Authenticity and Relevancy in General Education: Building a Program for the Online Adult Learner

Concurrent Session 5

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This presentation will introduce SNHU/COCE’s new General Education program, which provides a consolidated, prescribed academic path for students. We will discuss the reasoning behind the new framework, the characteristics and implication of its structure, and share our successes in building a relevant and authentic experience for online learners.


Dr. Priscilla Hobbs is the Associate Dean of General Education and interdisciplinary Studies at Southern New Hampshire University's College of Online and Continuing Education. She is the author of Walt's Utopia: Disneyland and American Mythmaking, which explores the relationship between the theme park and American culture.
Anthony Siciliano is Executive Director for General Education at Southern New Hampshire University's College of Online and Continuing Education. He graduated with his MFA from Arizona State University and has worked in higher education administration for over ten years within both traditional and competency based undergraduate general education programs. Mr. Siciliano is also a practicing artist working in photography and digital media.

Extended Abstract

When Southern New Hampshire University’s College of Online and Continuing Education (COCE) first launched its General Education program in 2012, it followed a traditional distribution structure and survey course pick-pool model that gave students an opportunity to sample different disciplines before settling into their major coursework. Several issues quickly became apparent. First, from an institutional standpoint, it was difficult for us to measure whether a student is actually achieving the general education program outcomes due to the many courses from which students could choose to fulfill their general education requirements. Second, the average age of our online learner population is 32-36. They are likely already on a career path, and are seeking a degree to help them achieve their next goals. Many of our students are looking for an education experience that is meaningful and authentic to their already-established personal frameworks. Creating an academic pathway that is more directed and relevant to their professional career goals and upper division coursework is paramount to their lasting success.  Third, the student experience within the General Education program was neither transformational nor transactional. How can we be certain that we’re graduating students with the essential skills that come with a solid liberal arts education?

    To that end, a cross-functional team was built to develop a General Education framework that allows for student authenticity in their coursework and is relevant to their personal and professional goals, while also creating a program that satisfies institutional and accreditation standards. Through a multiyear initiative, investing time and resources toward revising COCE’s General Education program, the solution is a significantly condensed program that prescribes a limited number of courses that still allows students enough flexibility to project their experiences through one of the four core lenses of our General Education framework--the humanities, history, natural sciences, and social sciences—making the curriculum more relevant to our adult student population and effectively measuring student learning of our general education program outcomes. The genesis of developing a new general education program framework necessitated COCE to investigate and incorporate (1) new learning models that allow for knowledge acquisition and discipline investigations through the perspective of humanistic, historical, social scientific, and empirical lenses; (2) principles of learning science for how students learn and retain knowledge; (3) prototypes for the course curriculum in new course user interfaces (UI), improving personalization and positively impacting student learning, retention, and success; (4) the translation of knowledge to professionally relevant applications with authentic assessment experiences; (5) the ability to accurately measure student learning of a prescribed set of course and program outcomes; and (6) the training of faculty in high-impact instructional practices and dispositions to successfully help convey course material to students through a learner-centric approach. This provides students the opportunity to achieve liberal intellectual growth while building authenticity within their studies.

This presentation will begin with Associate Dean Priscilla Hobbs illustrating the COCE student and the learning style many students, especially Millennials, bring to their education rooted in perspectives of “edu-tainment,” gamification, and the expectation of having an authentic, transformative experience from their studies. Executive Director Anthony Siciliano will then overview the learning science principles behind COCE’s General Education framework and the program itself, concluding with the results—successes and challenges—of the project so far. Throughout the presentation, there will be opportunities to discuss opportunities to apply this model in other educational environments.

    Attendees to this session can expect to:

  • Understand and discuss the attributes of online learners and the use of prescribed academic pathways, taking into account shared demographics and common behaviors.
  • Review early results of our new General Education framework pilot along with our learning science principles and pedagogical frameworks.
  • Participate in a collaborative discussion of sharing best practices and identifying what may work best for your student population demographic.

Presenter Bios:

Dr. Priscilla Hobbs is the Associate Dean of General Education and Interdisciplinary Studies. She has experience teaching face-to-face, hybrid, and online classes, and enjoys the flexibility of online classes to allow students to choose their own adventure. She holds a Ph.D. in Mythological Studies from Pacifica Graduate Institute and is the author of Walt’s Utopia: Disneyland and American Mythmaking.

Anthony Siciliano is the Executive Director of General Education at Southern New Hampshire University’s College of Online and Continuing Education.  He holds an M.F.A. from Arizona State University and has worked as an administrator in higher education for over ten years.  He is a published artist and has work included in several collections including the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and the Arizona State University Herberger Institute School of Art collection.