Reflections on the June 2017 University Professional and Continuing Education Summit for Online Leadership

The future was the focus at the recent UPCEA Summit. Kicking off the conference was the Leadership Roundtable where chief online learning officers gather for a half-day to reflect strategically on both the current and future state of online education. This year author Jeff Selingo, visiting scholar at Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities and special advisor to the Arizona State-Georgetown University Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership, and Bridget Burns, executive director, University Innovation Alliance, provided insights into the ways universities need to think about the future. Their guidance included, “starting with the future and what it will be” vs. simply asking, “what can we do?” According to the panelists, envisioning a future of who/what we want to be and what we want to achieve unlocks creativity and reduces the problem-solving that inevitably finds its way into future and strategic planning. This dynamic was demonstrated by means of a vendor-facilitated scenario planning exercise conducted during the session.

The thread and theme of the future and planning for it wove its way from the Roundtable and throughout the Summit. Selingo’s keynote stressed that jobs and career readiness are key to current and future higher education success. Discussion focused on emerging trends and concepts such as micro-credentials, micro-masters and alternative credentials. Recent 2017 survey data demonstrated a slight increase in alternative credential offerings from institutions, with a core focus on certificates, badging efforts and other related options. Several key questions regarding these alternatives need to be addressed, including: What is the perceived and accepted meaning of these credentials? Who is making this definition? What is the role of higher education, and of business in defining and accepting these norms? And how are industry standards, competencies and exams being used in designing these offerings and determining alternative credentials?

These questions lead one to focus on learners and why they choose alternative credentials. Learners seek pathways to learning in order to improve their life and career and/or their “station in life.” They look both at the value of the credential and its costs. One presenter also suggested that learners engage in “episodic learning relationships,” an interesting concept. What does this mean for learners? And for universities serving them? These questions were indirectly addressed via keynoter Dr. Sheena lyengar, inaugural S.T. Lee professor of business at Columbia University and author of The Art of Choosing. Dr. lyengar shared her focus on the psychology of choice and decision-making, posing such questions as: “Is the desire for choice innate or created by culture? Why do we sometimes choose against our best interests? And how much control do we really have over what we choose?”

Dr. lyengar demonstrated one of her key principles, “to choose is to invest,” with a story about choice. When given a choice of 24 jams vs. six jams, the individuals with the fewer choices more often purchased the jams when given that opportunity demonstrating that while choice is important, having too many options in fact negatively impacts decision. This example and many others were particularly enlightening for us in higher education.

I was especially intrigued by a working session jointly facilitated by Dr. Hunt Lambert of Harvard University, Dr. Rovy Branon of the University of Washington, and me in which we collectively focused on the learner in 2040 and 2060 and reflected on potential utopian and dystopian realities. Interesting to note was how frequently these realities intersected and how we moved in and out of each in discussing the future for both learners and providers of education. Key factors included a focus on the importance of collaboration, access and affordability, scholarly work and, in this highly technological present and future, the importance of the human touch and humanization of learners.

What does all this mean for alternative credentials and the future? Alternative credentials — especially focused, stackable options that are transparent to the learner and tied to industry standards — are seemingly the best direction for the future. Alternative credentials are not new; we have had prior learning assessment, competency-based learning and industry certifications for many decades. What is new is tying these all together and connecting them to degree paths in an intentional, cost-effective manner and communicating this intention and packaging clearly to both learners and their prospective employers.

How will the Academy ensure the quality of the credentials it awards? There are currently more than 150,000 unique credentials being offered by universities. As credentials have proliferated, there remains confusion about not just their value, but whether students fully understand them. For example, students are often confused about whether to get a B.A. or B.S., being unsure of the difference. If something as well-established as a bachelor’s degree is confusing, it’s clear that credentials, if not explained well, may also sow confusion.  Some have suggested the need for an Expedia-like portal where students can compare credentials. The overall consensus was that credentials are here to stay, so universities need to figure out how to better explain them to key stakeholders, demonstrate their value and ensure their quality.

While online learning has been widely available for many years, there are some institutions struggling to enter the market, and many others challenged to support existing offerings. Such obstacles range from getting faculty buy-in and effective faculty training to securing institutional support and adapting to changing technologies. Adaptive learning is one way to address some of these challenges. Personalized learning pathways through course materials allow students to focus more on the concepts they find challenging. Faculty who have been involved in adaptive learning become advocates for personalized learning because they see greater student success, which translates into retention gains, in turn.

Bringing many of these threads together was Dr. Charles Isbell from Georgia Tech, who presented on their unique, MOOC-like M.S. in Computer Science. The degree, which costs about $6,000, has received much attention for its costs, but also for the innovative approach that led to its development. This began as a public-private partnership that evolved because the university recognized the need for a significant increase in graduates with computer science degrees.  It leveraged the online environment and initial excitement around MOOCs to generate buzz among faculty by offering incentives for developing and teaching the courses. Faculty also receive royalties when someone else teaches a course they developed. The program has already admitted more than 4,500 students from around the world.

The UPCEA Leadership Seminar focused on jobs and future education and related credentials relevant to the workplace. The questions raised and the dialogue at this Conference indicate that the concept of alternative credentials is not new and is emerging as a strategic trend of critical importance to our planning and delivery of programs in higher education.

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