Partnerships and Alternative Pathways: The Educational Ecosystem

Concurrent Session 3

Brief Abstract

Innovative partnerships that unite institutions, alternative learning providers and employers create an effective educational ecosystem to prepare learners for the workforce, and for higher learning. Explore models that are designed to increase access, affordability and degree completion through use of OER’s, prior learning assessment and alignment with academia-industry standards. 


Lisa Sax Mahoney is director of the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS), a program conducted by the University of the State of New York, Board of Regents. Founded in 1973, NCCRS strives to increase access to higher education by leading academic evaluations of non-collegiate education. Prior to joining NCCRS, Sax Mahoney served as director of corporate and community partnerships at SUNY Empire State College, executive director of the Adirondack Business & School Partnership, educational director of Lee Enterprises, and as an educational columnist for The Post-Star.

Extended Abstract

As the landscape of employment and higher education evolves, collaborative partnerships between academia and industry are vital to prepare learners for a modern society.  To complement the role of higher education to educate learners, and to meet the needs of employers, there has been an emergence of alternative learning providers giving rise to new models. Many of these models represent a paradigm shift within higher education on perspectives on learning. The shift underscores the value of inclusion of multiple stakeholders to shape an educational ecosystem to address issues such as affordability and access, to engender innovation and relevancy, and to build capacity.

Who are the stakeholders and alternative learning providers and what types of alternative pathways do they provide?

According to Proposal Draft for Comment CQAL: Collaborative for Quality in Alternative Learning, “alternative or innovative providers are a growing sector of post-secondary education composed of companies and organizations that offer structured learning experiences or proficiency examinations untethered from the traditional college and university setting. In general, these providers offer certificates, badges, certifications and/or credit recommendations for the successful completion of courses, modules, or time-limited programs. They are fairly recent entrants to the field of non-collegiate educational offerings, joining the ranks of large corporations, the military, municipalities (e.g. fire and police training), and other workplace-based programs in providing what many now consider college-level learning outside of the traditional classroom setting.  Alternative providers may be focused on career development... They are varied in their approach, focus, delivery modality, and cost… More and more, alternative providers are finding ways to link their learning experiences directly to colleges and universities affording their students a self-paced, cost saving pathway to degree completion.”

Linking learning delivered by alternative providers to colleges and universities relies on several factors including the desired outcome and benefit to students, the expectations of stakeholders, and the level of academic rigor and quality of courses in comparison to traditional college coursework. Some models engage colleges, alternative providers and employers through integration of MOOCs and OERs that afford students with an opportunity to engage in college-level studies without the pressure or fear of grading and with little or no cost. Affording learners the ability to self-assess their preparedness, to engage with college-level content and to reinforce their skills and knowledge provides a platform that can be a catalyst for partnership development.

How can institutions of higher education be assured that courses delivered by alternative providers possess the academic rigor that is consistent with college-level learning?

Recognizing that some learners want recognition of the learning they have acquired through completion of courses delivered by alternative providers including employers, many have had their courses reviewed for college-level comparability by a third-party source. Through an independent academic review, courses delivered by alternative providers and employers are evaluated based on breadth, scope, relevance, and rigor, in addition to a range of other factors. The purpose of these types of academic reviews is to determine if the courses are comparable and equivalent to college-level courses. Additionally, many students gain access to academic credit for their learning through prior learning assessment.

Examples of employment-oriented partnerships established between institutions, alternative providers and employers

Enterprise partnerships or employment-oriented programs that provide transferability to traditional academic credit models help learners improve their skills, gain credentials and acquire meaningful jobs and new career pathways. For example,  Saylor Academy has developed numerous employer-academia partnerships. An example of a successful partnership is the collaboration between Saylor Academy, Bexar County and Bexar County’s BiblioTech Digital Library.  This partnership enables county employees (as well as the general public) to take OER courses to gain access to college credit, to receive free testing through the library system, and to transfer credits to  Saylor Academy partner institutions, including Western Governors University- Texas.

Other forms of alternative pathways

In addition to partnerships, there are a wide variety of alternative pathways including stackable credentials, micro-credentials and use of tools such as digital badges to validate learning. Many of these pathways are becoming increasingly popular among employers who value the transparency of employees’ competencies and the shorter length of credentialing as compared to attainment of a traditional degree. While many of these forms of alternative pathways have been adopted and implemented within higher education, many alternative learning providers have also embedded these pathways in programs built in collaboration with employers. These types of alternative pathways have transformed the way learning is quantified and validated, and have created numerous entry points for all learners. In the educational ecosystem, “…alternative credentials aren’t likely to remain “alternative” for long.”

Goals and Activities:

Attend this session to engage in an interactive discussion on alternative learning pathways and learn about several successful models.  Participants will:

  • analyze data on use of open education resources (OERs) and prior learning assessment;
  • compare alternative learning pathway models;
  • examine employer-industry partnerships;
  • describe guidelines and practices used in assessment of noncollegiate learning;
  • generate ideas on potential collaborations involving employers, colleges and alternative providers.

Activities include a pre-post survey, a PowerPoint presentation featuring interactive question and answer periods coupled with a small group activity and partner exercises. Co-presenters include representatives from NCCRS, Saylor Academy and an employer.