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Campus Technology Insider Podcast January 2022

Listen: Data-Informed Instructional Design and the Shift to Online Learning

Rhea Kelly: Hello and welcome to the Campus Technology Insider podcast! I'm Rhea Kelly, editor in chief of Campus Technology, and your host.

The pandemic has been a testament to the progress that has been made in the use of technology to support online learning, but it has also revealed how poorly traditional course design translates to a digital experience. And that's an opportunity for institutions to become more sophisticated in leveraging digital learning environments to go beyond what's possible in a brick-and-mortar classroom. That's according to my guest Luyen Chou, chief learning officer at 2U. In this episode of the podcast, we talk about transforming online pedagogy, the potential of emerging technologies, the beauty of simple data, essential human skills and more. Here's our chat.

Luyen, welcome to the podcast.

Luyen Chou: Hi, Rhea. Nice to be here. Thank you for having me.

Kelly: So to start, could you give, maybe talk a little bit about your role as chief learning officer at 2U. And also I know you have a long background in education technology, so I'd love to hear about that too.

Chou: Sure. Um, so I am 2U's first ever Chief Learning Officer. And I oversee all of the learning strategy, learning research, learning design, the production of our online courses, including all the work in our multimedia and video studios, as well, as well as our learning technology strategies — everything we do to make sure that we're delivering incredibly impactful, high-quality learning experiences for, for our higher education learners. So that's what I do. And as you alluded to my background is, I've been an educator for my entire, throughout the entire course of my career. So I started my career as a, as a high school history teacher in New York City, and was one of the people who introduced technology into the classroom, at our school. And I've always been a technologist, by way of, of avocation if not vocation, and have always been super interested in and excited about the application of digital technology to improve teaching and learning. I've also been an entrepreneur. So I've started several ed tech companies, and have been particularly enamored with sort of bringing the discipline of product management and product strategy as well as educational research and learning design to the field of ed tech. I was the founder of a company called Learn Tech many years ago, which I sold back in 2000. And then was the Chief Product Officer at a company called Schoolnet that did formative assessment and data systems for large urban school districts, or large school districts in general. Sold that to Pearson in 2011. I was the Chief Product and Chief Product Strategy Officer at Pearson for seven years, then was the first Chief Product Officer at Trilogy, which was the largest bootcamp provider, university bootcamp provider in the world, which we sold to 2U in 2018, which is how I ended up at 2U. But my passions are really in education, technology, and product management and how we can bring those disciplines together to really radically improve the quality of education for learners around the globe.

Kelly: You said first Chief Learning Officer, so I'm curious, like, how recently did they, did 2U create that position, and why?

Chou: Great question. So I was, 2U created the Chief Learning Officer role when I came to, to 2U through the Trilogy acquisition in 2019. And I think actually the fact that there wasn't a Chief Learning Officer role previously is an interesting indication of how the online program management OPM market has evolved in higher ed over the last decade plus. Because OPM really started in many respects as a pure tech services industry. And so the university partner was the education partner and the OPM was the marketing and, and technology partner. And to the extent that we were involved in, in learning design and learning production was really, "Hey university, give us the course that you've taught, your professor has taught for the last X number of years. And we're going to simply figure out how, the most efficient way to deliver it online."And I think what has happened, and frankly, this is all been, you know, sort of accelerated and validated as we've all learned through the last two years of COVID and online, you know, sort of remote instruction. I think what our partners have started to come to understand, as have we, is that there's a difference between the university's expertise in the subject matter, in the content material, material, in, in what you need to teach to deliver an effective degree outcome or certification for students on the one hand, and the learning design, learning research, learning technology, and, and digital pedagogy knowledge that you need to be able to deliver a highly compelling, outcome-focused digital learning experience, regardless of what the content is, or the subject matter is. And so increasingly, our partners are looking to us, because we work with 80 universities around the world to deliver hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of, of courses every year to millions of students, they are looking increasingly to us for thought partnership and thought leadership around, you know, what is the art and the science around delivering really compelling online learning experiences? And how do we differentiate a great online course from a Zoom-based remote instruction sort of emergency application of technology. And again, as I said, COVID has, if anything accelerated that realization that, that we as an industry need to do more than simply take traditional learning and stick it on, on the screen. And so I think that it was really kind of prescient of 2U in advance of even the pandemic, to realize that they needed a leader who had the educational background and expertise to bring the latest in learning research, learning science, learning strategy, learning design, as well as learning technology to really transform the pedagogy as well as the curriculum itself.

Kelly: So you're basically collecting the best practices of, you know, so many institutions that you work with, and, and making that inform your work with, with partners.

Chou: That's right. That's right. And, you know, I think it's, it's, and now, you know, even more than ever, because, you know, through the edX merger, you know, we're also now working with 230 additional partners, or, you know, a total of 230 partners, and, and 10s of millions of learners. So we have access, not just to sort of learned lessons, those are important, but also to data. We have just a tremendous amount of, of learner, learning data and learner data that we can mine that really short circuits a lot of the traditional academic research methodologies that I grew up with, as, as an educator and as an educational researcher, to allow us to really apply the kind of agile and lean practices that you see in other technology industries to improving the quality of digital learning faster. So that's, that's, that's what we're doing and what we're, I think our customers are increasingly leaning on us for.

Kelly: Kind of thinking big picture and for the, kind of looking toward the future, because you mentioned the pandemic, and, and I'm wondering what you think the impact of the pandemic has been on kind of the online learning landscape and, and the future of online learning?

Chou: Yeah, it's a really interesting question. I mean, I think the impact of the pandemic on online learning has been very profound, but in a complicated way, right? So for practitioners like myself, who have been championing and advocating for digital learning for the better part of 30 years now, it's been a bit like banging your head against a cement wall for three decades. There have been pockets of incredible innovation and incredible adoption. But even with all the availability of technology, if you walk into a typical classroom, you know, in March of 2019, it looked pretty darn similar to what you would see if you walked into a classroom in the 17th century, let alone the early 20th century. And then in the span of about three months, nearly 100% of learners went online because of the pandemic. I mean, what a incredible cataclysm for the industry, and for learners and for education. But, you know, obviously in, in, on the one hand, it was an incredible success. And it was a real, you know, testament to the value and the progress we've made in things like online conferencing software, you know, that we're using today, for instance, to record this podcast, or Zoom, or, you know, Google Meet or whatever it is — incredible testament to the progress and to the, the value proposition of those sorts of technologies. But it also really quickly revealed how poorly a traditional teaching and learning experience just translates to a flat screen, you know, and live video. And so I think it's had in, you know, the pandemic's had an interesting effect. On the one hand, it's proven to a lot of people that we can continue to deliver instruction online. But it's also really revealed the shortcomings of simply kind of porting a classroom-based experience to a screen. And my hope, and my belief is that it has made the market, which means educators, students, parents, institutions, more sophisticated about what opportunities they'd like to explore, what, what, what capabilities they want to be able to leverage in a digital learning environment that go beyond what they could do in a traditional classroom. And the areas where, you know, frankly, even in our fully online courses, many of them we still bring students together in what we call "immersions"periodically, because there's real value to in-person instruction. So you know, that it's not a purely binary world of online versus in-person, that there are hybrid modalities here that actually, if designed properly, leverage the best of both in-person and online instruction at the right moment to enhance a learner's experience.

Kelly: What do you think about some of the hype around emerging technologies like mixed reality, artificial intelligence, the metaverse is this buzzword that just keeps coming up … Is there any real potential behind that tech?

Chou: Well, so I've had a long, long history with VR and, and AR and 3D technology. And so in fact, the first experience I had with using VR in education was way back in, I think it was like 1990 or 91, working with IBM T. J. Watson Research and with a really pioneering educator named Kathy Wilson at Bank Street College research, who had created a laser disc based exploration of the Palenque ruin in what's now Mexico, and worked with VR technologies to take that laser disc based experience and actually put it onto a headset. And at that time, the headset was so heavy and cumbersome that, you know, when Kathy was testing it, she literally couldn't lift her head, let alone look around this virtual reality, you know. And now I have a $300, you know, headset that I have three of my regular meetings with my teams using in the metaverse. And so we've come a long, long way. I have been a skeptic and a bit of a laggard when it comes to the metaverse and VR technologies, mostly because I haven't seen us achieve kind of a cost-benefit intersection yet that makes sense. When I was at Pearson, you know, we did find some really interesting applications, but they were generally for very technical and specific forms of education, right? So we had invested in a company called TQ that did education for the oil industry. And we discovered that VR was a very cost-effective way to teach oil rig workers how to operate an offshore oil rig, because to fly them there by helicopter and have them spend a couple of days learning operating offshore oil rig was far more expensive, even than a $5,000, you know, VR headset and the cost of developing those simulations. But, you know, as of this last year, the price of a consumer VR headset has now dipped below the traditional price point of a textbook. And I think that's symbolically very important because it means that the economics of VR have really started to enter the realm where they can be, they can kind of be meaningfully subsumed in an education ecosystem. I still think the key is to figure out what are the high leverage applications of this technology. So you know, we're working with one of our partners on clinical examination simulations for physician assistant students and for nursing students that are very hard to do in a traditional 2D online setting. So typically we, we end up doing immersions, flying the students to the campus to learn those things. We're not going to remove the immersions. But we think with VR, we can get to 90% competency on some of these critical clinical exams, so that when they are together in person, they're focused on the much higher order, higher value learning that you get once you are already very fluent with how you do like a heart exam. And so I think it is, it's going to be extraordinarily beneficial over the next decade or so. But we're just at the beginning of figuring out the right applications for it. And I would encourage educators who are interested in, in this technology in particular, to really be relentlessly focused on the cost benefit of the application of the technology and find, find applications of technology that really unlock, you know, value that we couldn't unlock before in a traditional setting.

Kelly: Yeah, I do see, I think that the workforce training aspect of VR seems to be the most practical and promising use case. I have to ask you a logistical question, because we're both wearing glasses. And I've tried like the Oculus, and it just does not work with, it's, for me not compatible with wearing glasses. Why hasn't anyone solved that problem?

Chou: That's a great question. And you know, it's interesting because I, I actually brought a headset on, during our holiday, I went to go visit my brother in law and sister in law and our nieces. And my sister in law is, so I'm near sighted, I don't know what your, your eyesight is, I'm nearsighted, and I have an astigmatism, I actually get it to work fine. And after the podcast I can give you some tips. It's not obvious, but it does work for me. She has blindness in one eye. And it's a non-starter, because she doesn't get the benefit of the simulation of the parallax. So she's, it really doesn't, none of the experience actually works for her. And so I do worry, it's a great question, because I do worry that some of these technologies are creating new accessibility problems that we hadn't actually encountered in the past. And I'm not sure that a lot of, of tech providers or even educational players who are applying the technology, have fully recognized that or even have a plan to contend with it. But I am confident, I mean, boy, compared to those early headsets, how far this technology has come. I think it's incumbent on us as people in the education community to be very vocal with the technology producers about what those gaps are that we're discovering, because they actually have the ability to solve those things at disproportionate speed, compared to solving the problems I have with my eyes in the real world.

Kelly: Yeah, that's a really interesting point about accessibility. So I think one of the impacts of the pandemic has been that some of these shifts online are going to become permanent. So I'm curious if you have any advice for institutions, considering that permanent shift to online in some areas, like what should they be doing?

Chou: Well, I think that the first thing that I would urge to educational institutions and educators who are looking to move more of the teaching and learning experience online is, really goes back to what I said initially, which is, don't try to create a online facsimile of what you do in the classroom. Because it, you'll, it will always be sort of a pale comparison to what you do in the classroom. It, it really is about fundamentally rethinking what the art of the possible is using these technologies. So if you look at the evolution of the web, for instance, right, you know, web 1.0 was very much based on a traditional model of publishing; it was a very unidirectional model. Web 2.0 was all about two way and about producing content and sharing content and creating, and that gave birth to the whole social media experience. And web three, obviously, we're still trying to figure out exactly what all of that's going to mean for us. But I think you have to as an educator, be a bit of a tech, ed tech visionary too. You need to envision, in the literal sense the word, you need to make it a priority to envision what's possible through the technologies that are available to you. And, and I think that is really key. I have two kids who are college students. You're both learning remotely right now through the rest of the month as we kind of, hopefully let Omicron make its way through the population. But I'm watching firsthand, and it's, it's the classes where the professor simply ported a lecture to Zoom that are the least successful, and that my kids are the least engaged in. It's the classes where the professor said, you know, "I have an opportunity to do something really different. Let's flip this. Go and watch my recording of this. It's on YouTube, you don't need to sit here in real time and do this. And then we're going to do everything in small groups with polling, with interactive activities."You know, we're launching, about to launch our very first ever, and I think is really one of the first ever in the world, fully online master's in architecture. And, and I remember when we first said we were going to do this, I thought, how can you teach architecture, how can you convey a degree in architecture through online learning? And what we're discovering is you can't, if all you think about is, well, how do we do a studio critique on Zoom. You have to think about new ways to bring interactivity into the online learning experience. So for instance, we're going to be distributing a document camera to every single student and every single faculty member in the program. So that when they're in an online session like this, a real time online session like this, they all can have the ability to flip the screen to look at the model that they've created, and showcase what they've built in their house or in their home office. And so I just think it takes, it puts a premium on a level of, of design creativity that we haven't asked educators to really be responsible for in the past, in the recent past. That's a, gonna be a burden to some because, you know, lots of teachers are used to doing things the way they do it and, and teaching is very burdensome. And so asking you, someone to do more is challenging. But I think for a lot of educators that will be reinvigorating and exciting because you're actually asking them to reinvent their practice in a, in a deeply meaningful and outcome-oriented way that I think, as an educator myself, I find to be very exciting and rewarding.

Kelly: So you mentioned earlier about the importance of, you know, using data to inform course design. And, you know, obviously with 2U's recent acquisition of edX, there's a whole new world of data generated by massive open online courses. So I'm wondering what opportunities you see with that data?

Chou: Yeah, super excited. So you know, 40 million learners in the combination with edX. It's, you know, arguably the largest consistent set of learning and learner data in the history of education. And, you know, my, I think there's just incredible opportunity. If anything, I think the risk is trying to do too much. I'm a big proponent, when it comes to data for learning insights, of less is more. Find the smallest set of data that drives the greatest amount of insight. So I'll give you a very specific example. And this was actually work that edX did independently before the merger, but that we at 2U have, have used and verified with our own data, you know, is … There was a famous study done a few years back by edX, and I think it was MIT CSAIL and HarvardX, around the optimal length of a learning video. And, and I think, you know, the, pretty famous study now, they determined it's around six to nine minutes total. Well, guess what, that wasn't done through a double-blind study, you know, in university laboratories. It was done looking at the click data, right? So we have an opportunity through very simple data … that's just exhaust that comes out of student usage of the learning resources. But someone had the creativity to say, let's look at that data on, at scale, and figure out when does a student actually hit stop on a video. And you can see the fall off between six to nine minutes, it's like a cliff. So it's just one of many, many, many, many, many examples of where data that you may already have in your institution, as an educator, can be mined, if you're, if you're clever about it, to really deliver very powerful insights. Now, you know, you got to avoid the, the, you know, the pitfall of jumping to conclusions or misinterpreting the data. But the beauty of the data is that, you know, when you find a provocative data like that, is it promotes a conversation among educators that we don't typically as educators have, which is, Why is this happening? What is this data telling us about our practice, about our learning content, about our learners? And, and how do we, how do we do something about that? How do we leverage that? And so, you know, if I were running a school or university today, I would carve out time for my instructional staff, my faculty to get together multiple times a week to, just to look at the three or four key metrics, and have them have a critical dialogue about what does that tell us about our practice? What does that tell us about what we can do better? And in doing that, building that muscle tissue, it has a return loop phenomenon, because it then gets educators to think more about, Well, if we only had this data, we could now answer these new set, this new set of questions. And so I also find that I'm always pushing our technology and our data people to sit with the educators to find out from them, What, what would you like to know? What simple piece of data would really unlock a key insight for you? And increasingly, that that is very generative. And we're building that into our platforms, into our application. So, you know, simple is better. And it's about having the creativity and the focus and the training to be able to draw out really powerful insights from large amounts of fairly simple data.

Kelly: Yeah I like, I like the simplicity. And also having that continual conversation about data. So one of the things that struck me about the acquisition is that all along, every step of the process and every public statement that 2U made, clearly, you wanted to express a commitment to carrying on the edX mission, you know, accessible, affordable learning for all. So can you tell me what's ahead for edX and MOOCs now that that merger is complete?

Chou: Yeah. And thank you for asking the question and for your, for stating what, what we really firmly believe, which is, you know, I think, I think there were some out there, who somehow construed the acquisition as an attempt to eliminate the free option, or the open option that MOOCs have historically provided to learners. And that globally, and that's definitely not our intention. I think our, our vision is that education and learning are not and cannot be one size fits all solutions. And that learners are, everyone in the world is on a journey when it comes to learning. And their needs are very different, depending on the moment in their life across that journey, and the opportunities that they're trying to unlock, the challenges that they're facing. Like, you know, for you or me, mid career, our educational need will be very different from someone like my children who are going to college and who are just beginning their professional journeys. You know, the needs of a late stage employee versus an entry level employee totally different, a job changer versus a job seeker. And so we want to have, 2U and edX together want to have, be able to bring to the market, the widest range of both cost and outcome opportunities. And so, you know, a free short course on circuits, on basic coding strategies and techniques — incredibly important, and we think have incredible value to the general community all over the world. But, but we also want when someone completes that, to be able to say, hey, you know what, if you want to learn more, if you want to translate that very specific skill you learned into a job competency, or into a certificate, or into a university degree, hey, we've got these seven options for you. And, and they're priced in variable ways. And, and, and, and, you know, it's up to you to take it or leave it, but, but you now have multiple pathways depending on what you need. So we think that the optionality and offer, affording choice to learners that really is now more focused around, revolves around learner need, rather than institutional capability, or institutional need — I think that's the transformation that's critically important and what, why we're so excited about the merger with, with edX and the access to the 40 million learners on the platform. So we will preserve that. I think there's some other interesting, you know, opportunities here for us. And one of them is can we, in that context, take pieces of very expensive programs. So take an MBA, which may cost a hundred or a couple hundred thousand dollars for someone to, to complete and get the degree from. Well, there may be very high value pieces of that that have never traditionally been extractable from the MBA program, right? How, how do you teach GAAP revenue recognition or basic accounting principles? Well, we now have the opportunity through this merger to offer those for free or for low cost to drive global impact. And the benefit to us is both the impacting and attracting learners to the, to the marketplace, but also, it is an on-ramp to paid programs. Like we make no bones about that, right? We, we, it's an opportunity for us to provide a succession of, of options to learners that may end up with a degree for someone who may never have thought that they would get an MBA. Right? So that's super important to us. And then the last thing I would just say is, I think it gives us the opportunity to learn from, from the 40 million learners, what are they interested in learning? And then we can go back to our university partners and say, hey guys, there's tremendous demand for this program area we never thought about before. And here's the evidence to prove it. That is a kind of a product marketing function that universities have never had access to before. So we're super excited about that, too.

Kelly: That's an interesting aspect I wouldn't have thought of. So another thing that came out in the, I think it was in the closure of the acquisition, 2U announced a pledge of a million dollars to support the development of 10 new free courses in Essential Human Skills for the Digital Age. So what is that all about? I'm just wondering, what are those skills? Like, actually wondering, do I have them? And why are they important?

Chou: Oh yeah things like dog walking or restarting your iPhone? [laughs] So it's great question, I mean, and I and we're still figuring this out to be totally fair and honest. But I'll give you an example of something that we are working on. We're working with a major university, one of the top education programs in the country, to take all of the, the insights that we've gained through our learning research and our data, all the stuff I talked about earlier with you, and which we've now compiled together in something called the learning experience framework, and we can share it with you. It's an open source, freely and openly published compendium of the latest research on, that relates to online learning, online digital learning, right? So we call it the LXF, the learning experience framework. We're actually working with the university partner to turn that into a course that will be an open free MOOC. Because we think part of the, again, coming back to my earlier theme, one of the things that the pandemic and emergency remote instruction taught us is instructors, educators, were woefully unprepared, to, to do what I am saying we need to do, which is to think creatively. Think in a research-based way about how you deliver high quality online learning. And we just think it's, it's both a social responsibility, but also an incredible opportunity to build a MOOC out of that, right? And to establish our thought leadership and our thought partnership with educators around the world in best practices online learning. So that's one example of what we will be, we've been, already begun investing in.

Kelly: That's really interesting work. Well, thank you so much for coming on. I enjoyed our conversation.

Chou: Thank you. Great to talk to you. And it's my pleasure and anytime.

Kelly: Thank you for joining us. I'm Rhea Kelly, and this was the Campus Technology Insider podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify and Stitcher, or visit us online at Let us know what you think of this episode and what you'd like to hear in the future. Until next time.

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