High-tech learning is no easy A

Photo by Jenn Whitney

My nine brothers and sisters and the 25 foster children who rotated through our house when I was growing up made for a diverse, sometimes crazy household. There was a lot of love to go around, but not a lot of experience in navigating higher education. If it wasn’t for the faculty and staff at a local community college who helped and challenged me early on, I doubt I’d have earned a bachelor’s degree, much less a Ph.D.

That experience, along with my two decades of working with innovators hoping to improve student learning and college completion — especially the work of many business and education leaders here in Texas — has made me a passionate advocate for a grand bargain we should be willing to make with college students today: You do the work; we clear the way. Here’s how it works.

Innovations like digital courseware, online and blended learning, and competency-based models — in which students progress based on content mastery, not time spent in class — have transformed higher education in recent years. Lower-cost, high-quality options are now available to more students than ever before. But the reality is this: Too many students think these new options are meant to make learning easy.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Quality learning often pushes you — and pushes you hard. The time, energy and money spent developing these innovations aren’t intended to make learning easy but rather to ease students’ journeys. At their best, they bring learning to life in new and compelling ways and make an often-impenetrable higher education system easier to navigate. These innovations are pointless, however, if students don’t live up to their end of the bargain.  

Indeed, research, practice and the lived experience of educators show that all students — in both live and online settings, and in both traditional and competency-based models — must show up, be willing to do the often challenging work of learning, and develop the tenacity and grit to deal with the inevitable struggles they’ll face in both life and learning along the way. Unfocused students are more likely to leave education with debt, not degrees. Entitled students convinced that we should cater to them will blame anyone but themselves for their failure. Uncommitted students may have big dreams but no willingness to defer gratification or sacrifice along the way.

We felt so strongly about this bargain when we launched WGU Texas — a fully online, competency-based university, of which I was the founding chancellor — that our advertisements featured taglines like “If it were easy, it wouldn’t be Texan” and “The Texas Two-Step: Work Hard, Succeed.” These messages weren’t about scaring students away but about readying them for the road ahead. Our typical student was 37 years old on average and returning to school after struggling to complete a bachelor’s degree or to find a learning model that would put them on a path toward a master’s degree. WGU Texas’ competency-based model might have been more accommodating, but it definitely wasn’t going to be easy. We were looking for students who were willing to do the work, not looking for an easy way out. To date, more than 5,000 Texans have risen to this challenge.     

However we challenge students, though, the other side of the bargain is ours. If students approach their learning with purpose, engagement and tenacity, they have the right to expect — and insist — that we make their journeys through our state’s education system learning centered, data rich and high value.

Our policies and practices should be focused on improving and expanding learning, not maintaining tradition for tradition’s sake. Students should have clear, comprehensive information about where they are and what’s next. That may mean sharing and better analyzing student progression data, even between institutions and systems, and getting these data in the hands of students, advisers and faculty. We simply can’t continue to force tens of thousands of students to fly blind while making their way through our courses and programs or, even worse, while navigating needlessly confusing transfer agreements — especially when more than 70 percent of all baccalaureate recipients in our state transfer credits from community colleges to universities.

Most of all, successfully completing these journeys should result in both credentials valued by the labor market (if getting a job is part of our promise or their purpose) and deeper knowledge that prepares students to learn for a lifetime, participate in a democracy and develop the agency to guide their lives.

It’s an exciting time to be in the fast-changing, furiously innovating world of education. We have the opportunity to help more students succeed than ever before using the most compelling learning resources the world has seen yet. However, high expectations and hard work are a must on both sides of the grand learning bargain if we’re going to make the most of this moment and realize the true promise of education in Texas.  

Disclosure: WGU Texas is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Mark David Milliron

Co-founder of Civitas Learning