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SUNY Signals Major Push Toward MOOCs and Other New Educational Models

The State University of New York’s Board of Trustees on Tuesday endorsed an ambitious vision for how SUNY might use prior-learning assessment, competency-based programs, and massive open online courses to help students finish their degrees in less time, for less money.

The plan calls for “new and expanded online programs” that “include options for time-shortened degree completion.” In particular, the board proposed a huge expansion the prior-learning assessment programs offered by SUNY’s Empire State College.

The system will also push its top faculty members to build MOOCs designed so that certain students who do well in the courses might be eligible for SUNY credit.

Ultimately, the system wants to add 100,000 enrollments within three years, according to a news release.

Even before the SUNY announcement, it had already been a big week for nontraditional models for awarding college credit. The U.S. Education Department on Monday said it had no problem with spending federal student aid on college programs that give credit based on “competency,” not the number of hours students spend in class.

Empire State College’s prior-learning assessment programs operate on a similar principle. Students who can demonstrate that they have acquired certain skills can get college credit, even if they did not acquire those skills in a college classroom.

The new SUNY effort will aim to copy the Empire State model across the system, said Nancy L. Zimpher, the chancellor.

“This resolution opens the door to assurances to our students that this kind of prior-learning assessment will be available eventually on all our campuses,” said Ms. Zimpher in an interview.

SUNY is just the latest state system to use novel teaching and assessment methods to deal with the problem of enrolling, and graduating, more students.

Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington have enlisted Western Governors University, a nonprofit online institution that uses the “competency” method, to help working adults in those states earn degrees. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are building programs aimed at helping their own adult students redeem their on-the-job skills and knowledge for credit toward degrees. And California may soon use MOOCs to deal with overcrowding in some courses at its public colleges and universities.

Ms. Zimpher said the prior-learning expertise at Empire State would make it possible for the New York system to undertake the new effort without calling in outsiders.

“Usually when you have an outside vendor, it’s to deliver something that you don’t know how to do,” she said. “In our case we actually know how to do this, and we know how to do it well.”

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