Interview report: Kristine Clerkin | Executive Director, College for America at Southern New Hampshire University

Interviewed by the Observatory of Educational Innovation  


The College for America, is an accredited nonprofit college and is dedicated to make achievable the possibility for working adults of getting a college degree through its unique competency-based education model. Kristine Clerkin, leads a team in charge of building College for America and is focused on disruptive innovation, technology, and new knowledge about learning to help more people achieve their goals through higher education (cbe network, 2016).  

Observatory: What conditions or drivers have you seen are happening in education worldwide, that are driving or pushing forward competency-based education?

Kristine C.: I think a lot of this is being driven by work, by careers, by the need for all of us to learn and to be lifelong learners. And I think that it’s no longer enough to graduate from college with a degree and some grades. I think employers all over the world want to know that graduates have real skills, and they want evidence of that. I mean, grades mean very little, really. They signify a progression of time that someone has accumulated credits, but they don’t mean that you can do basic.

I think that it’s no longer enough to graduate from college with a degree and some grades. I think employers all over the world want to know that graduates have real skills, and they want evidence of that.

In the US in particular, I think the cost of higher education. And I think this is happening in other places around the world, as well. The costs are going up. There’s less and less public funding from the governments. Students are taking out loans. They have debt. I don’t know if that’s a problem here in Mexico. They have debts. They can’t even pay the debt with a good job so they need to make sure that they have skills. That they know what those skills are that they can show. And we think competency-based learning really helps with all that. And then I would say third thing is the need (in the US but also around the world) older adults, non-traditional students who were not able to go on for higher education for college. Their work life is changing. And they have special needs when it comes to education. They need much more flexible kinds of education. Their needs are different. They have families. They can’t come to a campus, and spend four and a half years.

So, I think that the non-traditional student has driven much of online learning in general and I think that competency-based education for certain types of students is a really great format because they can move quickly, they need to have a flexible format. So the flexibility of format is very important, and I think just in general another driver is technology. I mean, the ability to create personalized learning for students.

This industrial model of sitting in large lectures, it still funds most of our universities - the lecture. But really, we have the technology and the capability now to personalize learning to what students already know, what they already can do, to help them move more quickly. We can do so much, and I think that we haven’t done it yet, as some of these speakers were talking about it today, we are starting to realize the impact of all of that.

Observatory: Why hasn’t it occurred the impact of competency-based education yet?

Kristine C.: I think it’s very early still. And the technologies are still developing. I mean, I think the main reason is that higher education is a very entrenched institution. It’s very conservative, very difficult to move. You have entrenched stakeholders like faculty, administrators, boards of trustees, and even students and alumni sometimes don’t see it. They want things to stay the same sometimes.

Sometimes the public funding, the regulatory aspects around in the United States, for example, with the Department of Education, Congress, the states all have regulations and views about how higher education should be done. So sometimes it’s really hard to innovate around those. So you have entrenched stakeholders. You have regulations. You have the economics are still not really favoring education. I mean, students can still get a lot of money for loans, and many students, I mean, the traditional students really still value that leafy campus. We call it the coming-of-age experience. It’s nature. Because we have a beautiful campus too and it’s for 18 to 23-year-olds who are learning how to manage their time, manage their money. There’s a real benefit to that. But that’s not most of our students. And I think that too often the way we still think, as in the public perception of education is still too much about that campus. The campus experience.

Observatory: Is there a difference in the online college versus traditional school?

Kristine C.: I think our president Paul LeBlanc of the Southern New Hampshire University , has said this, in many ways online learning of all types is better than face-to-face for many people because you have so much more, you understand more about the student. You have data. We live in our program in a sea of data. We’re swimming in it. We have so much data, and we use it, we act on it. But right there, what do you pay attention to is the most important part.

Observatory: Do you have a special department that makes all that analytics?

Kristine C.: We do and so within our larger online unit, we have 20 some people who collect analytic data and run reports every day. So when you come in the morning, you know exactly what you have to work on that day, which students are doing well and where they’re not doing well.

Kristine Clerkin

Kristine Clerkin

Observatory: How does your institution use the richness of this data?

Kristine C.: A lot of it was originally driven by marketing and enrollment management. But I think that we’re seeing a shift, or least an expansion of data analytics to learning analytics, to understand what the student demographic characteristics are? How students are learning? Where are they struggling? I think that’s the opportunity. I think not many institutions are doing that well. At College of America, for our program, we built our whole platform, our learning platform on a Salesforce.

Observatory: What are some of the differentiators of your program?

Kristine C.: In our program at the College of America, we focus a lot on our feedback and fast feedback. We provide feedback usually within about 30 hours, so student will submit a project. We don’t have exams, exams are not part of our model, and it’s all project base learning. Student will upload a project, it’s usually audio, video, presentation, essay, writing a pieces of some kind, worksheets, and then they’re scored by faculty reviewers against a rubric. They get detailed feedback, it’s not just a grade, and it’s not A, B, C. Here are the things you did well, here are the things that you need to improve or here are the learning resources that you can go back to.

The feedback in a mastery model, and most competency-based programs have a mastery model, there is no 80- 90-95%, it’s all 100% Everyone has to achieve 100% and so you have to try again and you can resubmit or you can go back. Formative assessment by far in many ways contributes more to learning than summative assessment, and that’s exactly right. The whole point of this is to learn what you know and what you don’t know. At some point someone has to assess you and make sure you know what you’re doing.

Observatory: What other institutions are doing competency-based education besides New Hampshire University?

Kristine C.: There are some other ones. For example Lumina Foundation is really supporting this and also the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I think we’ve had a good environment in The Department of Education, The Federal Department, President Obama brought in a strong culture of innovation around education. He wasn’t able to move as quickly as he probably would like in government, things don’t move enough quickly.

Observatory: On average, how old are your students?

Kristine C.: College for America is mostly older adults, nontraditional. The average age is 35 to 40 years old. We do have some younger students though.

Observatory: Do you see that segment of market growing?

Kristine C.: The segment is huge. In the US alone there are something like 40 million students, 40 million people.

Observatory: Do you think competency-based education it’s going to be a consumer-driven, in other words people are going to ask for it?

Kristine C.: Yes, I think people are going to ask for it. Because they’re going to see advantages. Right now they don’t understand what it is, because it’s new. But I think as it grows they’ll see, I can do this more quickly, I can do it at lower cost, that it will help me save money, employers value it because I have real skills. Or, I can go slower if I need to. I think they’ll see over time and then they’ll start to value it.

College for America web site: Imagery: cbenetwork (2016). Competency-Based Education Network. Retrieved from: steering-committee/kristine-clerkin/ College for America at SNHU (2015, september 18).

College for America at SNHU’s Photos [facebook timeline]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook. com/CollegeForAmerica/photos College for America at SNHU (2015, november 30).