Three Trends in Higher Education That Defy the Status Quo

There are three trends on the horizon in higher education and though I’ve some idea of what they might be, this past week confirmed it. I participated in a series of webinars in week two of the open online course, Current/Future State of Higher Education (CFHE12#).  Leading educators shared their insights and innovative programs – three dominant themes emerged, 1) competency based learning, 2) personalized student learning and 3) the changing role of the instructor. Each presenter shared extensive research in an area of his or her expertise and details of an innovative educational program; programs that provide a non-traditional education that defy the status quo. The summary of the trends follow, with a ‘takeaway’ for each designed to provide readers with practical ideas for application to their own area of study or work.

1. Competency Learning vs. Seat Time
Western Governors University introduced the radical idea of competency based learning in 1997 and was one of the first fully online university’s that did not require classroom attendance; fast forward to 2012 and competency based learning appears to be in the future of higher education. Learning that focuses on measurable outcomes is becoming a reality as technology facilitates self-paced and adaptive learning platforms, and employers lament about the skill gap that recent college graduates cannot fill. Responsive companies are partnering with education start-ups to create competency learning programs that address the skills needed for 21st century employees. The idea of ‘seat time’ is in peril.  Key highlights below:

  • Yvonne Smith of Innovation U: Slide from webinar on ‘College for America @ SNHU’, October 17

    Employers are coming up with innovative ways to address the skill gap. Companies including Google and Microsoft have partnered with Udacity to create classes in 3D graphics, app development and more – needed skills they cannot find even in recent college graduates (Ripley, 2012).

  • Southern New Hampshire University’s [SNHU] Innovations U program puts the student in the center of the learning model. Programs focus on competency clusters, developed in conjunction with employers. A binary rubric with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ evaluates learning. The goal of SNHU is provide affordable quality education, “to reduce costs, increase access and provide transformational experiences for students who have been marginalized by traditional higher education”.
  • Colleges are partnering with employers to create programs that not only provide academic preparation but career skills. The New Community College at CUNY opened its doors this fall with an innovative program designed to link classroom learning to career experiences in the community. The school is an open admissions college located in the heart of Manhattan, New York.
  • Another new university that looks promising is University Now. Its learning platform allows students to progress through course work at their own pace. Students learn by spending as little or as much time as needed to master the content. The school’s goal is to provide affordable education to anyone, anywhere.

Takeaway: Consider incorporating competency based learning within a current course or program by  including one or two competencies in the learning outcomes. Another option is to create partnerships with businesses in the community, either creating a community advisory panel where business leaders can have input into the curriculum or academic program development, and/or by creating internship programs for students from academic majors to gain experience in the work world.

2. Personalized Student Learning
‘Learning, your way’ is the new motto for numerous higher education institutions across the country, and significant ones at that. I wrote a post this past week about the University of Central Florida [UCF] that allows students to choose between five learning modalities, customizing their learning based upon their needs. Students expect to be able to learn anytime and anywhere in their chosen institutions, and numerous schools including UCF are responding.

  • At UCF students customize their schedule from a choice of five learning modalities under the school’s distributed learning model.
  • University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (UWM) is student focused giving students a choice by offering several programs. The school’s web page features the options for learning,  “Flexible & Convenient Online, evening, weekend and hybrid classes to accommodate any schedule.”
  • Research suggests that ‘learning is learning’ to students regardless of modality. To students, “a course, is a course, modality makes no difference” (Cavanaugh, 2012).

Take away:  Colleges will need to address the needs of the life-long learner, not just the college student where schools have traditionally told students when and where they need to go to learn. Students of all ages want to be able to learn anytime and anywhere at times convenient for them. Think of all students as life-long learners, and offer students choices of learning when, how and where they want.

3. The Changing Role Of the Instructor
The professor is no longer the only source of knowledge for students. The traditional method of knowledge transfer – the lecture, where the course instructor transfers knowledge [content] to student, is being augmented or replaced by other ‘nodes’ of information. Nodes are content sources, and might be a video, website, textbook, subject matter expert, or e-resource. Subsequently the teaching paradigm is shifting, students can access content, can learn from a variety of sources (Downes, 2012). The instructor role is thus changing, and in some institutions, the instructor role is being replaced with a mentor or advisor. Students in this model tend to take charge of their learning and use mentors, peers and study groups as support mechanisms for their learning goals.

  • University Now,Peer-to-peer learning communities where students share their knowledge and skills, and help each other obtain recognized degrees and credentials“.
  • The program at SNHU’s Innovation U, “won’t have instructors in the traditional sense… Pathways [program at Innovation U] will employ advisors to help students establish goals and set their learning pace“.

Takeaway: Higher education still needs experts, and students need role models, leaders and mentors. Acknowledging that students can access content and expertise from a variety of sources is necessary, which suggests that the course instructor is no less important. Now the instructor’s role shifts to one of guide or mentor, influencing, shaping and inspiring students to become educated, life-long learners.

It’s likely these trends are of no great surprise to readers of this blog.  Prior to this week’s session of Current/Future State of Higher Education, I’d read or written about, and discussed each of these trends to great lengths. Yet after hearing from the experts this week, and reviewing their innovative and progressive education programs I realized these are not just trends, fads or a phase – no these are here and now, this is the future.

Photo Credit: Horizons, Dopamind’s photostream, Flickr

References: Cavanagh, T. The Postmodality Era: How “Online Learning” Is Becoming “Learning,”  Chapter 16 in Game Changers (Diana Oblinger, ed.), EDUCAUSE Publications, May 2012.

Ripley, A. College is Dead. Long Live College!, (October, 2012). Time Magazine.

Can College Students Have it All – Learn When, Where and How They Want?

Apparently they can – at least at University of Central Florida where students can choose between different learning options: online, face-to-face, hybrid and more…

The University of Central Florida (UCF) operates unconventionally in comparison to other public universities when it comes to student learning; UCF puts the students in charge by encouraging them to choose when, where and how they want to learn. Students select their learning path and customize it to their preferences and schedule. In keeping with this student focused approach, faculty training, pedagogy and selection of academic programs adapt and cater to the students, even to their demographic profiles (Hartman, Moskal & Dziuban, 2004).

I participated this week in CFHE12’s webinar with Vice Provost Joel Hartman from UCF who shared briefly the institution’s history and pedagogical philosophy. I’ll include in this post highlights of the webinar and insights about UCF’s strategy for readers that might be interested in innovative educational programs, online and/or blended learning.

I was somewhat skeptical that UCF’s methods and learning modality options could be implemented on such a large-scale [student population is just under 60,000] – it seems so radically different from most public universities. Yet I admit it seems to be working, and working well upon review of the UCF’s programs, professional development and research findings. The institution’s strategy is extensive, which is why I’ve focused on only three areas, research, course modality offerings and faculty development in this post.

1. Student Choice of Learning Modality
UCF offers students a choice of five delivery modalities through its Center for Distributed Learning and students can mix-and-match – creating a personalized schedule.

  1. World Wide Web: Courses conducted via web-based instruction and collaboration.
  2. Video Streaming: 100% online courses with streaming digital video delivering content with several types of learning activities and assessments.
  3. Video Streaming/ Reduced Seat Time: Classroom-based content available over the web via streaming video; classroom attendance is not required. Other required activities that substitute for video instruction may include: web activity, in-person or proctored examinations, and labs.
  4. Mixed Mode/Reduced Seat Time [blended learning]: Courses include both required classroom attendance and online instruction. Classes have substantial activity conducted over the web, which substitutes for some classroom meetings.
  5. Face-toFace Instruction: Courses have required classroom attendance and meet on a regularly scheduled basis.

The chart below from ‘The Postmodality Era: How “Online Learning” is Becoming “Learning” provides breakdown of student count by modality (Cavanagh, 2012).

2. Faculty Development
Faculty training is comprehensive with four distinct courses offered. The program brochure outlines the faculty program, ‘Pathways’ exclusive to UCF. According to Hartman, courses are in high demand by UCF faculty and in some cases demand exceeds supply.

One of the Pathways courses [IDL6543] is an award-winning, non-credit course that models how to teach online using a combination of seminars, labs, consultations, and web-based instruction, and is delivered in an ‘M’ mode [mixed mode]. The time commitment for this course is not inconsequential, it requires a minimum of 80 clock hours. The purpose of this faculty development course is to help faculty succeed as they develop and deliver a fully online course (“W”) or mixed mode (“M”) course.

3. Research: Pedagogy
Hartman supports the concept of active research and encourages faculty to get involved.  The Research Initiative for Teaching Effectiveness (RITE) at UCF studies its student population on a consistent basis using both formative and summative evaluations of academic performance, satisfaction levels and attrition.

The data becomes transformative for UCF as results help to modify, plan and organize the processes of the distributed learning initiative at UCF (Hartman et al., 2004). The papers, of which I include links below, include data and narrative of several of the studies conducted at UCF that involve online, face-to-face and blended learning environments.

Implications for Educators
I was inspired after participating in the webinar and reading about UCF’s programs, to analyze my own institution’s approach in these three areas: professional development, learning modalities and research. Could there be potential for blended learning at our college? Definitely. This review also reinforced how critical faculty development is, especially when incorporating new methods of instructional delivery. Though our institution is far smaller [with a small budget to match], I do see the potential for creating two or three formal ‘courses’ for faculty, in both online instruction and course design. I hope that you were inspired as I was after reading and learning about UCF.  If you feel so inclined, please share your ideas or thoughts by commenting.


Cavanagh, T. The Postmodality Era: How “Online Learning” Is Becoming “Learning,”  Chapter 16 in Game Changers (Diana Oblinger, ed.), EDUCAUSE Publications, May 2012.

Hartman J., Moskal P., and C. Dziuban (2004). Preparing the Academy of Today for the Learner of Tomorrow Chapter 6 of book: Educating the Net Generation