Over the course of thirty years in education technology I have watched the field evolve from innovative experiments in individual classrooms to broad-based, online degree programs delivered by leading universities to thousands of students. While I am excited by this long-term evolution—and like many others recognize the value that ed tech has played during the current pandemic—I believe that we as educators need to have a serious conversation about whether this shift to digital learning is actually delivering our primary goal. Digital learning should be not just a substitute for what we have done for centuries in physical classrooms but rather a fundamental improvement in the quality of learning for all students.
To me, the definition of educational quality is quite simple: quality education helps learners achieve better outcomes in their lives. Those outcomes are sometimes hard to articulate. For K-12 students, parents often play a key role in assessing those outcomes. For many higher education students, the goal is access to high quality jobs. For adult learners, further education helps them pursue new careers, or up their game in their current roles. But, at a fundamental level, people invest in education to improve their lives through learning.
At 2U, we are singularly focused on making sure the educational experiences we deliver meet the needs and expectations of the learner—and most importantly, drive outcomes.
To ensure learners are receiving what they need out of their educational experience to be successful outside the classroom, we must continually ask ourselves questions that put the learner at the center. Are we creating content and learning experiences that are deeply engaging? Do students feel like they are mastering the content? Do they feel supported in their learning journeys by instructional staff and by their peers? And, most importantly, do they feel satisfied with their learning experience?
These values of engagement, learning mastery, and satisfaction all relate to one core principle: outcomes. Is the experience delivering the outcome the student wants? Student outcomes are paramount in determining quality.
From producer to consumer
You might think that student outcomes have always been a measure of quality learning, but that's not often the way the education industry has thought about itself. When I began in the education field—in 1989, teaching high school history—the reputation of any particular school was enough to connote quality. The school’s instructors would teach from traditional textbooks, which might contain great content and editorial perspectives, but provide little guidance to an instructor on how to engage students intellectually and emotionally. In many respects, students were subordinated to the notoriety and reputation of the educator and the institution.
Today, students are increasingly where they should have been all along: at the center of the quality question. The brand name may still be important, but online delivery allows us to supplement that brand with data-driven insights into student outcomes. As online learning producers, we have radically reoriented the learning experience around the consumer.
Universities trust outcomes
This transformation of the responsibility for quality—from producer or publisher to consumer—has been at the heart of 2U’s mission over the past 12 years. When we first began working with our university partners, our approach was simply to convert their traditional, classroom-based courses for online delivery. Today, with over a decade of earned knowledge about what constitutes a quality online program, we know how to drive outcomes that our universities’ students expect, which means going beyond simply replicating the on-campus experience. Our approach is guided by our Learning Experience Framework, a collection of research-based principles combined with insights we’ve gleaned from designing and developing thousands of courses with input from students and faculty along the way. As a result, we can be a better partner to universities to deliver online learning that generates real outcomes.
The power of data
How do we and our university partners know that our approach to online learning is engaging students and providing the outcomes that they want from their education? The proof is in the data.
Like other online services, we have a deep understanding of what our users—our students—are doing every second they're engaging with 2U-powered content, while also being mindful, as industry leaders, of data privacy and security requirements. Learning data allows us to continually iterate and improve on multiple levels: helping us tweak a course so that the next time it’s offered, students benefit from a more meaningful experience; telling us how to support instructors to be more effective; or pointing out when an individual student is struggling to understand a certain concept.
In other words, we use data to drill down to ever greater levels of fidelity and detail to improve and personalize the learning experience for our students.
This level of attention to student data has paid off in a big way.
Rates measuring student retention, satisfaction, and graduation for 2U-powered programs are at the same, if not better, levels than those of campus-based programs. In 12 years, 2U and our great university partners have achieved online what it has taken traditional, on-the-ground programs sometimes hundreds of years to deliver.
At 2U, we are leveraging technology to create quality learning experiences for a broad range of learners. This technology allows us to really focus on what matters most in the learning equation: the student. For example, we’ve produced thousands of hours of motion graphics and computer animations to supplement and enhance students' understanding of lecture content. We’ve sent remote video crews into laboratories, operating rooms, and manufacturing plants to provide students with a telepresence experience they could never have in a physical classroom. We've created social tools to allow students to learn with and from each other—both online and offline. We've placed thousands of social work, nursing, and other clinical students into field internships, and we’ve recently begun doing this virtually through an initiative we called VFX, virtual field experiences.
As technology grows in sophistication and power and we continue to learn how best to harness it, 2U-powered programs will increase in quality, just as they have been since 2U was founded. We are using technology to fundamentally rethink the experience of education—with the student at the center of it all.
To hear more from Luyen Chou, register for the ASU GSV panel “COVID Changes The Game: Higher Education Forced Online” taking place on Thursday, October 1, 5:15–6:00pm ET.