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A Conversation with UniversityNow CEO Gene Wade

University Business, January 2013
Gene Wade

Gene Wade is making it his goal to provide quality education at a low cost. As cofounder and CEO of UniversityNow, which combines an online learning platform with on-campus partners, Wade offers an easily accessible college education that most people can afford without loans or financial aid.
“I became an education entrepreneur because the current system fails far too many people,” he says.

UniversityNow is a true social education initiative, allowing anyone to sign up with a Facebook or Twitter account for unlimited classes at just $199 per month, including textbooks, tests, and individualized help from instructors and “coaches” to help the student achieve success.

Wade will be a keynote speaker at the UBTech 2013 conference in Orlando in June. He spoke to UB about why it’s time to rethink the traditional model of education.

UB: With rising tuition costs, students and their families are asking whether a college degree is worth it. How is UniversityNow trying to change that?

Wade: We’ve thought a lot about what makes a good learning experience. Moving from a seat-time based model to a self-paced,  competency-based model is an important part of our strategy to ensure quality. By getting away from seat-time, we can deliver a higher quality education at a much lower price point. There has been a lot of research on these models. Only one group, Western Governors University, has really tried to scale it up. We’re right behind them with a modern technology-based platform, built around the coaching/competency model.

UB: You’ve said traditional schools measure input, while UniversityNow measures performance. How is that done?

Wade: In a traditional school, they are looking at how many hours you are in a seat in a class. That has no relevance to whether you know something or not. If you want to study accounting, for example, and you’ve learned a lot of it on your own or on the job, you can go into that accounting class and the odds are you can pass just by sitting down—you know a lot of the concepts.

What we do is assess you when you come into the class. We figure out what you know and what you don’t know, and focus on those things where you need help. That’s a nontraditional way to do it. We now have some info about you. You know where to focus and we know where to focus.

Then we provide the resources—through software and coaches—that can help you based on your performance. We aren’t waiting for you to fail a midterm to know whether you are on track. We can tell you two weeks into the class. We can look at when you log in, we can see where you left off in your book. We can see which questions you got wrong. We can even tell you what you did wrong after you got the question wrong. Did you go back and review the material, or did you go on to the next thing? That activity stream is in our system and it helps us make you, the student, a better learner.

We are measuring your performance, every step of the way. We’re not confusing that with your ability—we’re just saying here is what your performance tells us about whether or not you’re on track to pass the final. Your grade is based on performance. You can take as much time as you need or a little time as you need.

You and your coach have dashboards and you are both able to see your performance.

UB: Is a coach different from an instructor?

Wade: A coach is your advisor, assigned when you walk in the door. You have an instructor for each class. If you took three classes, for example, you’d have three instructors and one coach. Then there are evaluators who grade you anonymously. They don’t know who you are; they just look at your work product to see whether it meets the standard. It’s very efficient. Every student gets a lot of hands-on attention. When you go this route, the faculty is freed up to spend their time working with the students, as opposed to prepping for the same class or grading the same papers over and over. They are zeroing in on you and intervening. They are not letting you flail around before they reach out to make sure you are on track.

UB: Is there an advantage in having the assessments done anonymously?

Wade: It demonstrates mastery. We don’t want grade inflation—that doesn’t tell us anything. If your grade is being inflated, that says that maybe the class wasn’t built the right way, or maybe the assessments aren’t right. But it doesn’t tell us what you know and what you don’t know. We think ours is a higher quality process, quite frankly.

UB: Its cost is one of the key attractions of UniversityNow. How does that work?

Wade: You can take as many courses as you like for $199 per month. When you complete those you can sign up for more. All the course materials are included. Our faculty work with curriculum design experts to make sure that the courses are pedagogically sound. They write the tests and assessments. It’s a pretty rigorous process, and that includes curating the textbooks and other materials right in the system. Everything you need as a student is right online. If you want to print a hard copy of an online text book, you can do that for a fee.

UB: Who is your target audience?

Wade: Working adults—and that is most of education today. People still have this idea of the college student as an 18- to 24-year-old on campus, under the trees with flip-flops and a Frisbee. That is not who college students are in America right now. The typical college student is above the age of 27, and has a job and a family. That group is where we focus. It’s the working adult who is trying to get a degree. They work one or more jobs, and they need to squeeze in their classes at nights or weekends.

UB: This is such a different model that people say it’s too good to be true, and they question the quality of the education. What do you say to them?

Wade: Look at our class materials and our assessments. Look at our engagements with our students. I think we are getting away from a day and age where higher cost equals higher quality. If you look at how much time our instructors spend with students, it is a lot more hands on at our institutions.

Then there are the models we are built on. WGU, for example, has been touted as a leading model. They effectively run the same model as we do, and we are patterned after them. We even hired a lot of key people from there to help us build our organization. The big difference is that we don’t take federal funding, so we can manage to lower the cost of the education.

We are basically working with a model that isn’t widely adopted yet, but that a lot of people including the White House, the Department of Education, and several state governors are saying that this is the direction higher education should be moving in, because working adults don’t need the high-overhead, high-cost model.

If you look at any disruptive model in any industry, you have that too-good-to-be-true reaction. I think it is just a matter of time before there are more companies like ours and WGU, which is a nonprofit.

UB: Why aren’t traditional schools taking advantage of this model?

Wade: That’s the question I asked when I first got into this. There are institutions that are doing basically what we are doing. WGU operates at below $500 per month tuition, books included, and employers love the students that come out of there. The National Center for Academic Transformation at the University of Southern Maine had done a lot of research in this area and had, in fact, transformed a number of schools at the program and course level to use software-
assisted models. They showed that you could drop the delivery cost about 75 percent on average, while the quality goes up.

But when I talked to the industry, I heard two things. First, traditional faculty will not embrace these new models, because they imply a different faculty model. They have a ton of control as the sage on the stage that writes the syllabus, delivers the course and grades it. They fight models like ours because they don’t want to turn their classes over to the standardized assessments and the kind of rigor we offer.

The second reason is that Title IV, the federal funding for higher education, doesn’t allow you to run a self-paced model. If you are a Title IV institution, you have to run a seat-time model.

UB: Do people confuse UniversityNow with a typical for-profit institution?

Wade: The biggest challenge is not that people will confuse us with other for-profits, because ours is so radically different and our price point is so much lower—at a fifth to a tenth of their price—that it is really hard to mistake us with an Apollo or a Kaplan. The real challenge is in getting people to understand how we can do what we are doing. That’s the phase of adoption we’re in. But I believe that will pass in time as more people move in this direction.


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