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An Innovator Goes to Washington

A Conversation with SNHU’s Paul LeBlanc

Known as a leader in online and competency-based education, Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc has taken a three-month leave to serve as senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, leading efforts to grow non-traditional higher education programs. A faculty member for the November 2015 offering of the Harvard Seminar for Experienced Presidents, Leblanc recently spoke with Professor Judith McLaughlin, faculty director of the Higher Education Program.

Judith McLaughlin: Your time in Washington is coming to an end. What was your assignment?

Paul LeBlanc: Under Secretary Ted Mitchell asked me take on two projects. The first, which we call Project Cheetah, was to help advance an experimental site initiative related to competency-based education (CBE). There was some stakeholder frustration among institutions, accreditors, and external players who were seeking clearer guidance about these newly emerging models and how they would and would not work within Title IV rules, and I tried to get them all back on the same page.

The second, Project Badger, was thinking about new accreditation pathways for noninstitutional providers and micro-credentials. Currently, none of the noninstitutional providers — organizations like edX, Minerva, and General Assembly — have access to the educational ecosystem. That is, they don’t have credits that count or access to Title IV funds for their needy students. There is a desire to get these new, effective, high-quality, lower-cost players into the market and to recognize micro-credentials, so there is no wasted learning. How can we accomplish that? That’s the conceptual challenge.

JM: Why did you take three months out of your presidency to work on these projects?

PL: These projects were an invitation to help rethink the basics of the educational ecosystem at a very structural level. You enter the world of paradigm shift when you allow new players into the ecosystem, when you rethink how accreditation happens, and when you rethink what counts for learning. There are amazing opportunities, but there are also risks and complexity in balancing innovation with protecting students and taxpayer dollars from poor providers and models.

JM: It sounds like the first project brings people together, and the second could be divisive. I can’t imagine accreditors being thrilled about creating new pathways. Is it fair to say that having new providers enter the space that so-called traditional institutions have occupied for so long is a threat to those institutions?

PL: When talking about new accreditation pathways, some of the players who raise their hands to say, “We want to work that out,” are regional accreditors. There actually is some interest among those organizations in sorting this out. And there are other organizations that are not accreditors who might be interested in playing that role — groups who do quality assurance or assess learning. ACE comes to mind. George Washington is using an American National Standards Institute (ANSI)-based approach to credentials. It’s easy to imagine them being interested. So, accreditors could be threatened, but right now they seem to at least be interested in having the conversation.

I think you’re right that some institutions will say, “Wait a minute, we’ve just allowed an invasive species into the forest.” Others will see opportunities for partnering. In one of the Project Badger models we’re discussing, new non-IHE [institution of higher education] providers would have to pair up with an IHE in order to enter the ecosystem. Many new providers don’t have the systems and infrastructure to access Title IV funds. More importantly, legislatively, they are not Title I approved, so Title IV money cannot flow directly to a non-IHE today.

We’re seeing a lot of legislative proposals that would dramatically open up the floodgates. Before we blow open the whole accreditation world, we need to learn more. My argument has been to use experimental sites in this area to better inform eventual public policymaking. As much as I like promoting new innovative models, there is a lot we still do not know.

JM: What are the implications of Project Cheetah for presidents of traditional institutions?

PL: Going forward, all schools will need to develop some institutional understanding and knowledge around CBE — what it looks like, what forms it takes — and they’re going to need a strategy. The strategy may be, “We’re not doing CBE,” and that’s perfectly valid. But they need to know who is in their competitive space, if they are likely to do anything in this area, and what those implications are.

JM: Institutions paid no attention to online education at first. Now, whether they do it or not, they’re very aware of its impact on recruitment, curriculum, and so forth. Is CBE similar?

PL: CBE is actually more interesting in some ways. By and large, nonprofits looked down their noses at online learning, and it opened up the space for for-profits. Some of them were very bad actors (though not all). We’re still cleaning up that mess. What’s different about CBE is that traditional institutions are not looking down their noses at it. In fact, they’re rushing in much faster than any for-profits. The University of Texas, Michigan, and Purdue have announced initiatives, and by last count more than 300 non-profits were working on CBE. It’s a distinctly different response, and that makes me think it’s not a fad.

JM: What about the implications of Project Badger?

PL: Project Badger is, in some ways, even more profound. For the first time, we’re taking the most basic structural moving parts within higher ed and redefining or opening up the system. Having noninstitutional providers, the list of IHE competitors suddenly expands dramatically.

The notion of moving toward micro-credentials also shifts the focus of quality from inputs to outputs. It’s very assessment focused. Traditional higher ed has not been very good at talking about assessment, and I think these new models will cast a glaring light on that fact. The implications then become multiple — who are our competitors? Are we vulnerable? Are there opportunities to partner? Can we partner differently than we have in the past? And, in a world that is more and more focused on outcomes and assessment, how do we do?

JM: So, you’re causing lots of trouble! You’re addressing all the big issues.

PL: [Laughs] It’s tremendously exciting. In the end, what we’re trying to do is offer more high-quality learning to more students at more affordable costs. The White House is interested in these efforts, in how we get people better jobs and better paying jobs, and how we align what our graduates know and can do with what the workforce needs. If that’s what we’re really trying to do, then these ideas hold great promise.

JM: Finally, I have to ask, why Cheetah and Badger?

PL: I’m just used to code-naming projects. It’s a lot easier to say, “When is our next Cheetah meeting?” than “When is our next meeting on the competency-based education experimental sites?” For the x-sites project, we set very ambitious targets for milestones and completions, so Cheetah just seemed natural. For the new accreditation pathways project, we had a lot of talk about the badging movement and nicknamed new possible quality assurance entities “badgers.” That just led naturally to the project name. In our project plans we included a picture of the appropriate animal, and on my last day, I gave coffee mugs with a cheetah on the front to all the members of that team. I also left with a final project just starting, Project Red Tail…but that’s another story.

The Harvard Seminar for Experienced Presidents, to be held November 15-17, 2015, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is currently receiving applications.