Jamai Blivin Interview with Brian Fleming


Jamai Blivin Interview with Brian Fleming

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Fleming of Sandbox ColLABorative. Brian is the Executive Director of the research and development lab at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester. Key to the work of Brian’s role at Sandbox is driving an innovation and strategy agenda for the University—which as he notes, is “a very near and immediate innovation agenda.”

Jamai: Brian, thanks so much for the opportunity to talk with you about the work at Sandbox. As I continue to learn more about your Center, I find that it is very unique for a higher education institution to have this type of research arm.  Not only are you doing a lot of futures thinking (in collaboration with Institute for the Future, IFTF.org), but you also seem laser focused on the SNHU mission and the impact that Sandbox can have in supporting the strategy.

Brian: Keep in mind, SNHU has a very distinct mission—to transform the lives of our students, defined by the learner success. We now have over 135K learners around the country, and are increasingly gaining global learners. This impacts the way we behave as an organization. We continue to bring futures thinking into the day-to-day work of the University—learning and supporting the strategies with this thinking.

One important thing to note is that we are entirely focused on extending access to learners, not weeding out.  This in itself leads to a unique higher education organization.  Sandbox ColLABorative is designed to inform the futures strategy. We are 100% focused on the vision for the future of SNHU. So, we ask ourselves: How do we continue to engage the students?; How do we continue to lower the cost for the students?; and finally, How do we identify and market to our students?  We also are very responsive to the University’s vision and needs.

Jamai: I think that nimbleness is what sets you apart. You have “innovation freedom,” and it allows you to move more quickly than some other institutions. For example, can you talk a little bit about the Google.org work FEATuringYou grant you received?

Brian: It’s true, we can move quickly and be more responsive to the needs of the University as far as the mission encourages the work. The Google.org grant is one of the most exciting things I have ever been a part of professionally.  The foundation issued a grant as part of a much broader mission of Google.org—which is largely focused on workforce development. We were able to earn the grant largely based on the fact that SNHU is dedicated to meeting the needs of community through a workforce lens. With our history of serving adults, this was naturally aligned to our mission.  A lot of our thinking in this grant has been around “opportunity youth” —that population who are neither enrolled in school nor in work (many may have been in-and-out of school). They are, in essence, shut out of traditional pathways of education. The work has led us to a couple of key findings:

  • The amount of spending in the U.S. on job intervention support for this population is astounding. We stopped counting at a trillion dollars out of and we keep hearing there is a lack of sustainable results in a couple of key areas. Sustainability and scale are critical to this work.
  • There is a real lack of post-secondary education involvement in addressing these issues. I am in no way discounting efforts of community colleges and others, but from an online university, not so much. So, we approached this area with digital assessment and digital credentials, an important item under our research agenda.

Our opinion is that there is a need to have an experiment that could then scale once we create the approach. Digital enablement and allowing us to create educational pathways for this population are vital to our approach.  So, someone comes in, takes a digital assessment, receives an SNHU digital badge (issued by the University), with some aspects of earning college credit, and more importantly, connecting them to employment.

Jamai:  I believe the grant goes through 2020, and in our experience, it does take time.  It is good to see this funding afford you the time to prove out the work. And, as you know, I+E believes strongly in assessment, so we are glad to see this integrated into your approach!

So, looking at 2030, what do you really believe higher ed will look like?

Brian: First, I think we have to layer in some of our assumptions for the future. I think one important thing to point out is an “ambiguous world for us”—“a Google-type world,” i.e., a volatile, changing world for higher education. A real trend we have observed is a growing public distrust in higher ed institutions, thus, a distrust in the value of higher education. I do not think degrees are going away anytime soon, but I do believe non-degreed credentials, alternative credentials, and such will continue to add to the equation of what will be critical in determining the ultimate values for the future of higher ed. And, when we continue to think about that “Google-type” world, our own strategic plan must be adaptable. We have to get comfortable with all of this as a higher ed institution.

I also think some things are pretty certain. Technology, machine learning, blockchain based enabled systems are going to continue to be the norm. The way we operationalize will be built around this technology. We have previously referred to terms around sector demographics, and the segmentation of the market will be different than in the past. Our students will not identify by our so-called demographic sectors of before with labels like K-12, adult learner, and other traditional terms. This will really impact our marketing, branding, and design to reach more learners. They will personally identify with their own futures.

Jamai: How much are you working directly B2B—direct with employers?

Brian: Our Workforce Partnerships programs supports most of our direct work with employers and we work with many employers to ensure our students are connected to both the learning and employment outcomes we want to achieve.

Jamai: So, it appears foundations are just now starting to get more serious about this need for assessment (as your Google.org grant is). What is your analogy around the assessment of learning vs. assessment of work readiness?

Brian: Well, that is a little bit tricky. I would advocate for a broader term around assessment and perhaps sort it by 1) assessment of learning, 2) assessment for learning, and 3) assessment as learning. When you think about it this way, assessment is becoming more of a learning tool (assessment for learning), and then there is also employment diagnostic assessment. I think the most exciting one is assessment AS learning. Treating assessment as a way to broaden the learning experience. That’s really the beauty of an assessment. I imagine someone who has been shut out of the system, with very little formal education, probably hasn’t been told they were good at many things. So, a learner takes an assessment through SNHU, and low and behold, SNHU says to that learner “Congrats! You have the skill “critical thinking.” Now the learner feels great, knows that they have that skill, and that someone recognizes it. This assures a positive experience for the learner.

Jamai: I totally agree, Brian. This is the reason we are excited about the work you are doing.  SNHU is ensuring learners are “filtered in” and not filtered out.

Thank you for all you have done, and special congratulations for receiving the Social Tech Innovation Award at Close It 2018!