Questions and answers on the non-traditional concept of post-secondary education

What is non-traditional education?
Non-traditional education is an established philosophy of education that places the student, rather than the institution or its faculty, at the heart of the learning experience. It understands that learning is an individual and personal matter and that learning can occur in both formal and informal settings. Crucially, it holds that learning that can be evidenced is worthy of being granted academic credit, no matter when or where it was acquired, and so the time spent on studying a subject is unimportant compared to what can be demonstrated as the end product of the learning. As a result, non-traditional learning places great emphasis on the demonstration of competences in the real world, and on learning how to learn. It is the educational equivalent of the saying that if you give a man a fish, it will feed him for a day, whilst if you teach him to fish, it will feed him for a lifetime.

Non-traditional education is a philosophy of individual freedom. Its theories can be found in a number of educationalists, including Carl Rogers, Jung, Maslow, Homer Lane, A.S. Neill and the other pioneers of the democratic school movement. But it can also be seen in the elite, bespoke education given to nineteenth-century aristocrats, and in much earlier precedents. In general, non-traditional education finds common cause wherever educationalists advocate learning as an individualised, lifelong process to be pursued at one’s own pace, following one’s interests and in one’s own chosen setting.

What is the history of non-traditional education?
The ideas underpinning non-traditional education can be found in the ancient world, particularly in the academies of Plato and Aristotle. In more recent times, they can be found in a number of aspects of British and US academic practice from the nineteenth-century, including the “ten year men” at St David’s College, Lampeter, UK, the granting of higher doctorates by accumulation and compounding, the granting of the doctorate based largely on societal status (particularly for bishops and public school headmasters) at the ancient universities and by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the automatic Oxbridge Master of Arts, the Lambeth degree and the granting of degrees ad eundem at many universities. All of these methodologies acknowledge the value of learning gained outside of the institution proper and in some cases through informal means.

Towards the end of the nineteenth-century, extension education became more popular, with curriculums devised that allowed for complete programs up to the doctoral level to be completed at home by correspondence, without ever setting foot on campus. As with other non-traditional developments, these ideas were at first violently opposed and then accepted by the establishment. The Intercollegiate University, predecessor of the present Western Orthodox University (founded 1888), was as far as can be ascertained the first institution to offer a doctoral programme fully by correspondence, as well as being the first university to be devoted entirely to correspondence study with no campus provision.

As a result of the educational reforms and radicalism of the 1960s, the non-traditional concept was taken up by a number of key educators in the US to form dedicated programmes, with those programmes usually originating in a libertarian ethos. This was the birth of the original University Without Walls movement in which such institutions as Sierra University, Summit University of Louisiana and The University for Integrative Learning were to play a vital part. These programmes were committed to completely non-residential, experiential models of learning, seeing learning as a spiritual act and committing themselves to recognising the learning of working and retired adults in many different subject areas. It was not long before these programmes acquired a great deal of popularity and credibility with the public, despite strong opposition from mainstream competitors. This popularity continued into the 1980s when institutions such as American Coastline University, Columbia Pacific University and Greenwich University made it possible for adults to earn a degree that was non-traditional in both content and philosophy.

The inevitable backlash against non-traditional programs from mainstream universities took two forms. The first was that a number of mainstream universities adopted non-traditional bachelor’s programmes that took on the substance of the non-traditional ideal without its radical philosophy. It must not be thought, however, that these programmes were not of very considerable utility and benefit, and they remain so to this day. The second aspect of the backlash was that government was persuaded by its mainstream universities and others lobbying on their behalf to legislate their private-sector competition out of existence. Beginning with Columbia Pacific and moving onwards, governments made it clear that the ideas of non-traditional education were too radical and too much of a threat to the mainstream to be tolerated. Only what was permitted by the conservative regional accreditation agencies would hitherto be allowed. This was more than merely the closure of a number of institutions; it was an attempt to wipe out an entire ideology and philosophy, particularly of non-traditional graduate education.

Responses to these developments varied. Some institutions moved to friendlier jurisdictions, only to have to move again when those jurisdictions became progressively less friendly. In the U.S.A. and elsewhere the truth was that governments were only too happy to pass protectionist legislation in favour of their state-controlled universities – from which they derived financial benefit – and cared little about academic freedom or consumer choice. When this was coupled with vocal lobbying and smear campaigns by authoritarian state-socialists in favour of the state-controlled sector that aimed to convince the public – wrongly – that the independent post-secondary sector was exclusively populated by blackguards and fraudsters, it was no surprise that serious examination of the issues was thin on the ground. Australia went so far as to devise a university inspection system that it applied exclusively to its one private university, Greenwich University on Norfolk Island, with what appears to have been the express purpose that Greenwich should fail the inspection and thereby be easily disposed of – all other (public) institutions had been “grandfathered in”. Again the message was that anything that did not look and behave like the mainstream, and serve the public purse, would not be tolerated.

So we see a position in which genuine non-traditional education is today pushed to the margins of post-secondary education. However, there are still a few bastions of its philosophy that remain to carry the torch. The coming of the Internet means that it is easier to deliver non-traditional courses in jurisdictions where those are still legally permitted, it is easier for consumers to find courses that meet their needs, and it is also easier to put the case for independent post-secondary institutions and show that this debate is far from one-sided. Above all, it is still possible for a genuinely non-traditional award programme to be pursued today.

What is the primary opposition to non-traditional education?
Systems of mass education are incompatible with non-traditional education’s individualised philosophy. Non-traditional education demands that the institution change from being primarily a learning controller and provider to a substantially different role as a learning facilitator and assessor. Although the traditional campus must necessarily remain a valuable learning resource, it is now one of many such resources, along with the home, the workplace, the natural environment and many more. What has happened, quite simply, is that non-traditional education’s revolution has wrested power from the academic establishment and given it back to the public at large. And in doing so, it has exposed how much of the state-controlled system does not serve the interests of students at all, but instead is there to prop up a system of tenured faculty who do not hesitate to impose their interests upon public funds. The traditional system cannot be reformed – teachers’ unions, faculty boards and state bureaucrats will react to such radical suggestions with hostility – so reform must be undertaken from outside the mainstream system. At that point, the free market will have the opportunity to decide what best meets its needs in a given situation.

Traditional education is organised on the basis of time served. No matter the student’s ability, if he or she wishes to complete his programme in less time than usual he or she will find substantial obstacles to this in the majority of institutions. A British university customarily charges fees on a yearly basis, thereby imposing its sentence on the learner; to complete the programme more quickly will deprive it of income.

For this reason also, traditional institutions have been highly resistant to forms of competency-based learning in practice, allowing such for vocational qualifications and the Senior Award diplomas of the City and Guilds Institute (which are examined at degree level), but not for the majority of degree awards proper. APEL has made some inroads, but its adoption is limited and its role restricted.

Yet it is competency-based degree-level qualifications that employers and students are increasingly demanding. Within non-traditional learning the issue is not time served, it is competencies demonstrated. If the student’s skills and abilities are appropriately evidenced, they gain the credit for them, and it matters not whether it has taken them a week to demonstrate their competence or a year under learning contract. For the able, successful, mid-career adult, competency-based learning will reduce the time needed to earn an award dramatically. And, crucially, this is done without that award  having to be made “easier” or “less demanding”.

It is manifestly illogical to say that the process of sitting in a classroom is more important than what you learn within it. Yet this is precisely one of the arguments that is deployed against non-traditional learning by the mainstream, in the hopes of discrediting the non-traditional sector on the grounds that it is somehow less rigorous. Mid-career adults do not look for the “rite of passage” undergraduate experience that traditional universities have become hooked upon, nor are they impressed by the bells and whistles of fancy campuses when they will never use half of the facilities there. Rather, they want to learn, and demonstrate what they have learned, in as quick, unfussy and economical manner as possible – preferably without having to give up their jobs and uprooting their families. This is where non-traditional education comes to be seen as a godsend by many.

Where education is seen as a mere process of obtaining a credential, non-traditional philosophies will have little relevance. Regrettably there is an increasing tendency within society towards “diplomaism”, where a qualification is required in a situation without any real need for it. This practice fuels a culture in which diploma mills and other indifferent establishments thrive, because the piece of paper is valued more than the educational process which underlies it. David Hapgood’s 1971 classic “Diplomaism” is as relevant today as the day it was written. Non-traditional education is the antithesis of the diplomaism approach, since it is concerned above all with evidenced outcomes and competences that form the basis of the degree award within a philosophy of holistic learning. However, the non-traditional philosophy has been as open to abuse as any other, and, as will be seen, there are a number of programmes available that are non-traditional in outward form but not in underlying philosophy.

Non-traditional education is not for everyone, nor even for all working mid-career adults. Those for whom it is not a good match include people who are not naturally good at self-motivated learning and who prefer to be dependent and subordinate in a learning context rather than making decisions for themselves about their own learning and its processes. Those who are naturally drawn to hierarchies and authoritarian structures, particularly those who place their faith in the supposed benevolence of the paternalistic state, are likely also to find the democracy and self-empowerment of non-traditional education confusing, and a thing to be feared rather than embraced. And those who regard learning processes as more important than outcomes will not be happy unless they have “done their time” for the requisite number of years that the establishment thinks proper for them, regardless of whether they actually needed to do so in the first place or not.

And lastly in our list of oppositions, there is the snobbery and class-consciousness factor that still remains in some individuals. There is little more pathetic than the graduate of a third-rate state-controlled establishment looking down their nose at the graduate of a new independent institution simply because of its independence – yet it happens, and as elsewhere, such individuals draw the line of acceptability immediately beneath their own feet. Likewise, we are confronted with those who insist that experimentation and radicalism in educational methodology are part of a global conspiracy to “devalue” their own traditionally earned qualifications, and that the area of academic awards should be immune from change – here are people who know nothing of academic history and betray ultimately the insecurity that perhaps at least some of the time-serving aspect of their studies might very well not have been necessary after all.

These issues are above all problems for the snobs and their fragile psyches – not for the non-traditional graduates they seek to denigrate, who know that what they have earned is of genuine worth. There is no merit in judgements on institutions based on mere age, tradition (however selectively interpreted), wealth or favour within the ruling class, when all these things are utterly peripheral to the educational process that should be at the centre of any institution; it should go without saying that the post-secondary educational institution of today must be more than simply an establishment club and a relic of the days when such entities served primarily as finishing schools for young gentlemen.

I have seen programmes elsewhere that are described by some as “non-traditional”, yet they appear quite different in ethos from those which you have described. How so?
Part of the mainstream campaign against non-traditional education in the USA has been to adopt and corrupt its terminology for mainstream ends. Non-traditional education is not a process, it is a philosophy of considerable strength and radicalism. There are programmes in mainstream American schools today that are described as non-traditional where their non-traditionalism is in form only, not in substance or philosophy. Behind the non-traditional exterior, the values of the mainstream are still as strong as ever.

This is emphatically not to say that programmes of this sort offered by mainstream US schools cannot nevertheless be of tremendous utility to the student. Particularly where a qualification with specific governmental approbation is required, these routes represent an opportunity of considerable benefit.

In addition to this, and greatly to be regretted, is the adoption of the term “non-traditional” to cover programs that are in fact highly traditional in all aspects but are delivered by correspondence, online or in some manner other than campus residency. This is a deliberate distortion of the term’s proper meaning, which refers to a cogent philosophy of education with which these programmes have no alignment whatsoever.

The following observations may be of use in deciding for yourself whether a programme or school is genuinely non-traditional or not:

  • The programme is substantially identical in content to a traditional campus-delivered programme, but is delivered other than on-campus. This amounts to a distortion of the term non-traditional to cover programmes that do not have anything to do with non-traditional educational philosophy.
  • The institution places artificial limits on the age[1] or the number of prior credits that can be brought into the program. In non-traditional education you can either demonstrate the competency to the level required to earn credit or you cannot. Limits of this kind are either the outcome of the impositions of government regulation or an attempt by the institution concerned to maximise the enrollment period and therefore their revenues.
  • The institution offers “non-traditional” programs to the bachelor’s level, but then offers only traditionally-structured graduate-level programs, particularly doctorates. Non-traditional education is a holistic philosophy – you either believe in it or you don’t. It isn’t the case that it is “good enough” for some qualifications and not for others, or that one can “half-believe” in it with credibility – this is a fundamentally flawed ideology. Again, this is likely to be the outcome of the impositions of government regulation.

What about the concept of a campus? 
Historically, most institutions of non-traditional post-secondary education have operated without a formal campus. An alternative has been to diversify the concept of a campus by using independent residential learning centres to deliver validated programmes alongside other awards.

You will look in vain for manicured lawns and historic buildings at a non-traditional institution. This is because the traditional campus is wholly unnecessary for this type of distance learning program. It is both pointless and wasteful for an institution to maintain facilities that are not actually needed but are instead purely for show and “keeping up appearances”. The educational institution is not a collection of buildings, it is a much more fundamental concept (handed down to us from the mediaeval era and before) – a collection of scholars. Where those scholars are globally distributed, and their students likewise, a formal centralised campus that only a tiny minority would ever need to visit would serve no purpose at all. This does not mean, however, that such a program is necessarily “virtual” or “web-based”, though it certainly can be. Rather, the institution is located where its people are to be found, along the model of a learned society. Such a non-traditional award will take shape above all within the student’s environment and community. For all that a non-traditional institution may be global in nature, the  learning experience will likely be much closer to home than even with a local campus education provider.

UNESCO defines the virtual university as follows:

“A virtual university has no campus and no faculty of its own; instead a virtual university makes available programmes and courses offered by other universities and colleges using technologies.” 

It is not too much of a stretch from this to the logical step whereby such virtual universities devise and make available their own programmes rather than those of others.

The Adult Higher Education Alliance (AHEA) has said,

“A few institutions operate without a campus and have many sites similar to off-campus programs; these institutions may consider themselves to be campus-free or a generic university without walls.” 

The concept of international diversification of facilities, teaching and administration is one with ample precedent in both the government-controlled and the independent sectors. Amongst post-secondary institutions that operate without a formal campus we count the Open University, Greenwich School of Theology and the City and Guilds Institute in the UK, in Canada, Athabasca University and Vancouver University Worldwide, whilst in the US we have Western Governors’ University, Jones International University, the University of Phoenix, Rockbridge University and Excelsior College. Most universities in the Netherlands have no formal campus. Of the above, particularly notable is Western Governors’ University, which as well as having no campus operates on the basis of mentored learning, using the resources of other learning providers rather than having any courses of its own. Like University of Phoenix, they have also realised that adjuncts rather than tenured faculty is the way forward.

An article from Wired News puts the issues into perspective,

“In the last two years, interest in distance education really clicked,” said Andy DiPaolo, executive director of the Stanford Center for Professional Development. “The cost of entry has dropped significantly. A school used to have to have a building with all kinds of equipment to transmit course material and only big companies could afford to pick it up. Now you need a Web server, some audio and video equipment.
“This is going to result in some competition for the universities,” said DiPaolo, referring to corporations like the University of Phoenix, which was set up specifically to court the distance learner. 
“In the past, universities tended to own a local geographic area, but there is no geography to it anymore. In the industrial age, we went to school. In the communication age, the school comes to us,” DiPaolo said.”

Some media articles, driven by an establishment agenda, attack non-traditional institutions, and in fairness some newer traditional institutions as well, for not subscribing to the traditional campus-based view of post-secondary education. These articles are based on the reinforcement of an outdated traditional stereotype, not on any appreciation of the changes that the electronic age has brought to post-secondary education. Criticising the non-traditional university for its lack of a campus is like complaining that it is a tiger rather than an elephant. Above all, education is a process, not a place.

How is this different from the “degrees for life experience” that I have seen heavily advertised on the Web?
Non-traditional education assesses learning, not mere experience. The concept of “life experience” divorced from learning is as meaningless as requiring people to complete enrollment for a set period despite their already being able to prove competence to the required level. Responsible institutions do not accept this level of evidence, but instead require you to prove what you have learned during that time in a way that justifies the award of credit. This will usually require substantial  documentation that shows how your learning has been put into practice. Such practices are necessary in order for the award to be meaningful, both as an expression of the non-traditional philosophy and as a qualification per se.

[1] This is not the same as the argument that prior learning reflect current competence. It is reasonable, for example, to say that something written some years previously should be updated to reflect developments in knowledge since its publication. It is, however, academically unreasonable to simply ban work undertaken before a given cut-off date, as has been done by some institutions.