Living with Abundant Information: What’s a College to Do?

By Peter Smith

With its October 2014 daylong conference on competency-based education and Higher Education Innovation Challenge (HEIC), the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) has firmly grasped the horns of disruptive change. It is creating a space in which New England states and institutions can wrestle with the critical issues driven by abundant information. Collectively, these issues encompass every aspect of the traditional higher education value proposition, including the economic model, governance, assessment, pedagogy and learning support.

The HEIC lists multiple areas where the impact of abundant information can and will be felt, ranging from student retention to curricular alignment with careers on the one hand, to powerful new uses of data and new understandings of quality on the other. While all the areas listed in the challenge must be addressed, the advent of the age of abundant information brings additional questions and underlying realities that must also be considered as part of the process.

  • First, this disruption is driven by the twin forces of rapidly expanding technological capacity coupled with the data, information and new services that it enables.
  • Second, abundant and cheap information changes the context and environment in which colleges and universities work, posing a fundamental and unavoidable challenge to their traditions, their operating models and their economic models. This is a situation where they can run, but they can’t hide.
  • Finally, the seeds of this disruption lie outside campuses as well as beyond the control of the accrediting and government oversight entities that exist to protect minimum standards of quality. As a result, unlike earlier movements advocating for change and innovation, the traditional hierarchy in and around higher education does not control the conversation or the forces driving change this time. Part of this external disruption includes learners’ aspirations, expectations, behavior and comfort levels with technology that are steadily diverging from the traditional on-campus or commuting higher education reality.

The lives our learners live and the communities in which they live are defined, indeed suffused, with abundant information. Much has been written about the democratizing—or flattening effect—that this abundance has on traditional hierarchies. And higher education is no exception.

Campuses are products of scarcity: places where human and physical resources (faculty, labs, libraries) are gathered precisely so that students can benefit from them. In an information-scarce society, it was the only way to marshal the resources needed to support a coherent education program. Ironically, over the years, the institutions bred an additional scarcity: the number of spaces on campus available for students to occupy. Consequently, as the value of higher education has been recognized, we have witnessed the democratization of campus-based education through colossal capital investments in state and community colleges and huge financial investments in benefit and aid programs such as the GI Bill, Pell Grants and subsidized loans.

And now a tsunami of disruptive change washes over us all, depositing great technology and abundant information, enabling the unbundling and re-bundling of higher education’s value proposition in a seemingly infinite variety of forms. How to deal with these dynamic and implacable forces is the challenge facing learners, faculty, presidents and boards across the higher education landscape and beyond.

I see five issues that institutions must address if they are to cope successfully with a world of abundant information.

Let me begin with one underlying assumption. We are fond of saying that the traditional “model” of higher education is monolithic, with sameness pervading across different types of institutions, leaving only marginal differences among them. And in some ways, that is true. The economic assumptions, the academic structures, the pedagogies employed are largely similar, even if the prices, costs and student demographics may be very different. But, and this is a big “but,” the circumstances on each campus—the role of alumni, faculty, the history of the institution, its current positioning regarding budgets and costs—are unique to each institution and system.

Earlier this year, I was at a WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) meeting where we were discussing competency-based education. I was struck by the gulf between those on the podium talking about what they were doing—Western Governors University, Empire State College, Southern New Hampshire University—and those in the audience trying to figure out how to make these fait accompli examples fit in specific institutional settings. The fact is, each institution or system has to analyze and determine for itself not only which innovations and changes will work best for it, but also how to adapt them so that the “new” practices that are established fit the history and current reality of the institution. As in developing a customized degree program, adapting to this new, emerging reality has no “one size fits all.” Sure, there may be themes, characteristics and emerging practices, but the key to success is the adaptation to institutional reality.

Following are several areas that should be considered by any institution considering innovation and change to adapt to the issues raised by abundant information.

Abundant high-quality content. MOOCs and open courses have already had an extraordinary impact on the public and professional perception of what is “legitimate” postsecondary education. Like it or not, when Harvard, MIT, Stanford and the others started posting courses online and offering certificates for successful completion, the earth moved under our feet. Online learning had become legitimate and mainstream because these institutions are the elite. At the same time, I respectfully disagree with Coursera founder Sebastian Thrun who famously critiqued his own product by saying it was third-rate education. I think he missed the point. Coursera never was an educational program. It was a potpourri of first-rate courses designed for informal consumption, not a coherent educational program, designed to support, generate and validate learning. MOOCs and other open resources do not, in and of themselves, constitute an educational program. They are additional tools to support the informal learning that adults engage in every day and they can supplement and enrich more formally organized programs as well. So, a larger question is, what will institutions and learners do with this content? What are its potential uses?

The emergent reality is that the best faculty in the world, faculty who have historically been available only to the privileged few, are now available to everyone who wants to tune in. So, learning that had formerly been invisible as well as undocumented—informal learning—has now been put on steroids and brought out into the public eye. It is now possible for learners to accumulate course completions, boot camp completions and certificates as well as other evidence of learning in a portfolio, curate and self-assess these credentials, and even submit them for formal evaluation at an accredited institution, if and when they want to.

And the corollary reality is that, if the MIT Engineering curriculum is available online for free, why wouldn’t a small private college or state college use that curriculum and ask its faculty to work with the students using it. Gone are the days when an institution’s perceived quality was based on its claim to quality curriculum based on the work of its resident faculty. Now, faculty can work with, enhance, and improve their teaching, assessment and curricula with world-class materials such as MOOCs and other open resources.

For example, a new college I am currently founding called the Open College at Kaplan University (OC@KU) has an outcomes-based, guided independent study program that matches MOOCs and other open and free course resources to students’ learning needs using faculty mentors and advisors. We also offer selected open courses for free. But they are courses that we believe we have the expertise to offer, given our history and reputation—career-oriented, guidance-related, aimed at work-readiness and college-readiness.

The fundamental point is the institution must address the questions raised by the availability of abundant, free, great content.

Evidence-based assessments. This train has left the station. Uncomfortable with the label “competency-based learning,” I asked Peter Ewell of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS), what the more encompassing term might be and he answered, “Evidence-based assessment.” This drives a more general understanding that we are moving, ineluctably, away from subjective faculty-based judgments about what has been learned toward tiered statements of the learner’s ability to apply knowledge in increasingly sophisticated ways. The maypole around which we dance in this discussion is the Degree Qualifications Framework (DQF) funded by Lumina and drafted by Carol Geary Schneider of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Ewell and others). It has defined and established a flexible “working space” for the crafting of outcomes-based degree and learning models—a space within which individuals and institutions can experiment with and test new approaches.

I see the emergence of other types of evidence that will strengthen the learner’s portfolio in the arena of work readiness. At Southern New Hampshire University and Kaplan University, general education outcomes have been integrated with regular course outcomes within the course structure. At the end of the course, the learners, in addition to evidence that supports the course’s core intention, also have evidence of their writing level, numeration ability, problem-solving ability, critical thinking and so on. Conceptually, this approach allows the learner and the college to extract more learning from the same activity, saving time and money. Also and importantly, with this evidence, when a third party is looking at a transcript, they will get more information than course title and grade. They will get a fuller picture of the learner’s profile of knowledge, skills and abilities. The evidence presented will include both quantitative and qualitative information. Importantly, the reader will have a better picture of what the person can do, how, and in what variety of settings.

At OC@KU, we have taken this thinking to a third level. We are creating asynchronous, interactive professional competency tutorials in leadership, diversity, teamwork and critical thinking. These tutorials will not be “about” these areas. They are built to create qualitative and quantitative evidence with the learner about the learner’s actual abilities and experiences in these areas, adding an important third dimension to the traditional faculty-based grading system. A transcript that includes all three types of evidence—course outcomes, cross-cutting intellectual capacities, and professional capacities—will be a far more transparent and powerful document.

In whatever way institutions choose to address the transition from “because I say so” grading to evidence-based assessment, addressing it is essential to thriving in this changing world. With the increasing attention being paid to rising costs to the learners, their families and states that support higher education, what the learners are getting for their investment of time, money, and dreams, in terms of career readiness and knowledge, will become a central question and indicator of quality.

The shift from teaching to learning support. With superb, free content available at virtually any level and in any subject matter area, many institutions will realize that understanding themselves as “teaching” institutions is increasingly an outdated view of their role. If not as a “teaching” institution, how might the college of the future think of itself? Perhaps as a center of great “learning support.”

For those institutions that continue to serve primarily 18-22 year-olds, the question will revolve around how to understand the “coming of age” role that they play within the context of this rapidly changing world. Using campus life and non-classroom student life as stages for additional learning, younger college students will benefit from an integration of these areas into the academic program. Service learning and other forms of active and engaged learning across the curriculum will also enhance the experience and its value to the learner.

For those serving older learners, there is a very different message around the same issue of learner support. Many of the learners colleges serve will come from economically and educationally marginalized populations. Their experiences with school will have been less successful and their “readiness to learn,” both in terms of skills and attitudes they bring, will present more challenges.

Well-chosen assessments will help these populations:

This approach will personalize their experience from day one. Personalizing the experience does not mean that each student has a unique program. It does mean that each student understands how they got where they are, where they are going, and why the learning they are undertaking is important to their journey. This will create a far more self-reliant learner. Then, as they proceed toward their educational goals, using data tracking and analysis to give them timely and personally crafted learner support as they navigate the degree or certificate journey, will be essential.

As institutions move away from being defined by content and teaching, they must move toward great learning support, the intelligent use of assessments and learning outcomes. The learning support will include the use of big data to deliver useful information to the learner as well as the advisors, excellent coaching and analysis, and clear links to the ultimate purpose: to become more powerful socially, civically, and economically. Beyond course assessments, the use of diagnostics, such as Gallup’s StrengthFinder and the CLA+ will fill out the learners’ profile. Taken together, all three will constitute a powerful picture and message of the learner’s knowledge, skills and abilities.

Links to work readiness. By now, the rising tide of criticism about “work readiness” is, unfortunately, a common refrain. With few exceptions, being ready to graduate does not mean the learner is ready to work. Put another way, there is a significant gap between academic achievement and work readiness. For the graduates of elite schools, this problem is less apparent. Their brand is with the school itself and its history, not the degree program or major. And the networks of alumni serve as a support system for graduates seeking jobs. But for almost everyone else, the brand is with the major or degree program. And graduates’ performance—as well as the perceptions of employers—will trump other claims. Increasingly, there will have to be clear evidence as to what graduates know and are able to do when they leave the institution. Moreover, their knowledge will increasingly be framed in terms that communicate to employers the information the employers want and need to make a hiring decision.

I believe that evidence-based assessments coupled with clear learning outcomes hold the key to solving this problem. The capacity currently exists to analyze a job description and break down the different skill, intellectual and behavioral components that collectively comprise that description. The capacity also exists to design assessments coupled with outcomes that link to those same job requirements. And for those who worry that this will lead to the “vocationalization” of higher education, I respectfully disagree. Sure, there will be attention to the skill connections especially. But employers will be more concerned with the level and applicability of my writing and analytical skills than whether I learned them reading English literature, studying philosophy, or in a more focused occupational course. The issue is workplace readiness.

The institutions that can provide clear evidence of the workplace readiness of their graduates will be the institutions that prosper.”

The emergence of non-accredited third-party players. I can clearly remember the first time I heard about StraighterLine, a successful education startup that now enrolls thousands of students. As with edX and Coursera, I thought at the time that the successful launch of this service reflected a significant change in our working environment. It redefined what was possible.

StraighterLine had contracted with McGraw-Hill to build curricula in 20-30 of the most highly used lower-division, general education courses. These are the “building-block” courses that cut across different career or professional pathways, establishing the foundation to which additional knowledge can be added. StraighterLine then went to the American Council on Education (ACE) and had those courses evaluated successfully for recommended undergraduate credit. They then sought education partners who would enroll their students. By partnering with a respected content specialist and being evaluated by a respected higher education group, StraighterLine had developed the capacity of a college curriculum without becoming a college. Partner colleges, eager for students who had proven their ability to do the work, signed up.

There are two important principles contained in this story. The first is that the days of the “siloed” college are over. Historically, colleges have been worlds unto themselves, even denying the transfer of academic credit from sister institutions because “it wasn’t done here.” Now, however, learners will be coming to college with evidence of learning that colleges are going to have to recognize and build on, whether it’s via StraighterLine, Tech bootcamps, edX or industry certificates, or other sources of evidence. In an outcomes-based world, required duplication of learning is becoming unacceptable both economically and academically.

Another principle is that, in this increasingly sophisticated world, colleges (and other endeavors as well) have to decide what they are going to be very good at, their core expertise, if you will, and then make strategic partnerships with other entities to build out their suite of services. For colleges and universities to succeed in this emerging marketplace, they will have to build alliances with learning support groups like Inside Track or MOOC/open educational resources like edX, that give them broad-based quality.

OC@KU. There are a number of new institutional models, of which the Open College at Kaplan University (OC@KU) is one. OC@KU is a personalized learning concierge service that helps learners create their own pathways for reaching educational goals via a variety of educational materials and courses, both from within Kaplan University and outside. The concierge service helps learners

  • Understand their current state in terms of career aspirations and current knowledge (,
  • Define their next, or ultimate, learning goal in either academic or career terms (,
  • Examine the resulting gap analysis between current state and ultimate goals, and
  • Find open education resources that, coupled with our assessments and support, will fill the gap identified.

OC@KU’s initial degree offering, formally launched Jan. 5, 2015, is a bachelor’s in professional studies—a flexible degree structure that allows the learner to construct their own major. Although we are extremely proud of the degree structure and process, I believe there is much more to the OC@KU story.

Specifically, the concierge service works with learners whether they are enrolled students or not. The front door is a series of courses that are free and help the learner go through the steps outlined above to determine where they are on their journey. They can then opt to organize their informal learning on their own, take challenge exams to convert some of that learning to college credit or enroll in the college itself. We are putting the learner in the driver’s seat with support and information services to help them.

Other writers might add new options to this list. But as colleges and policymakers wrestle with the challenges that are driven by abundant information and disrupting higher education, they must think through how these developments (open content, evidence-based assessments, learning support, work readiness, and third-party players) can wind together to create an institutional DNA that works for them.

The one consistent strand that runs through each of the five is the ability to harness the power of IT and big data to serve learners in ways that were unimaginable 10 years ago. This exemplifies the promise of disruption: that the forces doing the disrupting also contain the seeds for survival and success in the emerging world.

Peter Smith is senior vice president for academic strategies & development at Kaplan Higher Education and president and founder of the Open College at Kaplan University (OC@KU). He was the founding president of the Community College of Vermont and the founding president of California State University, Monterey Bay. Smith represented Vermont in the U.S Congress and served in the Vermont Senate and as lieutenant governor.


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