12 Ways to Speed Innovation in Online Learning & Competency-based Education

Michael Horn wrote a wonderful summary of his testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee about the reauthorization of the Higher Education Reauthorization Act. He focused on barriers to and opportunities for innovation. At the end of his testimony, Senator Lamar Alexander invited the panel, which included Michael Horn, to speak to specific “regulations that are stunting online, competency-based education.” In response that request, I offer the following twelve specifics. I’ve not referenced specific sections in the Higher Education Reauthorization Act (although I did re-read it in preparation for this post) nor am I mentioning specific regulations or policies from regional accreditors. I am offering twelve specific ways to speed innovation with online learning, CBE, and higher education in general.  These are barriers that come from explicit aspects of the Higher Education Act and some regional accrediting bodies, but they also include softer but just as significant barriers, those that come from the structure and threat of censure. In fact, when I just re-read the Higher Education Authorization Act, I semi-jokingly commented that it can be summarized in a sentence: “Do not innovate…or else; unless you are Western Governor’s University or a nursing program.” There is more to it, so please don’t click away quite yet. In addition, I’ve include elements that are not present in the regulations now, but adding something related to them could prompt a rapid move forward.

I realize that some of these are controversial, but I share them more as I often do as a consultant for an organization. I am not neutral. My convictions show up, but I do offer this as a menu of items. Depending upon your taste, you will opt for some and not others. If your goal is the speed innovation in these areas, here are twelve ways to do it. As with all policy and regulatory innovations, there are affordances and limitations to every shift, and these are no different. I can’t state this too strongly. These suggestions have significant implications. In fact, some might argue that the risk or danger in implementing some of these is too great. I’ll leave that up to others to discuss for now (although I’m always ready for further conversation and work about this).

1. Clock hours and credit hours

There is already plenty of good discussion about the limitations of the existing system. Where HEA and accreditation agencies leave a little room for experimentation, that is limited right now, leaving people nervous about going through the necessary steps to pursue a format that leaves courses, credits, and clock hours behind. The HEA already has a special provision for nursing schools in this regard. Just take that and extend to across all higher education.

By the way, for organizations with athletic programs, there is need for athletic associations to catch up as well, broadening things well beyond GPA, credit hours, etc. There is already some flexibility, but being more explicit about that flexibility, offering it more broadly, will open doors for innovation.

2. The 200+ page complexity of the current Higher Education Authorization Act plus the overall complexity of federal financial aid in general.

I noticed a Tweet yesterday from a frustrated student, noting that the process for financial aid is more complex than any work she actually gets in pursuit of her college degree. That is a sure sign that something is not right. It needs to be simplified and streamlined to encourage innovation in these new areas. Complex regulations do not provide fertile soil for innovation. It scares off many of the small and medium-sized higher education institutions that want to explore the possibilities of these new areas, and rewards the higher education institutions with deep government and regulatory connections, and likely multiple people on staff dedicated to such matters. Scan the list of most of the direct assessment programs that launched early on, and you will see this is the case with the  majority.  This is the exact opposite of the trend in the startup world.

Also consider that I happened to help spearhead one of only a few small to medium private liberal arts colleges with a wide scale online operation that is managed almost entirely by internal teams. Why? It is easier to outsource, especially when the regulations are so complex and things are so uncertain. Complexity in the regulations breeds fear and caution…both of which are the enemy of innovation.

3. The HEA dedicated exceptions for Western Governor’s University

A higher education innovation / initiative supported by a group of governors gets a dedicated section in the Higher Education Authorization Act. How does that establish a level playing field for innovation in online learning and competency-based education. While I understand the reasons (at least a couple of them) for initially including it, it is time to remove special consideration for one initiative and offer the same provisions for all IHEs.

4. Limited definitions of programs and certificates.

Open up the definition to allow for non-credit and other forms of training, and you will see a wealth of innovation develop in these areas.

5. Regional accrediting agency expectations of faculty.

I’m a faculty member and I value the professoriate, but there are new models for both education and training that do not depend upon traditional concepts of instructor or the formal credentials normally expected of those people. As long as students are thriving and learning (and there is evidence of as much), why add limitations by being too explicit in expectations about credentials? This doesn’t just inhibit innovation in online learning and competency-based education. It prevents innovations around interdisciplinary education and interesting experiments in alternative higher education. There are also emerging and existing models that do not depend as much on traditional measures of faculty-student ratios. and there are a growing number of exceptionally gifted people who didn’t go the standard routes to achieve excellence. The current regulations often prevent them from teaching the next generation in higher education.

6. The limitation to 35 institutions for direct assessment.

This should probably go without saying, but limiting the direct assessment “experiment” to 35 is slowing down innovation. Let’s open it up.

7. Discouragement of Micro-Innovations

Some individual departments within Universities would love to invest in designing robust competency-based programs, but it isn’t worth the institutional investment to pilot on individual program levels when the experiment is so limited (as in the 35 mentioned above) and with people wondering how the DOE or their regional accreditation agency will treat their innovation. There are many ways to get at this. At minimum, it would be great to create a provision where a program can gain approval to run a micro-innovation (like a CBE program) with limited restrictions for a 4-5 year time period. You can even limit the enrollment if you want. A single voice on this from the DOE and regional accreditation agencies would make it even more promising.

8. Regulations about governance, organizational structures and partnerships need to be adjusted.

Yes, there are certainly examples of suspect partnerships and arrangements, but the explicit or implicit regulations or policies also prevent potentially promising models from being piloted. Who wants to be the next Tiffin University / Ivy Bridge?

9. Transfer Credits

Accreditors expect institutions to have set policies for transfer credit. That makes sense. There are emerging models, like with CBE and micro-credentials, that make it possible to envision a future route toward a degree as coming from piecing together learning evidence and credentials from multiple institutions over time. Leaving more flexibility for such models would allow for these innovations to emerge more easily. There are not strict regulations about transfer credits right now, but I include it because there seems to be something here that could serve as a powerful lever, especially by expanding transfer credit beyond other regionally accredited IHEs.

10. Expand “Higher Education”

The definition of a higher education institution can be broadened today to include so much more than colleges and Universities. There are new experiments and models already in existence. Some are more holistic educational institutions. Others are more training-oriented or focused on workforce development. Right now there are a limited number of regional or national accrediting agencies that give an organization an opportunity to participate in the federal financial aid program. Broaden that to include more oversight agencies or even a model that allows for the organization of a new external agency for accountability.

11. Provisions for Unbundling

There are models now like PelotonU that are providing the student support and much more while having students enroll in one of several existing online CBE programs at Universities. Create provisions for financial aid available to pay for such additional unbundled services (without their needing a formal partnership with an IHE) and we will see some fascinating experiments emerge.

12. Ease the pathway to starting new higher education institutions.

Even while some have predicted that have the higher education institutions in existence today will not be in the next 15 years, there is a counter to that, one that imagines a future of more IHEs than ever, with a wonderfully diverse collection of niche, boutique and alternative higher education models. If you want more innovation, make it easier for people to enter the higher education space. I will be writing more about this example soon, but Wayfinder Academy is one such example. They are working through the state of Oregon and plan to pursue regional accreditation, but there are others with equally compelling and innovative models of online, CBE and higher education in general that are not opening because of the existing complexity and barriers. Anything that can be done to lower the risk and cost of entry will create a new wave of innovation.

Why the Higher Learning Commission Has the Wrong Measure for “Qualified Faculty”?

If you are a higher education institution seeking to gain or keep up regional accreditation, one of the many expectations is that you have “qualified faculty.” What do people mean by that? I’m fascinated with this question because US regional accrediting agencies seem to be stuck in a past age and are answering that question in a way that risks undermining the goal of Universities as places with the “best” faculty (especially for more applied fields) while also adding a challenges in the competition higher education institutions get from education providers beyond traditional academia. Just as we start reading about news like the University of Microsoft, LinkedIn meets Lynda.com and alternative paths to expertise, regional accreditors are perhaps unknowingly making sure Universities are at a disadvantage.

Answers to the question give us insight into fundamental beliefs and values related to higher education. They help us understand whether certain stakeholders, like regional accreditors, are more interested in maintaining things as they are, or true educational innovation and determining the extent to which a person has adequate expertise to teach a given course on the college level.

Consider the follow excerpts from a 2014 Higher Learning Commission document on guidelines for determining qualified faculty:

Faculty teaching in higher education institutions should have completed a program of study in the discipline or subfield in which they will teach, and/or for which they will develop curricula, with coursework at least one level above that of the courses being taught or developed. Successful completion of a coherent degree better prepares a person than an unstructured collection of credit courses.

Qualified faculty are identified primarily by credentials, but other factors may be considered in addition to the degrees earned.

Elsewhere, they mention that alternatives to credentials should be the exception, not the norm. What does this mean? The document goes on to further explain that the largely non-negotiable or standard measure for faculty qualification comes down to credentials. If you teach a MBA finance course, then you should have substantive coursework completed in finance on the doctoral level. If you are teaching an undergraduate course in entrepreneurship, it is nice that you started a dozen successful businesses, but the standard should normally focus instead of whether you have a graduate degree or substantive graduate coursework completed in entrepreneurship. If you are teaching creative writing on the master’s level, show me your doctoral work in creative writing. Yes, maybe you’ve published several award-winning pieces of fiction or served as senior editor at one of the top publishing houses in the world, but the credentials are the non-negotiable part. This makes complete sense for many who live in academia and depend upon it for their livelihood. It doesn’t make nearly as much sense beyond the walls of higher education. Maybe doctoral work in finance is valuable for a CFO, but what we really want is hard evidence that a prospective CFO knows her stuff and can do the job. As Google started to publicize in 2013 after conducting a study, GPA and credentials don’t cut it when trying to find the best people.

A standard like this sets up Universities to maintain accreditation by having wonderfully credentialed people who may or may not provide evidence that they can use or apply their knowledge and skill in contexts beyond the ivory tower. This doesn’t do much when it comes to showing society the deep value and relevance of higher education. We do that partly by filling it with faculty/mentors who are deeply knowledgable and skilled in their various disciplines (and in teaching/mentoring), not by lifting up the value of credentialism, the notion of protecting a profession by having strict requirements for certain credentials…perhaps even over the value of having the most truly qualified people. Even as I interact with more employers who are realizing that the credential is less valuable than demonstrable knowledge and skill, higher education accreditors are pushing back, insisting that faculty not simply be deeply qualified, but that faculty prove their qualifications in a very narrow way (show me that piece of paper). Yes, even as paths to expertise widen and vary, accreditors narrow the path to professor.

While some argue this maintains a high academic standard and protects the students, it seems far more focused on protecting the beloved traditional role of the professorate from sometimes more qualified people. “If I had to jump through certain academic hoops to become a professor, then the next generation should have to do the same.” Yet, we are in a new generation, a connected world where there are more options for ongoing learning and professional development than ever before. And like past generations, it remains true that some of the most skilled and knowledgable people in many disciplines and areas of study do not have significant credentials.

We only need to look at the exceptions to see why the enforcement of a credential approach to faculty qualifications is inadequate in some fields of study. Consider people like Joseph Blatt, who is the Faculty Director of the Technology, Innovation and Education graduate program at Harvard Graduate School of Education, but only lists a master’s degree on his vitae. I have no doubt that he is superbly qualified for the job, but the regional accrediting guidelines say that the Jo Blatt’s should only be the exceptions. Why? Would graduates of Harvard Graduate School walk away with a sub-par degree if most or nearly all the faculty with whom they took courses demonstrated their competence in ways like Blatt? Of course not. Beyond this one instance, history and modern times are full of faculty who are remarkably qualified apart from meeting the credential standard set out above, and the connected world will continue to make these “exceptions” more commonplace. If we really want higher education institutions to be beacons of high-impact learning and the pinnacle of excellence in various ares of study, why would we limit the pool of potential faculty by credentials…unless our interest has more to do with protecting the status of credentials?

Answers to this question about how to decide if faculty are qualified also give us a glimpse into the extent to which higher education institutions are given a disadvantage in competition with the growing number of educational offerings outside of higher education, companies and organizations that are not bound by standards from regional accreditors or the U.S. Department of Education (at least in the United States). Consider open courses, online tutorials, online live tutors and mentors, training resources, education workshops and conferences, webinars, professional certifications, conferences, and similar learning opportunities. Few of these pay as much attention to the formal credentials of the teacher as they do to the quality of the learning experiences and the outcomes of the learner. While some of these, like MOOCs, do still often rely on traditionally credentialed people, many of the others do not. Their value and the demand for what they offer depends upon whether they deliver on what they offer. Do people get what they need and want out of it. Does the education work or truly help people learn what they need to learn? That is a far more direct measure than whether the person who designed the webinar or learning experience has certain letters behind her name. Especially when it comes to lifelong learning and graduate programming, these other forms of education have the upper hand. They have full access to the larger pool of deeply qualified content designers and facilitators, where higher education institutions are only limited to the highest credentialed people.

In fact, even academia doesn’t look at credentials when it comes to judging the quality of research in peer-reviewed publications and conferences. If a person produced great research, it is possible for a high school drop out to beat out a PhD for a presentation spot at a place like the American of Education Research Association conference. The measure is the quality of your work, not your collection of credentials.

Look ahead a decade. Which one do you think will win out in the competition for the time, investment and attention of 21st century lifelong learners, the unregulated education providers or the highly regulated higher education institutions? Even with new experiments and innovations like competency-based education programs, accreditors seem focused on the legacy approach to measuring faculty qualifications. It appears that higher education institutions are free to innovate as long as they do so in the nicely prescribed box outlined by aging standards and processes that put them at a disadvantage in the larger education landscape. My concern is that restrictions like this might leave more higher education institutions watching much of the education action on the sidelines, staring longingly behind unnecessary fences set by outside agencies and organizations.