Partners in Transformation: The American Council on Education and the University of Alaska Strategic Direction Initiative
September 10, 2012
The University of Alaska Strategic Direction Initiative (SDI) is now in its second year. After gathering thousands of responses from listening sessions conducted throughout UA's campuses, the direction of SDI is now shifting toward engaging faculty, staff, students, alumni and the people of Alaska in asking two hard questions: "Based on the feedback gathered, what are the issues and problems that need to be addressed within our university system; and how do we solve them?"
While SDI was working on its information gathering, the American Council on Education (ACE) was gathering information through their National Task Force on Institutional Accreditation.
The purpose of the ACE Task Force was to "identify issues and suggest potential answers to the most serious challenges facing accreditation. The deliberations of the Task Force were built upon the wide-spread recognition that voluntary, nongovernmental self regulation remains the best way to assure academic quality and demonstrate accountability."
The Task Force identified five major changes in higher education that are "exerting increasing pressure on established [accreditation] approaches." They are:
- Heightened demands for accountability
- New forms of instructional delivery
- New educational providers and programs
- New students and new patterns of attendance
- The globalization of higher education
Recently, SDI spent time with University of Alaska Vice President of Academic Affairs Dana Thomas to discuss these major changes and to compare them to the UA Strategic Direction Initiative. The full transcript of the discussion is below.
SDI: During our July 23 SDI Planning meeting there was substantial discussion about staying ahead of the curve in terms of accreditation. Can you speak to the shifting trends in accreditation and heightened demands for accountability?
Thomas: One of the key contributing elements in this shift in higher education accreditation has to do with the increase in the cost of education across the nation. Recently, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (UAS, UAA, and UAF's regional accrediting commission) has made significant change in terms of how they do business. They went from a ten-year review/report/visit process to a continuous reporting model that evaluates universities throughout a seven-year cycle.
So, the shift has gone from accreditors looking at inputs (sufficient resources to offer the courses provided) to outcomes. Now we spend a lot of time reporting outcomes for every element of our mission, especially student learning outcomes. The Northwest Commission requires us to provide great detail about what we mean by our mission, core themes, objectives and indicators of achievement. Then, they ask us to give a definition of how we assess (holistically) mission fulfillment. And that's really the idea behind SDI, which is building on a continuous improvement process. That's where the two are clearly connected.
As a public institution funded by the state and federal governments, and supported by private donors, we have to be good stewards of the resources we use. We have to hold ourselves accountable, using external audit means to make sure we're doing that, paying attention to our own trends, making sure we're headed in the right direction and focusing on continual improvement--those are fundamental responsibilities for higher education. That cuts at everything we do. We need to make sure we're doing the best possible job that we can.
SDI: Another big shift nationally is the challenge of keeping up with new forms of instructional delivery. Can you describe some of the models that are gaining traction, and give us an idea of how UA is keeping up with this shift?
Thomas: There has been quite a bit of experimentation going on with regard to various education delivery models. There are a few models that are getting a lot of attention nationally right now.
One is a hybrid model, where a lot of the work is done by students online or through some type of distance delivery mode. Then they come in and meet with the faculty (on a regular basis). This model is sometimes called the flipped classroom, where you're not spending time in a lecture environment, you're spending time studying on your own and coming into a classroom environment and addressing questions that you might have.
Another model that is really growing deals with the freeware that's available online today. Some institutions are adapting some of those resources like materials available through the Khan Academy and MIT for their use. Making use of those available resources in an efficient way, by making sure students know about and have access to them, is a part of the pedagogy that can be used by any faculty member anywhere.
The last item that I'll mention is called massively open online courses (MOOC). Most of the courses are in very specialized fields, but you're getting international enrollment in those courses of anywhere between 50 and 150,000 students. Online, or peer grading, is involved in this model and it's raising questions about processes and quality control. That's one of the big changes that seems to be gaining traction internationally in higher education.
We need to continue to experiment, and we are. For instance: One of our English programs is examining ways to engage some of the more qualified remedial students in their first-year English composition course with additional support as an experiment to see how well that works.
Here's another example: One M.B.A. program has moved to a seven-week course model where working adults can take evening classes in a reduced time period and move through their program.
Thinking about the scheduling and needs of our non-traditional students is very important when it comes to moving higher education forward. Those are two elements that are also a part of the SDI process. Experimentation like this, getting out on the edge, striving to make education more efficient and learning outcomes better, is what we need to continue to do.
SDI: Over the last decade higher education has seen a dramatic increase of new educational providers and programs. Along with that increase comes a higher demand for graduating students faster, especially in the high-demand job fields. How do you look at this particular shift in terms of accreditation and SDI?
Thomas: There's a large college completion agenda nationwide; what is lacking in the conversation is how to ensure quality outcomes. You've heard me say that diploma mills will win the completion agenda because there is no effort put into quality. The model is incredibly efficient but the outcomes are very poor. UA needs to work on its completion effort, but we need to also continue to strive to maintain and improve the quality we have. That's the balance that we have to achieve. I believe we're doing a great job of it in the classroom. At the SDI listening sessions we heard over and over again about the quality of our delivery of education. So we want to maintain that level of quality and improve it where we possibly can.
The outcome we're after is improving quality of life, so that when our students graduate they really are prepared for life to its full extent. One of SDI's guiding principles is, "There is no timeline. The idea is to get it right, not get it fast." That's what I mean when I talk about quality.
SDI: It's fair to say that the higher education campuses of today are not the same as they were ten years ago. One of those national trends identified by the ACE Task Force that is exerting pressure on accreditation is a new generation of students and new patterns of attendance. Is that a trend you see within the UA system?
Thomas: Yes. Nationwide we have a higher proportion of what we call non-traditional students: those students who may have a gap between high school and college, many of them are working, they have family responsibilities and they're trying to achieve the American Dream through higher education. UA has a large proportion of those students, in addition to a number of first generation students who come from low-income environments. Education is about preparing generations for the future. That's why we pay attention to first generation students. You can change the whole trajectory of a whole series of descendants through higher education.
Another key factor with regard to our new generation of students is our relationship with K-12. It is absolutely critical and multi-faceted. We can only educate those students that come to the university. If students are not graduating high school, they're not going to come to the university. This is not a good thing for the economy of Alaska, and it's not good for our society.
We are committed to working or partnering with the K-12 school system to improve outcomes within the high school and, in particular, with college prep. And I mean that in every respect of college prep. Quite often people think of college prep as baccalaureate degrees, but I'm talking about preparation for certificate, applied associates, and baccalaureate programs. So we are reaching out to secondary education and working on making sure there is alignment (in terms of college prep) so students are prepared to go on to college.
We're also talking about how students can afford to go to college. That's an important piece of the conversation. The state's commitment to the Alaska Performance Scholarship program and the Alaska Advantage Program is making a real impact in this area. And we hold a key role in another aspect. The University of Alaska prepares a large portion of the primary and secondary teachers working in Alaska. We want to ensure they are well prepared and they are preparing students for higher education.
Another element we're making progress on is a database that will track students from elementary through secondary, through post secondary and into the workforce. We're about two years away from fully implementing that program. But, when it's implemented, it will allow a feedback loop so we can see what is working, and what's not working. We'll be able to share that feedback throughout K-12 and the university system. Building these kinds of partnerships needed to meet the demands of new students, and new attendance patterns are core to the UA Strategic Direction Initiative and are critical to student success.
SDI: There has been a lot of growth in the overall globalization of higher education. It's another one of those "pressure points" that the ACE Task Force addressed in their report. What is the University of Alaska's perspective on this issue?
Thomas: Our main accountability is to the state and the people of Alaska--that's where we start. Universities nationwide are going after out-of-state and international students because they pay premium educational dollars in tuition. That helps to diversify the revenue stream.
It's also important to maintain the diversity and the quality of education at a university. Our curriculum must (and does) have a globalization component to prepare students for the new real world.
Another important role in international recruiting is making our campuses globally flatter (reference to "The World is Flat" by Thomas L. Friedman). Our students can benefit from exposure to students from other ethnicities, cultures and life backgrounds. Recruiting and engaging international student presence helps to facilitate that cultural diversity. Bringing in very good students from out of state and country also raises the level of expectation in the classroom.
SDI: So, at face value, it looks like there are a number of similarities between the ACE Task Force Report and the UA Strategic Direction Initiative.
Thomas: Well, there are similarities: Both are focused on continuous improvement. Both track trends in all of the elements of our mission, and both monitor progress. But SDI goes a little bit further focusing on looking at new ways of handling processes, and being creative in approaching and resolving problems. Accreditation wants to ensure that you're making progress. It doesn't require a great deal of innovation. And that's the key word. We've talked about SDI with two different meanings for the letter I: innovation and initiative. I tend to think of SDI as looking at innovation for continuous improvement and really thinking differently at delivering education, research and service.
The commonality between SDI and accreditation is very clear. With SDI the additional element is adding the innovation element and trying to put ourselves ahead of the curve in staying competitive. We've been very fortunate in Alaska. Our legislature is generally happy with what we're doing. We are thrilled to be in that situation, and we want to stay in that position by continuing to be innovative and serve our public well.
SDI: How important is the "we" (all the University of Alaska stakeholders) in SDI?
Thomas: Academic change cannot occur without faculty engagement. The faculty is absolutely critical. Similarly, student service begins with staff. A typical student will see four or five staff members before they even meet a faculty member. They come through admissions, financial aid, the registrar and the business office. So making sure that we have student service processes that are student-friendly is absolutely vital. Staff play a vital role in order to ensure that success.
The "we" is all-important. We can't move forward on any of the issues and innovative directions we identify without the engagement of faculty and staff. Student input will be driving a lot of the future as we collect information. And "we" need to keep asking the questions: "Are the innovations working; are they not working?" Getting feedback from students will be part of the process as we move the institution forward. Every constituent group is in the "we" and we just can't make this happen without full engagement.
Please click here to read the National Task Force on Accreditation Report!