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Many students, especially adult students, have started earning a degree but never completed. Merging a stackable into degree programs may be the answer to getting these students the credentials they need to get back into the workforce. In this interview, Adam Fein discusses the University of North Texas’ decision to offer MOOC-based bachelor degrees, how the credential ecosystem can fit into degree development, and the benefits to providing a more stackable model.
Adam Fein (AF): The number one reason, very simply, is that there are 36 million Americans and many more internationally who have started college and haven’t finished. To paraphrase, I believe, former under secretary Ted Mitchell, the two dirtiest words in higher education are “some college,” which means you probably have student loan debt and no credential to show for it.
I spent 18 years at the University of Illinois before coming to University of North Texas, where I’d had some experience working with Coursera. Upon my arrival here at UNT I observed that we had this amazing bachelor’s completion program for folks in the DFW area in the metroplex. I immediately knew it would be a great program to take to the rest of the world. There are a lot of people out there who need high-quality, low-cost, degrees like this, especially from a research university.
AF:We could have a whole conversation just focused on UX and higher education, which has historically been awful. I’m on a mission to improve the user experience for students and faculty as well. Higher education has a very all-or-nothing system that doesn’t fit the marketplace now. It probably didn’t before either, which is, again, part of the reason why we wanted to make this bachelor’s completion program stackable and easy to navigate.
Progressing through college can be like playing a video game. You change your mind a few times and you can be sent back to the beginning, losing a lot of your work. It can be terribly frustrating. That’s not how it should be; it shouldn’t be punishing.
An example of stack-ability, our online bachelor’s completion program accepts credentials like the Google IT certificate as part of the Coursera partnership with Google and the University of North Texas. If you bring those credits in, or you take the certificate along the way, BOOM! You’ve got a LinkedIn credential even before you even have your degree. So, now you have your degree and you have a couple of tangible micro-credentials surrounding and enhancing it. These micro-credentials often help employers to tease out what you’ve actually learned and what you can do in the workforce, giving companies the confidence that they are hiring the right person. I’m really proud that we have a bleeding edge program leading the way in having these opportunities as part of the program.
AF: I can only speak to it from my perspective, but we are a risk-averse industry and very traditional. There’s a presentation I’ve given over the years that shows a picture of a classroom in 1915 and one of the classroom in 2015. The joke is: if you were to bring a dentist forward in time 100 years and placed them in a dentist’s office, they would be amazed at the environment, technology, and how much everything had changed. Conversely, if you bring a university professor forward in time and place them in a traditional classroom, they would likely be very familiar with the surroundings–not much has changed! It’s unfortunate in that it’s not as if we haven’t learned more about how the human brain functions and all the different aspects of cognitive science and learning, but our institutions and environments have only changed recently–it took a global pandemic.
Things are changing, though. My alma mater, the University of Illinois, has done some great things. When I was there, we started the first degree on Coursera. Their online MBA has been extremely successful, so successful that they have completely revamped their residential programs–an enormous credit to Dean Jeff Brown and his colleagues at the Gies College of Business. Many research institutions are against tampering at all with the undergrad experience because it’s their bread and butter. I understand; state allocations to universities have been dropping in the United States since the early ’80s. Those losses have been recouped by tuition in large part, and in many cases, auxiliaries like gyms, extracurriculars, parking, housing, dining and coffee. People blame universities for those pivots, and that’s fair to a degree, but what was higher ed supposed to do when the largest discretionary item in state budgets is for higher ed, and they kept cutting and cutting?
All this stated, this is part of the reason why it’s taken a little longer to innovate in many academic circles. Higher education has had a pretty good thing going – one that has worked for over 200 years. It creates anxiety to touch any part of this equation, but if we care about the future of our industry, we must. One thing that attracted me to the University North Texas was that it is a really special place. A minority-majority research-one university in an 8 million person metroplex with 42% first-generation students. They been innovating for a while and are not afraid to try new strategies. It’s a beautiful picture of what higher education can and should be.
AF: A major benefit is the opportunity to try before you buy. It’s a low-cost, high-reward pathway for those who might be trepidatious about starting school again. Whether it has been a couple of years, or 25, it can be intimidating. Taking a MOOC for $50 is much more manageable than paying $1,000 for a full-credit course when you are just trying to see if you are ready to make the commitment to college again.
The other piece is that with this program, the goal is very high quality at scale, building in support for students who have busy lifestyles, work, and families to take care of. Adult learners don’t often have the kind of time that a traditional-aged undergraduate student would.
That’s how we’ve designed the program —to have collaborative self-directed activities but also a good number of synchronous live offerings, so students feel connected. We don’t want isolation; that’s not good online learning. We also understand that it can be difficult to be somewhere on a particular day and at a particular time. Our students are in time zones all over the world, and we respect their busy lifestyles.
AF: We don’t often lower tuition in higher education, and we were able to do that here given the scale. Obviously, the scale has something to do with that as far as financials. When I spoke with our CFO, I showed him how we did this—high-quality learning at scale—in the graduate space at Illinois. I suggested that it was something that we could do at UNT in the undergraduate space. Different, but similar.
It’s really a part of the 21st-century mission of public and land grant institutions. That is, our job was always to provide a high-quality, affordable, accessible, inclusive, education to our region and state, but this is now a mission that extends across the nation and globe. Our president, that’s where his heart is. He knows that we serve a diverse set of students. Our word for this year is affordability. There’s just too much student debt out there. This is another reason why the online bachelor’s completion degree is such an important group of people to serve.36 million people who have started a degree and stopped is just too large.
If we do this right from a financial standpoint, it’s win-win for everybody. The students get a low-cost, high-quality degree, and we serve enough students to make money and reinvest it into the program, always ensuring a cycle of continuous improvement. Since we’re a public university and not a company, we reinvest money in things that help that program; other online programs, in-person programs and everything in between. Our job is to use revenue to create and nurture a great 21st-century experience.
We did a lot of financial modeling for this program. Fortunately, we had a fairly robust online presence before this, so we weren’t starting from scratch. I inherited a talented teaching and learning team that has now doubled in size to meet all of the demand. We added talent to design and production and created a compliance team. The compliance team is tasked with, in addition to other QC and copyright responsibilities, proactively ensuring that content developed for students with disabilities is accessible and high quality. That’s truly part of this being inclusive. We also built enterprise (industry-academic partnerships), digital growth (digital marketing and recruitment), tech (virtual and physical classroom tech) and research (publishing our findings on digital learning) teams that have been instrumental in building a foundation for success.
In summary, this pathway is a both/and, where you can meet the mission of a public university and have it be profitable.
AF: First and foremost, it has to be consistent with the mission. Different universities have different missions. Not all universities want to expand online in a flexible format. It’s a lot of work to operate on the periphery of what is traditional in academic settings. Policies have to be questioned and re-examined – especially in the undergraduate space.
The second question to ask is whether your institution wants to do this internally or with a third party. I don’t have a ton of experience with different OPMs, but I have enough colleagues around the country with varying experiences to know that it’s a cautionary tale. Giving up a chunk of your tuition in a multi-year contract for services that you may be able to provide in-house is risky. At the two major universities I’ve worked at, I was able to build my own team internally. We didn’t need an OPM for instruction, design, production, compliance, faculty development—all the things that surround good teaching and learning. I wouldn’t say OPMs aren’t right for anyone, but you have to ask yourself what you have and what you can build. Can the OPM integrate with your culture?
We have 80 different online program options—a lot of them in the graduate space, some in undergrad– and didn’t need to look to the traditional OPM space. For this program, we had to think out-of-the-box. To launch a program at scale in a particular discipline where there’s a great need, it’s important to find a trusted partner that has tested scale and shares your social mission. I don’t consider Coursera to be a traditional OPM.
Coursera was born as a MOOC provider and emerged from that position. For all of the non-credit material offered through partnerships with universities (since 2012), that stack-ability is already there. These partnerships allowed them to build an ecosystem of over 75 million learners and users. No higher education institution has access like that. We provide the academics, and Coursera provides the platform, exposure and marketing. It’s a great partnership.
AF: In the world of higher education at large, there’s definitely more hybrid education (a blend of in-person and online education) on the way. At UNT, before the pandemic, approximately 10 to 15% of exams were online. Now, 80% are online. At first, faculty who had not been exposed to the digital space were hesitant about it—and rightfully so as many had to make a rapid transition to the online space. Now, many of those same people are enjoying it. The line is blurring between online and in-person learning. Pre-pandemic, it was common for online courses to have and utilize Canvas to manage the class. While in-person courses were given a canvas shell, many were not used, or maybe only lightly. When we shifted to remote in spring 2020, all courses had to use Canvas, and it was a trial by fire for many faculty members. Fast-forward to spring 2021, and it’s our third semester undergoing COVID protocol. The one thing we heard students asking at the beginning of the semester, even in their limited in-person courses was: “Where is my Canvas?” They weren’t talking about the remote or online courses but the in-person courses. They now expect every course to have a digital space, which wasn’t the case before the pandemic. That is one of my big takeaways from this period: home base for learning has shifted from the traditional classroom to the online learning management system.
Another trend we will see is a more stack-ability. Students won’t just come here and either earn a degree or nothing. They will get concentrations and micro-certificates along the way as they build their education. If at any point they have to leave or stop out, they won’t leave empty-handed but be able to show an employer the skills they learned. The degree is still the outcome with the highest student ROI, but it shouldn’t be all-or-nothing. A transcript, for example, will be fully digital—like a portfolio with metadata—so you can store projects, papers and presentations for future employers to search and consume. It will no longer be just a static piece of paper, which honestly never really told us a whole lot. We’ll begin to see more institutions embracing these as part of their product lines.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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