Emergence of the Linked Services Sector in American Higher Ed & Lifelong Learning

By now, it borders on trite to declare that American higher education, and, in fact, global higher education stands on the precipice of dynamic, revolutionary, and disruptive change. But the cards that I see being dealt as we enter 2016 indicate that the fracturing of higher education’s dominant model will not only continue, but accelerate.

musicalchairs with horses from StateLib_South AustraliaThis fracturing will occur within the context of worsening budget woes for most institutions, be they public, private, or proprietary. As admissions flatten and/or decline, state appropriations flatten and/or decline, and the federal government ratchets up its accreditation, accountability and loan reforms, many existing institutions find themselves in a large-scale version of musical chairs, trying desperately avoid being among those without a place to sit when the music stops.

In future blogs, you will hear from Michelle Weise from Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) and Robbie Melton from the Tennessee Board of Regents as they address how SNHU will build on its innovations in forging its path to the future and the ubiquity of technology, respectively.

The Future is About What the Technology Allows Us to Do

It is, to paraphrase James Carville, “about the technology, stupid.” But it is beyond what the technology can do. It is about what technology and data allow us to do, as learners, education providers, and employers. And, through this lens, I see significant impacts in at least four areas of activity:

  • well-branded and currently healthy public and private institutions, including the Land Grant institutions and state flagship institutions (20%),
  • the remaining traditionally organized accredited institutions (80%),
  • the existing “leaders of the innovation pack” such as WGU, ASU, UMUC, Excelsior, Charter Oak, Kaplan University and SNHU, and
  • a soon-to-be burgeoning non-institutional sector focused on the relationship between competency and work-readiness, regardless of traditional educational attainment.

Much has, and will be written on the first three. It is on the fourth sector of activity that I would like to focus.

The Growth of the Non-Traditional Education Options

For the last five years at least, we have seen major innovations, departures from the norm, like MOOCs, the Global Open Courseware Consortium (now the Open Education Consortium), the Predictive Analytics Reporting Framework (PAR), StraighterLine, and Open Study. Each has, in its own way, spot-lighted a specific function or service that can be done differently, more effectively, more cheaply, and/or better with new technologies.

Now there is a whole new area of endeavor, which I will call “linked services”, which operates beyond the boundaries of the traditional model and without its imprimatur. The “linked services” sector shifts the focus away from institutional approval as a pre-condition for success and towards a far more horizontal enterprise, a collection of linked services that shift the learning/assessment of competency enterprise towards the workplace or the objectives of the learner, separate from institutions of higher education.

The “linked services” sector (LSS) is fraught with unknowns, of course. That is what happens when you strike out boldly into uncharted territory. But there are some early, emerging themes that distinguish its activities, values, participants, and approaches from the other three.

  • The LSS wants to organize around shared understandings of competency and qualifications.
  • The LSS ties its accountability to the learner and the employer, not the college or university.
  • The LSS includes government agencies, state and local governments, and other for- and non-profit groups working complementarily to achieve the goal of far improved alignment between assessed learning, competence, and work.
  • And the LSS will, I believe, welcome higher education into the sector, but will not allow them to dictate the terms of engagement. For the first time, using competency-based assessment principles, employers and third parties will determine and share with the public not only what was taught, but , more importantly, what was learned, and what is necessary for work readiness on Day One. They will do this as equal players on a level field with institutions of higher education and educational accreditation groups.

Examples of the “Linked Services” Sector

Here are three examples that, I believe, herald the dawning of the LSS era.

The Credential Transparency Initiative (CTI)
The CTI  is led by an Executive Committee that includes major educational and economic players, including the Business Roundtable, the Committee for Economic Development, the Manufacturing Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce. Educational members include several institutions, the AACC, ACE, and UPCEA. The CTI vision sees “A Coherent, Transparent Credentialing Market”. And their goals are “transparency, clarity, and to align credentials with the needs of students, job seekers, workers, and employers.” CTI plans to achieve these goals beginning with 100 pilot sites that address three objectives:

  • Define common terms for credentials and credentialing organizations and Quality Assurance (QA) bodies that accredit, endorse, or approve them;
  • Create a voluntary web-based registry; and
  • Develop and test software apps that facilitate use of the registry.

This work is challenging and complex. But I believe that, by positioning themselves in the LSS, the Credential Transparency Initiative has a good chance of establishing a badly needed beachhead in the credentialing transparency world.

Innovate-Educate
Innovative-Educate has, as its goal, nothing less than “nationwide adoption of new industry-driven, competency-based hiring frameworks and alternative jobseeker training and credentialing.” They open up the opportunity to connect a person’s competence both to instructional activities and also to the specific job readiness competencies required by employers. It is a short step from that connection to an assessment of the same evidence (data) for academic value.

Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP)   Although this new experimental initiative may be confusing to some observers given other departmental initiatives, it gives us a look into one version of what the future in the LSS might look like. The key phrase in the EQUIP introduction is. “…will allow participating institutions to provide title IV aid to otherwise eligible students pursuing program of study for which 50 percent of more of the content and instruction is provided by one or more title IV ineligible organizations (non-traditional providers).”

This means that the horizontal world of non-traditional service providers, with appropriate oversight and QA, can be brought from the margin to the mainstream by institutions which choose to work with them.

The Linked Services Sector is upon us!

photo of Peter SmithPeter Smith

WCET Executive Council Chair

Advisor to the President, Kaplan University

 

 

 

Photo Credit: State Library of South Australia

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