5 lessons learned about alternative education

By Meris Stansbury
March 31st, 2016


Researchers, universities give advice on implementing, designing and financing alternative pathways in higher ed.

Coding bootcamps, competency-based education (CBE) initiatives, badging, and career-and-technical (CTE) certifications have the potential to breathe new life into higher education pathways, especially for non-traditional students. But is it as easy as simply tacking on another learning option?

According to traditional universities eager to implement alternative education pathways, as well as researchers who have delved into multiple case studies, implementing a new pathway is not always smooth-sailing; and there are a few key considerations to keep in mind if the alternative pathway has any hope of sustainability…and if students have any hope of actually benefiting from the pathway.

According to faculty, admin, and researchers, when considering an alternative education pathway, remember that:


1.Implementation means a complete redesign of the traditional.

According to Alana Dunagan, higher education researcher for the Clayton Christensen Institute, alternative ed pathways will eventually bolster higher ed, but incumbent institutions will have a tough time adapting them due to stagnant business models that aren’t set up for support.

“So far, there are limited examples of established institutions adopting alternative credentialing,” she writes. “A few institutions are exploring badging, and many are offering online courses, but most traditional institutions are proceeding with business as usual. In fact, what has been notable so far is the lack of success in implementing innovative pathways, even where institutions have made impressive efforts to do so.”

Dunagan gave the example of ASU’s Global Freshman Year, which saw an uptake in terms of MOOC registrants, but resulted in few completions. There was also the University of California’s UC Online that spent millions on marketing—and three years later had one student sign up.

She posits that the results are right in line with the theory of disruptive innovation: incumbent institutions will have a tough time adapting disruptive innovations because their business models aren’t set up to support them.

“As competency-based credentialing becomes more prevalent, even traditional students may come to favor programs that give them mastery in particular skills, which they can then bring into a competitive labor market,” writes Dunagan. “In this way, alternative credentials aren’t likely to remain ‘alternative’ for long.”

[Read Dunagan’s full essay here.]

(Next page: More considerations for alternative education)

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