College For America, Perfecting Adult Higher Education


What does the future of adult higher education look like?

College for America (CFA), the brainchild of Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) Innovation Lab, might not have the exact answer, but it’s helping to lead the way.

No teachers, no courses and only $2,500 a year toward an accredited associate’s degree in general studies with a concentration in business. Launched last year, CFA is also competency-based, meaning that students can earn credit more quickly and graduate sooner.

I’m captivated by this new approach, which asks students to demonstrate mastery of 120 “competencies” rather than earn class credit. Competencies include “the most relevant and desperately needed skills in a competitive environment,” according to CFA’s Web site.

“Students show their mastery by completing tasks,” SNHU President Paul J. LeBlanc tells me. “These are real world hypotheticals. They’re not exams, they’re not the kind of isolated assignments you might get in a college class. They’re meant to be hypothetical, which mimic more closely how that competency is used in the real world.”

LeBlanc is quick to provide an example. A person working in business might complete a detailed spreadsheet, showing competency in quantitative skills and business essentials.

In an April 29 Boston Globe story, “Traditional ways upended in college of competence,” journalist Marcella Bombardieri breaks other exciting news.

“Earlier this month, the federal Department of Education approved College for America for federal financial-aid funding, the first time the government has signed off on a degree that completely ignores the amount of time graduates spend in school,” Bombardieri writes.

Much of the learning happens online, via information that CFA has curated from across the Internet. I’m also excited to hear that CFA is developing a Web-based platform to correlate student success with the most frequently accessed content.

“We’ll be able to ask questions like, ‘When students access this piece of content over the other, is there any difference in their success rate?’” LeBlanc says.

Students will be able to interact with each other, including through e-mail, chat and text, LeBlanc says.

“Part of the beauty of this platform is that when you log on and you are working at a competency, you’ll be able to see everybody else who is working on that same competency concurrently,” LeBlanc says. You’ll have each other.”

This is different from a traditional online class, where the professor usually acts as moderator and assigns readings. I love that CFA is spicing things up, encouraging students to become independent learners who make effective use of the Internet.

I think of The Independent Project at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, MA. There as well, students rely on each other—not teachers—to learn and complete relevant, real-world tasks. CFA seems like it’s an online equivalent for adult higher education.

I’m also reminded of Western Governors University (WGU), widely credited with spearheading online competency-based learning. LeBlanc references WGU several times during our chat.

“What we wanted to envision was something that was even more fully detached from courses and credits, and really address the fundamental issue we think is at work in terms of higher-ed, which is that we’re really good at telling people how long students have sat in a classroom, but we’re not really very good at saying what they’ve actually learned,” LeBlanc says.

Once students feel ready to submit a task for review, CFU relies upon adjunct faculty to provide feedback within 48 hours.

“You would have only two responses,” LeBlanc says. “One is, ‘Congratulations, you have achieved mastery,’ and move on, or ‘Not yet.’ If it’s the latter, you would get feedback from the reviewer.”

I’m also excited to learn that CFA embraces Eportfolio learning.

“Every student has a web based archive of their task, so you can also go and take a look,” LeBlanc says. “If you want to see it, when we say somebody can present well, we’ll define it for you. We’ll share the task that was completed. You can watch their video and you decide for yourself if we’ve got it right or wrong.”

Last week, I spoke with Hudson Baird, executive director of PelotonU, a startup program in Austin, Texas, that embraces competency-based learning and provides students with a mentor.

“We think that cohort studying is effective, and helps kids have a reason to stick around to help each other, and not let their team down,” Baird says. “Then, we pair those cohorts with a mentor, someone who’s been down the road before, and can be a guide for them, and create regular accountability, structure, and tutoring around this satellite education thing.”

It’s almost as if LeBlanc and Baird share the same mind—especially with mentoring and accountability coaches. CFA helps students identify and learn from partners, mentors, and peers.

“An accountability partner is based on the idea of a gym buddy,” LeBlanc says. “If you are trying to work out every day, your likelihood of being committed goes up exponentially if you’re going with other people. If you know someone else is there, expecting you to be there at seven in the morning, you’re going to get out of bed to go.”

As a highly competitive runner, I go harder when I run with others, especially if they are fast. But it’s not always easy or possible to find a partner, and I ask LeBlanc how students cope.

When someone says, “I’m not really good at math.” You say, “Well, do you know anybody that’s good at math? Anybody in your life?” They say, “No, I really don’t.” We say, well, wait a second. Is there anybody who worked in accounting, or bookkeeping or these other examples that you know and still lives in the neighborhood or in your family?” “Oh, yes, there’s my neighbor, so and so. She’s retired, but she was a bookkeeper forever.” “Yes, well, good, is that somebody that you…” “Oh, yes. I used to mow her lawn every year at summer for her.”

I ask LeBlanc if he has any plans to offer the program to graduating high school seniors. This is quite possible, he tells me, since it doesn’t matter how old one is upon entering the program.

“If you can demonstrate mastery, you’ve earned your degree,” he says.

This summer, LeBlanc says that his team will begin work on designing a four-year degree in general studies.

“I’d be delighted if a year from now, we were rolling out the bachelor’s degree,” he says.

I have nothing but the utmost reverence for LeBlanc’s vision: “Our intention here is not to serve 10,000 students. Our intention is to really have an impact on the workforce with the hopes of serving tens and tens of thousands of students.”

Interview Transcript (LeBlanc)

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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