Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Here We Go Again

This holiday season, I have been thinking about the things for which I am grateful. Certainly I would include health, family, my job, and our students in my list. But I would include something else as well.

I was lucky enough to be part of the Internet revolution in higher education. In the late eighties and early nineties, I was one of the higher education nerds exploring the possibilities associated with this new global network. While playing with new technology toys, I began to understand how this explosive communication revolution would change higher education. Those changes are best illustrated by distance learning, or the idea that learning is an activity not a location. Betting my career on those changes turned out well for me, and it has also turned out well for the College.

Today, as I look around the higher education landscape, I see another such "change moment" arriving. This time the driver is not technology, but money. For the U.S. to remain the world's dominant economy we must continually find new ways to increase the percentage of our working population that is educated. The aggressive pursuit to grow the number of people who receive higher education is what has driven our country's economic success. For the first time in generations, that percentage is slipping. And it is slipping because the cost of higher education has outstripped family incomes.

The solution to this problem is lower cost models of education, and, as I have written about before, Charter Oak's prior learning programs are being re-discovered by the larger educational community. Education that stresses assessment while opening the door to a variety of approaches to learning -- from classrooms to work experiences to military training -- lowers the cost and increases the speed of degree attainment. I can sense that those institutions that understand learning assessment are gaining leverage and will soon gain market share. Traditional higher education cannot "bend the cost curve;" only a new model can do that. I can't believe that I will be alive for two such disruptive education revolutions in a single lifetime. It feels like 1992 all over again.

Charter Oak was created 40 years ago to disrupt traditional higher education (long before Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen did the research that gave "disruptive innovation" its name). We are not designed to create sustaining innovations in the dominant model of higher education. We were created and then placed outside traditional higher education in order to be able to invent new approaches that serve underserved or unserved markets. Today it looks like we will be called on to figure out how to do those things at scale, for thousands of students instead of for dozens.

For those of you who have taken advantage of Charter Oak's prior learning assessment programs, I'd like to know about your experience. Please share your thoughts in comments.

So I plan to send my staff off for the holidays with this wish: Have a wonderful holiday season, and then come back to work invigorated and ready to invent the future.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Health Information Management: Charter Oak's first major

After two years of research and planning, we were thrilled to have launched our first major, an online Bachelor of Science degree in Health Information Management (HIM), on September 27. Just three days later, members of our admissions team took part in one of the largest HIM conferences in the country, the AHIMA 2012 Conference in Chicago.  Over 4,000 participants attend this conference, which is organized by the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) and is the largest of its type in the country.

Making the choice to offer a degree in this fast-growing field was a big decision for us, and one we think will pay off in big way for our students, both in their career trajectories and their salaries. Let’s step back for a minute and talk about how we got here.

Over the past 15 years, we noticed that our students were arriving at Charter Oak with fewer transfer credits. This means that they had enough course work ahead of them to complete a degree in a particular area (a major) as opposed to a General Studies degree (with a concentration). We realized our students didn’t just want to complete their bachelor’s degree as fast as they could; they wanted to complete their bachelor’s in a discipline that would get them a job in an emerging industry.

So we did our homework, and found that the Health Information Management (HIM) is one of the 20 fastest growing occupations in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with an average annual salary of $57,370, according to AHIMA. We knew this was an excellent next step for Charter Oak.

Our HIM program was developed by experts to equip students for the electronic management of sensitive patient health information and healthcare organization revenue cycles. Once approved by the Commission on Accreditation for the Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM), this degree will prepare our graduates to sit for the AHIMA Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA) licensure exam, and we will measure our success by the pass rate of our graduates.

Our foray into the world of HIM has been greeted with great enthusiasm by the health and insurance companies in Connecticut. In our Health Information Management video, you will hear from Cynthia Pugliese, Hartford HealthCare Director of Health Information Management, who is very passionate about this field. We also had a great reception by many in the healthcare industry while at the AHIMA conference in Chicago, and hope to draw students from across the country. Conference participants were also impressed by the affordability of our HIM program, an extremely important factor to students finishing their degrees in this economy.

If you are already a matriculated Charter Oak student interested in exploring this degree program, I encourage you to call your advisor. If you have friends or relatives who are looking to enter the dynamic new field of HIM, please have them call Moses Adgers (860-515-3832) in our Admissions office.

I will keep you posted on our progress with our HIM program. We consider it an important part of our work to continue creating new and cutting-edge online workforce-focused degree programs here at Charter Oak. As you have heard us say before, “We are a dynamic community of online learners advancing the nation's workforce one graduate at a time.”

I would love to hear your feedback about our HIM program, so please share in comments.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Back to the Future

I’ve just returned from a panel presentation in Washington, D.C. sponsored by the Lumina and Gates Foundations.  They asked me to be part of a small panel of institutions that are working to offer students a competency-based approach to higher education.  Specifically, Lumina and Gates are actively working to lower the cost of higher education by exploring alternative approaches to traditional college courses.  Their theory is that working adults have various skills and competences that could be assessed for college credit. Furthermore, they believe that adult students can learn independently using a variety of free or low-cost online courseware.

Charter Oak was placed in the mix because we have been working to provide such competency-based approaches to higher education for our entire 40-year history.  Lumina matched several new programs with our longstanding efforts to show the policy community in D.C. that competency-based learning is both tested and growing. 

I spent my time talking about our Portfolio, Testing, and CCAP programs.  The audience, mostly congressional staffers and D.C. organizations, was surprised and pleased to learn that we regularly graduate students who have completed a bachelor’s degree through testing for a little as $8,000.  They were also amazed to learn that through our CCAP program we can assess workplace learning (e.g. the State Police Academy or the Carpenters Union training program) and grant college credit for these robust training experiences.

 I explained that our Public Safety program attracts police and fire department employees because we value their training and help them use it as part of their degree program.  This approach speeds up their degree attainment and lowers the cost.  I think Lumina was very attracted to this approach.

 All the institutional presenters were offering models for degree attainment that shortened the time frame and offered more flexible curricula (through time shifting, online offerings, and prior learning assessment).  Each institution is working to lower the cost, shorten the time, and validate what students know.  I believe that this is the next big thing in higher education as the public pressure to lower costs increases.  The good news for Charter Oak is that the next big thing is something we have been working at for our entire history.

As always, I value your input as we make our plans.  If you have done an analysis of the cost of your Charter Oak degree or the savings you attained from using our approaches, I would love to hear from you. Your experience is the sort of “real world” evidence that would help me convince organizations like the Lumina and Gates Foundations that Charter Oak’s story and programs are valuable assets in this shift in higher education.  Please let me know in comments, or email me at eklonoski@charteroak.edu.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Congratulations to the Class of 2012

We were proud to host our 2012 commencement ceremony on Sunday, June 3, in Welte Auditorium at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, CT. Below are some thoughts I shared with the graduating class.

Let me begin by congratulating all of you on your achievement.  Most of you have arrived at this moment along a non-traditional path, often after a number of false starts, and over far more than the usual number of years.  All of you have been frustrated—right?  All of you have felt guilty about the time your studies took from your other responsibilities—am I right?  And all of you have worried about whether you were good enough?  All of this is a way of saying that you are second chance learners.

I have been coming to graduations at Charter Oak for 15 years, and I am always struck by two things: first, they are incredibly noisy…and second, they are incredibly happy.  Both are true for the same reason—our graduates are surrounded by their families, and those families are here to celebrate.

So as I prepared for this year’s ceremony, I asked myself what it is that makes these graduations so joyful and such a wonderful family moment.  Remember, most of our graduates are grownups who have sat in the audience cheering on their kids, or even their grandkids, at similar events.  So why are they sitting here being celebrated by their children, their grandchildren, and their spouses?

I think I can answer that.  The graduating classes of 2012 are all heroes. 

No, you are not heroes because you have risked your lives for others.  That is the heroism of our soldiers, firefighters and police officers.  But you are heroes because like Hercules with his 12 Labors, you have done a hard thing, an important thing, a good thing, an expensive thing, and you have done it for the right reasons. 

First, the reasons: Charter Oak grads are here because they decided to finish their degree.  They started something, it got interrupted, and they were determined to make that dream come true.  We live in an age where such quiet quests are not celebrated.  Instead, we celebrate overnight sensations, teenage millionaires, American idols, reality TV survivors, and stupid pet tricks.  But what we are here to celebrate today is a group of people who made a commitment to their education, and stuck to that goal through family emergencies, computer problems, financial setbacks, and bad weather.

You are heroic because you refused to give up, refused to quit, refused to quietly abandon your dream.  Like Odysseus, you may have taken a long time, but today you have made it home.

You are also heroes because you are examples.  You persevered, and all those around you watched you do it.  Your family saw you at the kitchen table reading articles, typing submissions to a thread, taking a timed test, and reading articles on Wikipedia. That homework often occurred during late nights after the family went to bed or early in the morning and even on holidays; but through it all your family was watching.  And they are proud of you. Am I right?

So how do I know that you are heroes?  I see it in your children’s proud glances.  I see it in your spouse, carrying a bouquet of flowers. I hear it in the laughter all around us today.  I even watched one of you at my own kitchen table. You have provided your family with an example, with a clear picture of what a person can achieve if they are willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work.  You have shown your loved ones that it is never too late to finish what you start.  And you have shown them that achievement is not about perfection or easy success; it is about perseverance, struggle, and the refusal to surrender.

As Bruce Springsteen so powerfully sings …No retreat, no surrender.  That attitude sums you up.

And for me, that makes you all my heroes.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Higher Education and Consumer Demand

Higher Education is facing a challenge that will require it to re-think its essential value proposition.  For generations, we have provided the degrees—think tickets—that were required for entry into the white collar, professional world.    Additional steps (degrees) were often required as well.  No one asked us how we decided what the content of those degrees should be.  We were a third party provider of credentials, and we were trusted to know how to produce effective workers.

So what has changed?  The first development was the shift from college being necessary for some of our workforce to it being the avowed goal for most of our workforce.  I won’t argue about whether this is a reasonable goal, just that it is the de facto goal for most high schools.  That shift meant we are no longer educating students who are already equipped with both learning skills and motivation.  Now we were/are being asked to educate students who may be underprepared for college and not motivated for its rigors. 

The second development followed that increase in scope.  Educating a dramatically wider population is shifting our focus from how higher education traditionally measured itself—faculty credentials, books in the library, research grants, etc.—to how prepared our graduates are for the 21st century workforce.  To understand how profound this shift is I must turn to an example. 

Those of you who are my age (baby boomers) remember what it was like to shop for something before the Internet.  We had to trust sales people.  There was very little comparative information (except for Consumer Reports).  Pricing was a mystery.  Compare that experience to now.  You can enter your desired product into a search field and immediately find websites that offer the product, compare it to its peers, and offer prices for both new and used versions.  The buyer now has all the power.  When I was young, it was the seller who had the power, although those sellers had huge problems introducing their products to the public.

Another huge change is the ability for consumers to drive product demand and offerings.  Via the Internet, consumers now freely post reviews, like/dislikes, suggestions and requests for new products and services.

When I went to school, institutional reputation was determined by how exclusive a college was.  The fewer students it accepted from its applicant pool, the better it was.  Now, Internet resources permit consumers to ask much deeper questions about institutions, to compare them across more dimensions, to see what students think about their faculty, and finally, to compare prices.  These emerging capabilities, when viewed through the larger educational mission of higher education, spell change.  Our customers are now able to ask deep questions about our results.  How many students do we graduate?  What sorts of jobs do they get?  How much do they earn?  Can they repay their student loans? Will you offer an online master's degree?  Can I earn a credential in logistics, energy or education?

These questions signal a shift in power from the sellers—higher education institutions—to the buyers—students.  We saw this happen in every major industry as technology forced established companies to re-invent themselves (e.g. IBM, American Express, McDonald's) or be replaced (Kodak). 

In my next posting I will talk about some of the concrete actions higher education and Charter Oak are taking to adapt to this shift.  To help me address those actions, please share with me the most important factors to you when decided what college to attend. What questions did you ask?

Monday, March 5, 2012

What does Charter Oak mean to you?

Recently John Ebersole, President of Excelsior College, published a book called Courageous Learning: Finding a New Path through Higher Education (Hudson-Whitman Press).  The book highlights some of the most creative approaches to learning available in higher education.  Excelsior College is an institution very similar to Charter Oak; in fact, Excelsior played a role 39 years ago when Charter Oak was being created.  It serves adults, is non-traditional, and like us, works to validate the prior learning of its adult students.  John was kind enough to include a section about Charter Oak in the book.  I encourage you to pick up a copy.

As I explained our programs and students in our materials for the book, an idea began to take form.  Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out—directly from you, our students and alums—what Charter Oak means to you?  We think we know what you value from our list of programs and learning options because we see what appears on your transcripts.  We know who takes tests, who uses portfolios, how many credits you each transfer in, and how long you take to finish.  In other words, we have lots of data that describe your activities, but we do not have a statement from you about what meant the most to you on that journey.

The list of things that might have made all the difference for you may have nothing to do with our programs.  It might involve an advisor, or a fellow student, or an instructor.  It might be financial aid, or a scholarship, or just the low price of a Charter Oak education. 

I am preparing my graduation speech, and I would love to include some of your responses in that address.  So please give some thought to the question “what does Charter Oak mean to me?”  Send me your answer either by email to eklonoski@charteroak.edu or in the comments on this post.  And as always, I look forward to hearing from you.



Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Online learning and the 21st century workplace

I get asked how Charter Oak State College is preparing students for the workforce at every meeting I attend, and my answer is one I enjoy giving time and time again.  I shared it at a meeting in Washington, DC last week, and one of the college presidents attending told me he was going to include it in his blog.  So I decided that I had better get my idea into print before I needed to cite someone else.

All kidding aside, the question of how higher education is preparing students for the 21st century workforce is a critical question for our industry. It is being asked with increased urgency because so many students are borrowing larger and larger sums of money to pursue their college education. So it should be no surprise that the questions about whether these loans are justified by the learning are getting louder.

My answer is this. When I look at the classroom experience of our online students, what I see is a perfect example of the 21st century workplace. Like the workplace, our online courses are distributed in time and space, are technology-driven, collaborative, and short term. In effect, the strategies and behaviors of an online class mirror the strategies and behaviors of the 21st century workplace. Let me explain.

Our online courses emphasize communication between the instructor and students.  This communication is executed through email, threaded discussions, and various types of digital presentations. The course activity occurs within the framework of a Learning Management System—Blackboard’s Learn, in our case. 

This technology is necessary because while students take the course as a cohort, they do their “work” on their own schedule.  For example, each set of assignments is due during a given week, but there is no specific time when the whole class meets.  This is called asynchronous learning.

That same Learning Management System makes student collaboration easier. Our courses use very few high stakes objective tests and a large number of collaborative (team) projects.  Students must produce work, share that work with their instructor and classmates, react to suggestions and offer them to others, play a specific role in the team’s project, and then deliver a final product by a due date.
And finally, since the vast majority of our students are working adults going to school part-time, these courses are just part of the work they do every day.

What I have just described is what an average work day is like for most people employed in this 21st century economy.  Employees often team up with colleagues who may not physically work in the same office, or even the same state or country. They collaborate constantly, and use a variety of communication technologies to support those collaborations. They may also be members of a variety of teams, none of which is their only job.

Charter Oak State College's students are being prepared for the 21st century workplace because their academic activities occur in the same online space, using the same tools, and arranged in the same collaborative teams as that workplace.

Would you agree? If you are a former or current online student, does this idea resonate with you? Please share your thoughts in comments. I would love to hear them.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Thoughts on 2012 and beyond

Let me begin by wishing you all a happy and healthy New Year.  I am taking advantage of some quiet time to share my thoughts about 2012 with you.  As President, it is part of my job to keep an eye out for trends that will affect the College in both positive and negative ways, and adjust our course to address those trends. The break between Christmas and New Year is a good time for such contemplation.

We are always striving to increase the number of areas of study we offer our students, and continually focus on building programs in sectors of the job market that are growing.  Health care is one such area and, after performing a careful scan of potential online programs, we chose Health Information Management (HIM) as the program in which we would invest. I am happy to report that this decision has been met with great enthusiasm in the health care industry.

The development of our HIM degree is moving quickly.  We have identified and contracted with a subject matter expert who has developed the curriculum and program learning outcomes for the degree.  These will be in alignment with the Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA) Examination and licensure that graduates of the program will achieve.  We have identified qualified faculty from across the country to begin working with our Instructional Design team to build the 12 specialized courses that this program will require.  Our Provost and Dean are preparing the documentation we must present to our Board of Regents and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges to gain approval for our new program.  And we have set the second term of fall 2012 (October) as our planned launch date.  So this important new program is moving forward according to schedule.

But I am continually wondering what to expect from the larger landscape.  Will the economy improve?  Will our adult students continue to see our offerings as important to upgrading their workplace skill sets?  How will we all respond to the economic challenges facing our country? 

Here is what I think.  In Connecticut, we have a Governor who is aggressively addressing the state’s economic challenges.  Working with our General Assembly and the state’s workforce, he has produced a balanced budget through a combination of new taxes, spending cuts, and union givebacks.  None of this has been easy, but he has persisted.  His plans included re-organizing our sector of higher education into a Board of Regents, and that entity is beginning its work.  So at the state level, we are working hard to put our economic house in order.

And I see similar efforts, all a little different in terms of their emphasis on cuts, revenues, and pension adjustments, in the surrounding states.  In effect, throughout our country, we have 50 laboratories experimenting with approaches to doing more with less.  Unfortunately, on the national front, our Congress has not yet begun its work.  It is my hope, as the various states begin to see positive results from their hard work, our federal representatives will adopt approaches that mirror the best thinking from those efforts.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments section of this post. How has the economy affected your life? What are your thoughts on the responsiveness of state and federal government to the economic downturn?  Please let me know what you think.

I will keep you posted as the year progresses, and I wish all the best to you and yours from the team at Charter Oak.