-learning outcomes,” the memo says. “If we know with certainty that they have, we should no longer care if they raced through the course or took 18 months, or if they worked on their courses with the support of a local church organization or community center or on their own. The game-changing idea here is that when we have assessment right, we should not care how a student achieves learning. We can blow up the delivery models and be free to try anything that shows itself to work.
This tells me that Southern New Hampshire president Paul J. LeBlanc is ready, and by writing his “thinking paper” readying his team, for a deep strategic conversation about not only the vision of the institution, but its mission and value proposition as well.
What the article doesn’t state is that these qualified assessments need to be tied to a credible brand for them to be meaningful. In this transition period, other institutions, governments, and companies will need to know that learner competency was assessed in a rigorous way. The next big branding battle for colleges and universities may focus on qualified competency assessment leadership. We might well see higher costs, for instance, for assessments based on the brand offering the competency recognition. Competencies acknowledge by Stanford will likely be worth more than competencies acknowledged by a community college. This suggests entirely new lines of business for struggling publishers trying to figure out how to deal with the migration to digital amid the onslaught of open content. They could use their credibility and deep connections to their authors to create assessments for institutions. Or they could offer their own branded assessments. Strategic fallout of LeBlanc’s vision.
The next big branding battle for colleges and universities may focus on qualified competency assessment leadership.
As Perry’s article points out, LeBlanc is not alone. Western Governors University, Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, and Peer2Peer University offer competency-based assessments. But LeBlanc is talking about wholesale transformation, not new institutions designed with competency assessment as a competitive differentiator or experiments as an offshoot to a traditional institution. He is talking about this model applying to any and all courses. This will disrupt teaching models, administrative calendars, social relationships and affiliations, and of course, at big sports schools, the foundation of athletics and how you attract and retain talent in an institution you can test out of at your own pace. This strategy is not just about academics and learning, it has far-reaching implications.
Regardless of the details that emerge and the pace of adoption, LeBlanc demonstrates a very strong example of strategic thinking—and a good model for other education leaders to follow in preparing their institutions for change. Change in higher education can often be thwarted or delayed by an institution’s bureaucracy.
Higher education leaders need to cut through traditional approaches to planning and change in order to align their institution’s change management cycle with those of the students and communities they serve.
Higher education pundits may debate LeBlanc’s position, but they should applaud his willingness to lead the strategic dialog.
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I was listening to a conversation on NPR after writing this and I think it is important to add the strategic issue of academic research. It might be that we end up with a population of employed students and faculty, and an increasingly transient undergraduate population. And this means new funding models and new real estate policies (the transient population will not need dorm rooms). What are the other implications of self-paced learning and competency-based assessment/degrees?