The Orion Volume: 1-2010 Publisher: The Judd School-US Learning Contracts and Higher Education- Part 1 Michael G. Judd, Ph.D., M.P.A., PMP Headmaster: The Judd School-US Purpose: This paper is the first in a series, designed to explore the use of learning contracts in higher education. This particular article will consider the use of learning contracts in an institution of higher learning during the late 70s and early 80s. I will specifically discuss a model used by a small private university located in Mill Valley California. The university was named Columbia Pacific University (CPU). CPU was operated between 1978 and 2000. The university was regulated and authorized by the California Department of Private Post-Secondary Education to grant bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees. CPU never applied for nor was it accredited by a private regional accrediting authority. Through the 1980’s, CPU was hailed by many as having a bold new approach to instructional design for the 21st century. It made extensive use of part-time adjunct faculty (approximately 150), from nationally recognized universities (including: Harvard, Brigham Young University, Defense Systems Management College, Air Force Institute of Technology, and Utah State University). The principle market audience included accomplished individuals in business and government and a secondary market of mid-career professionals looking for advanced degrees in their chosen career areas. The university prided itself on developing customized learning experiences for each student. This customized instructional plan was documented in the form of learning contracts and resulted in earning a state accredited “non-traditional” degrees. Background: In the late 1980s the State of California reorganized several Departments and jurisdiction for the university’s oversight was shifted to a new state organization. The new organizations primary function was that of consumer protection. In the mid 1990’s the new organization conducted a curriculum evaluation and found discrepancies in the way the university had awarded credit for life experience for several students. According to CPU and court records no opportunity to remedy the deficiency was permitted. The State withdrew it’s degree granting authorization and by 2000 the university was ordered closed. While many lauded CPUs creativity and educational model (during the 1980s), others later concluded the University was a diploma mill (a reference to fraudulent educational institution with no academic program or standards). The State of California ruled that degrees granted until 1995 were legal and met California licensing and academic standards. This paper will not attempt to defend or condemn CPU’s operation during the years in question (post 1990). Rather it seeks to present the processes and learning approach utilized during the first 15 years. Finally, this paper explores CPU’s non-traditional degree utility as seen through the eyes of the student. The Process: A formal 9 step process was utilized to move us through the initiation, planning, execution, and graduation phases. Develop Initial Comprehensive Degree Screening Evaluation Objectives 1 2 3 Develop Negotiation Learning Program of & Revision Contract Learning Instruction Signed Contract 5 Signed 4 6 POI Executed Contract Closeout Graduation 7 8 9 Figure 1: Education Process Initial Screening: It was during the initial screening process I was asked to complete several forms that identified me as a candidate and what my interests were. My first interest was Industrial Engineering. However, the university did not have authorization for this type of degree and after some discussion is was revised to Engineering Management. Comprehensive Evaluation: Prior to acceptance, CPU requested all transcripts of classes completed at other universities along with a detailed history of my work experience. At the time of application I was a Federal Police officer at the Utah Test and Training Range (operated by the U.S. Air Force). I had completed two associate degrees and a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Brigham Young University-Provo. I had also been accepted into BYU’s Masters of Public Administration program and was completing my first year of a two-year program. As a result of CPUs evaluation it was determined that I’d be admitted on a provisional basis into a doctoral program. It was stipulated that I’d have to successfully complete the Masters degree before I could graduate from CPUs program. It was determined that considerable course work would be required but, could be completed in a correspondence format. CPU also determined that because of my limited career experience and interest in a degree outside of that experience, no “life experience” credit would be granted. I remember I was a little surprised (and disappointed) in as much as I had served a 2 year mission for the LDS Church, served an enlistment in the U.S. Army as a military policeman, and had worked for about a year as a Federal Police Officer. In retrospect, I believe this decision was entirely reasonable (See Figure 1). Evaluation of Degree Objectives: At this stage I was asked by my advisor to develop a specific set of objectives for the degree program. It was suggested that I first think about my personal career goals and then discuss it with my employer. I spoke with representatives from several Air Force organizations and it was decided there would be some great opportunities in the area of military weapon systems R&D. After a brief telephone conversation I was then encouraged to find out specific knowledge, skills, and abilities that would make me successful. After a comprehensive list was developed and submitted, this became the basis for the courses that would be developed (See Figure 1). Develop the Program of Instruction: Working with my advisor we developed specific learning objectives for each course along with some boundary conditions (depth of knowledge) that was coordinated with my employer. After being given some suggestions and general guidelines I selected textbooks for each course where appropriate. During this phase we jointly discussed a reasonable sequencing of the materials and agreed that I would do a project rather than a dissertation. I was provided a list of adjunct faculty to pick from and a tentative agreement was made pending availability etc. Please refer to Figure 1. Negotiations and Revisions: At this point CPU provided me with a cost estimate. It was immediately clear that I could not afford this approach. At this juncture it was learned the principle cost driver was instructor access. My advisor brought the Dean of Faculty into the negotiation and we jointly agreed on a revised approach that would limit instructor access while ensuring that the learning objectives could be achieved. We determined that since some of the work would compliment courses being taken as part of the MPA program, some of the work would be supervised by members of the Brigham Young University (BYU) faculty. After receiving clarification from my employer and considering some trade-offs that had been identified we jointly settled on the cost, timing, and learning parameters that established the Program of Instruction (POI) framework. After I incorporated the revisions, the POI was approved (See Figure 1). Learning Contract Signed: At this point, a simple contract was assembled and the POI incorporated. The POI was really the focal point and framework for the educational experience. We had already discussed the risk and limits associated with the revised POI. The ability of the POI to deliver a quality learning experience hinged on my employer’s participation. Although we had proceeded through (Figure 1: steps 1-5) the process in a methodical way, there was still significant risk associated with achieving all the learning objectives. However, the risk was mitigated by utilizing a comprehensive POI. The POI incorporated into the learning contract identified a total of 14 courses totaling 56 credits. The course work included a study of: microprocessors, management systems, operations modeling & analysis, technology assessment, operations research, strength of materials, DC electric circuit design, VHF & UHF radio communications, fluid dynamics, heat transfer, an independent study project (management analysis of a city government), project oral defense, and principles of holistic health. It was determined the grading would be pass/fail. Passing grade standard was set at 70% or better. The depth of the knowledge would that of a “familiarity” level. This meant that I should understand the terminology and basic concepts but I would not be required to master advanced mathematical concepts. The bulk of the courses were administered in a self-paced independent study format. Each course required the study of a textbook (or other appropriate reading material) and preparation of a 3-7 page report outlining the material and explaining how the subject was relevant to my career goals. In retrospect I believe the depth of understanding obtained strictly from the readings and reports was marginal and not adequate for most university standards. Although these activities produced minimal learning, the POI had leveraged cooperation from my employer, the BYU faculty members, and a professor from the University of Utah. For example, my employer provided a broad range of special assignments that allowed me to observe and practice the things I had studied. So, with this added experiential component, a rich learning experience was possible. I believe the retention of the information was far greater than any lecture based class I had completed (See Figure 2). Figure 2: USAF’s Utah Test & Training Range In reality this kind of learning experience could not be duplicated by any traditional university. Subsequent to completion of the degree program (6 years later) I actually had a chance to attend and graduate from a college operated by the U.S. Department of Defense that was on the cutting edge of “simulating” real world scenarios. I will compare how these two institutions utilized learning contracts & learning objectives in a companion paper. In order to appreciate the quality and content of the experiential learning component provided by my employer, consider these special assignments: test and evaluation of major weapon systems, equipment management for the ground launch cruise missile program, and procurement management at a military base. As amazing as that experience was, I also benefited from the BYU and UofU faculty members as they helped integrate it into the final year of my masters of public administration program. The learning contract was the vehicle that laid out how this would be accomplished through POI. CPU’s principle role was to facilitate and document the experience, ensure it had an appropriate academic component, and provide valuable feedback (through the course papers). The POI was executed: As mention early the overall quality of the learning experience was a function of the POI. The major components of the POI were broken down into multiple layers of detail to facilitate coordination. The various layers represented a decomposition of the program’s learning components (See Figure 3). Engineering Management Doctorate Required Graduate Customized Coordination Courses Courses Figure 3: Program of Instruction Summary As seen above, there were three major components of the (degree) program. They consisted of the required courses, the customized course, and the coordination that was overseen by my faculty advisor. In this paper we will only discuss the details of the required courses, and the customized courses. At CPU there were 4 sub components that made up the required courses (See Figure 4). The titles provide a reasonably clear statement about their content. It was the ISP that required the bulk of the work in this segment of the POI. In my case I choose to perform a management audit of Toole City, Utah. The audit was sponsored by the Mayors office. Required Graduate Courses Independent Doctoral Doctoral Holistic Study Oral Program Health Project Defense Summary Practices Figure 4: Required Graduate Courses for POI While much could be said about the utility of each of these sub components or courses, the important point is there was a simple schedule of activities associated with each of these items. The component I wish to focus on next is the customized courses (See Figure 5). There was a text or appropriate reading material associated with each course along with a comprehensive summary report requirement. The report was submitted and evaluated by either my advisor or one of the university’s adjunct faculty. As a result of that evaluation a determination was made as to the acceptability of the submission. As in the required courses, the customized courses maintained a simple schedule for each course. What was even more remarkable too me was the creation of 2-3 learning objectives stated for each course. The learning objectives were a decomposition of the degree programs objectives. When submitting the final report for each course, I addressed both the significant topics and how the POI’s learning objectives were satisfied. I have always been impressed by how straight forward the approach helped ensure all the learning objectives were addressed. Many years later I observed a similar approach at a U.S. Department of Defense college located at Fort Belvoir, Virginia but, have never seen this kind of rigor in traditional collegiate instructional programs. Customized Courses Technology Effective Electric Fluid VHF & UHF Assessment Management Circuits Dynamics Communica- Systems tions Systems Micro Operations Modeling of Heat Strength of Computer Research Business Transfer Materials Design Programming Systems Figure 5: Customized POI Courses Contract Closeout: After it appeared all the work was completed, copies of deliverables (Reports etc.) were reviewed by my advisor and I as a final check-off. At the conclusion of this step we had jointly verified and formally documented the contract closeout (See Figure 1). Graduation: The contract closeout documented that graduation requirements were achieved. Admittedly, graduation was basically a paperwork exercise, photos were taken for the photo albums, and recognition of the accomplishment came from my employer. Degree Utility: Since the completion of this degree (over 25 years), I have had the opportunity to consider its value or utility in meeting my professional objectives. As a pragmatist, I believe that is the best measure of any educational experience. As mentioned earlier, I was nearing completion of the first year of a 2 year masters degree. I can remember reflecting on the number of graduates from BYU as well as other schools of public administration and realized that I still needed some kind of an “edge”. Unlike today, every regionally accredited doctoral program required full time attendance. As I had utilized my military GI Bill benefits, had a family of five, along with a mortgage, going to school full-time during the day was not an option. Fortunately, my employer (the U.S. Air Force) was willing to provide some financial assistance and make accommodations at the work place. In return, I worked to develop a unique program that would meet their specific needs. After several years with the Air Force I decided to move around within the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) system. I found the CPU degree had good portability and really provided the edge I had been looking for. As long as I stayed within the DOD system, the educational value system was consistent. Approximately half way through my federal career, I decided to move to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). It was there for the first time I realized the value system was different. My experience in DOE was that it was not what you knew but, who you knew (along with what schools you graduated from) that made the difference. One analogy that was shared with me was the need to compare educational institutions like we do automobiles. To some, I had participated in the equivalent of a “Ford” quality of education and the organization was looking for the “Mercedes” quality. Consequently, there were a relatively few that judged my education inferior to theirs even though a majority had completed only bachelors programs. This was most pronounced among those who’d graduated from schools like: Harvard, Georgetown, University of Southern California and a couple of state universities. I believe it fair to say these persons placed a much high premium on the institution’s “branding” than on what individuals actually knew. In these rare situations, portability among employers may be problematic as should be included in a decision calculation. I would definitely not recommend a non-traditional school at the undergraduate level (even if an employer approves it). In all likelihood, such a degree would have limited portability across major organizational boundaries. Conclusions: I believe that learning contracts can be an effective way to achieve a high quality educational experience. Learning contracts can focus resources, constrain costs, and ensure a successful outcome for the student. While my experience was quite good, there can be risks associated with learning contracts. One obvious risk (if done correctly), holds both parties accountable for accomplishing the terms and conditions of the contract. I recommend customized learning contracts are less risky when utilized by mid career students that understand exactly what they need in order to achieve their professional goals. I also believe that having a supportive employer can reduce risk by providing special assignments and work place flexibility that will help ensure the learning objectives can be achieved. It is my experience that in government and private sector employment there is great value placed on performance and the ability to achieve organizational needs. In my personal situation the learning contract that led to a degree granted by this non-traditional university helped me achieve most if not all of my career goals in a cost effective manner. I will leave it for you to judge whether the CPU model resulted in a quality education and if such an approach would add value to your personal situation. Lastly, learning contracts designed or approved by employers are often very focused on their unique needs. While they may have excellent content, the portability may be limited. Also, there is much to be learned from a “requirements” based (industry/ employer based) educational model. Traditional universities can and do use simplistic forms of learning contracts but usually seek more of the “cookie-cutter/one-size-fits-all” approach to educational program design. Learning contracts seem to be most prevalent among institutions of higher learning focused on the adult learner (mid-career professional) and professional training programs. Adult learners appear much more interested in being able to tailor programs to their unique interests and schedule. Employers utilize professional training companies to deliver training to employees that contain contractually documented learning objectives (much like CPU’s) to ensure organizational needs are achieved.
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