Working at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) provides the opportunity to see in microcosm the larger national conversation about different modalities of learning. We have a traditional New England liberal arts college, almost a century old with about 4,000 students, a national online college with 90,000 students, and a competency-based education (CBE) program with more than 4,000 students. The CBE programs partner with national workforces as well as international programs that educate employees of all levels and refugees in several foreign countries. These operations are the reason we state with conviction that there is no single student type and, if we are to be true to our mission of creating rigorous learning environments that increase the likelihood of student success, we must be prepared to meet students where they are.
One of the initiatives that we are working on is creating learning experiences that are adaptable. Our universal interoperable prototype is built in such a way that individual learning experiences are small enough and independent enough to be used on their own for competency demonstration, and also capable of being interwoven (or stacked) into larger experiences (such as traditional courses or other engagement types). Consider having a learning experience for effective communication that could be paired with other modules in such a way that the learning environments and assessments might be different experiences for students in business, natural sciences, or humanities. In this paradigm, a basic “Lego block” of curriculum can be built based upon the needs and interests of the students rather than one predetermined learning path.
In the music industry, albums were replaced with cassettes which were in turn replaced with compact discs. In very short time periods how we listened to music, as well as where and when changed. Yet for a substantial amount of time the packaging of the music remained the same—an album with a dozen or so songs was still what you got when you bought a cassette or a compact disc.
The creation of Napster shifted things and, while the traditional music industry was able to shut that down through lawsuits, it was clear there was no turning back. Soon there was iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify while tools transitioned from Mp3 players to iPods to smartphones. No longer would consumers have to spend $15.99 for a package of 12 songs when they only wanted two of the songs from that package. They might still buy 12 songs, but the twelve they purchased could be purchased individually and combined through playlists and podcasts, fitting the needs of the consumer rather than the insistence of the producers.
Almost overnight institutions that had banked on the durability of music production and distribution like Tower Records and MediaPlay vanished. We see a similar opportunity in creating learning experience models that would allow students to assemble learning experience “playlists” that suit their needs as well as the parallel resources that would support their experiences.
There are many factors that must be considered in this opportunity:
- Is there a new “right size” model that will replace the 3-credit course?
- How does one rethink a course, which is an iterative interwoven learning experience with independent stacked modules? In other words, if each learning experience is a brick (or song) that may be placed into various structures (or playlists), how do we develop a capability to agilely supply mortar around such bricks to ensure a unified learning experience? One that does not have holes or gaps in learning?
- How might the various roles within academic and student affairs (or the music industry) change?
One irony of this kind of rapid evolution is that the core skill sets continue to be those that make us most human—effective communication, ethics, interpersonal relationships, and leadership skills (the ones that are periodically referred to as either soft or vital).
Southern New Hampshire University has focused on deliberate outcomes in the general education curriculum that are workforce-related competencies, empowering students to master skills that are transferable and scalable from one job to the next. We continue to refine our frameworks. Rather than focus on a given area of the social sciences (sociology, psychology, anthropology) in a buffet-style model, we look to ensure that, regardless of their field of interest, students become knowledgeable about how societies, cultures and organizations interact and how they can apply their skills in increasingly complex situations (personal and professional). This way, as technology continues to advance, students will continue to apply their uniquely human interpersonal skills in ways that make them perpetually valuable to the world.
Dr. Gregory Fowler
Chief Academic Officer & Vice President for Academic Affairs
Southern New Hampshire University