Now, more than ever, student-focused education is critical

The coronavirus pandemic is highlighting the innovations that have been desperately needed in higher education all along.

  • Regardless of the means of delivery—in person or remote learning during coronavirus—effective, high-quality education must focus on the student, writes Scott D. Pulsipher, president of online university Western Governors University (WGU).
  • Among other innovations, WGU differs from most higher education institutions in two important ways: Progress is based on competency, not credits or course hours; and students are supported by dedicated mentors and course experts.
  • WGU, and institutions like it, are emerging as examples of innovation ahead of the curve during this coronavirus wake-up call.

For the millions of college students working toward a degree during a global pandemic, these are challenging times. Colleges and universities are also scrambling to adapt—and as they do so, it's crucial that every decision they make be centered on supporting students with a meaningful learning experience and a commitment to their success.

The coronavirus has closed campuses and left students trying to adapt to online learning—too often in classes that were hastily moved from the classroom to Zoom rather than fundamentally redesigned for the online environment. For many, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on their finances and is throwing into question their college and career plans. And for those dealing with physical or mental health impacts to themselves or their loved ones, emotional stress is compounding an already challenging situation.

A Western Governors University student at holding up her degree

Photo: Courtesy of Western Governors University

Regardless of the means of delivery, effective, high-quality education must focus on the student. While it is vital to maintain academic excellence as institutions and programs move online, providing faculty and staff support is equally important. In times of crisis, we need to address students' academic as well as personal needs and deliver innovations that help students persist through the financial, health, and family challenges so many are facing.

As president of nonprofit, online, competency-based Western Governors University (WGU)—which now serves 121,000 students and has more than 178,000 graduates across the U.S. in the highly in-demand fields of nursing, teaching, information technology, and business—student-centric education is my full-time preoccupation. At WGU, we put student experience at the center of everything we do, which changes the model of education from top to bottom.

Instead of measuring progress by credit hour or time spent in class, we focus on learning. Progress through the program is achieved by demonstrating mastery of industry-defined competencies, the knowledge and skills essential for success. The more quickly our students demonstrate competency—achieved through a mix of independent study using technology-powered learning resources, individualized time with instructors, job-based or practicum experiences, and assessment of knowledge through state-of-the-art online proctoring—the more quickly they complete their degrees and can embark on their first or next career opportunity. And because our tuition model is based on a flat per-term rate—rather than per course or per credit hour—this student-driven learning experience also limits students' exposure to debt and helps more individuals gain access to the opportunities education can provide.

Without question, the current pandemic has created significant challenges for higher education, but in many ways, it has simply highlighted the challenges faced by our sector for several decades: quality, access, and affordability.

Fundamental to the WGU student experience is our unique faculty model. To help students persist, we match students with a Program Mentor, who works with the student from enrollment to graduation, providing advice, instruction, coaching, and support. Students interact with their Program Mentors regularly, usually on a weekly basis. Additionally, students work with Course Instructors, subject-matter experts at the course level who provide one-on-one, as-needed instructional support on specific components of the curriculum. Curriculum faculty ensure the curriculum and instructional materials are evidence-based and academically rigorous, and a separate faculty group, Evaluators, grade assessments anonymously, ensuring fair, unbiased evaluations.

Competency-based education and our faculty model are just two components of the WGU student experience, which centers around a learner's needs and heavily leverages technology. We are fortunate that WGU's operations are continuing uninterrupted, and we are grateful that our technology-driven approach to learning allows us to continue to serve our students without disruption, and that our students can continue to make progress toward their education goals.

Without question, the current pandemic has created significant challenges for higher education, but in many ways, it has simply highlighted the challenges faced by our sector for several decades: quality, access, and affordability. WGU has been finding innovative ways to address these challenges since our founding, and we look forward to working with other institutions and policy makers to move these innovations forward, connecting more students to the opportunities higher education provides.