“We’ll be aiming at a self-contained student who is resolutely going to keep persevering…”

Posted on May 24, 2012


Earlier this year, I interviewed Kevin Bell, who spoke to me in his role as Associate Vice President for Learning and Development, College of Online and Continuing Education at Southern New Hampshire University (which was recently nominated as one of the 50 most innovative companies in the world by FastCompany). Since the interview, Kevin has moved to Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies, where he is Executive Director for Curriculum Development and Deployment, and continues to be actively involved in open educational practices. As with the other blogs in this series, comments will be welcomed.

Many thanks to Kevin for his participation in this research.

GW: Could you tell me a bit about SNHU and the context in which it works?

KB: We were a small business college when the current president took over in 2003. We have grown from that and we now have approximately eight to nine thousand in continuing education online, and 2,200 day-students. Our programmes are slanted towards business. We are developing our English, math and history departments. We have a clear, mission-driven goal – we take students up to a higher level and try to help them reach mid-senior level management positions. In our residential programmes we have a lot of foreign students from China, Saudi Arabia and other countries. In our online programmes, about 50% of our learners come from the local region, and about 50% nationwide. There are some military and a few overseas students.

GW: To what extent is SNHU already offering accreditation for non-formal learning?

KB: In November 2011, the president (of SNHU) called me and three other fairly senior people to oversee the Innovation Lab. The focus is to develop this concept and serve “under-served” populations. There’s a big push within the US to get another 20 million people through at least Associate level, if not to Bachelor’s degree level.

Our president has had this in mind for several years, following the model that Clayton Christiansen proposed in his book “Disrupting Education”. Christiansen is on our board. The OERu is looking at a three-credit course format, and we want to contribute to that. However, our model for these under-served populations in the US is more competency-focused and chunked in a way, and so the three-credit model will probably not be the smallest integer we work with. The nearest similar example in this country is Western Governors University. We believe we can go to the next level, specifically from the point of view of Associate degrees in the US. We work a lot with prior learning and partnering with employers to meet workplace needs.

We are working with charitable support organisations within the US, like United Way, that are looking to provide support for these kinds of models. We are targeting an audience within the US – this is the challenge of the Gates foundation and the Obama administration. It involves “fragile learners” who need more support and mentoring than the OERu would be likely to provide. At the Associate’s level it’s very real-world applied.

GW: Why does SNHU feel the need an OERu?

KB: We really just want to be involved in the community and learn and benchmark and collaborate with other institutions. We want to explore all possibilities. We’ve got a global MBA here, but a challenge is that it hasn’t been terrifically global because it’s based in New Hampshire. In the OERu we will be using technologies that push down prices and enable collaboration. We are working with community partners and institutions that serve students who haven’t had opportunity to get an education. United Way and Urban League are fundraising institutions that are trying to train and empower partners locally, for example people working in large corporations such as Walmart. Maybe we can enable those larger employers to get effective training for their workforce. We need to do the mapping of knowledge sets and skills sets and competencies. This is really tailored to the US audience.

“The Higher Education Continuum” as depicted by SNHU. (Note: The SNHU Access project is now called the Pathways Project.)

GW: What curriculum will you offer in the OERu pilot?

KB: We would like to develop College Composition in the three-credit format specifically for the OERu. The Saylor Foundation has put out a lot of good materials on this, so we will use them.

GW: How will you assess students in the OERu pilot? How is this the same as, or different from, the way you assess paying students?

 KB: We will probably implement one or two of our standard assessment in our courses. We try to avoid high-stakes testing. For the course on College Composition, we will obviously use various forms of essays.

GW: What is SNHU’s policy on recognition of prior learning?

KB: We already do that in partnership with CAEL (Council for Adult and Experiential Learning). I like the idea of Challenge Exams. Learners can skip ahead – take the challenge exam and show that they can write a great composition. CAEL have a fully online course called “Learning Counts”. They walk students through a four-week course for which they get a couple of credits. Learners gather up and collate their reference letters etc. The assessment is done by one master instructor. Learners can get up to 20 credits based on prior learning.

GW: How will SNHU deal with credit transfer from other institutions? To what extent is this the same as, or different from, the way you handle credit transfer requests for paying students?

KB: We are very transfer-friendly because we have a lot of military and foreign students. We have records of colleges internationally that are recognised. I’m confident that we wouldn’t have problems with that. I think it’s part of the culture here. Our counsellors would often counsel students to go to a community college here and then transfer in to SNHU. I don’t think that happens in the UK.

GW: What kind of support will you provide for OERu students? How is this the same as, or different from, the way you currently support paying students?

KB: We’re trying to infuse support for learners through the materials and other means. We think it’s a wonderful movement. We’re delighted to be involved with the OERu group. The OERu can possibly help us with these new Associate programmes that we’re trying to launch

We will probably have “academic volunteers international” or something analogous here with partners supporting students at their place of learning as mentors, just to stay in touch with them and monitor them. (This is what they do at Western Governors University.) We are also talking to OpenStudy, which sprang out of an initiative at Virginia Tech. They’ve got approximately 80,000 enrolled users. We are piloting this partnership in a traditional face-to-face course – the lecturer has said to students they can use OpenStudy to ask him questions. We will also have a programme director and some faculty available for student support, but those people would be level three or four or five support after learners have tried all these other options.

We are using Blackboard at the moment, and would like to see how that links up with Wikieducator (the communication hub for the OERu). None of us are super-enthralled with Blackboard. Sakai is being considered.

GW: If you are offering similar services via the OERu to what you offer to your fee-paying students, how do you think the fee-paying students will feel?

KB: We feel it will be different enough. In the same way that distance education didn’t really impact on face-to-face education in a negative way, we think that in the case of the OERu we’ll be aiming at a self-contained student who is resolutely going to keep persevering… We are still very high-touch in our traditional courses – we have a student-faculty ratio of 20-1 or 15-1. The OERu and our new model are both a step further away from that. Students have already self-selected for one or the other.

GW: What’s the business model?

KB: In the States we have a grant system called PELL, through which students can get up to $5,550 towards their studies per year. If someone qualifies for a full PELL grant, then they can sign up for the OERu. Also, our traditional online programme is doing very well and is subsidising the traditional day campus and this one. I guess the publicity we would get would enable us to break even. If it generates additional income, that would enable us to push the OERu costs down even further.

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