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Topic Title: American Public University providing education to Walmart Employees
Topic Summary: What is the Learning Impact? It?s all about (potential for) clarity of outcomes
Created On: 06/17/2010 10:01 AM
Status: Post and Reply
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06/17/2010 10:01 AM
There has been a lot of media coverage about Walmart selecting for-profit education provider American Public University System (APUS) to provide education to its employees. For instance see:
Chronicle of Higher Education Coverage
Washington Post coverage
Clearly this topic has struck a cord, especially against the backdrop of some recent renewed scrutiny of the for-profit education sector by PBS's Frontline and the consideration by the U.S. Department of Education of new rules on compensation of for-profit recruiters and debt burden.
The net-net is that we have a diversity of needs in the education market. Buyers (in this case Walmart and their employees) and providers are trying to respond. The news coverage is focused on some pretty significant gaps in the ability of any of the solutions to meet all the buyers' needs.
- Traditional non-profit institutions have a very difficult time customizing courses and programs to the needs of corporations. There are some success stories, but they are few and far between. Traditional universities are just not set up to respond well to this. Corporate buyers want a responsive supplier that will do very significant tailoring of the educational offerings so that they cover the specific educational needs of the corporation.
- The resulting "educational" experience may be more like corporate "training" - which is more difficult to use as proof that the student is more generally qualified. Students want a credential that they can build upon - i.e. that is transferrable. Can they get this from a corporation specific program? Does MacDonald's Hamburger U. qualify you more generally and for what?
What this really comes down to is that going forward, providers of educational credentials - any type and any level - need to be explicit about the educational outcomes that are expected from a course and program of study. And, buyers of educational experiences need to demand this. Otherwise, it is impossible to have a productive conversation on this topic.
So, for instance, if APUS is credentialing Walmart employees with a Masters Degree in Management, the learning outcomes of that credential should be clearly stated. Since this is a corporation-specific program, than some of those outcomes might be very specific to what Walmart wants out of the program. But, for this to be an educational experience, and not just a corporate training exercise, the outcomes that represent the general principles that the graduate should be able to apply should also be explicit.
I do not know if this is what is happening in the Walmart/APUS case. But, this is sort of the "truth in advertising" model we need for all education. Now, just because a learning outcome is explicitly stated does not mean that the program was effective in achieving it - even if the credential is granted. I have worked with MBA graduates that didn't seem to get really basic concepts (like "sunk costs don't matter"). This, of course, is the pragmatic problem of transferability of credits and why standardization/automation of this process is so difficult. But, from my perspective, unless education industry participants get better at explicit representation of the expected learning outcomes you can't possibly get to a better way of transferring credits - because you don't know what they mean. It is also just common sense that any educational experience is going to be more "educational" in the metacognitive sense, if the student and teacher know what they are shooting for.
Obviously most courses and programs think that they have a set of learning outcomes they are shooting for. Accreditors ask colleges to collect data to demonstrate students are doing the sort of activities they need to be doing. So, why has this problem been so difficult to get right?
We have a systemic issue that reflects the often "not stated" reality that real learning does not occur in schools or colleges/universities. It occurs in real life, solving real problems. Real learning requires relevancy/application. It is my sincere hope that we can evolve to more relevant educational experiences. But there is a time constraint tradeoff between the ability to cover a wide set of ideas and principles and to actually apply some of them in an educational context. Life outside of the educational context is where most application occurs - and therefore where most learning occurs. So, at best, any educational experience is preparation. It provides background information and tools to use when the real learning happens. So, the systemic issue that constrains our progress is this: "While we could invest more in developing educational programs that constitute well-designed, relevant, and explicit learning experiences, is such investment warranted?"
Which brings me back to Walmart and APUS. New approaches and innovations will tend to "cross the chasm" (see Geoffrey Moore book, Crossing the Chasm) in specific niches that are highly motivated. Fundamentally, I am very bullish on this type of partnership. The potential Learning Impact (improvement in access, affordability, and quality) is very high. The key to success in this regard would be explicit learning outcomes that both Walmart and the students can leverage. Large-scale partnerships like this afford the opportunity/incentive for a provider to invest in better learning design. It will be interesting to see if APUS and Walmart can capitalize on this partnership to take a step forward in education or whether they will get mired in the same-old, same-old Hamburger U.-like formula. This will be a good test to see if corporate-driven education via an institutional partnership can really be about education, or just corporate training under a more attractive name.
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