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Campus Technology Insider Podcast October 2022

Listen: Serving Adult Learners with Flexibility, Stackable Credentials, and Data

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

As a predominately online institution geared toward serving adult students, University of Massachusetts Global is rethinking traditional models of education to embrace the flexibility and career relevance that working learners need. That means getting granular: unbundling courses or curricula into smaller modules that can be more accessible to busy students but also stack into credentials that will be meaningful to employers. In this episode of the podcast, I spoke with Dr. David Andrews, chancellor of University of Massachusetts Global, about developing a new credentialing ecosystem, listening to student and industry needs, and the data infrastructure that can really support student success. Here's our chat.

Dr. Andrews, welcome to the podcast.

David Andrews: Thank you for having me.

Rhea Kelly  01:14
So I'd like to start with the origin story for UMass Global coming out of the University of Massachusetts' acquisition of Brandman University. Tell me how that came about, and has UMass Global needed to do a lot to establish its new identity and strategic direction?

Andrews: Well that's two great questions. The first question of how this evolved, Brandman University had been a spinoff from Chapman University, which is an on-ground reputable institution in California. And Brandman was, was set up in order to serve working adult learners in a variety of ways, with a combination of face-to-face and online, and to expand the reach of Chapman University. It became an independent institution. And for the last 50 years or so, we have been serving adults in California with a strong brand recognition and the number, number two producer of teachers in the state of California. So the interest in both University of Massachusetts and Brandman was to be able to take the powerful brand of University of Massachusetts and combine it with Brandman's expertise in serving working adults, and to be able to reach broad, more broadly across California, but also across the United States and internationally. So the challenge was to take a well-known product and brand in California, and essentially go global with it. So UMass Global was, was the brand identity. It has been a challenge to change the identity, especially during a pandemic. So all of this transpired and was, was in the works prior to the pandemic. So the actual conversion to a new brand was at a time when people weren't getting together, weren't talking face-to-face, weren't actually talking about the kind of the identity. So we have had some, some challenges and some opportunities in rebranding Brandman University, some in the teacher prep area where there was some confusion about whether or not teachers who have been certified by the new UMass Global will be certified in California or Massachusetts. These are natural things that people might ask, but we had to address a number of those brand issues. And then expanding the brand in between what's an East Coast brand and a West Coast brand into all of those opportunities in the middle has been both an opportunity and challenge, but one that we are embracing wholeheartedly. And I would say finally is, you know, the notion that we're predominantly an online institution at this point, that our campus locations don't have the same kind of relevance as they did 10, 20 years ago. Now, that's a similar challenge by most institutions that have moved to a broader presence online, but we're embracing that with not only our marketing strategy, but the delivery model and the way we support students.

Kelly: Was the pandemic, you know, having to do all this with the launch of a new institution, or a rebranding rather, all remotely, I mean, was that kind of a crash course in how you're going to think about online learning?

Andrews: Both online learning and remote work. I mean, so one of the things that people don't realize is that as we moved in education to remote ability to reach students, we also have implemented largely remote workforces, you know, and that was an overnight shift. And in fact, in many ways it's easier to address the, the online delivery model because we had a head start and 80% of our students were already online; we moved the other 20% to, to online. But what happens then is you also are dealing with the remote workforce. You know, if you're dealing with a remote workforce who are used to coming together physically, and serving students remotely, now you got remote to remote, and the management strategies around that, and the tools that are necessary, technologies necessary to track the data is very different when you're not in a face-to-face work environment. Our campuses have stood empty, like most, for, for much of the pandemic. And now our workers are telling us much the same thing that our students are telling us, which is, our preference is to have as flexible a schedule as possible, and only come together for face-to-face activities when it's absolutely necessary. You know, these are very, very busy students, as working adults, who really want on-demand opportunities, and, you know, now our workforce is telling us the same thing. You know, why, why do we require a face-to-face presence unless it's absolutely necessary for our job? It's an interesting dilemma that many of us are facing.

Kelly: What's your take on the overall online learning landscape? And sort of where, where it's moving? I know, like, you mentioned flexibility. And so how is that kind of impacting online learning, and the ability to scale these things?

Andrews: So that's a great question. And you know, we've, we've made some progress in flexibility. I think in the early days of online, we were trying to replicate what happened in the classroom in an online setting. Now we've found out that there are so many new tools that we can introduce, we can flip the classroom and, you know, have people digest content independently, and then spend time together online with engaging types of interactions with both faculty and peers. So we've learned a lot about that. But we're still packaging the experience as a one-to-many — largely this is the way courses are offered. That is, you start a course at the same time as everybody else starts a course, you finish at the same time, and, and everybody basically is paced in the same way. Now at UMass Global, we do have a competency-based set of programs that allow people to move in their own pace towards accumulating competencies, which can both reduce the amount of time that they need to spend, as well as the cost if you put it on a subscription model. But the real challenge is that the mindset and the funding model for higher education is still based on seat time, Carnegie Units, and the fact that Title IV funding is still tied to seat time. And Carnegie Units. So the currency, the way we think about a currency of higher education, is still how much time you spent trying to learn something instead of how much you actually learned. So that's one challenge. The other challenge is that there's more flexibility needed in the way we think about scope and sequence in our curriculum. Sometimes scope and sequence matters — you need to learn, you know, A before B and B before C. But sometimes it's a combination of skills and competencies that need to be much more on-demand, and especially for working adults. I'll give you a concrete example. If we're training teachers, especially new teachers that have just been inducted into a residency program or an internship program in a classroom, now they may need classroom management, but a small dose of classroom management on day number two, in order to get to day number three, with a rowdy group of third graders, right? The, the person in the classroom right next door may need lesson planning, because their principal is put, pressing them to submit high-quality lesson plans. They don't need a whole course in lesson planning, and the person next to them doesn't need a whole course in classroom management. They actually need just enough just in time to get to the next observation or ability within their workforce — it's married to their learning experience. And that takes us to kind of the next, the next opportunity is for working adults. The more you can marry what they're doing in the classroom with what their immediate demands are from an employment standpoint, the better able you are to make education accessible to them and their busy life, because it's both accessible and relevant to what they're doing. We have a ways to go and in completing this kind of mindset, but we're also, we're starting to see it evolve pretty quickly, especially in some of the working professions that, that are our bread and butter, essentially.

Kelly: It seems like maybe one thing that's missing is a conduit of information between what's needed in the workplace, and, you know, to be able to be responsive to it, there's got to be some sharing of information. How can that work?

Andrews: There has to be a lot of sharing of information and deep partnerships, because kind of what we know is the way we package courses, not only in the general ed curriculum, but the way we package courses in our professional studies, again I'll go back to education and teacher preparation, because I've spent a lot of time in that space. I mean, we know that three critical elements are classroom management, lesson planning and assessment, right? So we package those and chunk them as discrete sets of activity. But we know in the classroom, those things are very integrated, and you need to get to them much more on demand than we've been able to. So communication between employers, school districts and principals, and those who are training teachers need to be much more robust types of interactions. And the same is true for our social work programs, for programs in business. It's really getting those people to the table and get getting a deeper dive on the skills and knowledge that's necessary to be successful. But then, the bigger challenge is unbundling that into smaller modules that can be accessible, yet lead to the same kind of credentials that we're used to, we're used to seeing. And some, some industries are doing it better than others. Obviously, we've heard a lot about coding boot camps and how in the computer sciences, we're able to be much more discrete in the skills and knowledge and the order. And it doesn't really matter as long as you're able to get to the outcome of an eloquent code in a specific language that's useful. But in other fields, we've got a lot of talking to do, and communication between employers and the university. And typically, you know, we've stayed in our ivory towers in many spaces, not so much in the adult serving world, because workforce is such an important part of our, our mission. But we still have a lot of improvements that we can make in that space.

Kelly: And also documenting the skills, which kind of is a good segue, I think, too, because, because I wanted to touch on your work with the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, and particularly around credentialing. So what are some current barriers to creating a credentialing ecosystem that would be meaningful, both for education and for the workforce?

Andrews: Well, we're actually trying to create a new language and a new currency around what some consider interoperable learning records. That is, that, one of the great things, I tend to criticize the Carnegie Unit system of credit hours, but one of the things it has done for the last century or more is actually created a standardization of understanding about what a credit hour means, and what a combination, what a set credit hours mean in a particular course or discipline. We know what College Algebra looks like, essentially, and if you see that on a transcript, it at least gives you an 80-90% starting point about what the student is able to do or not do from a math perspective, because they passed College Algebra somewhere. Now, what we're talking about in credentials that are smaller, stackable credentials, is an agreement on the language and currency. And that often means an agreement on the assessment itself. And we just don't spend enough time talking about that in higher education. And we spend more time talking about serving students and trying to teach them. We think our primary mission is teaching, right? So we teach, and they learn, we, we convey knowledge about skills and competencies and awareness. But we also are served, at least half of our job is in credentialing, is surfacing what people know and can do so that it has some value to the outside world. And that phrase, "some value to the outside world," is where we need to work. And so we don't agree all the time with employers about either the cut point of the assessments or what's being assessed itself, so that they understand kind of what it means to hold a credential in a certain, certain area. Now in areas where the profession itself has identified that, what you need to know and be able to do, often to pass a national exam or a state-adopted exam, it's easier for us to align those microcredentials or those competencies at a smaller grain size. Because in, I would say accounting is a good example. You know, we know what a CPA needs to know and do, we know what they be able to demonstrate on the exam. So you can literally create competencies along that spectrum of things that you'd be credentialed as a, as an accountant, much easier than you can in philosophy, or in an area where it's not as discrete in terms of skills and knowledge. But there have been some efforts around the country to bring together both employers and higher education, to start developing this language. And one of the opportunities that the National Lab for Education Transformation is to, to join that conversation and convene bigger conversations about how do we get the taxonomy and the language and the currency right around smaller microcredentials, so that they're stackable. Everybody's having to do that on their own at this point. So when we talk about universities doing stackable credentials and prior learning assessment, we've got a good bit of help coming from ACE, American Council on Education has done a bunch of mapping in this space. But for the most part, if someone comes in with a transcript from a traditional institution, along with a laundry list of microcredentials that have been offered, many times through continuing education in higher education, not showing up on the transcript in any kind of way, then the person who wants to help that adult learner get through to a degree program as quickly as possible, with a meaningful credential, has to do a lot of work trying to figure out what, what means what and how much they're able to map those on to what's necessary either to get a degree or more importantly, to get a job. So, you know, part of the work is how far can we get in, in starting to get a general understanding of the language and taxonomy without creating such a standardized system that we're recreating the Carnegie Unit. And so it's, it's a tricky combination, but we think it's going to bring, we need to bring all of the top thought leaders together around this and start coalescing around common definitions and understanding within a new currency.

Kelly  That kind of seems like a, kind of seems like an overwhelming task. Like, that's big.

Andrews: There's a reason it hasn't been done. You know, there's a reason it hasn't been done, and everyone's left to their own devices. But I think we can make some progress in carving out some areas where there is a better understanding of what specifically is necessary to get the job done. And not everyone is fully aligned with this being the vision of higher education. I mean, to have generally well-educated citizens within our society is, is a noble and great reason for us to push higher education. But for adult learners, most are looking to get a better job. And we're doing some specific work through inlet around very specific math skills that are necessary for specific occupations. In the automobile industry, you know, what types of math competencies do you need for specific types of jobs? That's a really different way of looking at it, than saying, I'm gonna look at your college transcript and see if you passed College Algebra. There are subsets of information that's necessary. And it's also necessary outside of the workforce. And I think when we think about prior learning assessment, so you have to know everything that's in a particular pre-packaged course in order to get some credit for that course. So the grain size is wrong. Now, if I know 70% of the things that are in College Algebra, why do I have to take College Algebra — because I didn't know the 30% or gap fills that I needed to fill. So it could guide instruction as well. But we don't have systems in place to keep up with skills and competencies at a smaller grain size than what we traditionally know of as college courses. And if we do have that, we stick them over in something called continuing ed or extension or outreach and keep them separate from the main currency, which is Carnegie Unit based courses.

Kelly: And also, why would you want to pay for all of College Algebra if all you need is 20% of it?

Andrews: That's the challenge. And you know, why would we want to charge you for it? Because we can. And that's, that's one of the challenges is the economics of it. And we know the economics of charging people for a smaller grain size, and it's not eligible for Title IV funding. So we're all addicted to federal support through Title IV funding and grant funding that is based on the current currency, which is Carnegie Units.

Kelly: So what is UMass Global doing sort of as an institution to build out a micro-credential strategy, just in terms of like, advice for others who might, you know, be struggling with that strategically?

Andrews: Yeah, I think, I think the first is creating a culture of listening to our clients and defining who are our, what's our customer base, and it's two groups: It's the students themselves, but it's also, some would say it's even more primary, could be, because so many of our students are interested in workforce-relevant credentials, the vast majority, that our real client should also be the employers that are working, that are trying to hire these students coming in. And to make sure that we're hearing what their needs are. And the second piece, which is more difficult for traditional institutions, where I've spent most of my career, is getting faculty members to move quickly enough and efficiently enough to fill those gaps and respond to employment opportunities in real time. You know, we've had the luxury of controlling the curriculum and being the voice of expertise — I mean, we always say subject-matter experts, you know, as if that doesn't require listening to a particular industry. And I'm not saying that all faculty and all institutions have been tone deaf, but where there's a degree of, of being tone deaf to, to the shifting needs of industry. I think eventually, most universities catch up, but we're not catching up as quickly as we need to, to respond to changing demands and the employer needs in the workforce. So part of that is creating a culture of moving a little faster, and creating systems for adjusting and making modifications to the curriculum in real time. You know, there's many universities that are moving in geological time. So the pace of change on the curricular side has to pick up. And that probably means, you know, challenging some of the control that we've had at the faculty level over not the content within the curriculum, partly the content within the curriculum, but more importantly, the delivery model. So that we can meet the accessibility needs of working adults. So I think we're working on that culture, we've got a great faculty who is probably as adaptive as, as any faculty that I've seen, and is willing to, because if you really have a student-centric approach, then that student-centric approach not only means advisers and those who are interacting with the students in terms of how they schedule and how they experience the institution, but our faculty members themselves really, really need to be responsive to what students need to be able to do and know in order to advance themselves within their profession. And then how do we deliver that in a way it's digestible by busy busy working adults, and who are hopeful for the next, next degree? So I think that, you know, I, one of our marketing teams just recently came up with, you know, we're trying to serve the harried hopeful. You know, and that's a group of, I mean, that describes that population that gets to the finish line at commencement, and are, and are so excited and proud about what they've accomplished, because a lot of stuff's going on in their lives. They've got children going to school, through the pandemic not going to school, they've got work from home, they've got work, work demands. And then on top of that, we're, we're requiring them to do certain things at school, which need to be as flexible as the rest of their lives are, and on-demand. So it points to kind of understand how you get highly engaged asynchronous work, instead of depending upon synchronous work. How do you, how do you deal with technology such as nudging and motivation that can be technology assisted? How do our data systems help us identify the individual needs of students? So now, the least sexy part about this is the underlying data infrastructure that's necessary to be able to pinpoint what a specific student's needs might be before the students themselves know, because we've seen other students who found themselves in the same predicament, and we know that you need to engage with the LMS 10 more minutes longer than you currently are, because those who have been doing that are getting a bigger lift towards their completion. So I think all of those things work together. It takes a different mindset within the institution, and that was, and that's one of the things that we could all work on.

Kelly: I think the data infrastructure might be the most sexy part. Because it's so, it's amazing what is possible or, you know, what can be possible.

Andrews: And how you organize that is sometimes a Herculean lift for institutions. We're getting a lot better about it, but we've had discrete parts of technology that have kind of talked to each other, but kind of not, and we've got to pay, to pay attention to them collectively. If you're going to support students with a holistic view, you have to have data systems that are actually contributing to that holistic view. For example, what happens in the classroom and the LMS, you know, has been largely partitioned off from the student information system. And then what we know about what students are aspiring to, that comes from the CRM on the front end, when we recruit them, oftentimes is not fully integrated into the knowledge or dashboards that a faculty member is, is working from. I've been amazed at how many times we talk to faculty members, and they say, I don't know why a student is here. Why are you talking to a student if we don't know why they're here? We found that information the first day we interacted with the students, we, we actually inquired about what their goals are, we recorded those things. Well, they're in a different system, they're not over here in the LMS, and if they are in the LMS or accessible to faculty members, they're not front and center blinking every day. You know, student, you know, Kim Jones is here because she's always wanted to be a teacher, and fell off track in being a teacher. Or Sam Smith is here because he's got teenagers that are questioning the value of college and he wants to demonstrate the value of college. Sam needs a path of least resistance. If Kim wants to be a special ed teacher, she needs to know exactly what it means to be a special ed teacher. And the instructor who is not aware of that differentiation, has those same two students in the same class, say Introductory Psychology, is not going to be able to adapt to their individual needs when they start struggling and asking, do I really have to take this information right now, or how's it relevant to what I do with my particular goals. Making that relevant, I think is something that faculty can do very well. They just need access to that aggregated information, those dashboards.

Kelly: Yeah, it's kind of crazy when you think of leaving faculty in the dark about who their students are, you know, or leaving them to find that out on their own.

Andrews: It's not just higher ed's problem. You know, a fourth grade teacher figures out who's in their classroom at a really intimate level in about March, about the time that we start doing state testing, and most of the educational experience is over. And not much goes on in April and May. I'm being pretty harsh on the system, but that third grade teacher could have told them a lot about… In a small school where there's intimate relationships between third and fourth grade teachers, they pass on some information. But the amount of information that your financial institution has about you and passes on to anybody who's dealing with you, in their organization, in order to help you with your individual goals, is astronomically different than what we've been accumulating and passing on. Now there's some privacy issues, there's some issues around self-fulfilling prophecy, if you give too much of a profile of individual learners and you pigeonhole them in a particular category or direction or personality. But we still have to fight through those issues and get much more information about how students are going to benefit from what you're offering, so that you can customize that experience in order to meet their needs. And we're getting better, everyone's getting better. But it's, it's often part of the institution that you don't see that has to do this work. It's the infrastructure behind it, and when there are pressures for investments of resources, people lean towards can we get more faculty, or can we get more instructors, or can we get more advisers. So understanding that infrastructure and developing that data infrastructure actually, eventually, will allow you to scale because it will allow you to be more efficient on the advising side, be more efficient on instructional side, and reduce the overall human capacity, human needs on that side of the equation.

Kelly: Do you have any advice for, let's say IT leaders who, who want that, want those resources and want that investment in, so that they can build that data infrastructure? But how do they make that argument?

Andrews: By demonstrating that it makes other people's jobs easier. And demonstrating that it makes student success better. So doing that just for the sake of doing it, you know, it's almost like you have to back-map from pilot projects where you've been able to demonstrate that in certain areas, to certain faculty members, and certain advisers, and then use that as a justification for investing more in that data infrastructure to move forward. And to make data actionable at the ground level, not just to administrators. Much of the time we do this activity so that we can get better stakeholder reports to our boards, to our accreditors, to the US Department of Education. And, you know, most of our data systems are aligned with summative outcomes of how well we're doing, they go to external people, rather than formative types of information that helps us make better decisions internally. And the institutions that shift that, and that talk about the investment in the IT infrastructure so that they can improve performance of students and make their workforce happier and more productive, I think get further than those who talk about the need for that kind of data so that we can please external stakeholders in our accountability. So we have to have that first part. But we have to extend it to talk about the actionable use of data within the institution.

Kelly; All right. Well, thank you so much for coming on.

Andrews: Thank you. It's been great. Good conversation.

Kelly: Thank you for joining us. I'm Rhea Kelly, and this was the Campus Technology Insider podcast. You can find us on the major podcast platforms 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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