As colleges and universities across the country scramble toward online learning in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the president of Western Governors University offers this basic advice: “Make sure that you put the student at the center of everything that you do.”

In the latest episode of Strada Education Network’s Lessons Earned podcast, hosts Ben Wildavsky and Andrew Hanson talk with WGU President Scott Pulsipher about his experience at the helm of a university that was designed from its inception to be a completely online experience. The episode is part of a special season devoted solely to exploring how people are responding to the pandemic and how they are innovating to improve education and the workforce.

“Now, more than ever, we have the opportunity to kind of rethink the entire student experience, given that technology and online delivery is going to be a fundamental characteristic of the future of learning,” Pulsipher said in the interview. “When you put the student at the center of things, you’re realizing that it’s not just the delivery of instruction. It’s not just the delivery of lecture material, because all of that is just content. You really have to rethink the instructional model to say, How are you really supporting an individual student to progress in his or her learning?”

WGU was founded by a group of governors just as the Internet was taking off, opening the possibility of affordable, “anywhere, anytime” education for a broader swath of Americans, including many working adults. Rather than delivering traditional lecture-based postsecondary education, the nonprofit WGU launched a new learning model—competency-based education—that allows students to progress toward their degrees as they prove their mastery of concepts or demonstrate skills they have learned, whether in school or on the job. WGU measures its success not by the profiles of its incoming freshmen or the amount of time they spend in the classroom, but by their graduation rates and career outcomes.

Pulsipher said he’s most proud that:

  • 70 percent of WGU students come from populations that are underserved at traditional postsecondary institutions.
  • 45 percent of WGU students—compared with the national average of 33 percent—earn their degrees within four years.
  • 96 percent of employers say they would hire another WGU graduate.

With the pandemic now forcing everyone online—including those with varying expertise in online teaching—Pulsipher said more established online providers are concerned about low-quality experiences tarnishing the reputation of online learning in general. But the pandemic also could bring much-needed support for online educators and learners, he said, including improvements in internet access, flexibility to try new teaching models, and a new willingness to focus on skills-based learning and hiring. Online learning also opens the door to better data collection, he said, about what’s working and what’s not to help not just those students who have access to highly selective universities, but all students who want to learn.

“First and foremost, we start with the fundamental belief in the worth of every individual and a belief in their innate capacity for learning,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon us as the provider of learning to adapt that talent, to that inherent and innate capacity for learning, and that worth to make sure that we can increase the probability that every individual can succeed.”

To listen to Pulsipher and other podcast guests, visit Lessons Earned.org

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