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Build and Accelerate Beyond the Pandemic: Consciously Deliver a Great Online Experience for Lifelong Learners

The EvoLLLution | Build and Accelerate Beyond the Pandemic: Consciously Deliver a Great Online Experience for Lifelong Learners
The online experience is more important than ever, and institutions need a digital infrastructure that not only meets the needs of today’s learners but also allows them to build on their education and accelerate it when needed.

Today’s learners have high expectations as expert consumers in all aspects of their lives. Higher education needs to create an infrastructure that meets the needs of this tech-savvy demographic. Institutions need to recognize that the online environment is here to stay and is in need of a rebuild in order to deliver the best student experience possible, even post-pandemic. In this interview, Phil Regier discusses the today’s learners’ expectations, scaling a high-quality online environment, and how to build the right infrastructure to support learners in this new and digitized normal.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What do you think are the characteristics of a great online learner experience?

Phil Regier (PR): I first like to divide it into two portions: the learning and the experience. Student engagement is the key to great online learning. Students can engage with coursework, faculty and students, but they also need to engage with the course. Years ago, it was easy to engage with materials, but it was more difficult to engage with faculty and have student-to-student engagement. This was simply because we had different tools available at that point. We’ve certainly progressed in eight years, now that all levels of student engagement are possible in an online learning experience. And a student’s success is really dependent upon engagement.

The other component to this is having a great learner experience. The student journey throughout the course has to be supported and as technologically enhanced and rapid as it can be. All of that depends upon a very complicated and difficult-to-construct infrastructure. This infrastructure needs to be able to support online and do so to scale. And that scale could be for 35 MBA students in a single program, or 65,000 students across 220 different programs at a large university. You certainly need the right technology infrastructure to support your institution.

Evo: How do you think the student perception of online education is being changed by the way that most colleges and universities have gone about shifting to scaled remote learning?

PR: Arizona State University (ASU) did a spectacular job, but we were also in a unique circumstance. About one-third to half of our faculty had already taught online courses, so they weren’t afraid of distance education. We already have tons of tools that support students because of what we’ve done with our asynchronous ASU online delivery. They were being supported that way in March when they left, and we did a good job of maintaining it. I know that parents of students from other universities are turned off by the online experience because it reminds them of the early days of video. When I started this job ten years ago, I was appalled because the video capture was state-of-the-art in the early 2000s, but it made for such a static experience.

If what students have seen about online education is an in-person video and a synchronous classroom in which they can’t interact with the instructor or other students, then it’s the same as the MOOC days when people couldn’t take another minute of the video. So, I hope that online is not painted by what happened with many universities in March when everybody had to go home. That was an extreme circumstance, and that is not reflective of the best that can happen in digital or online teaching and learning.

Evo: How do you think learner experiences with these major e-retailers is shaping the expectations that they bring to their engagements with postsecondary institutions?

PR: We recognized ten years ago that Amazon and the Internet had changed everything. At that time, we made a very conscious effort to make everything faster. For example, the turnaround time for an admission decision, financial aid packaging and transfer evaluation took a matter of weeks, and we made the effort to turn that timeline into days. The biggest change was the speed at which normal academic processes need to be turned around. As a result, everything else needs to be accelerated in an online setting.

The other aspect to understanding a great online experience is when it’s untouched by human hands. We’re finding students are simply bypassing our enrollment centers and moving directly to the application. The website has become the primary source for information, while enrollment centers are still using telephones, emails and chat boxes. There’s a vast range of things we can learn from big e-commerce industries that need to be applied to the online teaching and learning experience. And that doesn’t stop once the student enrolls. Students have to be able to chart their path through university and to their degree, so the quality of experience continues.

It’s a much more complicated experience than buying anything. If you buy something like a laptop, it’s one transaction and you’re done. Here, it’s a complicated transaction, but it needs to be informed by the best practices that we see in e-commerce right now.

Evo: How do you scale the level of personalization that guided pathways provide, to tens of thousands of students? 

PR: ASU has an advantage because we created something years ago called e-advisor, which maps students’ majors. It tells students what they should be taking and when, depending on what major they’ve chosen. It’s very much a guided pathway, so these are important to us. We also want to create a student-centric experience. Many universities are faculty-first, and we want to be student-first.

For example, our online history students have between 25 and 40 classes to choose from. Our face-to-face students have 200 options to choose from. When we got into this delivery modality, early on we realized there was no way we were going to build that many courses for online learners, as many of those courses weren’t built for learners–they were built for faculty.

It’s the paradox of the consumer choice. The more choices you give consumers, the harder the time they will have finding their way through it. As a result, sales and revenue go down and the consumer walks away. It’s like buying a t-shirt off the internet. Usually you look around, but after half an hour, you’re closing your laptop and walking away. We have to be very conscious of the choices we’re giving students–giving them what they need but not so much that it becomes overwhelming.

It’s a fine line, but everything we know about Google Analytics is that, with a high degree of predictive ability, we can understand the student and the pathway they each want to take. We’re beginning to use those analytics to making course recommendations  for individual students. In the same way that we see product advertising on Instagram, I think we’ll get the same degree of satisfaction over time when student opts for a course they know they should take, despite having 20 other options advertised to them.

Evo: With the mentality we’ve taken to guided pathways for degrees, how can we start applying them to a consistent and conscious career pathway growth?

PR: ASU has been thinking about it for a long time. One thing we did at the start of this year was create a third enterprise. The way ASU is built as an enterprise based on our Knowledge Enterprise, which is what we refer to as the Research Enterprise, and then the Academic Enterprise, which is all the certificate programs, degree programs,  graduate programs, etc.—all of the things that faculty do.

The third enterprise that we created is called the Learner Enterprise. It covers everything necessary to lifelong learning outside of degree programs. For example, it includes the pathway programs, continuing education programs and our digital high school. It also includes earned admission pathway programs through which a student takes a course for credit without yet enrolled as a degree-seeking learner. The Academic Enterprise and the Learning Enterprise are connected because there is so much overlap. Many of the programs needed for the Learning Enterprise are built around the university’s knowledge core.

But there are some elements the Learning Enterprise needs that aren’t built around that core, and we can go to third parties for that. We can use Salesforce’s Trailhead and begin working with Trailhead to incorporate some of their courseware in a non-credit offering on CRM systems that any student in the world can take. They can take them not-for-credit or for a degree program but as part of a continuing education or professional education platform. If we continue to think that all we have are research and degree programs, we’re missing the future of broad-based learning and teaching.

Evo: If being a knowledge gatekeeper is no longer the role, how does an institution frame its value for the prospect of not just degree seeking learners but learners in general?

PR: The core of what a university does is the creation and transmission of knowledge. We have 4,500 faculty members at this university. If you want to know anything about anything, there’s somebody at this university who can figure it out. When COVID-19 happened, we had four research laboratories working on everything you could imagine. We have connections all over the world that share their knowledge because that’s how research works.

Universities are uniquely positioned, but traditionally, they have developed too narrowly. They’ve thought about themselves as doing the funded research for NSF and NIH, providing degree pathways for students who could afford it or needed it. But that knowledge core is like the core of a nuclear reactor, and what you can do with that is absolutely unbelievable.

Now, that doesn’t mean that we have to create all the content in the world, but there’s no institution that can do what universities do at the scale that they do it. Lynda and LinkedIn Learning do not have 4,500 faculty members with PhDs in applied mathematics, psychology, behavioral economics and every other discipline you would want. Universities are highly differentiated, and they need to expand. They need to broaden the idea of what it means to be a university in the 21st century.

Some universities are beginning to do that, and we at ASU regard ourselves now as a national service university in every way: teaching, service, research, lifelong learning, continuing education, and being able to expand far beyond degree programs and academic research.

Evo: What is the benefit of thoughtfully and consciously investing in high quality online learner experiences?

PR: With ASU, it was all driven by the university’s charter. We are known for who we include as students, how they succeed and our mission requires us to be responsible for the overall health of the communities we serve. About ten years ago, President Crow believed we were failing at providing sufficient access across communities, so we created ASU Online because not every student can come to our face-to-face campus. There are 30 or 40 million Americans who’ve taken some postsecondary education but never succeeded in getting a degree. The degree is a gold standard in this country for career development and fair pay, among other things. We need to expand outside of that by providing education that can reach students wherever they are.

In our case, being able to provide that framework online was driven by the charter. Now, I’m not saying that every university needs to do that. Private universities can do whatever they want. But public universities exist to serve the public, and they’re trying to figure out now whether they should make this investment or not. For smaller public universities, online is a scale enterprise. There are big fixed costs to doing it.

An example of scale and investment would be our success center, where we 90 to 100 success coaches provide every type of support to our 65,000 online students. We didn’t build that success center until we had 25,000 to 30,000 students enrolled. Up until that point, we outsourced it,  so it was an investment. We didn’t know if we would ever build it ourselves or take it over, but if you go into it thinking about building the center and weighing the huge costs for software and training that accompany, it doesn’t make sense. Going forward, we’ll hopefully see more alliances created between universities and federations of universities saying, for example, that they have 15 great liberal arts colleges and they’re going to have a university like ASU driving their technology infrastructure so that they can drop courses in for their students. It’s just in the case that the fixed cost investment doesn’t make sense for every university, but we need to invest a lot more than we have currently.

I would have expected that by 2020, there would be anywhere between five to ten public universities with 50,000 to 100,000 students, and there aren’t that many. Again, going forward we’ll see more of them. However, if the reason that you’re making the investment is simply to grow revenue, I would quit. That won’t sustain. A university is a value-driven enterprise, not revenue-driven, and you have to focus on the core part of your mission that requires you to reach out and provide more access to more people. You have to be thoughtful about what you’re doing without being afraid to shake things up a little, to change some rules and business processes, to work with faculty and enable and empower them to do things in new and different ways. If you’re able to do that, you can get things done.


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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