Re-imagining college: The case for radical change

Lynn Russo Whylly's picture

In this synopsis of the UBTech 2013 opening keynote session, Gene Wade, co-founder and CEO of UniversityNow, discusses the new model of online higher education and how it integrates with the traditional model.


Higher education is pricing itself right out of the market. The typical college student is not the familiar 18- to 20-year-old who attends college full-time. It’s the adult with a family, and that person can’t afford the rising costs of tuition. Adults over the age of 30 have taken on more debt than they can handle, upwards of $615 billion in 2012, compared to $200 billion in 2005. But there is another way to achieve a college degree: through online learning.


Currently, higher ed is locked into a costly “seat-time” model. This old model focuses on inputs, previous grades, and what students know before they start. They sit through lectures in uncoordinated classes. They have to pay first and get access later. And it can take 30+ days and mountains of paper to enroll.


The new model is self-paced and focuses on outputs. It has personalized coaching. It’s one-on-one. Competencies are tightly aligned around goals. It’s based on adaptive learning. Extensive feedback is given to help the student get better, stronger, and smarter. The mid-term and final exams are locked and won’t unlock unless the student has learned the material and can demonstrate the ability to pass the exam. It only takes 30 minutes to enroll. And it’s pay as you go. There’s no borrowing.


I’m talking about UniversityNow, a holding company that operates two online self-paced universities: Patten University and New Charter. Both schools are nationally accredited. Tuition is just $4,000 a year, or $329 a month, compared to $28,000 for a private college.


At Patten, every student gets an advisor for the duration of their education, and each course has an instructor who is a subject-matter expert. Instructors serve as coaches to help students through a course, and are always available. A separate independent and anonymous person is responsible for grades. The anonymity ensures they are objective


Classes are self-paced and start with an assessment to find out what a person knows. Each course provides a personalized page with “Readiness Indicator” bars that show students their proficiency in a series of areas. Clicking on a bar provides details on where a student needs work. If someone is failing, the Readiness Indicator will move backward. The instructor can then explain the reasons why the student is failing in more detail.


A course video explains to the student how the class is relevant to the real world. There is even a cohort that shows how many other students are taking the class and where they are in the model. For instance, 75 are just starting, 75 are finishing, and 500 are in mid-course.


There are several ways to engage the student and open up the neural pathways, including quizzes, flashcards, and exercises. Feedback tells the student what they need to work on. And it’s a two-way mirror. Everything the student sees, the instructor sees.


The question that everyone should be asking is not where higher ed is headed, but when. There is a tsunami coming and it’s not asking for permission, it’s already here. Five years from now, institutions that are unprepared for change will be dealing with the wreckage. Today, however, all universities have an opportunity to shift gears and think about how to position themselves in the new online education market.  


Click here to watch the video of Wade’s UBTech 2013 keynote session.

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