Creating a Great Student Experience through Analytics and Partnerships
The following interview is with David Leasure, provost of Western Governors University. Many universities today are struggling with the demand to keep costs low for students in an era of unprecedentedly low public funding. Coupled with this is the challenge of meeting the growing service demands of today’s students. Against this backdrop, WGU has kept tuition flat for students since 2008 while scaling service to provide a positive experience for their increasing numbers of enrollees. In this interview, Leasure sheds some light on how they’ve managed to do this.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so crucial for universities to create a positive, seamless and engaging student experience?
David Leasure (DL): It’s important that we talk about “seamless” and “engaging,” and it starts with clear competencies up front.
We’re very explicit about what students need to learn. Then, we build clear pathways to learning and support that with engaging content so that the student knows their time is being well respected and what they’re working on is going to be effective in learning the materials.
When we aren’t seamless, or when we cause friction in the interface, we waste the student’s time. They don’t only miss out on spending that time to learn what’s important; they get frustrated. We waste that emotional commitment that they have coming into a course. If we don’t follow all the way through with a positive user experience, they’re going to question whether it’s a worthwhile thing for them to do and struggle to complete the course.
Evo: How are technological solutions helping WGU to create such an experience?
DL: The most important thing is to be able to measure what works and what doesn’t work. By looking at where the student interacts, how they interact and what they’re learning, or not learning, technology gives us a lot of information that we can go back and tune curriculum with.
The other part of this is that rather than being a classroom lecturer, where you’re hoping that the performance works out well, you can actually design the experience and then use the feedback you get to actually tune that course over time. The changes you make are present then for all students and you really spend more time optimizing a course because it’s being done for the entire set of students in a program. It’s very cost-effective to do that as well.
Evo: Is there any risk of a loss of quality when a university licenses a program or contracts a service rather than creating it from scratch in-house?
DL: There are risks on both sides of that. There’s risk if you’re not careful in the review and selection of the course materials to support. For high volume areas—like general education, the sciences, social sciences, humanities—publishers have really stepped up over the last few years and are making much better curricula because they know it’s going to serve a large number of students. There’s been a lot of effort in that regard.
There are good solutions out there, but then there are solutions that are not as well prepared. It takes an effort to sort through them and select the right one.
Of course, in-house there’s the risk of variability. When you’re starting from scratch, a course can be much more expensive to develop than to license. You have to have the resources available and that expertise to put together that seamless, engaging student experience. You’re always going to have to develop some curricula on your own if it just does not exist in formats that you would like.
Where it does exist, it makes sense to go after that to keep the costs low overall so that you can address the areas you do need to build.
Evo: How has WGU managed to keep tuition rates flat despite the student population consistently increasing?
DL: We’ve been able to keep the rates flat partly due to economies of scale. We’re not creating new courses and we have the same investment in our curriculum for a greater number of students. We are very focused on doing those things that serve students well and not doing things that are a distraction. We’ve carved out what isn’t important for student learning and ultimately graduation and career success.
It’s also the use of data and analytics to understand where we’re being effective and where we’re not being effective. We’ve been able to employ learning analytics and really focus in the faculty activities and the student activities that occur the most. We’re getting far more efficient at teaching and learning and are able to serve students better with a set of resources that is not growing as fast as the student population itself.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of creating that positive student experience, and how scaling technologies and really taking advantage of economies of scale can help a university to do that?
DL: One thing that has really helped us is to build around the competency-based education model, which is about measuring learning, not measuring time. [Students] are not forced into a situation where they have to spend more time and more resources for no gain in the course learning. That is a huge win for us also in terms of both appealing to students who are very time-conscious. We have a high percentage of students who are employed and time is of critical concern for them.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator