5 lessons learned about alternative education

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)


2.Content is king, not technology.

Even though CBE is no longer a new concept in higher education, experts say there’s still a misconception that technology is what powers this alternative pathway.

“The CBE model brings a number of benefits to the learner—from flexibility and accessibility to personalization and adaptivity,” writes Jade Roth, CEO of Flat World Education. “…because these advances have been spurred by new technological capabilities, conversations around CBE often center on code, platforms, and how the technology products themselves change the learning experience.”

However, Roth argues that when technology is deployed solely for technology’s sake, it can create additional hurdles for students, such as having an application that forces students to leave the platform to download, removing them from the immersive learning experience. As a result, study sessions are derailed.

“And, if we design new assessment techniques without considering differences between teaching English and teaching computer science, there is a good chance the result will be generic multiple choice questions instead of interactive engagement with the content,” he writes.

Roth emphasizes that in a CBE program, because students work through the material more independently then in a traditional course, content has the opportunity to take center stage.

“When we focus on the content first, we ensure that the technology is deployed in the service of the subject matter: activities can be tailored to specific skills that need to be built for the subject, and assessments can accurately read how students are interacting with the material.”

[Read more about CBE content here.]


3.Faculty is still critical to success.

Just like with any student learning, talented faculty remains key to student success, both in achievement and comprehension—but not in the traditional sense.

Brandman University, a nonprofit institution that focuses primarily on adult education, launched its first CBE offering in 2014. The university advises that in order to successfully implement alternative education pathways, the role of the faculty must evolve to an “unbundling” approach, which Brandman calls the “unbundled faculty model.”

While traditional faculty are still responsible for the curriculum, a whole new category of instructors called “tutorial faculty” use Flat World dashboards to monitor student progress. “When a student needs help, they contact the student,” said Gary Brahm, chancellor and CEO of Brandman University. “Their primary responsibility is helping and teaching students.”

Another group of faculty is responsible for grading, while yet another, non-faculty group known as “coaches” tracks student activity. “Tutorial faculty monitor the students for their academic success, but our coaches monitor students for their engagement,” said Brahm. “We find it helps students be successful and helps them prioritize their time. We think it’s really important.”

[Read about Brandman’s program here.]

National Louis University is another example of an institution that refocused faculty for their professional pathways program. The program uses an adaptive online learning platform to help students and faculty focus on what content is critical to cover in class.

Online, media-integrated courseware replaces a traditional print-based textbook. Online, students build foundational knowledge and are able to practice and get feedback on what they’ve learned whenever it is best suited to their schedule. Instructors are able to review online data before class, and can then customize their teaching to focus on areas that gave the students the most trouble online.

“It’s a different way for students to learn and teachers to teach,” said Acrobatiq CEO Eric Frank. “Some were a bit skeptical at first, but now they think it’s better. Teachers especially almost never had insight and data under the hood like this…they didn’t all know exactly what to do with it at first. But NLU let each individual professor decide what they want to do with it. We also have teachers with innovative uses teach their peers what they’re doing with the data.”

[Read more about National Louis University’s pathway here.]

(Next page: 2 more considerations for alternative education)


4.Financing/systems need an overhaul.

For Brandman University, the shift in how learning and teaching takes place in a CBE environment is significant, but it’s no less seismic than the changes in the underlying business operations. The move from a time- or seat-based model of education to one built around mastered competencies throws traditional student information systems and other administrative tools for a loop.

Brandman’s CBE program, for example, uses an all-you-can-learn subscription model: Students pay $2,700 every six months for everything, including content. “It’s an entirely different business model,” said Brahm. “Students can move as quickly as they like. The faster they move, the lower the cost for their degree. The typical student information system can’t handle that.”

To tackle the problem, Brandman worked with a software company called N2N Services to develop middleware for its Banner SIS. The middleware also allows the school to generate dual transcripts, based either on the old credit-hour model or the new CBE approach. While development work is not complete, Brahm hopes to make it available to other schools in the future.

Dunagan also makes note of the need for financial systems to adapt to alternative pathways, as “many of them are struggling to fit into the existing regulatory and financial aid systems.”

“Accreditors have focused on making sure that higher education institutions follow established processes and procedures, which means that institutions are rewarded for being similar rather than different,” she argues. “Federal financial aid dollars for traditional programs that focus on credit hours and in-person learning have been limited, although this is starting to change.

She writes that the market is beginning to solve the financial issues posed by non-traditional pathways that may not be accessible to financial aid; for example, many coding bootcamps have preferred “financing partners”: external, private lenders that provide loans to students.


5.A degree should be an option.

According to Mary Alice McCarthy, senior policy analyst of the education policy program at New America, many alternative education pathways all too often don’t include the option of leading to four-year degrees.

In other words, there are now too many on-ramps to higher education that lead to dead-ends.

“The majority of the [pathways] lead to entry-level jobs that will be hard for students to advance beyond without further education and training,” she writes. “Forcing students to choose between programs that will either help them pick up valuable skills in the short-term or lead to valuable credentials in the long-term does not make sense. But our higher education system is surprisingly unfriendly to efforts to connect academic and vocational pathways below the bachelor’s degree.  This resistance to creating more pathways to the BA is one of the least appreciated factors driving our stubbornly low degree attainment rates…”

She concludes that students have already figured out they need a combination of practical skills and general knowledge, “and that one does not come at the expense of the other. Now we need our higher education policies to catch up.”

[Read more of McCarthy’s essay here.]

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