Episode 43: Innovation: Western Governors University and Competency-Based Education

The current series of podcasts is focused on innovation, and we’re excited to showcase ideas from various industries and people worldwide. In episode 43, President Scott L Wyatt and Professor Steve Meredith invite Western Governors University President Scott Pulsipher to discuss how competency-based education can meet the needs of students and employers in a changing job market.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and I'm joined in-studio again today, as I always am, by President Wyatt. Hi, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Hello, Steve, it's a great day.

Meredith: And this is part of an ongoing series of podcasts about innovation and some of the barriers and some people that we admire who are doing interesting things that we want to talk to as we look to be more innovative and forward-thinking in what we're doing. And today, we have a very interesting guest who was one of the keynote speakers at the recent annual meeting of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities Annual Convention up in Seattle. And, as you know, in my job here, I worry about what NCCU thinks about us, and I was very impressed by what our guest had to say and also some of the struggles that he had with accreditation bodies generally and just competency-based learning I think is one of the things that we're going to be talking about. So, will you introduce him?

Wyatt: Yeah, it's my pleasure to welcome Scott Pulsipher, who is the President of Western Governors University. Welcome, Scott.

Scott Pulsipher: Thank you so much, Scott, I appreciate being with you.

Wyatt: We probably ought to start with a little introduction about Western Governors. And I've often thought that Western Governors University was born in Cedar City, even though that may be a small stretch. [All laugh]

Pulsipher: Yeah, and there is some truth to that, as you know. We have a great heritage beginning with Governor Mike Leavitt who was very much a part of WGU's founding and he is one of the favorites from Cedar City, Utah and also a Southern Utah University graduate.

Wyatt: Any he used to be our Board of Trustee Chair.

Pulsipher: Well, there you go. I didn't even know that either. Myself being new to higher education as well as new to the state of Utah, so I'm always learning something new, but I do know Mike's influence is broad and deep.

Wyatt: Yeah. So, give us just a little sketch of WGU.

Pulsipher: Yeah, I'm happy to. So, WGU itself somewhat, as the name often implies, is heritage. It actually 21 years ago was established or founded by the governors of 19 western states and territories and Governor Leavitt of Utah as well as Governor Romer and others were huge sponsors of really conceiving ways by which they would dramatically expand access to high-quality education for underserved populations. And these populations existed in all of their respective states and they knew that they needed to find new pathways for increasing the competency and skill and capability of their respective populations to meet the needs of their growing economy and their growing workforces and that they knew that the future of work was going to be defined by capabilities that were going to stretch the existing capacity, if you will, at the time of what I would call maybe their kind of middle workforce if you will. And so, in conceiving this notion of a new model of an institution, they knew probably a couple of things. First and foremost, they knew that the education itself had to align closely with the workforce needs and that was, the idea even behind that, was the idea of competency. What are the competencies that are required for success in the respective areas in the workforce and how do you design curriculum and education to match those competencies? The second thing they knew is that they internet and the advent and really the acceleration of the industrial age…or, sorry, the digital age and the third industrial revolution was that the internet was going to be a powerful force in reinventing a lot of different things. Surely, everyone knows how it's reinvented retail, but I think there was a clear sense and vision that the internet would dramatically expand access and allow higher education and the institutions that provide it to reach and teach students where they are and to allow them to learn independent of time and place. And so, those two kind of hallmarks became the foundation of Western Governors University. And so, that was 21 years ago. That is the namesake and now, fast-forward to today, what started then is now one of the largest institutions of higher education in the country. We have over 110,000 full-time enrolled students in bachelor's and master's programs in all 50 states and over 7,000 enrolled students here in Utah alone and probably over 8,000 or 9,000 graduates of WGU in the state of Utah. And where we have over 125,000 graduated alumni across the nation.

Wyatt: It's gone a long ways in the last 21 years, hasn't it?

Pulsipher: It very much has, and I think if you even ask the Governor Leavitt or any of the other founding governors, I think it's far exceeded any expectations they had for it when they conceived it.

Wyatt: You have kind of a unique student body in that, if I understand it right, Scott, about three-quarters of your students are full-time, mid-career people.

Pulsipher: It is true, about 70% of our students are working full-time. Probably the biggest single indicator of the student body that we serve primarily is that they are individuals who have some prior college but have not completed a degree or a credential. And these individuals span all age groups, they also span multiple different workforce sectors. But it is true that about 70% of them are working full-time. About a similar percent probably have children, but most importantly, we recognize as part of WG's founding that even today, over 70% of our students are in one or more categories of underserved populations, be that low income, rural, military, ethnic minorities, first generation students, etc. And so, that is the target really of adults that we have intended to serve in our design.

Wyatt: And since you're serving that…since you have that many students that are in that category, that really kind of naturally leads you to competency-based education, doesn't it?

Pulsipher: I think so. To be fair, I don't think I necessarily draw the distinction between competency-based and the adults or the students that we serve. I think it has more to do with designing learning outcomes to map to opportunity. And so, one of the kind of core aspects of our design around competency-based is that you first and foremost have to ensure that the curriculum and the learning objects and the learning outcomes of the courses and the programs in which students enroll, that the learning outcomes of those have to map to the skills and needs and skills, capabilities, and competencies that are necessary for success in the workplace. And that education-employment alignment is one of the key things that we began with in designing our curriculum model. When we thought about the design of that, what we knew was that the competency-based approach would be very clear, absolutely clear about the learning objects. And when we think about the learning itself, the competency-based model says the mastery of those learning outcomes of the demonstration of proficient, if you will, is what matters most. Not the time to demonstrate that proficiency. So, we knew that these individuals—and in reality, all individuals I think learn this way—that we will focus and spend our time, energy and effort to learn the things that are more challenging for us and will accelerate through the things that we already know. In both cases, you have to maintain a high bar and standard for proficiency. But the competency-based approach says that when you demonstrate that proficiency, we know that you have demonstrated the capabilities necessary for success in employment and so, when you complete that and demonstrate proficiency, you can move. Meaning you can complete the course and move to the next course. There's no time-based component with it.

Wyatt: Yeah, I don't know how we got into this Carnegie model that was time-based. That a semester is…for one credit, a semester is 15 hours in class regardless of…

Pulsipher: That's right. And I think the history of the Carnegie, and it is not hard to figure out, it worked really well for paying faculty. Seeing how many credit hours were you teaching as a faculty member and so they could determine that that was how much you should be paid for teaching. And then I think that over time, it kind of evolved into, “Well, one hour of class time should require of two hours of study time” and then “To be a full-time student how many credit hours you have to be enrolled in and how many of those credit hours have to occur over how many weeks” and sure enough, you evolve into what we today have is that credit-hour term-based model that is the conventional system of things. And so, WGU as you and your listeners are learning, when you remove all of that, it starts to create a bit of confusion among those who are very used to supporting a credit-hour-based model, whether that be regulators, accreditors, faculty, institutions, you name it. When all of the sudden you design something differently, you have to rethink the whole model.

Wyatt: Yeah. In some ways…so, we've partnered with a technical college here in Cedar City, and they are almost exclusively competency-based. If you're studying to be a welder, nobody cares if you got an A or a B or a C in the class, they just care if you can pass a competency test at the end of each segment.

Pulsipher: Yeah, that's right. And that is the design is that you keep the learning constant, as we like to say, and then you let the time vary because the proficiency against those competencies is what really matters. And even the grades—not that competency-based is perfect—but even in a graded credit hour model, those grades aren't perfect either because a C could mean, or a B even could mean, that you are really deep in one area but shallow in others, but the aggregate score is a B. Or it could also mean that you're shallow in all areas and deep in none and that also gets you to a B. And our argument is that if you're clear about the learning outcome and then you have really effective ways by which you assess proficiency against those outcomes then if you meet the standards—which we believe is at a B average or better meaning you have to demonstrate proficiency across a whole scope of learning outcomes—then you are complete and you've demonstrated mastery and then you can progress to the next course. Not surprisingly, what you may find at WGU is that those pursuing bachelor's degrees at WGU on average will complete in two years and four months.

Wyatt: On average?

Pulsipher: On average, yeah. And so, very different than traditional four-year degree, right? Where in theory, 120 credit hours to complete a bachelor's degree and you should do that at 15 credit hours per term over eight terms in four years…well, that's fine. I think that's a good measure of how much effort should go into completing that, but in some cases, if you can master and demonstrate proficiency quicker, you can accelerate through that which you can and then spend the focus on the areas where you need to study more and study more to ultimately achieve proficiency. And so, that flexibility of time does allow for a model that, if you will, fit into a working adult's life more effectively than more the traditional campus or residence or classroom-based models.

Wyatt: The fact that students can move through it more quickly, do you find that to be motivating for them?

Pulsipher: Surely I think we do, especially if you take an individual who has had acquired learning but through a non-academic setting. They may be working in software development or they could be working a medical and health profession, they could be working in accounting and bookkeeping, whatever it is, and they are able to very effectively leverage their prior learning and accelerate and complete quickly. And ultimately that also has the benefit in WGU's model where we have a fixed tuition per six-month term, but within that six months, and individual can complete as many courses as they are able. So, it is possible for our students to not only see success and progress in their learning, but if they can accelerate, they can decrease the total cost of their bachelor's degree or master's degree as well because you can complete in fewer terms at a fixed cost per term. There is no per credit hour cost.

Wyatt: So, one of the really interesting pieces of this competency-based model that you've got—and I'm curious to get your take on it because some of the students, as you've acknowledged, are able to take their life experiences and bring it in and move through it more rapidly—so, to some degree, education is seen as being the providers. Higher ed is seen as being the providers of educational experience. But in some respect, competency-based education is a combination of providing education and also simply evaluating the education already achieved and putting a stamp of approval on it. So, to what extent is competency-based education assessing learning that's already occurred versus teaching beyond what the student already knows?

Pulsipher: There are in reality, I think competency-based can cover the continuum, if you will, meaning that one thing is for certain—there are multiple sources of education that are available to students, to adults, today that weren't available before. And if you think of even pre-internet era that a large portion of the value of universities is that it truly was the harbinger of so much of the knowledge that needed to be transferred from institutions to individuals or from professor to student. And that existed in the context of textbook lectures, seminar series, experiential learning projects, you name it. But, in many ways, the internet has dramatically compounded the availability of that information and knowledge and it has also compounded the access to that knowledge. Now, I don't think that anyone would be wrong in assuming that much of the learning also occurs in experience, meaning as much as you can gain from lectures and books and everything else, once you start having to apply that which you are learning in theory or in textbooks, etc. to a working environment, you're actually dramatically expanding your learning and the efficacy of it as well. And so, a competency model, it really just adjusts to where the individual is, regardless of how you may be acquiring the learning. And that's true even if you've never done the job before, never practiced it in some other environment. So, even if you've had no prior learning, you can still accelerate if there are certain things…I surely did this even my freshman year. I came out of high school and, I think every individual has probably experienced this, even though I went to a—I'm a BYU alumni—even though I went to a traditional institution, there were surely certain classes I realized that the lectures didn't add significant value for me or I didn't need to spend as much time in a lab or in a study group because I either had the prior experience and learning through courses that I took in high school that were college-prep courses or it was just subject matter that was more…that naturally was a strong learning category for me. I think in a competency-based approach, it just adapts to an individual's capabilities in a way that a credit-hour model is more fixed. And so, regardless of whether you've already come with just an inherent aptitude for learning a topic or you've had prior experience doing or you've had prior learning, the competency allows, you to accelerate and that competency can be assessed. Lastly, I'll say is there are surely prior-learning assessment or direct-assessment models that institutions leverage out there as well—that is not WGU's model. WGU's model, you do have to enroll in the course, you have to progress through that course and complete the assessment. In a prior-learning assessment or direct-assessment model, institutions specifically allow individuals to go through an assessment before they ever enroll in a course, so they kind of “test out” of taking the course. We don't have the model. But that is a form of competency-based.

Wyatt: This has been…competency-based has been around longer than Western Governors of course.

Pulsipher: Oh, yeah.

Wyatt: The area that's the most clear in my memory is that 30 years ago, 35 years ago—when was it, Steve, when I was that young? [All laugh] I just remember when everybody came home from serving in foreign countries for a couple years if they had been to a country where they had to learn a language that they'd come back home and go down to Brigham Young University, take a test, and immediately get 12 or 15 or 20 credits, whatever it was…

Meredith: Right.

Pulsipher: In my case, it was 16 credits, yep.

Wyatt: 16?

Pulsipher: Yep. And basically, you effectually got a minor in that language.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: That's right.

Meredith: One day minor.

Pulsipher: Yep.

Wyatt: And then transfer that to any other school in Utah and…yeah. So, that's…is that what you're describing happens at WGU?

Pulsipher: That is not. That's what I would call prior-learning assessment or direct-assessment. So, in my case, my language was Polish that you could take the foreign service exams and other exams that specifically assess all your verbal, written and other comprehension in that foreign language and in my case, I realized that the test themselves were not as far advanced as my own ability in the language was, and so that is a prior-learning assessment. Meaning, it was, Steve, as you said, it was a one-day minor because you could take the test and basically prove that you're fully conversant and knowledgeable and competent in that particular area. That is not was WGU does. WGU, you would actually have to enroll in the course and then accelerate your pace through the course. It is still possible for an individual to complete a course in two or four weeks, but they still have to progress through the assessments that are part of that designed curriculum. So, we don't separately have faculty who just assess prior-learning and test out of courses. They enroll in the course, they take the course, they take the assessments. But one students in the course could take two to four weeks, another one could take two to four months. But, both of them have to demonstrate mastery in the course. And, you know. so that is…some institutions have that assessment, as prior-learning assessment model like you referenced, WGU is more of a course-based competency-based model. So…

Wyatt: Well, and it doesn't cost a student any more at WGU because, as you said, it's a fixed amount for the six months.

Pulsipher: That's right. It's a time-based tuition, not a credit-hour-based or credit-based tuition. We still do have credits, so even though our course design allows the pedagogical model that's competency-based, we still have courses that comprise the program. So, you still have to complete the credits associated with that, but some can complete 15 credits in a term, others will complete 30 credits in a term and the pace at which you go is a function of your ability to accelerate your learning. So, yeah. And I think one of the other things I maybe just would like to add, one of the strengths really around WG's model is the individuals that we serve, so many of the challenges that they may have faced before in stopping out of prior college experience had more to do with affective domain or non-cognitive domains of capability, and these have to do with learning how they learn, with communication capabilities, with self-efficacy in purpose and that what we recognize as a key ingredient to that is our faculty mentor model. That while we have a competency-based pedagogical model, we also have a faculty model that really allows them, the individual student, to have a dedicated faculty mentor that is a specific subject matter expert in their course of study, meaning if you are in a degree for accounting or a degree for nursing or a degree in computer science, that faculty member/mentor that you have has a master's degree or higher in that field of study and they are with you from day one until the day you graduate. They are there to provide you all of that integrative instruction that you need, to provide you targeted tutoring when necessary, to connect you with the course faculty necessary, course planning, readiness evaluation, assessment and evaluation review…they really are there to mentor you through your program and that has been a key ingredient to helping our individuals to remain dedicated and committed to the learning that happens at a distance and it's been really effective in achieving the completion and attainment rates that we see at WGU.

Wyatt: I don't know, Steve and I were talking about this and seems to us that WGU is the leader in competency-based education on the university level. I don't know anybody that's doing it better than you. Are there other schools that are weighing in on this?

Pulsipher: Yeah, I think that what you say is surely true in terms of just sheer scale. We do know that there are some reports about two years ago highlighted that there were upwards of 500, 600 institutions that had some programs or pilots in place around competency-based learning models, whether that was in a specific course or for a whole degree program. There are few that have the same scale, or anywhere near the scale as WGU with our 110,000+ students, but there are surely institutions…I'd probably point to DePaul, the University of Wisconsin, system, there's definitely been some exploration of it with Southern New Hampshire University and others, and I think they've been…I think they're learning, for sure. And as you noted earlier, we didn't invent competency-based education. We probably have implemented it more effectively than any other prior models and scaled it well with great student success.

Meredith: And speaking of the scale of this, I've been amazed at 100,000 students and you're talking about a 1:1 faculty mentor. We've also talked about the fact that the Carnegie model provided a tidy little framework for paying faculty, or at least assessing the amount of work that they were doing. How do you do that in what seems to our Carnegie-addled minds a chaotic model?

Pulsipher: Yeah.

Meredith: How do you keep track of faculty time?

Pulsipher: Well, I think one thing is that we don't actually track faculty time, meaning that all of our faculty are full-time, but it's not measured in terms of how much time of that they spend lecturing, but one of our key things is that we first and foremost are a teaching institution. We are not at all confused about the primary responsibilities about the faculty. The faculty are there to really support the students in their learning and their progress, whether that be at a program level or a course level, whether that be a curriculum faculty who design and develop our master curriculum. And so, our faculty are focused on teaching such that the performance is focused on student success and student experience measures. And then things around progress and persistence and ultimately on graduation and satisfaction rates, we focus on those student success measures. And our faculty are full-time, so, we think about the expectation that you are working full time, 40 hours a week, the difference is that it's like having 40 hours of office hours a week for a faculty, meaning that there's no scheduled lecture sessions or lecture times but you are there to support students on an individual 1:1 basis. We do have a cohort—we call them cohorts—but effectively, they are like a group instruction session where 20 students simultaneously will sign up for a teaching session and those surely occur with a lot of our course faculty, but that is a different model. Think of it this way: in the online context, a lecture is just another form of content, meaning you can record it and then you can play it back when you are available, not when the faculty is lecturing. And so, that content in an online context is not necessarily dissimilar from an online textbook, from study question from other learning tools that may exist, and so, all of that content has to be augmented by the 1:1 engagement instruction that the faculty provide for the students. And so, that's the model that we design the role for for the faculty and all of the performance is about student success and attainment.

Wyatt: I had an experience with…you know, a lot of universities have an open, like Open Yale, for example, where they take a class and record it and just put it online, and then anybody can watch it for free.

Pulsipher: Yeah.

Wyatt: And I took one of those classes from Yale. It didn't cost me anything and it was recorded lectures and it was spectacular, actually. It was the faculty member from Yale who taught this course that was videoed and that I got to then watch. It was spectacular. I went…at the end of the last lecture, I wanted to stand up all by myself in the room alone and clap. [Laughs] I was so thrilled with what a great job he'd done.

Pulsipher: Yeah. Well there's a…

Wyatt: But what I noticed was…

Pulsipher: Sorry, go ahead.

Wyatt: One of the things that I noticed, or thought, was is that my experience was better than the experience of the students that were paying Yale tuition in the classroom. Because I had the syllabus, I had a transcript of all of his lectures and I had tapes and if I wanted to take notes, I could just make an underline on the transcript that I could download—which students in class couldn't download—and if I didn't catch something, I could rewind it and play it again.

Pulsipher: Yeah, I think one of the things that we've found, as you referenced, is that Scott Galloway is a great example of how the internet and technology is dramatically expanding the access to high quality learning resources. We had talked about how these…how lectures, when put online, is actually just really rich content. That you can access that content independent of the time and place. See, now, it's democratizes the learning resource that it wasn't previously possible. And Scott Galloway is one of the examples who have been one of the real advancers of leveraging the internet to dramatically expand access to his incredibly useful knowledge around marketing in the digital age and evaluating strategies and mechanisms. So, this is a good example of how learning resources today and even teaching models are dramatically expanding. Udacity and Coursera, Khan Academy, there are many examples of open educational resources that are becoming the models of learning in the future that we know it actually not only improves the access to the education, but it can also improve the quality of the education. And one thing specifically about WGU—and this isn't necessarily widely known—is that we do not develop the majority of our learning resources. We, as a primarily teaching institution in the design of our curriculum…that often includes the sourcing and evaluation and selection of the best third-party learning resources as part of the curriculum that's designed here. So, the vast majority, 90+ percent of the learning resources utilized by WGU for our students are licensed third-party resources, and sometimes that includes the likes of Udacity and Coursera courses in some of our technology programs. It definitely includes textbooks and content from peer institutions and from larger scale providers like Pearson. And that is the one thing that we have the benefit of being a technology-powered learning environment, we can also evaluate the efficacy of those different learning resources in improving individual student mastery of the competencies designed in the course. So, it is a unique model. That is a role that faculty in a traditional sense had all of that responsibility. They had to not only design the course, right? Get the syllabus designed, select a learning resource or write the textbook, they had to write and design the exams, grade the exams, everything else. Our model is such that we have faculty who separately design and develop the curriculum, they also source and evaluate and select the right learning resources as part of that curriculum, and then we have separate faculty who teach at a program and course level and even separate faculty who evaluate student assessments.

Wyatt: So, you've got that divided out, did I hear, in three different categories?

Pulsipher: Four, actually, total. So, we actually have curriculum faculty, course faculty, program faculty and evaluation faculty. The course and program faculty, those are our largest total number of faculty and they are the primary teaching faculty. So, the program faculty are the faculty mentors that we talked about.

Wyatt: Yep.

Pulsipher: And the course faculty are the specific subject matter experts at a course level in a program.

Wyatt: So, how do the faculty feel about, or how does…what would you say is the advantage to separating the assessment from the teaching faculty and the curriculum faculty?

Pulsipher: One of the biggest benefits is the integrity of a competency-based model, so that those who are designing the curriculum—including the learning objectives that define the competencies to be evaluated—they also design the assessment. Now, separately from that, you have evaluation faculty from the teaching faculty. So, those who create the curriculum and design the curriculum are separate from those who teach the curriculum, and so the teaching faculty have a very individual student focus. Where the curriculum faculty's job is to ensure the quality and relevancy and the integrity of the curriculum, the teaching faculty focus on ensuring the student's progress and mastery and, you know, attainment and completing courses. But, the evaluation faculty do not have any of the subjectivity of the teaching faculty around any of the individual students. They're unbiased, objective faculty who evaluate student's performance on the assessments and give highly valuable evaluation feedback that then is reviewed with the teaching faculty and the student. And so, that integrity, I think, overall for us to design has done two things. One is it allows us most importantly to give an individualized faculty experience for every student. Second, it maintains the integrity of a competency-based model. Those who design are separate from those who teach are separate from those who evaluate student performance.

Wyatt: So, in some respects, the evaluation faculty serve as auditors for the students and the teaching faculty both?

Pulsipher: That's a good way to look at it.

Wyatt: Because they are assessing whether the teaching and learning as occurred.

Pulsipher: That's right. And that really the goal of the program mentor, that program faculty and the course faculty, are to ensure that every student, regardless of your learning approach and style, regardless of your prior learning unit, regardless of your capacity for it, whatever it is, is that their job is to make sure that you can advance in your mastery of that and then having a third-party objective assessment of that. We know in this model that every single student who completes and course and a program, that they all were held to the same standards.

Wyatt: That's probably the only way you can do it at the scale you're operating at.

Pulsipher: Yeah, I think that's possibly true. I do know that you would have a lot of variability if you had complete independence of every faculty in the grading students and assessment. Like, you might get much more variability in our own model to know whether the student really…have they demonstrated proficiency and has every student demonstrated it. But in this case, our…the…what the ratios of student to course instructors and program mentors, those ratios are the ones that ultimately we pay the closest attention to, because that really is ensuring that the volume of students…every single one of them feels like the whole of WGU is designed for them because they get a very personalized faculty engagement in the teaching and learning experience. Evaluation faculty, that's where we leverage part-time faculty much more than anywhere else. Actually, it's the only category where we have part-time faculty just to be clear. All of the other faculty are full-time faculty. And so, in that case, you need subject matter experts to do all of the evaluation. And so, we train them on all of our assessments, they bring the subject matter expertise, but we have a very large volume of faculty who are likely full-time faculty at other institutions.  

Wyatt: So, I…Steve, of course Steve, you've taught for years and years and years and I teach on and off...

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt:…As I'm in the mood to do it [Both laugh] since it's not my job to teach.

Meredith: Me too. 35 years I've been in the mood. [All laugh]

Wyatt: And I just teach a class once a semester or once a year or something. But, I would be that most faculty would be thrilled to have someone else do the grading. That seems to be, perhaps, the least enjoyable part.

Meredith: I think they would be thrilled with the actual entry, whether or not all faculty would be thrilled to have a third-party evaluate…

Wyatt: Their students…

Meredith:…Their students at the end, that would be a…I don't mean this in any way to be difficult, that would be a different model that would be frightening, I think, for some. I think it's terrific, but then, I teach in a program that goes toward that very thing. Our adjuncts all come from industry and, you know, that's…the program I'm currently working in, we sort of already have that. But that's…you're right. That part of it is very interesting to me. And, President Pulsipher, you had suggested that this helps maintain the integrity of the entire process. What do you do to make sure that all the other steps along the way have integrity in place? And what I mean by that is I teach in an online program, that's my current teaching assignment along with assisting President Wyatt, and we worry about, “Is it actually the student that is taking the exams?” How do you maintain that type of integrity in a massively online environment of the type you have?

Pulsipher: Yeah, that's a good question. I think one of things is that first and foremost, the entire journey of our students is powered by technology. And so, their student identity with us is known from the day that they are actually a prospect all of the way until they are an alumni, and all of their engagement with us as an institution, whether it's with their faculty, whether it's with financial aid, whether it's with enrollment and enrollment counselors, whether it's with student support and technology services, all of those is powered by…all of their individual engagement with the learning resources and our portals and the assessments and pre-assessments…everything about what a student is doing and how they're  engaging is understood such that the individuals themselves are building a profile learning. Now, when it comes down to very specifically the type of thing you raised, is we've actually found and designed for a very effective proctoring ability to where 99.5% all of our assessments are proctored virtually. The combination of really well-designed technology that allows for video monitoring, keyboard monitoring, all of the computer monitoring, etc. that you actually have much greater reliability in our proctoring model than you'd ever have in a physical location.

Meredith: Right.

Pulsipher: Now, part of that has also been some of the things around how we don't allow relying only only on your laptop's camera, we also actually utilize a secondary camera. All the identification and all of the facial recognition combined with ID keystroke patterns, you name it, it allows a proctor to monitor behaviors during assessment at a much more comprehensive way than a proctor walking the rows in a testing center or a proctoring location does, such that our reliability around that is significantly better than what you would get through a traditional context.

Meredith: Can I ask a…

Pulsipher: But that's isn't…

Meredith: I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you, go ahead.

Pulsipher: No, I said that's vitally important. The virtual context, there are ways, a combination of software plus proctoring plus faculty engagement that there a lot of biometrics, if you will, in a way that you have greater reliance that the student is the one doing the work than you would in some more traditional, classroom-based settings.

Meredith: I just know that this is one of the concerns that faculty who are looking to move online or universities that are looking to greatly expand their online presence sometimes run into, which is concerns among faculty, particularly faculty maybe of a certain age group or who are perhaps less aware of the technology that's available, they're concerned about, as you suggest, proctoring exams and other things. But you're actually having a higher percentage of guaranteeing that it's…

Wyatt: It's the actual student's work.

Meredith: Yeah, that it's the actual student's work than we are.

Pulsipher: The amount of fraud is very, very low simply because there's a lot…it's a lot more difficult to actually circumvent the controls that are in place in a virtual context than it is in a physical context. But, that being said, it's like…they should be rightfully concerned. Meaning as you consider investing in distance education models or online models, these are things that WGU had to figure out 15 years ago.

Meredith: Right.

Pulsipher: But we've figured out and scaled them, but if you are where we were 15 years ago, hey, these are all questions that one should be addressing and then figure out what the right solution is, and “How do you make sure that you address that?” because we surely had to do that. What I do know is this, though, too, which is what, 7 million of 20 million adults in higher ed today are taking all or some of their program online? That number is growing at some 7% or 10% a year where those in a purely on-premise situation is declining at the same rate effectively. So, it is a reality of virtually all learning environments of the future that the online, virtual model is going to be a factor, even if it's in a blended context in a both in-class and online learning model, but I can see that in the computer science exams existing today at most institutions. So much of the work and the tests and the labs and everything else are done online, not in a proctored environment, and you have to validate…you have to have all of the checks and controls in place to make sure that there is validation and that this is in fact the student doing the work. And then that can be done equally well online as it can be on-premise, and in most cases, we've found that with the technology and tools available today, it's more reliable in a virtual context than it is in a physical context.

Wyatt: So, can I fast-forward for about 20 years or so?

Pulsipher: From now?

Wyatt: Yeah, what do you…you just described the changing dynamics of online versus face-to-face and the growth that WGU has seen over the last 21 years and other schools that have had some changes...what do you think the landscape is going to look like in 20-25 years?

Pulsipher: Well, I do think there are a couple easy things that are, to me, almost matter-of-fact now. It's not a question of “Whether?” It's just a question of “How quickly?” So, two of those I would say first and foremost that the majority of the adults in higher education in 20 years from now, in fact, I think that a significant majority of the adults will be over the age of 24. And so that is a…the students being served are of a different type than the stereotype that exists today of higher ed, meaning it's your 18 to 22 year olds that are residence based, they're full-time, they're not doing anything else. I think that is not going to be a reality. I think even today that evidence suggests the profile of our students, not even in 20 years but in 10 years, is that the majority of them are going to be over 24, they're going to be working full-time, they're going to have children, they're going to be independent financially from their parents and that's going to be a reality in such that they're needs are very different than how most, many institutions have designed for. They've designed for the kind of first time, full-time student model. The second thing I think is a reality is that the majority of students will actually be taking…will be accessing education online. And so, it will present challenges to many of the small or regional kind of localized service institutions that will have difficulty with the relevancy to the population of students that they serve today because so many online institutions can provide access to really high-quality education but do so without a physical location. And the internet is definitely making it possible to access and learn independent of time and place. I think there's going to be a couple of other interesting things I would highlight. One is I do think we'll see the unbundling of the bachelor's credential, I think we'll see a significant advancement of micro-credentials, we'll create more of the stackable model that's often talked about. I highlighted this, Steve, at the Northwest Commission…

Meredith: Right.

Pulsipher:…That those competency-based credentials versus a bachelor's rank, the competency credentials are going to be very relevant and increasingly relevant as adults not only need to gain their first set of skills to get opportunities but they need to continually be re-skilled and up-skilled and those competency credentials need to be transferable and stackable into degree ranks because those will remain important, but you'll see a rapid scaling in some of these micro-credentials. The last thing that I would probably highlight is that there will be an emergence of learning or post-secondary education providers that will test the boundaries of the current institutions, the accreditors that oversee them, regulators that oversee them, the learning that we as adults are accessing to maintain readiness for the experience that we're trying to pursue and opportunities…and the credentials and competencies that are needed in those, we are going to see a proliferation of alternative post-secondary education providers and that will test the bounds of the role of the institution. It will also test the bounds of the accreditor, the regulator and others because that learning still needs to be portable and transferable and validated in some way that most of that validation exists within an accredited, higher ed institution today. And that, I think, within 20 years will surely get disrupted.

Wyatt: Today, most of the education is occurring in a Carnegie kind of seat-time based model. Do you think that competency-based education is going to take over the majority of the higher ed world?

Pulsipher: I don't think I'm…I think it's going to be competency-based education will surely continue to increase in its importance…importance and relevance in terms of the educational models and approaches that are needed for access and high quality and great student success and outcomes. Do I think it's going to the predominant model like online is going to be or adult learners as a population? Probably not. I think a lot of the course-based models are still going to be relevant, but I do think that the notion of cracking the credit hour is something that is a disruption that's already happened. And it's an imperfect model for where post-secondary education is going and competency-based is much more effective. I think students by themselves already in traditional credit hour models are disrupting it, meaning they're not going to the classes, they're just waiting until the end of the term to take the final. [Laughs] They're like, “You know, how about you just give me that final first and I'll then go enroll in the courses that I need to take so that I can finish.” So, I think that competency-based approach, it will continue to advance. I think it is a great means by which you can serve larger populations of adults today that are not being served. Is it going to be the majority? I don't think so. Will it increase its share? Surely.

Wyatt: I can remember 20 years ago hearing Mike Leavitt—Governor Leavitt at the time—saying, “Who cares how much time you spend in a seat? We care about what you're learning.”

Pulsipher: I do agree with that.

Wyatt: Those weren't his words, but that's the message he was saying.

Pulsipher: Well, and I think that it does fly in  the face of the Malcolm Gladwell kind of outliers,  you know, whatever you spend 10,000 hours doing. What if it doesn't require 10,000 hours to be competent or highly competent in a particular area? The measurement of time is actually one measure, but definitely not the only measure. And I think we are quite comfortable with the fact that there are multiple measures of learning, and time is only one of them, and an imperfect one at that.

Wyatt: Yeah, the…we have a saying that we occasionally use which is, “Age doesn't…experience doesn't lead to learning, it's reflecting on that experience that leads to learning.” Because a person can grow old and not learn anything. It's thinking through the experience.

Meredith: And I can prove it. [All laugh]

Wyatt: It's the thoughtful reflection on experience that leads to meaningful learning.

Pulsipher: With my relatively short tenure in higher education, I am very passionate about it and we do know that as institutions like Southern Utah University, like WGU and so many others, that we are all trying to expand access to high quality education with great outcomes and that's going to require continuing innovation in all sorts of things. Pedagogical models, delivery models, assessment models, even alternative providers and credentials, those are going to be key to ensuring that education advances with the…now, as Steve, you saw, at the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution and the age of intelligence or information that we do know that the shelf life of competency is shortening.

Meredith: Right.

Pulsipher: And thus, the acceleration of learning needs to be realized and I think great institutions will be at the forefront of that innovation.

Wyatt: This has been a delight to visit with you, thank you so much.

Pulsipher: Thank you, President. Thank you, Steve.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. Our guest via telephone today has been Scott Pulsipher, the President of Western Governors University and our discussion has been delightful. We hope that you have enjoyed it as well, we look forward to seeing you again soon. Bye bye.