Can the pandemic induce higher education to jump-start the future of learning?

Scott Pulsipher, president of an all-online university founded in the internet age to broaden access to college, hopes so — and he calls this crisis a “shot in the arm” for technology-enabled higher education.

“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, president of Western Governors University, said as a guest on Strada’s “Lessons Earned” podcast.

As the pandemic took hold in the United States in spring 2020, residential colleges and universities shuttered their doors and moved classes online. In the months that followed, students and faculty adapted their learning and teaching methods to meet the needs of the moment.

But now that higher education leaders can envision how their campuses will function in a postpandemic world, the past year’s valuable lessons can help them build an education model for the future.

Western Governors is a nonprofit online university founded by more than a dozen U.S. governors who saw a need for a higher education model that would better serve students of the future. It was founded in 1997, just as the internet’s power was beginning to be understood.

For colleges and universities hoping to put the learnings of the past year into action, Pulsipher offered advice based on Western Governors University’s approach:

  • Place students at the center of the education experience. “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?” Pulsipher said.
  • Let go of the artificial construct of time that was inherent in past education models. From the beginning, Western Governors utilized a model that provides students an opportunity to access their education at a time and place convenient to them. Likewise, the university’s competency-based education model allows students to progress toward degrees by demonstrating mastery of concepts or skills, whether in school or on the job.“So much of what technology and online allows us to do is kind of bend the access to things, and the way it’s experienced, to what time is available to us and when we want to do things in what sequence,” Pulsipher said.
  • Measure outcomes, not inputs. At Western Governors, data such as attainment rates, job placement rates, and income levels drive decisions.

    Forty-five percent of Western Governors students, for instance — compared with the national average of 33 percent — earn their degrees within four yours, and 96 percent of employers say they would hire another graduate from the university.

    “Accountability should be measures of impact,” Pulsipher said, “not measures of how it’s done.”

  • Envision a future where online education works well. Strada Public Viewpoint, a survey of tens of thousands of Americans’ perceptions of work and education during the pandemic, shows about one-third of people favor online education even once it’s safe to resume in-person classes. Many students and higher education leaders, though, are frustrated with the current experience: Strada Student Viewpoint research released in October 2020 showed 35 percent of students at four-year schools felt online instruction had made their ability to learn “much worse.”Pulsipher urges leaders to compare modern-day online learning to the online retail environment of a quarter-century ago. With a focus on improving the experience and centering it on the student, online education can look much different.

    “Twenty-five years ago, a lot of online shopping wasn’t a particularly good experience,” Pulsipher said, “but look how far we’ve come.”

  • Believe in students’ innate capacity for learning. Rather than thinking of higher education as an exclusive pursuit for a select few, Pulsipher urges leaders to see the potential in each student.“We start with the fundamental belief in the worth of every individual and a belief in their innate capacity for learning,” Pulsipher said. “That is a principle because it means that it is incumbent upon us, as the provider of learning, to adapt to that talent … to make sure that we can increase the probability that every individual can succeed.”