Interview with Yvonne Simon, Chief Learning Architect for College for America, a division of Southern New Hampshire University

About Yvonne Simon

Yvonne Simon is Chief Learning Architect and a founding member of the Innovation Lab and College for America at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). The program focuses on affordability and access. Ms. Simon is responsible for designing and implementing a low-cost student success model and system that provides personalized support at scale. This competency-based model competes with traditional approaches by increasing student productivity and decreasing time-to-completion.

Previously Ms. Simon led SNHU’s College of Online and Continuing Education through aggressive growth and cultural change. In 1996, she co-founded and ran for ten years a profitable educational software company, Six Red Marbles, focused on the design and development of flexible authoring systems and learning products. Other experiences include more than a decade in educational publishing, and teaching high school science and study skills. Ms. Simon’s work has appeared in EDUCAUSE and Change Magazine, among other industry publications. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Biology from Bowdoin College and a master’s degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Interview Questions

[OnlineEducation.com] Reports suggest online programs and enrollments are still growing rapidly. Based on your experience developing and coordinating these programs, what do you think makes online education so appealing to both students and colleges?

[Ms. Simon] The appeal, especially when students are selecting a program, is most often related to flexibility, cost and accreditation. As much as students want an affordable degree that can be adapted to meet the needs of their busy schedules, they want to make sure it’s a “real degree,” and that it will mean something and be recognized by employers.

Once students begin their degree program, especially if they have never participated in an online program before, they can find the experience liberating. Students who may not have been active in the classroom often become much more engaged since participating in online discussions or forums does not involve raising your hand and being noticed by a teacher, but simply posting your question or response.

Flexibility cannot be overemphasized. Students can work on trains and in airports, hospital waiting rooms, cafes, and their homes. Students can do work from anywhere anytime they can fit it in. In College for America’s (CfA’s) programs, students can accelerate their progress based on their prior experience and ongoing effort towards project completion. Currently, we have over 300 graduates from our AA in General Studies program. Our median pace is ~2.2 years, but students–not a class or course– determine when they complete and submit their projects for review. The added bonus of this approach is that it tends to generate more student accountability because they are developing, with a Learning Coach, an individualized academic plan, setting their own goals, and adjusting (and re-adjusting) their expectations as they move forward.

[OnlineEducation.com] College for America’s competency-based model distinguishes it from most online degree programs. How does competency-based education work? What motivated Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) to develop such a program, and why did it choose to deliver it online?

[Ms. Simon] Competency-based learning is certainly a hallmark of College for America’s program. Note: Other divisions of SNHU–College of Online and University College–also offer competency-based programs.

We decided to use a competency-based approach to learning because it provided at least a partial solution to the problem we were trying to solve. We set out to develop a degree program that would increase access to higher education and reduce cost without reducing quality of the educational experience or the value of the degree. In fact, we wanted to see if we could actually improve the quality of the offering, or at least be more accountable for the program outcomes, especially related to applicability to the workplace. There were several reasons why we thought competency-based education would work for our students. This approach:

1. Establishes a currency of learning that can be understood by students, employers and educators alike. The competencies that students seek to master are written as simple “can-do” statements. For example,

  • Can interpret and use information contained in graphs and charts
  • Can research a topic of general interest and summarize findings in writing
  • Can read critically in order to identify main ideas, supporting evidence, and conclusions

They master competencies by completing projects. We ask students: what can you can do with what you know? The approach is clear and straightforward.

2. Moves towards a more “transparent” standard of student achievement. Students submit projects to be evaluated by trained Reviewers, who are subject matter experts. Students receive feedback within 48 hours and then resubmit work as many times as necessary to achieve mastery on all rubric criteria (not, for example, ~70% of the criteria). This method ensures that all CfA graduates have mastered all of the competencies. We raise the bar for all students while providing a “no fail zone”: while they must master all of the competencies, they can continue to submit until they do.

3. Is more applicable to the workplace. To ensure applicability, we work with employers, industry experts as well as nationally developed standards and guidelines to establish the competencies for each degree. To ensure that our programs stay relevant, we continue to revise based on feedback from all stakeholders, including students.

4. Provides focus for students. Students readily understand what they need to master, what they need to do to show mastery, and can more easily make connections to their work or personal experiences.

[OnlineEducation.com] Self-directed online degree programs are still relatively new. Can you clarify how the model works, logistically speaking? How do students connect, if at all, and what role do instructors play?

[Ms. Simon] Students connect initially and on an ongoing basis with a Learning Coach to develop the mindsets, skills, and habits of self-directed learners. Core to the model is helping students reflect on their learning process and activities to better understand when they are more effective and ultimately productive. Once students submit their projects, students receive personalized project feedback within 48 hours of their submission. The feedback indicates which rubric criteria have been mastered and provides helpful feedback on criteria that have not yet been mastered. Feedback can include, links to specific resources, a suggestion to access tutoring, or suggested ways of tackling a difficult concept. After they have received feedback from a Reviewer, they can ask questions and engage in an asynchronous dialog with the reviewer. Since students, on average, complete ~45 projects for their AA degree and, on average submit each project ~2.5 times, students have over 100 personal contacts with Reviewers about their work and how to improve their particular demonstration of a particular set of competencies.

A synchronous online tutoring service is now available to students 24/7 for learning concerns that the Reviewers may not be able to handle in a written back and forth. Tutors can help students improve skill gaps or provide the additional scaffolding or practice necessary to move forward.

[OnlineEducation.com] Prospective students may worry online education sacrifices personalized learning for convenience. How do online schools support students, particularly within self-directed programs? What can instructors do to ensure students feel connected?

[Ms. Simon] CfA is all about personalized learning. For our students, it is not only about mastering competencies it is also about understanding themselves as learners and how you might engage more fully in their current job and develop a career path. These are all very personal challenges. One of the first assignments is the learner autobiography. Students reflect on three unique learning experiences and through a conversation with their Coach understand more about their strengths and challenges as a learner. Although the Coach is certainly part advisor, the Coach additionally serves as a co-creator of the students’ learning plans and helps [them maintain accountability] based on [their goals and] preferences.

Peer-to-peer connection is an important part of our model. Students connect with their peers in a variety of ways. The primary point of connection is through the CfA online learning community. ~75% of our students join the community in their first month. On average, these students complete their degree twice as quickly as students who don’t join and are much more likely to persist to degree completion. Interestingly, even if they join later in their program, their productivity and pace increases significantly after joining. In the community, student activities include: asking questions; forming project teams, study and special interest groups; sharing challenges and successes; sharing tips; and providing encouragement. The communities (one for each program and organized by projects) are monitored and supported by student Ambassadors. Ambassadors receive training and ongoing support by our Lead Student Ambassador and the Director of Community Development and Support.

Students with the same employer often connect in person where they work. They organize and support each other in much the same way as in the online community. These students often connect easily as they are not only in the same degree program but have similar support and goals related to their employer. Some employers also provide additional coaching related to their career path or, alternatively, supervisors get involved to support students in a mentor-like role.

Although some students prefer to complete the program without much student engagement, it is not what we recommend. Everyone at CfA works intentionally to connect students with each other and to let them know that it’s okay (and expected!) to ask for help. Students should not be surprised if a student Ambassador reaches out to see if he or she can help—it’s the CfA way and it works.

[OnlineEducation.com] What advice might you offer students preparing to take their first online course? What are some key success factors or common mistakes to avoid?

[Ms. Simon] Start strong. Early progress is highly correlated with ongoing success. With self-paced programs, it’s tempting to put things off. However, this strategy is not the most effective. It is better to dive in, commit to your program, and figure out how everything works in the first month.

Invest in the relationship with your Coach (or Advisor) and yourself. You might think spending time on yourself, and reflecting on who you are, is not important or a waste of time. However, developing a trusting relationship with your Coach, is not only worthwhile for completing your degree, but has personal and professional benefits as well.

Connect with other students. Getting to know even a few students who know what it’s like to be a college student at CfA can really enrich your experience. We all stumble—that’s part of the learning process. Having someone who understands your struggles and celebrate your successes can make it seem much more do-able and fun!

Don’t expect everything to come right away. Put in the effort; reduce the fear; develop a growth mindset; listen to feedback from peers, Coaches, and Reviewers; engage in discussions and challenges that are meaningful and interesting to you; reflect; go again! You’ll get there!