Adaptive, flexible and competency-based learning offers potential for international students, says Excelsior’s Vice President

The confluence of  two megatrends–cost pressures on institutions (and students) as a result of global financial recession and  increasing sophistication of technology-enabled learning models–is fostering innovation in long existing models of learning including distance education and competency-based learning.  Competency-based education is defined “as one that focuses on what students know and can do rather than how they learned it or how long it took to learn it.” A recent article from Inside Higher Ed notes that “Competency-based education appears to be higher education’s ‘next big thing‘.” In this context, long standing institutions including those offering open and distance education have to respond to a changing environment. For example, The Open University, UK responded to competition from MOOCs by offering its own version–FutureLearn. Likewise, one of the pioneers of open education and competency-based learning in the US, Excelsior College has to adapt to a changing environment. Here is an interview with Dr. Steve Ernst on changing landscape of online higher education which offers increasing opportunities for glocal students (I define glocals as students staying in their home country (region) while gaining a foreign education). – Rahul Choudaha

Dr. Steve Ernst
Vice President for Innovation and Strategy
Excelsior College, Albany, NY

In this position, a first for the College, Dr. Ernst plays a key role in evaluating and guiding the strategic positioning and growth strategy for Excelsior College. He also assumes executive leadership of Excelsior’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness. Formerly chief operating officer at Knowledge Factor, Dr. Ernst has held executive leadership roles in both the private sector and higher education. He served as a tenured faculty member at the University of Nebraska, and was Director of Instructional Technology and professor of biology at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Dr. Ernst earned a doctorate in genetics from the Michigan State University.

Rahul – Please share the context of Excelsior College with our readers. As the Vice President of Innovation and Strategy at Excelsior, what are your strategic priorities for next couple of years?

Steve – Excelsior College has a strong 42-year track record as a leader among open access higher education institutions in the U.S. An accredited, private, non-profit institution, we have approximately 37,000 enrolled students and more than 150,000 graduates worldwide (more fast facts on Excelsior). All of them are learning at a distance. Approximately 77% of Excelsior’s students are working full-time and the remainder work part-time. The average age of our students is 36 and we provide them highly personalized services using a “three-legged” model of aggregation, assessment and instruction.

The College was founded on the philosophy “What you know is more important than where or how you learned it.” In practice, we start by evaluating prior credit that a student may have earned (aggregation). Typically, incoming students bring with them 4-5 transcripts from other accredited institutions. We evaluate these for acceptance towards credits required in Excelsior degree programs. For those who have acquired knowledge independently of a formal program, we have a credit-by-exam program (assessment) whereby students can earn additional credit. Finally, we have online courses (instruction) that enable students to complete their degree requirements or use for transfer credit elsewhere.

Over the next five years, we are focused on the following…
• Within the open access model, continue to ensure that Excelsior College students are successful in completing their desired educational goals, and graduate with skills that have direct applicability in the working world.
• Engaging effectively all constituents of the Excelsior College community with a robust suite of virtual communication and productivity tools.
• Continue to enhance Excelsior’s learning outcomes framework across courses, competency-based programs, credit-by-exam programs, and prior learning assessment.
• Continue to leverage best practices in online teaching and learning.
• Increase the extent of Excelsior’s competency-based programs delivered using adaptive learning models.
• Increase brand awareness worldwide.

Rahul – How would you describe current engagement of Excelsior on international dimension? How do you see it changing in next couple of years? 

Steve – As noted above, Excelsior’s model attracts primarily adult learners who are working full-time, which limits face-to-face study abroad opportunities for our students who reside in the U.S. We are looking at potential opportunities for “online study abroad” programs in collaboration with universities in other nations, including those who may be part of ICDE (The International Council for Open and Distance Education) and similar groups. We do have one group of traditionally aged students from the US that are studying in Israel, and that program has opportunity to grow significantly.

For those who reside outside of the U.S., we are focusing on those that can benefit from the flexible, online programs that Excelsior offers. Since our programs are provided in English, international students at Excelsior are generally younger than our U.S.-based students. These “glocals” tend to possess the required English skills and can have an “international experience” from the comfort of their own nation without the expense of international travel and residence. Our online courses and credit-by-exam program have real potential for this market.

Rahul – How do you see technology-enabled learning models like MOOCs shaping the future of higher education, in general and online higher education, in specific?

Steve – MOOCs have raised the level of conversation about innovation in higher education. However, until sustainable business models for MOOCs develop, and MOOCs employ learning models and software that enhance learning effectiveness, I do not believe they will have much impact on degree-oriented programs. I have long believed that the greatest opportunity for MOOCs is as one type of “digital textbook” of the future.

Adaptive learning models and software represent the greatest opportunity for increasing both the efficiency and effectiveness of education. While adaptive learning practices have direct relevance to credit hour-based programs, adaptive learning models are very well aligned to competency-based programs. Most adaptive learning models focus on identification of individualized knowledge gaps, and rapidly filling those gaps. Currently, adaptive models are best aligned to the lower half of Bloom’s Taxonomy (e.g., knowledge, comprehension, application). However, with the potential integration of simulation-based learning into adaptive learning, we will see new functionality that aligns to the more complex segment of Bloom’s Taxonomy (e.g., analysis, synthesis, evaluation).