Episode 69 - A Project-Based, Competency-Based Partnership: SUU's and the American Innovation Academy

President Scott L Wyatt and Steve Meredith sit down with Ryan Hagge from the American Academy of Innovation, and SUU's own James Sage and Johnny MacLean, to discuss the balance between content and skills in project- and competency- based education.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I’m your host, Steve Meredith, and I’m joined in-studio today by President Wyatt. Scott, hello again. 

Scott Wyatt: Hello, Steve, it’s good to be here…always. 

Meredith: Always, yeah. I enjoy our conversations, and we’ve had a delightful fall and we’ve had a delightful set of discussion that we’ve been engaged in. One of them, a series of discussions, has been about the increased interest in competency-based education and exactly what that means and how universities generally are coming around to that idea. We recently had a group from our state office that talked a little bit with us about that and we have a whole bevy of guests today. Bevy…is that the right word? A bevy. A coven of guests…no, that’s witches. Anyway, a group. We have a group of guests with us today that are going to talk with us just a little bit about competency-based education and specifically about a partnership that we’ve engaged with a local charter high school here in Utah. And so, we’re excited. Why don’t you introduce our guests?

Wyatt: Well, thanks. Yes, we’ve got James Sage from the Provost’s Office, the Associate Provost, and Johnny MacLean, an Assistant Provost, so these are two of our really bright people here on campus. 

Meredith: Yep, load-bearing employees for sure. 

Wyatt: [Laughs] Load-bearing employees. 

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: And from South Jordan at the American Academy of Innovation, which is a charter high school, we have the Academic Director, Ryan Hagge. Welcome, Ryan. 

Ryan Hagge: Thank you, it’s good to be here. 

Wyatt: Let’s start out by…we’d love to have you introduce your school. Tell us just a little bit about where your school came from and what your focus is. 

Hagge: Yeah. So, American Academy of Innovation, we are in Daybreak, we are in our fourth year of operation, so we’re a brand new charter school. The original conception of AAI is centered on project-based learning and international partnerships. So, we started that year one kind of just having a brand new building and we’ve been changing things along the way and I think we finally settled on our official model, which is combining three different educational movements into a single head. And those movements are project-based learning, and that’s put out by the Buck Institute, experiential learning, which SUU is very, very familiar with and then the third component of that would be competency-based education, and that‘s a more recent development, but we kind of aligned those three things and have had really good success with attracting someone atypical student populations based on those three things. 

Wyatt: Ryan, give us the one paragraph introduction to you. 

Hagge: Oh. [Laughs] Renaissance man would probably be the best way to say that. 

Wyatt: [Laughs]

Hagge: I have been in education for 12 years. 10 years as a dedicated English teacher and then three years…so, my last year teaching I was also the Academic Director, three years of Academic Director. I say Renaissance man because I grew up on a family ranch in northeastern California, a 4,000 acre cattle ranch there. I went to school originally to be a computer programmer, came back and went through the whole undergraduate thing. I graduated with 187 credits, and then went into education and ended up getting a Master’s Degree in Gifted and Talented Education while starting multiple businesses. And so, now I’m sort of focused in on this Academic Director thing. I still have a business in Idaho that is run by a manager there, but I put my talents to developing the direction of the school and the academics of the school. 

Wyatt: Well, thanks. And let’s make sure that our listeners understand some of these terms. So, you’ve talked about project-based learning, and that’s learning that really isn’t limited to a classroom or a textbook. It’s kind of…you have to do a project. Give us an example ?

Hagge: Yeah. So, the classic example when people hear the word “project,” they automatically think “Science Fair” and that’s not really what we’re talking about here. The whole idea of project-based learning centers on student-led inquiry, research, and design. That means that you may pose this essential question, is what it’s called, this big question and then the student gets to really dictate the direction that they take that learning from there. And the question is such that it can’t be a Google answer, so, there’s no one side of the answer, there’s some current debate on the issue. So, a good example would be from our first year of operation which, at the time, everybody was thinking about going to mars. That was kind of on everybody’s…in the STEM community, on everybody’s imagination. So, we asked the question, “What would it look like once we got to Mars?” And so, the various groups took this a hundred different directions, but some examples are one group actually ended up designing and testing a rocket and then did a live test with a mouse measuring stress and heartbeat and launched the rocket to 7,000 feet measuring G-forces and so forth. So, they took it that direction. Another group looked at what would happen to your physiology and anatomy while on Mars and what it would take, how many hours of exercise and what kinds of exercise it would take to stay healthy in that environment. Another one, and this is the final one, this one actually ended up presenting at a conference down in Texas, but they built a life-size Mars habitation in our parking lot. [All laugh] So, there’s a good summary of project-based learning. But the whole idea is just centered on that question and then the kids kind of drove the inquiry from there. They did the research, they did the work, and they ended up in different places, largely because they were interested in different in different things and pursued different avenues of research. 

Wyatt: So, what you’re saying is that the students are getting similar or at least the minimum learning outcomes expected, but they’re doing it in the creative way that they direct themselves?

Hagge: Yeah, absolutely. So, part of that process is the teacher kind of looking at what the project is and then saying, “OK, well these are the standards, if you will—we are very standard-driven in the K-12 world—the standards that would fit this project are…” And then they enumerate those standards. Those are the teachers, then, that have the feedback loop with the students as the project is developed. 

Wyatt: You’ve listed experiential education as a separate topic. How is that…how would you define that differently than what you’ve just done with project-based learning? 

Hagge: OK, so…project-based learning, they’re related, so don’t get too caught up in the differences, but the major difference is in the world of experiential education, there’s a much heavier emphasis on the after-effects of the work. In project-based learning, the assumption is that most of the learning is taking place during the project or during the experience. That assumption is challenged by experiential education, and we really value that reflective piece of experiential education where they’re going through these experiences but now, there’s the necessity to think back and then try to reapply in different scenarios. So, we found that by combining those two—and project-based learning does have a little bit of that built in—but by combining those two worlds, particularly with the Kohl cycle, very advantageous for student outcomes. It led to better projects and it led to more substantial learning in the students. So, it just felt like a really natural fit. 

Wyatt: As we like to say, “You don’t learn from experience, you learn from reflecting on experience.” There’s a lot of people that grow old and don’t learn from what they’re doing. 

Hagge: Yeah, absolutely. And SUU has been on the forefront of that world for a long time, so we really admire the work that SUU has done and have modeled a lot of what we do here based on what we’ve seen SUU do. 

Wyatt: And then you have competency-based, which is a method of assessing the learning. 

Hagge: Yeah. So, with competency-based education, you’re essentially removing the arbitrary timelines from the equation. And I say “arbitrary”—that’s somewhat of a conflicted word, they’re not necessarily arbitrary—but in the world of competency-based education, it’s no longer necessary to prove this by semester end in our eyes. If you prove it by the time you graduate from high school, that’s enough. That deadline is really the graduation and not necessarily the quarters, the semesters, or the years. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Hagge: So, you take that away and what you’re doing is assessing that work on some sort of proficiency scale and then reassigning that to what are considered larger competencies. So, rather than just saying, “Yes, they’re proficient in math standard 1.1,” you’re saying, “Clearly they have a knack, they’re good at it, a knack for computational briefing” or something like that. 

Wyatt: Well, Ryan, if I lived in your neighborhood, not four hours away, and if I had kids that were high school aged, I’d want them to go to your place. This sounds really exciting. 

Hagge: It is exciting in potential. We’re still trying to work out some bugs. I’m glad that you feel confident about that and we certainly have a student population who feels confident about it, but we’re learning as we go. There’s still much work to be done in this realm. 

Wyatt: Yeah, but to be a student at a school like that where you’re learning as you’re going? What a rich opportunity for the students to see innovation in progress, not just to see what somebody has printed up nicely and handed to them. What a cool idea. Johnny or James, what do we have to learn from this experience that they’re going through? 

James Sage: Well, we do have a lot to learn. I think that my main interest was we want those students at SUU and we want to make sure there is a pathway for graduates from AAI to be SUU students and to honor the learning that they have demonstrated in high school. And right now, there’s not a very clear mechanism to honor that learning and I think that’s a good challenge for SUU to take on. But I think Johnny is also interested in this for other reasons. 

Johnny MacLean: Yeah. I think one of my main interests is seeing what we can learn from AAI and from Ryan and his colleagues about how to change a culture that is…has a long history of being held to these kind of terms, quarters and terms and semesters and years and how do we take our experiential education model that we’ve developed at Southern Utah University and implement this competency-based education model and combine those two? I think that AAI is learning a lot and I think we have a lot to learn from them. So, Ryan, I’d love to hear some of the lessons learned at your institution about how to change that paradigm and that mindset in your educators. I imagine the students respond really well and really easily, but I imagine that the educators are maybe a bit more of a challenge, but I don’t know. 

Hagge: We’ll talk about the students a little bit later, but focusing on faculty, that’s an interesting question. We’ve had a sifting process as we’ve gone through the years, and it’s not an easy find to find someone who will not only buy-in to what we’re trying to do here but someone who also is capable of carrying it out on a grand scale. So, I think my first comment is you really have to be selective in your hiring process. It’s no longer just about discipline mastery, which is very much my experience when I was hired. They asked me several pointed questions about my discipline, and because I appeared confident, they decided that I was worth hiring. For us, the question largely shifts to relationship questions. We’re looking not only for that discipline mastery, but we’re also looking for faculty members who have the capacity to reach different types of students and lead different types of students. And that’s become the focus of our hiring process now and we probably emphasize that more than discipline mastery. I think that’s the first part…that’s the first recommendation, if you will, is to really zero in your HR to try to find the types of candidates that would fit with the competency-based model who are OK being on the edge, if you will, particularly in the K-12 sector, the edge of the experience. And secondly, building the culture institution-wide has been a challenge since day one. I cannot in good conscience claim that we have completely succeeded in that realm. It’s an ongoing challenge. I do think one of the crucial components is that this cannot be a top down initiative. The teachers have to drive it, and we’ve found success in that model. Having the teachers understand the “why” of course is important and the direction is important, but then letting them have voice, choice, and ownership of how this is carried out. In our case, what we did is we put together a team over the summer of five of the most influential educators here at AAI and I worked hand-in-hand with them for several weeks over the summer developing the framework that this whole competency-based movement is based around. And because of that, when we came back and had our faculty training and meetings for the first two weeks before students came back, because I had their support, it became very obvious that they were allies. They were champions. They would take this and go to the rest of the faculty and help and explain and be patient and mentor them naturally, and I love that that happened. 

Sage: I think that’s a really great point and it translate to faculty at a university as well. Early adopters are very important to breakdown any stigma that might be attached with some new pedagogy. But, in particular with competency-based, there’s a lot of lack of understanding about it, and so we need to take things slowly and explain some broad concepts for our colleagues here. Some of them, certainly those in education, are very well-versed in this type of proficiency standards, mapping to competencies, but other faculty, this is a relatively new concept, and in our traditional credit-based approach, the seat time is fixed. Your 15 week semester is fixed, but proficiency may vary by student. Students may get As, Bs, Cs, Ds, and if those letter grades are tied to their learning, then you can see the proficiency demonstrated varies, but seat time is fixed. With competency-based education, proficiencies are fixed. Everyone needs to get to a certain level of proficiency, but time is variable. So, some students can get there in four or five weeks, some students need 30 weeks, and it just flips the paradigm on its head. And I think there’s a certain amount of letting go that has to happen by the educator to let the students direct their learning at their pace. The educator then becomes a facilitator rather than an expert and that that letting go means that you have to trust in the evaluation and the assessment process rather than the inputs that the faculty member or the teacher provides. So, you’re looking at outputs rather than inputs. And that letting go is a tough cultural change. 

Wyatt: That is a very good description. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: That’s probably as good as a description as I’ve heard. Of course, you’re a philosophy major, you get this stuff. You think. How does the geology major see it? [Laughs] Johnny’s a geology faculty member and James is a philosophy faculty member. 

MacLean: I agree with James. 

Hagge: I agree with Johnny. [All laugh] I’m curious about this one. 

MacLean: So, actually Ryan, I have a question. Do you…is there a sense in your faculty that you’re forging ahead into a new education paradigm and is that part of the excitement about…I guess, are the faculty feeling that excitement? That they’re up to something new and different and better?

Hagge: We certainly try to foster that. I don’t think we have universal buy-off on that idea, but I do think that we are doing something very novel in the K-12 sector and I think Utah is kind of on the forefront of this. And so, we’ve shared all of this data, right? So, we partner with Mastery Transcript Consortium, which is a national organization that’s trying to unite K-12 competency-based education schools, and their conversation with us was exciting and one that we’ve passed one. Just as an example of this sort of thing I’m talking about, they essentially told us that the conversation we’re currently having with SUU, they wish that would happen nation-wide, but to their knowledge, nobody else is having that conversation right now. That, quite literally, we are on the cutting edge of competency-based education in the K-12 sector and that we have more substantial and more long-term partnerships than just about any of their other partner schools. So, we share that with the faculty with the hope of them seeing, “Holy cow, this is something that is not just novel, but significant.” And I do think that it’s helped tremendously in bringing about positive change in the pedagogy of our faculty members. 

MacLean: Has it changed the content? So, faculty in higher ed…I guess there are two sides to the coin. There’s the content that faculty are trying to deliver and are trying to make sure that students learn and then there are skills that faculty are trying to provide opportunities for students to develop. And I’m curious, when we get into experiential education and project-based education, it seems like the skills are more heavily emphasized. Not that content isn’t present, but I’m curious if this competency-based education model brings that project base and experiential education emphasis on skills back toward content. Are you seeing that? 

Hagge: First of all, I appreciate the insight because that’s something that I’ve wrestled with as the academic director. I think initially the trend was to forsake content and one of the challenges that we’re currently dealing with is some of our faculty have viewed that the best way to go about competency-based education is to put everything onto the student’s shoulder and just say, “Show me.” And of course, as you articulated, that’s not healthy for the learner because there are absolutely critical understandings that are almost prerequisite to the skills.  Take applied physics as a simple example. If you do not have the foundation of calculus, so, a really high level of math competency, applied physics is not going to make sense and you will not be able to have the necessary skill sets because you are lacking the fundamental understanding. So, really right now I’m actually trying to reign back the over-emphasis on skills and help people realize—help my faculty realize—that the content is still absolutely necessary. The difference though is how the students demonstrate what they know. It shouldn’t completely alter the classroom environment. What it should do is completely alter our assessments environment and the feedback loop. So, it’s not a one-and-done test or exam anymore. Now, it’s a, “We clearly have what you don’t understand, let’s take you from there and help you have a full understanding.” Hopefully that answers your question. 

MacLean: That’s insightful, thank you. 

Sage: So, I think this potential partnership that we’ve been working on for a couple of months now with the American Academy of Innovation faces a couple of challenges. So, the American Academy of Innovation, based on experiential and competency-based learning, means that students may not be well served by concurrent enrollment classes. It means that students may not be well served by existing frameworks like AP tests that award credit, or even the ACT test. Because this is not a full representation that the skills, knowledge, and abilities that the students have. 

Meredith: Right. 

Sage: So, we want to create a pathway that honors the student’s learning, at the same time, not just giving away credit because that doesn’t really set the student up for success. We want a faculty-driven evaluation of that student’s body of work so that we can assign and award appropriate GE course credit. So, I think that this is going to be based on something like the development of a portfolio as well as a comprehensive transcript. The crosswalk between the proficiency standards and competencies at AAI and SUU’s General Education requirements. Now, that sounds simple to articulate. Say, “We just need to have a portfolio, a transcript and a crosswalk that maps AAI’s competencies to SUU’s General Education requirements.” Btu the actual execution of that is quite a challenge. So, I’d be happy to hear from Ryan what your thoughts about how to navigate that broad structure to help better serve students transitioning from your high school to SUU?

Hagge: Yeah, I appreciate the opportunity. This is obviously something I’ve thought about ever since our first meeting several months ago, and I think with AAI we have several of those challenges that become very pointed to us and questions that would follow. The first question being, for us, what level of proficiency merits a student portfolio and a request for a review? That’s the first question that we’d have to ask ourselves because that implies several other things, right? It implies that our proficiency scale is normed enough to distinguish, even in its infancy, to be able to distinguish between a high-performing and therefor very deserving student and a low-performing student. So, our first challenge is I don’t know if we have the necessary data to really make a reliability call like that and our reputations are on the line, right? We certainly want to be viewed institutional and as educators, as being able to tell the difference between somebody who deserves consideration for college credit and somebody who does not. But I think the unique challenge is we’re brand new in this field, how do we really know that these competency measures that we have put heart and soul into are going to stand up to scrutiny? 

Sage: I think…

Hagge: So, I think that’s the first challenge. Go ahead, yeah. 

Sage: Yeah, I think that’s a great point so we might have to adopt a mindset of being very iterative about this. So, if we think of some proficiency standards for students in written communication where we award credit for English 1010 and we place them in the English 2010, well we need to track those students to see if they’re truly successful in English 2010. And if they aren’t, then we need to rethink our standards and the norming. If they are just walking right through 2010 and they basically have the skills that a student would have at the end of 2010, then we might consider awarding credit for 2010 as well. So, I think we need to start somewhere and then iterate and evaluate the evidence and always be grounded in what’s in the best interest of the students. We don’t want to set them up for failure and we also don’t want to hold them back if they’re already quite capable. So, I love how you were talking about this should be data informed. We need to study it, but we also need to take action. We can’t expect to have all of the answers when we launch something. We have to have a viable idea and then learn as we go. 

Meredith: Yeah, I think there probably are more failures in the world out of fear of trying and fear of failing than there are actual failures. People just simply feel like they have to have all the answers in the very first iteration, as you’ve discussed there, and we may not. We may not have all of the answers, we may need to adjust as we go along. 

Wyatt: Well, and it’s nice to remember where the motives are. Ryan, you could get paid the same amount of money and not have half the work because if you’re following the common pattern, it’s simple because the path is laid out for you. But what you’re doing is trying to reinvent something and you’re spending summers doing it and you’re staying awake at night trying to figure it out. That’s more work than just doing what everybody else is doing. 

MacLean: It’s also more meaningful. 

Sage: Yeah. 

MacLean: Hopefully. [Laughs]

Hagge: Oh, certainly, I can echo that. I think the ranch boy in me longs for that hard work and significance. 

Wyatt: Public…

Hagge: I will add, just add briefly that our plan moving forward just to try to overcome that obstacle with was to actually do a pilot with a couple of students who have expressed interest in attending SUU and saying, regardless of their proficiency level, let’s put together a portfolio, send it over and they’re going to be students there anyway, and just do some tracking with this for the [inaudible] to see where we’re at. 

Meredith: Yeah, we recently did that with a…with have a relationship with our local technical college, Southwest Technical College, and we recently had a group of canaries in the coal mine that went through that first group in a smaller fashion so that we had a small control group in our first iteration of the idea. And it gave us enough confidence to move forward to where we opened it up for every single student at Southwest Tech. So, I think that’s a terrific idea. The idea that we could have just a couple of students who were already planning to be here anyway and let’s see how they do. That seems like a sound procedural judgement. 

Wyatt: Yeah. Let’s see how the G-forces affect them as they launch to 7,000 feet. 

Meredith: Yeah, that’s right. [All laugh]

Hagge: Right. 

Wyatt: Well, I really am a believer that this is good for the student to be so in the middle of these kind of experiments. They’ve got to come out of this with some positive outcomes that other students wouldn’t experience. 

Sage: I think one of the ways that this experience with AAI and this partnership will help us on is several other fronts having to do with competency-based education. So, I just got done working with a group of six other partners on a four million dollar Department of Labor grant focused on cyber security in two different industry sectors. One is advanced manufacturing and the other is clean energy, and these folks are looking at apprenticeship programs in-industry. So, if you have Seattle Power and Light—this is connected to Washington State University’s energy program housed in Olympia—so, Seattle Power and Light trains its employees on principles of cyber security, but it’s not credit based, it’s an apprenticeship. So, this consortium of folks writing this grant together were developing a way to allow academic credit to be award for people who complete competency-based apprenticeships. So, if we learn about skill standards and proficiencies and mapping them to different competencies and then how to award credit for that in an appropriate way, that will allow us to get students into our bachelor’s degree for cyber security and on into a master’s degree. So, this is very translatable and transferable for my learning and for Johnny’s learning, because we can serve more than just high school students coming from AAI, we can serve industry professionals who have 20 years of experience but no academic credit. And we can actually light up a pathway like a runway so that they have a way into higher education that honors their learning and their abilities. So, I’ve found lots of parallels and as I’ve learned from Ryan and his colleagues, I’ve been taking that into this other partnership and this other grant that we just submitted on Monday. So, it’s pretty exciting. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Sage: And there are lots of other opportunities. We are biting off what we can chew right now, but the learning is going to be translatable to lots of other industries and as a first generation college student, I think about my family and that they work in their profession for many, many years and they developed skills in management or account or all kinds of skills and there’s no mechanism for higher ed to award credit for those demonstrated skills. So, being able to assemble a portfolio, being able to apply standards and then map competencies to college credit…

Meredith; Right. 

Sage: Is a really transformative thing for higher ed. It really is innovative. 

Meredith: You and I, James, had this experience a little bit last summer, albeit in a slightly different fashion, when we were trying to translate clock hour to credit hour from our partnership with Southwest Tech. But I love these types of discussions where we get groups of faculty in a room and we say, “OK, we’ve been awarding things differently somehow. Ours is based on time, yours is based on a different concept of time,” or, in this particular discussion, “Ours is based on time, yours is based on competency.” I think once we get people in a room and especially if we can all agree that we have to feed them lunch while their there, because that infinitely helps speed the process along, it’s important that the faculty feel engaged in that process and that they see, as you say, that we’re creating new mechanism for the university to grant credit for things which are entirely credit-worthy. 

Sage: Right, absolutely. And it all has to…it’s all based on a shared ethos of what’s in the best interest of the students. And that was President Wyatt’s mantra when we were working on the Southwest Tech partnership. 

Meredith: Right. 

Sage: And it’s an ethos that I brought to this grant writing effort in Olympia, where I literally used that phrase when Tim Ball, a professor in cyber security here, he and I were there and I said to the group, “Tim and I come from an institution of higher ed where the ethos is, ‘What is in the best interest of the students? Period.’” That brings people together, that shared ethos, more than perhaps any other cultural similarity or we all root for the same team, we wear the same color on Fridays…if we are united around what’s in the best interest of the students, then suddenly these boundaries drop away and territoriality…

Meredith: The siloing that we find ourselves in sometimes. 

Sage: And open-mindedness follows. And I think the kind of open-mindedness that the Southwest Tech partnership has created, our partnership with AAI and Ryan and his colleagues and connecting with industry and apprenticeships…this is suddenly putting students first. And it’s really exhilarating to be part of that. 

Meredith: It is. 

Wyatt: Ryan, you’re right in the middle of this charter school experiment with high school, but what if you were the academic director of a university—we would probably call the provost—what would you be thinking right now? What would you be doing? What have you learned from this charter school experience that would cause you to see higher education a little different? Give us some advice. 

Hagge: Yeah. Of course, with the underlying assumption that I had a pretty good grasp of what was happening in the K-12 world, the thought that I would have is, “Here we have what we traditionally know as non-traditional students who have these vast skill sets in areas that are not directly, necessarily directly related to a college course.” So, I’d be following, I think, a very similar thought pattern. How are we going to engage these types of students? Or maybe to James' point, how are we going to engage these industry professionals in the world of academia? That’s the question that I ask myself even here. We tend to attract a population that is frustrated with the traditional model of education, that’s the just nature of charter schools, and I think that trend is also a trend in higher education. So, that type of consideration is a valuable one. There are many, many students in the world today, in Utah today, who feel very disenfranchised with the education that they’re receiving from public schools and from universities. Bridging the gap between the K-12 world, the higher education world, and industry is paramount at every level and I would be focused on bridging that in every possible way. And I do think, for what it’s worth, I do think SUU is one of the front runners in that sector. 

Wyatt: You’ve got a bit of an advantage that you’re starting a school out of whole cloth, and one of the advantages that we have at SUU is that we have 120+ years of tradition, and it’s also a disadvantage because we get kind of caught. So, sometimes ruts are wonderful things, and sometimes they’re not. My mother grew up in a little community in southern Idaho that was a farming town and it was a long drive until you got to the first actual town and the story was—and I’m sure that it’s not limited to Mink Creek, Idaho—but the story was, “Pick your rut when you get on the road because you’re going to be in it all the way to Preston.” And I’m sure that that’s a line that people use everywhere, but ruts are wonderful, but sometimes they keep us from finding another rut. [Laughs] Johnny, what would you do if you were starting a university from scratch or leading the innovation at a university based on some of the things you’ve seen at AAI? 

MacLean: That’s an interesting question and I think all educators dream of doing what Ryan is doing. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

MacLean: And so, I’ve actually given this a lot of thought, as I’m sure a lot of educators have, but I think that to some of what James and Ryan have been talking about, a combination of classroom work that is likely involving project-based and experiential-based learning, and some sort of apprenticeship, some sort of real employment experience would be the ideal combination. And I say this just from personal experience. I truly believe that I’ve learned more faster in my jobs than I did when I was in school. That doesn’t mean that my school experience wasn’t important, it provided a foundation, but the learning curve for me has continued to increase. And even today, I think I’m learning more and faster than I ever have in my life. And if that is the case, then if we stick with our current model of basically preventing students from gaining real employment experience until they receive a diploma, we are simply delaying the steepening of the learning curve. If I could create a school that’s brand new, I would want to—at least in higher ed—I would want to incorporate some sort of employment experience. I don’t know how that would be done and I don’t know if it’s an option. 

Wyatt: Well, we have several majors where a graduation requirement is some form of internship. We have a lot of those. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: It’s not university-wide, but we do have a lot. In fact, I’m surprised how many that we have. 

Meredith: Well, we…I’ve shared this, I think, once or twice before, but it may bear repeating here in relation to what Johnny was just saying…so, in my bachelor’s and master’s degree, I went to an in-state school and as I was going there, I was a little bit of a performance prodigy starting, gee, at the age of 15 singing with orchestras around the countries. So, by the time I got to the university, I was actually a working professional and I was shocked, Johnny, to your point, I was shocked that not only was I not encouraged in that direction but I was actively discouraged to be engaged in those types of activities because, “Hey, don’t go take this wonderful opportunity to go sing with this orchestra in St. Louis because you’re going to miss your theory test on Monday.” Well, there should be some way that we could help a student be actively engaged in the industry that they intend to enter and yet still met the demands of college. And to me, that’s where competency-based education is such a wonderful idea. It’s that we don’t all have to take the theory exam on Monday. The time is not the fixed element here, it’s the education part that’s the fixed element. But, I have to be honest, I’ve written tons, and President Wyatt can vouch for this, I’ve written tons of curriculum based entirely on the fact that the fine arts doesn’t need to be detached from work. That you can actually create fine arts degrees that are occupational in nature and it’s entirely because of that scarring of my soul that happened in my undergraduate and graduate education. It was so obvious to me that these two things—which I loved, very much, both—I loved the academic learning, I loved the technique, I loved everything I was getting from the university, but they not only were not helping me to get a job, they seemed to be discouraging me from pursuing those types of things. That’s the kind of thing we need to get away from at the university. 

Wyatt: Well…

MacLean: They have the potential to enhance each other. If a professional experience and a traditional higher education experience are happening in tandem, each are enriched by the other. 

Meredith: Of course. 

Wyatt: Well, and back on your level, Ryan, I took a daughter of mine—well, I’ve taken all my kids—but one example in particular, I took a daughter of mine back to Washington, D.C. with me for a week, this was a couple of years ago, and her civics teacher said, “Don’t worry about any of the homework, you have a different assignment from everybody in class. Your assignment is to write a journal about what you’re learning in Washington, D.C. and turn that in.” So, instead of her bringing all of these books and trying to study what everybody else was doing, she was given…the teacher seized upon the opportunity that would actually end up being quite meaningful for her. 

Hagge: Yeah, I admire that. Differentiation is the unicorn of public education. And I think with competency-based education, we are approaching it in a way that we can actually be successful at it because the only way to truly differentiate is to remove time constraints from the equation. 

Wyatt: Ryan, any closing thoughts? 

Hagge: Umm…nothing substantial other than thank you for letting me participate and I’m excited and eager to see where this ends up. 

Wyatt: Well, we appreciate your engagement with us. We hope that the result of this is that we’re better and you’re better and, ultimately, that it’s in the best interest of students. That we find something that’s special for them and we all learn from it and it grows. 

Hagge: I’ll echo that and I appreciate your many insights and questions. They certainly help me formulate our path forward. 

Meredith: You’ve been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We’ve had as our guests today, in-studio, Johnny MacLean and James Sage from our Provost’s Office and we’ve also been joined on the phone by Ryan Hagge who is the academic director for the American Academy of Innovation, located in the Daybreak community in South Jordan, Utah. We’ve enjoyed having Ryan, James and Johnny join us, and, as always, we appreciate you, our devoted listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back again soon. Thanks for listening, bye bye.