The Education Innovators

There has been lots of talk the past few years about the coming "disruption" in higher education. Technology, critics suggest, will present traditional colleges and universities with daunting challenges. Some have estimated that half will be forced to close their doors in the next 15 years.

It's too early to know whether that dire prediction will come true. It is, however, useful to note that American colleges have proven resilient over the years. They have survived world wars and global depressions. They stand a fighting chance of surviving the internet. But they will need to innovate -- adopt new technology, forge nontraditional partnerships, and break old habits.

At the depth of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt promised "bold, persistent experimentation" to offer recovery and relief to the American people. Today, universities will need bold, persistent leadership to confront the biggest problems facing higher education: rising costs, limited access, and diminished value.

While Silicon Valley start-ups and for-profit schools have been getting lots of attention, a handful of brick-and-mortar universities are rising to the challenge. Here are my choices for the three most innovative universities in America. (Not in any particular order and dealing only with undergraduate programs.)

Southern New Hampshire University's College for America
In 2103, SNHU, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, established a competency-based model of education. The program responded to the frustrated pleas of business leaders who claimed that many college graduates lacked basic skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

Traditional classes measure skills based on the number of credit hours earned. Essentially, they reward credit based on time spent in a classroom. SNHU offers a radical new model. It is based on proving competence, not earning credit. Instead of taking tests and earning grades, students perform specific tasks that demonstrate competence in areas that are deemed essential for success. The emphasis is on proving competence in basic skills -- communication, critical and creative thinking, quantitative literacy and collaboration.

In 2013 President Obama cited SNHU as an example of how to improve value and reduce costs in higher education. The school's approach, he told an audience in Manchester, New Hampshire, "gives students credit for how well they master the material. If you are learning the material faster, you can finish faster, which means you pay less."

The idea seems to be catching on. Earlier this year, the Department of Education announced that it was allowing an additional 40 colleges to experiment with competency-based learning.

Arizona State University's Global Freshman Academy
This month ASU announced that it was joining forces with edX, the Harvard and MIT nonprofit platform, to offer up to 12 introductory classes beginning in August 2015. Students who complete eight of those classes would have finished the equivalent of their freshman year in college -- and they could do it online and at a fraction of the cost of a traditional class.

ASU was already a major player in the online world, boasting a robust program with 13,000 students pursuing 70 degrees. But this bold new entry promises to shake up the world of higher education. What makes it different is that it offers transferable credit. Students pay a small initial fee of $45 to register for the class. At end the of the class they can decide whether to pay an additional $200 and receive credit (assuming they passed). The program is priced substantially lower than both on-campus offerings and ASU online classes.

The initiative is designed to address the two biggest complaints about MOOCS: That they fail to deliver credit and they have low retention rates. "What this does is it really opens up new pathways for all students, no matter where they are in the world," edX CEO Anant Agarwal told Inside Higher Ed. "There are no admissions requirements -- no SAT scores, no GPAs, no recommendation letters."

University of Oklahoma / HISTORY Partnership
In 2014, OU announced that it had formed a partnership with HISTORY, the popular television network, to create an interactive online class, "United States, 1865 to the Present." For $500 anyone can sign up for the 3-credit version of the class. Lifelong learners can pay $250 to watch lectures, participate in discussions, and have access to the text and instructors. The class launched in January 2015. (Full disclosure: I teach the class).

Like the planned ASU initiative, the OU class offers transferable college credit at a fraction of the cost of an on-campus class. There are no admission requirements. It was consciously designed to represent the next step in the evolution of MOOCS. As more universities enter the online space, students will have the ability to pick and choose classes from different schools. They may come to OU for their history classes, to ASU for math, and to Penn State for psychology. When ready, they can bundle those credits and finish their degree at a university of their choice.

What is potentially more significant is the partnership with a major media company that controls extraordinary audio-visual assets and possesses a talent for storytelling. HISTORY has the ability to transform the standard college lecture into a multi-media experience."When the University of Oklahoma's tradition of academic excellence is combined with the storytelling ability and content from [The] History Channel, students everywhere will have an opportunity to enroll in a new, high-quality course that is designed to be interactive and engaging," said university president David L. Boren.

The evidence from these three universities suggests that innovation is alive and well at leading public and private universities in America.