SXSWedu recap

March 10, 2014

I had a great time at SXSWedu this week. For those of you who aren’t familiar, SXSWedu is a conference focusing on innovation in learning. It is part of SXSW, which is an annual music, film and interactive conference held in Austin.

I was able to see Scott Kinney, Capella University President , and Deborah Bushway, Capella VP of Academic Innovation and Chief Academic Officer, speak at SXSWedu.

Scott participated in a panel called “Can the Liberal Arts Survive in an Age of Innovation?” The panel discussed the traditional four-year liberal arts experience and the changes facing it as innovation expands and the cost of higher education rises. Michelle Weise of the Clayton Christenson Institute, President David Maxwell of Drake University, and Liz Willen, editor of the Hechinger Report were also on the panel. It was lively discussion and kept coming back to competency-based models like Capella’s. Audience members raised thoughtful questions about the goal of higher education – was it to make a person happy, or focus on jobs and productivity? Liz Willen used a piece Scott wrote in the Hechinger Report a few months ago to frame the conversation.

Deb led a panel discussion hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation titled, “Online Instruction at Scale: Emerging Trends.”  They had a thoughtful discussion of how colleges and universities were handling innovation and the complex issues and decisions that followed it. Faculty from the University of Toronto and University of Texas at Austin discussed their approaches for producing a quality online course and Maria Andersen of Area9, a leader in online adaptive learning, discussed the evolution of MOOCS and the role of faculty in online teaching.

I was also had the privilege of attending a panel with one of America’s greatest living non-fiction writers, Robert Caro. He joined College Board President David Coleman, and Peg Tyre, a nationally renowned education writer, to discuss the power of analytical writing. If anyone is going to talk about the power of analytical writing, it should be Robert Caro and he didn’t disappoint. For anyone who is interested, his series of biographies on Lyndon Johnson is some of the best storytelling in modern literature. I know this praise probably sounds a little over-the-top, but at the panel discussion, David Coleman compared Caro’s introduction to Master of the Senate to Plato’s Republic, so I feel like I have some flexibility here. Lastly, my longtime friend Steve Clemons (no slouch as a writer in his own right) was there in his capacity as Executive Editor of the Atlantic to announce a forthcoming partnership between the Atlantic and the College Board. I’m always excited to see the results of any project of Steve’s.

It was a great conference and I’m already excited for next year. It’s an interesting combination of traditional academic conversations and ed tech entrepreneurialism. I left struck by the note of optimism Scott struck in his panel. We have huge challenges in higher education, but Scott rightly pointed to all the opportunity and innovation surrounding us each day. Did you attend SXSWedu? What was your favorite panel?

Looking forward to Capella’s commencement in Nashville this weekend.

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ISAs – investing in value, sharing risk

March 4, 2014

Last week, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) published an informative article and report on Income Share Agreements (ISAs) and their strong potential future within the student loan landscape.

With an ISA, an investor or other organization provides a student with financing for higher education in exchange for a percentage of the student’s future income for a defined period of time after the student finishes school. Unlike a loan, there is no principal balance to repay with an ISA. Depending on the level of the student’s success after school, the student may ultimately pay more or less than the amount financed. This instrument for the private financing of higher education is not currently a full substitute for federal student aid programs, but it can help correct some of the existing system’s shortcomings and improve student outcomes.

Authors Miguel Palacios, Andrew Kelly and Tonio De Sorrento of AEI clearly outline why they believe ISAs are better suited for student financing than traditional student loans in their article, and what steps policymakers should take to facilitate the growth of ISAs. Please read and let me know what you think about ISAs’ potential in the comment section below.

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The future of direct assessment

February 26, 2014

Today’s guest post is from Capella’s Director of Public & Federal Aid Policy, Jillian Klein. I would like to welcome Jillian back from maternity leave!


Jillian Klein, Director of Public & Federal Aid Policy

An article in last week’s Inside Higher Ed called “Taking the Direct Path” talks all about the recent history of direct assessment programs in higher education, including the opportunities and the challenges in moving this innovative style of learning forward. Capella University has been on the forefront of this change, with the development of the FlexPath program in 2013, which allows learners the flexibility to move through their program at their own pace, spending more time on the areas that are new to them and moving more quickly through those with which they are familiar. This decoupling of learning from credit hours and seat time just makes sense, but the road to move education in that direction continues to be a bumpy one.

The current federal financial aid rules require that direct assessment correlates back to the credit hour, but the extent to which this needs to happen is unclear. And even when schools can pass that hurdle, the reality is that the federal financial aid system is built around the concept of the credit hour and seat time, making it difficult to completely innovate in this area. This winter, the Department of Education requested that the higher education community submit proposals for experimental site initiatives geared at providing schools with the authority to experiment with options of how to administer financial aid in a true direct assessment model. This sort of safe place for innovation is exactly what is needed in order to build the basis for regulatory and policy changes that will fully allow direct assessment programs to operate separate from the credit hour model.

While the Department of Education is moving the ball forward on direct assessment, however, there are restrictions to those issues which the Secretary can focus on, such as modifications to Title IV awarding rules. Understanding this, a bipartisan group in Congress introduced HR 3136, the Advancing Competency-Based Education Act. This bill would create a demonstration program, which facilitates the same type of safe space as the Department’s experimental sites initiative, but is more comprehensive and factors in the necessary authority to make crucial Title IV modifications.

Through the development of the FlexPath program, Capella discovered first-hand the federal financial aid rules that inhibit true innovation in the direct assessment model, and the credit hour is just a piece of the puzzle. For example, in a more flexible model, where learners are able to move at their own pace, rules around what happens to a student’s financial aid eligibility when they drop courses need to be revisited. Currently the percentage of aid a student retains is based on a time component, but what happens when that disappears? The same question exists for a concept like satisfactory academic progress. Likewise, how can we rethink concepts like limits to annual aid eligibility in light of a model that is geared towards decreasing the amount of time it takes a learner to complete their degree? There are other challenges in the current system, too, like reconciling aid-eligible direct assessment programs with the current prohibition on granting federal financial aid for prior learning.

These issues provide a clear indication that there is a real need for the development of federal financial aid rules that make sense with the move towards direct assessment, and Capella is excited to be part of that conversation. Through the FlexPath program we are learning more about the opportunities that exist for learners in this new method of educational delivery, and we look forward to continued dialog around the topic.

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The real proof is in the students themselves

January 21, 2014

Michelle Navarre Cleary, of DePaul University’s School of New Learning, wrote a blog post for Inside Higher Ed last week about competency-based learning and the benefits it offers students.

In her post, Michelle shares a few examples of why she believes competency-based education is a strong alternative to traditional programs. She explains how it can save students both time and money, how competency programs increase access to college for nontraditional students and minorities, and how information is more likely to be retained and used again when learners engage in metacognition.

Michelle emphasizes that while all these reasons are important to think about when considering competency-based programs, the best indicator of how well these programs work are the students themselves. “Again and again, I see students grow in confidence, revel in the joy of learning, leave jobs to begin careers, and expand their worlds. And that, as any educator worth her salt will tell you, is what it’s all about.”

Michelle also highlighted Capella as a provider of competency-based education. Capella’s competency-based curriculum is designed for busy, experienced professionals who want to gain the relevant competencies to help advance their career – and in the most efficient way.  For the past 10 years, we have wholly-integrated and continually invested in a competency-based learning approach throughout our university. As a result, we’re able to map academic and professional standards to all of our degree programs and more fully support students as they progress through their program.

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The bricks of modern education need the straw of experience-based skills

January 13, 2014

Harvard Business Review recently published a post about competency-based education and the advantage it gives employers when they are looking for the right job candidate.

McKinsey & Company’s “Education to Employment” report, referenced in the article, gives a thorough look into what students, employers and educational institutions think about the education students are receiving today. It outlines huge opportunities for growth that are only possible if the three groups work together.

Employers worldwide have expressed that college transcripts are oftentimes not very helpful when assessing a candidate for a position.  This is where competency-based education and assessment comes in. “To link education to meaningful outcomes, what’s needed is the ability in college to assess – in detail and at scale – the development of real world-relevant skills.” Employers can then take this assessment and compare it directly to the job position to determine if the candidate has what it takes to get the position.

A few companies in the United States (HBR’s article outlines them) have used skills-based hiring techniques to pick job candidates. It seems to be working very well for them; there has been a 25-75% reduction in turnover, a 40-70% reduction in time to hire, a 70% reduction in cost to hire, and a 50% reduction in time to train.

These numbers are very promising. We’re going to hear more about employers using competency-based education and assessment in 2014.

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