US Education and Accreditation

US Education and Accreditation
President Susan Aldridge of University of Maryland University College (UMUC) delivered this keynote address, titled “Learning on the High Seas” and delivered in the Academic Forum – Sharing Knowledge and Learning on the High Seas.

In fact, as university educators and practitioners, we are all trying to pilot our boats at a time when exploding change is the new norm…and shifting workforce priorities, the new reality…both of which demand innovative approaches to higher education. As jobs move en masse into the highly volatile and exceedingly specialized knowledge sector…advanced learning has become a lifelong pursuit…rather than a degree-driven activity…as workers of all ages and stages in life endeavor to keep their job skills on par with their career demands.

On top of that…the digital revolution has forever changed the way we live, learn, and work…by enabling us to plug and play…connect and collaborate at will…across the vast global village. It has also given rise to the Digital Native generation…with its insatiable thirst for information and its special penchant for shopping the deals.

Not surprisingly then, today’s college students are becoming increasingly savvy education consumers…more determined than ever to realize a healthy return on their academic investment.

So in addition to marketable credentials and flexible delivery systems…accelerated program formats and targeted career guidance…they are looking for learning experiences that are every bit as dynamic and experiential as the technologies they depend on… and the virtual communities they inhabit.

Moreover, as student expectations change and the cost of meeting them spirals…most colleges and universities these days find themselves on the short end of budget deficits and shrinking endowments.

But rather than looking for ways to do what they do better, cheaper, and faster…the vast majority of these institutions have responded by raising their tuitions and accelerating their fundraising efforts. While at the same time failing to articulate what they are providing…explain why it’s important…and validate its impact on their students.

What’s more, in an attempt to lure new students, scarce resources are being allocated to everything but the classroom…from extravagant facilities to costly extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, all of these factors have converged to create what some might call a perfect storm…and one that far too many institutions of higher education are ill-equipped to weather in the long run.

Now if we were experienced sailors…we would have all of the right tools at our disposal…from resilient ships and cross-functional crews…to extensive support networks and sophisticated technologies. We would also have the power to change course whenever necessary…given that successful navigators are ever alert to new possibilities…and infinitely creative in responding to them.

But as educators, our navigational capacity is somewhat limited…because, for the most part, we are saddled with an operating paradigm that in many ways precludes agility…inhibits cooperation…and stifles innovation.

To begin with, most institutions of higher education are still wedded to the traditional…and certainly complex…management hierarchy that often stands in the way of expansive thinking and empowered decision-making.

What’s more, they have yet to break through the “silo mentality” that compels departments, divisions, and disciplines to compete rather than cooperate…while also making it extremely difficult to see the big picture…which is essential when it comes to tracking institutional performance.

In most colleges and universities, academic programs are still developed in total isolation from rather than in partnership with industry…thus making it difficult for students to move successfully from coursework to real work. Even more problematic, their pedagogies are extremely outdated…in that they rely on the broadcast method of lecturing, listening, and taking notes…rather than on the hands-on collaborative approach our students not only crave…but must have to excel. And in a world where lifelong learning is essential…very few institutions have made it easy for students to move in and out of the academic environment…at different times…in different places…and for different reasons.

So under the current scenario, there are only two possible outcomes. Hit the wall now….or optimize what we can in the short-term…and hit the wall later. But if we are to turn the tide in our favor, we must embrace the transformational change that will propel us out of our comfort zone and into the future.

Indeed, if higher education is to thrive, we will need to transform our colleges and universities into vibrant and inclusive learning organizations…that empower their stakeholders to take ownership in the outcome…by encouraging collaboration…promoting synergy…and supporting continuous improvement.

By doing so, they will become far more resilient to shifting forces…and responsive to changing needs….while at the same time better prepared to demonstrate their value…in a market where the competition is fierce and the demand for accountability, relentless.

To be sure, these things are easier said than done…because when times get tough, we are invariably tempted to seek out the security of old routines. Still, as difficult as it may be to move in radically new directions…I can tell you from my own experience at the University of Maryland University College…that the rewards are immeasurable, and the journey, inspirational.

UMUC was founded sixty-four years ago on the belief that higher education should be available to anyone, anywhere, and at any time. Today, it is one of thirteen degree-granting institutions within the University System of Maryland…and the largest public university in the country…with ninety-four thousand students in all fifty states and twenty-eight countries around the world…as well as three divisions in Maryland, Europe, and Asia.

As a grand experiment in adult and distance learning, UMUC was also a pioneer in online education…having launched its award-winning virtual campus in 1994, with little more than one hundred enrollments in only a handful of courses.

And while most universities used the academic tenure track to recruit and promote faculty members…UMUC was among the first to employ a “scholar-practitioner” model…that relied heavily on highly credentialed and experienced industry experts…who were interested in teaching for us part-time.

But aside from its unique student demographic and unconventional academic delivery system…UMUC operated pretty much like any other traditional university. To begin with, its management structure was not only every bit as hierarchical…it was also largely decentralized…with each of its three divisions and many of its departments functioning independently of one another.

And lacking any collective process for institutional accountability and continuous improvement, university leaders were, for the most part, unable to accurately anticipate and effectively resolve system issues, as and where they arose. ..and incapable of measuring overall efficiency and effectiveness.

Moreover, as working adults rushed to take advantage of the new online delivery system…rapid enrollment growth placed tremendous stress on a university infrastructure that was not yet ready to support it.

Consequently, by the time I assumed the presidency in 2006, UMUC was dealing with its own perfect storm. As such, it was facing significant challenges to its long-term viability, the most urgent of which, by far, was the need to enroll nine thousand new students for fall semester, as mandated by State-imposed growth targets.

Because there was no one department or office responsible for accomplishing this objective, we quickly deployed a university-wide Enrollment Task Force…comprising faculty and staff representatives from across the university and at every level within its chain of command.

And while their immediate goal was to resolve the crisis at hand, their ultimate purpose was to come up with a far better enrollment management system…to keep pace with both student demand and system-mandated enrollment.

I began by empowering this team to push the envelope in every possible way…through open discussion and honest collaboration. We also established a weekly meeting schedule…along with two simple ground rules: all ideas were on the table, and all voices would be heard.

In addition, each task force member agreed to assume individual responsibility for his or her decisions and actions…while at the same time working collectively to effect them.

In the weeks that followed, these dedicated employees pulled out all of the stops…determined to succeed in spite of what to most would have been daunting odds. Yet within just six months, we not only met our fall enrollment target, we exceeded it …bringing in ten thousand new students…or more than were enrolled on all but a few campuses in Maryland.

With the enrollment crunch behind us, we were able to evaluate its impact…an exercise that resulted in one very important observation. Although exceedingly stressful, this crisis served as a catalyst for cultural change, consistent growth, and bold innovation, at a time when the university desperately needed all three to retain its competitive edge.

Moreover, in setting the stage for UMUC’s transformational journey, it created both a sense of urgency and a powerful team of “change agents.” It also established a framework for change…as well as a process for managing it…which made it possible for us to minimize disruption, optimize risk, and maximize outcomes going forward.
And in the five years since, we have made significant progress in transforming the way we do business at UMUC…having successfully tackled a number of groundbreaking initiatives…beginning with our innovative performance management system.

Like most universities, UMUC had always used transactional systems to manage its information flow. And while these systems collected and generated data, they couldn’t integrate it across multiple units. So rather than providing the panoramic view we needed to support strategic growth and monitor institutional effectiveness…they produced reports that were merely summaries and snapshots of daily operations within individual departments.

In resolving this problem, UMUC opted for a data-driven self-assessment and decision-making process…using a balanced scorecard approach to ensure prudent resource allocation, proactive communication, and valid performance assessment.
We also developed a far more reliable performance management system…which includes a 360-degree quality assurance procedure that is results-based, multidimensional, and ongoing.

This system is built around a fully integrated and automated data infrastructure…capable of quickly accessing and disseminating information on demand…as and where needed. Likewise, it incorporates a carefully selected complement of relevant performance measures, metrics, and dashboards…that allow us to continuously monitor, analyze, and refine every aspect of both our academic and our business operations.

We have also incorporated such other proven assessment tools as student focus groups…mystery shoppers…and customer satisfaction surveys…while putting a system in place for conducting competitive intelligence and environmental scanning. And given UMUC’s size and scope…we adopted a single communications system…linking all of our students, faculty, staff, and alumni worldwide.

Of course, as the saying goes, two minds are always better than one…especially in a diverse academic community like ours. In fact, at UMUC, we believe that innovation is the tool of smart, focused people…from across the institutional gene pool…who, in using their individual differences to broaden their shared vision…forge new directions and resolve difficult problems.

Thus, in addition to creating an ethos of continuous improvement…we have also cultivated a collaborative mindset…grounded in the power of synergy.

In leveraging this power, UMUC has created a worldwide network of learning partners, which includes a variety of mutually beneficial relationships with corporations, government agencies, and other institutions of higher education. All of which are proof positive that one-plus-one can indeed equal far more than two.

Our innovative Community College Alliance Program is one such initiative that has become a win-win for everyone concerned. With seventy institutional partners and more than four hundred articulated programs now in place…UMUC uses its extensive virtual campus to provide thousands of community college students…from coast to coast…with an extraordinary opportunity to move from an associate’s to a bachelor’s degree…without losing credits or ever leaving home.

On the other hand…it is a powerful recruitment tool for us. In fact, we continue to enroll a steady stream of accomplished transfer students…more than half of total enrollment…who are consistently among our most talented and successful graduates. The Alliance also attracts out-of-state tuition revenues…an important factor in sustaining UMUC’s business model.

Given that the majority of UMUC students are busy, working professionals…living in many parts of the world…we also provide around-the-clock online access to a full complement of high-tech, high-touch student services. And using the same synergistic approach…we have transformed what was once a hunt and peck service delivery system into a one-stop service delivery model that covers every aspect of the student life cycle.

Take our Office of Student Affairs…or OSA…for example. This service unit plays an especially pivotal role in supporting student
persistence…by serving as the nexus for a number of academic progress and advancement services.

When I arrived at UMUC, these services were…for the most part… inconsistent from one division to the next…with each using different documents, policies, and procedures. Even more problematic, there was virtually no collaboration among our OSA teams…much less among other related service units.

As a result, far too many UMUC students…especially military service members, veterans, and their families…often fell through the cracks, as they moved from place to place, within the university’s global academic enterprise.

In addressing these concerns, OSA conducted a full-scale performance assessment to identify specific areas for consolidation and connection…using both student feedback and best practice research to jumpstart the change process.
And in establishing a mutual framework for collaboration, it adopted a shared decision-making model…which paved the way for a number of significant improvements in less than a year.

Working as a global team, our three OSA units began the transformation by establishing synergistic alliances with such other critical student service units as enrollment management, financial aid, and academic advising….while also training staff members in student-focused customer service.

Likewise, they implemented a data-driven process for identifying common barriers to academic persistence…and instituted an “early intervention” program…in conjunction with our Center for Student Success…to reduce the incidence of academic probation among undergraduates.
And thanks to their efforts, UMUC has greatly streamlined its approach to resolving student issues, while reframing the student conduct process to help students make better choices…rather than punish them for making poor ones.

Because most adult students return to college for professional advancement, UMUC is fully invested in providing them with career-relevant academic programs and next generation learning technologies. With that in mind, both our academic curriculum and our academic model must be flexible enough to meet the evolving needs of a changing workforce and a changing world.

After conducting an exhaustive, five-year study on student engagement and persistence, it became obvious that we needed to take a long hard look at our undergraduate curriculum…which had changed very little over the years.

With this data in hand, UMUC’s undergraduate school launched what is perhaps the university’s most transformative project to date…Project SEGUE…which is short for Supporting Educational Goals for Undergraduate Excellence.

In supporting this ambitious initiative, more than four hundred UMUC faculty members joined forces across disciplines, departments, and divisions to reengineer all thirty-two undergraduate programs and more than seven hundred individual courses.

And working hand-in-hand with dozens of industry partners and learning experts…they have now produced an innovative and exceptionally replicable academic model that is program-driven rather than course-centered…learner-focused rather than teacher- directed. It is also grounded in research-validated practices for effective teaching and learning.

In addition, the project team has reformatted all of our courses…both face-to-face and online…into an eight-week timeframe…which enables part-time adult students to complete a degree on roughly the same schedule as any traditional, fulltime undergraduate.

But even more important, SEGUE has redirected the emphasis away from “contact hours,” and toward measurable learning outcomes that are mapped to industry standards and professional expectations…and embedded with important workforce competencies like writing proficiency and technological fluency…cultural literacy and systems thinking.

Although this has been an arduous effort…it is already paying huge dividends for our students. At the very least, they now have the power to exercise greater control over their learning process…because we are providing them with a roadmap for navigating every step of the learning experience…while at the same time tracking their progress.

Moreover, the outcomes-based curriculum enables them to fully articulate what they can actually do rather than simply what they know…an important distinction as they move out into the real world of work. Likewise, by using consistent standards to measure student success in a given field of study…the university has a far more transparent method for documenting not only the quality of a given program…but also the value of a UMUC degree.

We are also much better prepared to incorporate the interactive technologies and experiential learning environments that our students need to become competent and creative 21st century knowledge leaders.

And by that I mean individuals who are fully capable of engaging in collaborative and authentic knowledge creation and exchange across cultures and disciplines…while working and learning effectively in virtual teams and communities of practice. As the saying goes, transformational times call for transformational change…and these are just a few of the many ways we are turning the tide at UMUC.

Of course, conferences such as this one provide an extraordinary opportunity for us to practice what we preach. In fact, by presenting our research and sharing our experience, we are building a far more inclusive knowledge ecology.
One that will enable us to serve our students well, by identifying critical interdependencies, exploring different approaches, and sustaining commonly held values and principles. And in the process of doing so…building longer and stronger pipelines for innovation.

So I look forward to working in partnership with all of you over the next few days as we continue our voyage into the future of higher education.