J.C. Turner, Ph.D., Director of Instructional Technology and Intellectual Property and
Deb McManimon, Ph.D., Business Faculty, Riverland Community College
As the saying goes, “The only constant is change,” and change is something that all of us encounter pretty regularly, whether in road construction detours, apps updating on our smartphones, or our kids outgrowing their current clothes. But higher education is one area that at times quite actively resists change. While this can add stability and certainty in uncertain times, it also places us at risk of going the way of Kodak and Blockbuster, businesses that failed to adapt to a changing world. Yes, you can still conduct business the way you always have, but it doesn’t mean you will attract as many customers as you used to, or even stay in business. The old Wayne Gretzky quote “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been,” is a bit clichéd, but at times it seems like higher education is skating to where the puck was a few decades ago.
One example of change in higher education is Riverland’s FlexPace program. FlexPace had its origins in trying to respond to this need to do things differently, based on student frustration with the status quo. In the fall of 2015, one of our older, non-traditional business students was very frustrated. She worked full time, and between her job, family life, and other commitments, could only realistically focus on one course at a time. During an advising session, it suddenly struck her that it basically was going to take her a decade to get a two-year degree at this pace. It would then take a similar amount of time to get a four-year degree. She openly questioned the value of continuing on this path, since she would be nearing retirement by the time she received her bachelor’s degree.
It was around this same time that Educational Innovations at the System Office announced the first Shark Tank competition. Riverland already had a standalone 22-credit Business certificate that was fully online, and all 8 of the courses were Quality Matters certified. We thought that adapting the certificate to some form of an accelerated program might be an innovation that could help address the concerns expressed by the student.
In preparing our Shark Tank pitch, we came across two very important figures that helped illustrate the tremendous need for programs like FlexPace. According to one study, in Minnesota, by 2020 approximately 74% of jobs will require some form of postsecondary education, but only 44% of working adults had that level of education. This represents a huge gap between the knowledge and skills employers need to fill open positions, and what education the available working population actually has.
The other key figure is the estimated 900,000 working adults in Minnesota who are underemployed. These individuals work in food service, retail, and clerical positions. Their lack of education prevents them from moving up in their current career path, and at the same time that education deficit keeps them from moving into a new field where they might earn a better living. They have families to support, so dropping out of the workforce to be a full-time student is not an option. Essentially, they are stuck where they are. With such a sizeable population in need of higher education, and almost every campus in the Minnesota State system experiencing declines in enrollment, why in the world would we not do whatever we can to reach this new group of potential students?
Riverland made its Shark Tank pitch for an accelerated Business certificate in April of 2016, and a month later learned our full $25,000 request had been funded. We originally explored converting the certificate to a Competency-Based Education (CBE) approach. But CBE is classified as a non-term program, which is governed by an entirely separate set of rules at the Higher Learning Commission. It generally takes months to get approval from HLC to offer such programs. We also found from talking to people involved with CBE programs at other institutions, that you basically need a completely different student information system, since existing programs like ISRS are specifically designed to support traditional term-based programs and courses. Given these barriers, coupled with the tight timeframe to report out results from the grant, we opted to create our own unique approach to offering classes.
We started with the idea of “summer courses year round” and added in mastery-based elements from CBE to create an online certificate that could be completed in a calendar year, one course at a time. The majority of the money from the grant was used to pay faculty to revise course content, adding in test-out options at the unit and chapter levels, as well as content for three separate paths of material within each course module, so if a student was unsuccessful in passing a chapter or unit, supplemental material would automatically release, to route the student through a new path. We launched our FlexPace Business certificate in fall 2016. We had planned to pilot the program with a cohort of 10 students and contacted a few local businesses to recruit for the pilot. We ended up with more than 60 applicants, and expanded our pilot to a cohort of 20, turning away the other 40+ potential students.
Even as our pilot project was just getting started, many of the students asked about the possibility of completing an entire degree in the FlexPace format. The 22-credits from the certificate all ladder into the Business AS degree, which is now the Business Transfer Pathway. When the second round of Shark Tank grants was announced that fall, we applied to convert another 7 courses/21-credits to FlexPace delivery. Our pitch the following spring was successful, resulting in another $25,000 in funding, expanding FlexPace into such areas as Speech, Economics, and Accounting.
In spring 2018, through a collaboration grant with Minnesota State University, Mankato, Riverland received funding to complete adaptation of the remaining Business AS courses, which are being offered for the first time during the 2018-19 academic year. Courses included are in such areas as English, Math, Philosophy, Sociology, and Statistics.
As we worked through adapting courses to this alternative delivery format, we have settled on a few key elements that are included in FlexPace:
- Students take one course at a time in a prescribed sequence.
- Courses are offered in short (5-6 week) timeframes, which allows students to focus without other courses competing for their attention.
- The courses are fully online and are Quality Matters certified, or at least incorporate as many QM elements as possible. This provides students with a great deal of flexibility when they choose to work on the course, but also a very student-centered experience.
- The focus of the courses is on mastery of all the material. We defined mastery as achieving a score of at least 70% on each assignment/assessment. Benjamin Bloom (of Bloom’s Taxonomy fame) believed that any student could master any topic, given the time and resources, and FlexPace courses are designed to deliver that.
- Several tools within D2L Brightspace are used, including conditional release, intelligent agents, and the competencies tool. These help provide each student with a somewhat customized learning path through the material.
- Within courses, assignment due dates are suggested, but not absolute. The dates help keep the students on pace in the course. Students may work ahead or essentially test out of chapters or unit by demonstrating mastery. But if work requires them to be out of town for the week, or if a family crisis arises, the student can also take a short break to deal with that without being penalized, then work to catch up afterward.
The positive response from the students in FlexPace has been universal: Each and every one of them said they would NOT be enrolled in college courses if it had not been for the FlexPace delivery format. It allows them to fit education around their work and family lives, while still experiencing the same academic rigor of our traditional, semester-long courses. The response from employers has been equally enthusiastic, as several students in FlexPace have already received promotions based on the credits they have completed so far, and one employer went so far as to double the amount of tuition reimbursement provided to their employees. It has been a major win for everyone involved: Riverland generates additional credits/FYE we would not have otherwise, student gain the education they need to advance at work and earn more, and employers retain existing employees, who are promoted within the business to help fill needed positions.
In terms of numbers from our FlexPace pilots, so far:
- 37 students in two cohorts (17 students 2016-17, 20 students 2017-18) have received a 22-credit business certificate; a third cohort started this fall.
- 16 students are in their second year of the program, taking 20 credits this year toward their Business AS Transfer Pathway degree.
- 12 students are in their third year of the program, taking 19 credit this year. They are set to receive their Business AS Transfer Pathway degree, in May 2019.
Riverland is planning to market FlexPace to additional businesses, as well as potential students who would like to make a career change, beginning to offer multiple cohorts of 24 starting fall 2019.
There are still things we are working through with FlexPace, primarily related to ancillary processes like admissions, advising and financial aid, but those should be resolved soon. MSU, Mankato has a newly created BBA degree, currently going through the approval process at HLC, and that is anticipated to launch in fall 2019. This will provide our students with a seamless transition from the AS to the BBA, all online in FlexPace format.
Change within higher education is never an easy process. But by taking advantage of grant funding opportunities, and using those dollars to change how we approach delivery of our courses, Riverland has been able to reach a very large and underserved population of working adults. We look forward to continue to grow our Business FlexPace programs, while expanding it into other areas at the college. We are also very willing to share our documentation and assist other Minnesota State schools with adapting programs for FlexPace delivery, so please contact us for information, or if you have questions.
- Riverland Business FlexPace Certificate: https://www.riverland.edu/academics/programs/business-flexpace-cert/
- Star Tribune article (7/3/17): http://www.startribune.com/minnesota-community-college-tests-flexible-option-for-working-adults/432298553/
- Star Tribune editorial (7/12/17): http://www.startribune.com/riverland-s-degree-completion-program-can-be-a-workforce-plus/434151913/
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