“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Higher education is not good at failing. We prepare far more for not failing than we do for succeeding, and we are loath to give up even the most unsuccessful initiatives.
As with most things, the dread of failure in higher education is cultural. Higher education is an individualistic enterprise, so most successes and failures are attributed to individuals working at an institution rather than to the institution as such. This leads to low risk tolerance on the part of faculty and administrators, and consequently, the industry does not have a history of rapid development, innovation, agile methodology, or entrepreneurialism. There is talk of these approaches, and periodically there are exceptions, but overall, the collective approach is slow, steady, and highly reserved.
Conservatism has served higher education well for generations. Recently, however, the rate of change outside of higher education has outpaced the comfort level of most schools, even threatening the survival of some. Higher education must increase the rate at which it evolves to adjust to new market forces, technological innovations, and social changes. That comes with risks, especially the risk of trying new things and failing.
If failure is interpreted as a personal shortcoming, then few want to take the risk. For institutions to keep pace with the rate of change, they must change the narrative and reinterpret what failure means. In the context of innovation, failing is essential to growing, learning, and finding success. The foundation of entrepreneurship is experimenting, trying new things, and learning from what doesn’t work even more than from what does. This isn’t to say that institutions should be reckless and spend money on half-baked ideas. Administrators should do their homework, get good data, and understand the likely risks of any new initiative. Once the homework is done, however, institutions should act and embrace the inherent risks as part of the cost of progress.
An interesting case study in innovation, failing, and learning is that of the University Learning Store. The story begins with ASG.
There is a small group of continuing education deans who meet twice per year. The group goes by the acronym ASG, which we joke means “a small group”, but really is stands for “Actions, Solutions, and Growth”. The name was given by its founders, Dave Szatmary, Vice Provost for Professional and Continuing Studies at the University of Washington (now retired), and Gary Matkin, Dean of Continuing Education at the University of California Irvine, and is more inspirational than representative. The purpose of the group is to find ways to collaborate across institutions, which is something that continuing education units are more adept at doing than any other part of a university. The group is informal; there are no bylaws or dues. Someone volunteers to host, a commonly accepted date is set, and the members meet. Meetings typically take place on the host’s campus, and a dinner with drinks is inevitably a highlight of the meeting.
Despite the social value of the meeting, the participating deans take the purpose of the group seriously. Collaboration is hard and usually fails, but when successful, the outcome can be extremely valuable to students.
In 2015, ASG met at Northwestern. Tom Gibbons, Dean of the School of Professional Studies there, hosted. Dave Szatmary was still at the helm in Washington, and he ran the meeting. There were no ongoing collaborations at the time among ASG members, so we were looking for something to work on. I was Dean of Continuing Education, Outreach and E-Learning at the University of Wisconsin-Extension, and I oversaw a large team that worked across the campuses of the UW System. We had experience with collaborations across multiple institutions, so I proposed an idea. “How about if we create a department store for learning?” I said. “We could sell courses, credentials, services, and other academic products over which we have influence.”
The idea resonated, and we began to outline a skeleton. The schools that agreed to collaborate were University of California Irvine, UCLA, University of California, Davis, University of Washington, Georgia Tech, and University of Wisconsin-Extension, with the latter serving as the managing partner. Tom Gibbons wanted to include Northwestern in the mix, but institutional policies got in the way.
Initially, we got bogged down in the department store analogy. Would it be like Macys? Target? Nordstrom? Walmart? What would the stocked shelves look like? How many departments would there be? It took us a while to work our way out of that spin, but we were sure that we were onto something interesting. I was charged with drafting a white paper and circulating it to group before the next meeting.
The University Learning Store was to be a department store-like venue for job-focused credentials. Students who came to the Learning Store could purchase individual assessments to certify their knowledge, buy content to gain new knowledge or skills, and purchase support services to help them achieve the credentials that they sought. Students could mix and match assessments, learning materials, and support services in whatever ways work best for them.
Analogous to a department store, one of the key benefits of the Learning Store was that it enabled learners to develop a customized learning experience—tailored to their career goals, needs, and abilities. Some of the items in the Store were modular, enabling students to combine various assessments and content in whatever ways they needed. Other items were self-contained credentials that were authenticated though assessments reflective of the kinds of knowledge that students needed to put in practice in real-life job situations.
Assessments and content in the Learning Store were organized in three departments:
- Power Skills (or soft skills) included topics to help students increase employability and work readiness such as communication skills, teamwork and collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, etc.
- Technical Skills included industry-specific, and in some cases job-specific, skills in information technology, business, healthcare, agriculture, sustainability, and other areas.
- Career Enhancement Skills included topics such as leadership, public speaking, management, negotiation, and so on.
The primary focus of the Learning Store was authentic assessment because it is only through authentic assessments that students can demonstrate what they know. Authentic assessments are assessments that resemble real-life applications of whatever is being assessed. They were developed by one or more institutional partners in the Store and certified by faculty or content experts affiliated with or employed by those institutions. Students who have prior knowledge and experience and want credentials to certify that knowledge could purchase assessments to verify their knowledge. If students demonstrated competency, then they received credentials corresponding to the areas in which they demonstrated competency from the institution(s) that developed and evaluated the assessments.
Students who needed to learn new information were directed to both open and fee-based resources. When open resources were available, students had the option to reduce costs of their studies by accessing those resources; when open resources were not available, students could purchase learning materials and instruction from partner institutions in the Store.
As the store developed, student services were to be available to support student learning. Some pathways would be constructed using automated systems that tagged learning outcomes in modules and aligned those modules and assessments to students’ self-described professional goals. However, students would be able to purchase more personalized service as needed, including support from success coaches to help them develop learning plans, structure their progress through their plans, and support them so that they completed their plans by finding the assessments and resources they needed to get the credentials to advance their careers. They might also seek additional tutoring, personalized instructional support, and individual job search support. In other words, students would be able to purchase assessments, content, and services a la carte or in bundles depending on their individual needs.
The main differentiator of the University Learning Store was the role that authentic assessments played in determining students’ abilities to apply knowledge in practice. More specifically, the validation of student knowledge and ability to apply that knowledge came by way of authentic assessments. The validity of credentials in the Learning Store came from the quality and relevance of the authentic assessments associated with those credentials, which were validated by content experts and employers. Students who received a credential from the Learning Store could say that they had demonstrated the ability to apply knowledge in practice in a specific way, and that application of experience was something that had been approved and reviewed by an employer in that field. The institution that awarded the credential certified that the student had indeed mastered the competencies listed under the credential.
Focus on Competencies
Traditionally, credentials are structured by inputs, i.e., what is taught to students. In many cases, students’ understanding of the material is not verified, and in most cases, students’ ability to apply the knowledge in practice is never tested. By focusing on competencies (outputs) and validating those through authentic assessments, credentials in the Learning Store would become much more meaningful and applicable.
The partnering institutions that comprised the learning store are leading global universities. These institutions excel in original knowledge creation and research, their cadre of world experts is unmatched, and their impact on the professions is enormous. No other provider of alternative credentials came even close to this resource.
Credentials earned at the Learning Store cost significantly less than traditional higher education credentials, but more than those offered by low-cost, private alternatives.
The Business of the Learning Store
The University Learning Store sold content from Learning Store partners and curated content from other providers. In some cases, freely acquired content was used to supplement student learning at no additional cost to the student. Revenue was based on either assessments or student services. In other cases, the Learning Store sold content developed by member institutions, and in the future, it might also serve as a reseller of content developed by affiliated (but not partnering) institutions, charging either a markup to the student or receiving a refund or subsidy from the provider.
Revenues generated by the Learning store from 2016-17 would be retained by the Store and used to pay expenses. Excess revenues would be reinvested. If revenues exceeded expenses by more than 25%, the partner institutions would consider allocating a percentage of revenues back to the institutions. Revenue allocations would be based on a participation formula yet to be determined.
The Credentialing Process
The credentials of the Learning Store included verified competencies and verified competency certifications. For example, a verified competency might be in business correspondence, while a verified competency certification might be in business communication in which the business correspondence verified competency was one component.
Students received an acknowledgement of verified competencies (badges) from the university partner or partners which offered the competency assessment. These acknowledgements were recorded on institutional records and were issued in the form of badges. In some cases, the offering institution kept a permanent record of the achieving of the competency. In either case, the student could transmit and show this verified competency to employers, potential employers, and others through whatever channels the student chose.
Acknowledgements and unofficial transcripts bore the name of the institution or institutional partners certifying the credential.
Several guiding principles governed the University Learning Store.
- No programs were for higher education credit as currently defined by the U.S. Department of Education.
- No Title IV funding would be sought to support students in the Learning Store unless the Department of Education significantly changed the criteria for awarding financial aid.
- All programs would be outside of regional accreditation requirements and regulations.
- All programs would feature a lower cost than traditional higher education credit-bearing programs.
- All programs would be flexible and personalized to the interests of students.
- Assessments would be authentic and demonstrate knowledge in application.
- Programs, assessments, and support services would be delivered online and via mobile devices whenever possible.
- The student experience would be simple, transparent, elegant and devoid of bureaucracy.
In 2015-2016, The University Learning Store got a lot of buzz in the press. Several newspapers such as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote stories about it in the partnering institutions’ regions, Inside Higher Ed (August 14, 2015) wrote about it, and word of mouth spread the news to institutions throughout the country. The president of the University of Wisconsin issued an official commendation to the program, and UPCEA awarded the program Outstanding Noncredit Program designation.
Calls from other institutions came right away as the positive response spread. Some were asking about details, others wanted to be included in the partnership. The ASG group agreed that it would not take on more partners at that point, but would consider affiliate status for interested institutions.
The Real Work
Building the University Learning Store was not simple or straightforward. There were three main challenges. First, the platform on which the Store would be built had to be selected. That required a formal selection process with competing bids. Second, we needed to build inventory for the store. We needed badges, content, and assessments to put on the virtual shelves. Third, we needed customers, and given the budget model based on low price and high volume, we needed a lot of customers.
As the managing partner, UW-Extension offered to select, pay for, and build the platform. Nothing happens quickly in state university procurement, and getting a platform for the University Learning Store was no exception. In the end, the contract was awarded to Fidelis. Getting the platform up and running took about six months, and working with multiple university partners increased complexity. Eventually, when the platform became functional, it did not support the full array of services envisioned for the Store.
Stocking the shelves of the Store was equally challenging. The initial inventory consisted of content and assessments for individual badges, some of which could be grouped into certificates. Students purchased content and assessments individually. If students who already had content knowledge and wanted verification and credentialing of their knowledge, they could do so without having to pay for and sit through instruction. Conversely, students who wanted to learn a new skill but did not care about having the knowledge authenticated or recorded could exercise that option without paying for the assessment.
Although all partnering institutions agreed to develop content for the University Learning Store, this was the area where the challenges of the partnership became particularly evident. For the non-managing partners, the University Learning Store was not a high priority, so developing inventory was slow at best. A couple of the partners never contributed inventory to the Store. UW-Extension developed most of the content, a process that was laborious, expensive, and slow.
A significant amount of market research was done for the University Learning Store. Large and small employers across the country were contacted and asked about their needs regarding professional development for their current and prospective employees. In addition, information from both the Lumina and Gates foundations was reviewed, as were data from the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Labor.
The data were surprisingly uniform. Everyone agreed that all current and prospective employees need excellent soft skills or power skills. These included communication, critical thinking, teamwork, and more. Subsets of employers wanted employees with specific technical skills, and those varied relative to industry. Finally, most employers agreed that they also need their mid to upper level managers to have better skills in areas like leadership, budgeting, management, and so on. This information led to the creation of the three departments noted in the concept of the University Learning Store described above.
All learning modules were priced under $150, with most costing less than $50. Since assessments were sold separately from content, content could be sold cheaply at high volume, while some authentic assessments were more expensive because the time and expertise to grade them was significant.
Initially, the partners did not achieve common understanding about how best to sell content and assessments in the Store. The focus was on the consumer market rather than a wholesale business approach—but which stratum of the consumer market should be targeted was not clear. Eventually, the focus fell on recent college graduates who did not have the skills they needed for good employment. The reasoning was that these individuals were familiar with higher education, had succeeded in higher education, and would most likely find value in more education, especially if it helped them hone what they already knew into a marketable job skill.
The University Learning Store was an extremely valuable learning experience, and key lessons emerged from the process. These include the following.
- Just because employers and others state that they need employees with skills does not mean that the general market is interested in acquiring those skills. Most people are not interested in becoming better communicators, more able critical thinkers, or better team members. These skills are amorphous, poorly understood by the market, and most people think that they already know how to do them.
- Hiring is a much more complex process than having skills. Hence, even when employers say that they can’t find individuals with the skills that they need to fill jobs, producing people with those skills does not automatically lead to employment.
- Communicating what credentials mean is extremely difficult. The only fully recognized higher education credentials are degrees. Employers and the public understand the value of degrees. Most are confused by non-degree credentials, including badges and certificates. As a result, few are willing to invest in non-degree credentials.
- The U.S. higher education system is based on the credit hour as the currency of higher education and degrees as the valued articles of purchase with that currency. There is no common system for noncredit courses or credentials, and so noncredit credentials are either not valued by the market or valued only sporadically and by specific industries. In other words, most employers and members of the public don’t know what to do with noncredit credentials.
- Partnerships across higher education institutions are difficult, complex, and require a great deal of energy and effort to make work. As a result, they are easy to ignore.
- People don’t like to take tests. Unless a test leads to a recognized credential (e.g., CPA exam), few will choose to pay to take a test.
- If you want people to buy your products, make sure that you are offering the products that people want to buy.
- Low cost, high volume sales are challenging for higher education, and most institutions do not have experience with this market strategy.
- Marketing for high volume sales is expensive, so ensuring that one’s budget model accounts for that expense is critical.
Current State of the University Learning Store
Restructuring in the University of Wisconsin, coupled with the lack of market clarity for the University Learning Store, has left the Store in limbo. A business-to-business sales position was filled in 2018 by a capable individual who was tasked to work with employers to identify ways that the Store could fill employers’ training and professional development needs. The effectiveness of that approach remains an open question.
The partnering institutions continue to meet as part of the ASG group. The Store has not been forgotten but is no longer a priority for the group.
Was the University Learning Store a failure? It depends on how one interprets the question. The Store did not achieve its enrollment goals, so in that sense it failed. To date, it has enrolled about 500 students, and although no clear enrollment goal was set, the expectation was that the store would enroll thousands of students. However, the lessons learned and listed above were critical and will inform future program development for years to come. Hence, as a learning experience and a step in program innovation, the Store was a resounding success. In addition, if the predictions that micro-credentials and other nondegree credentials are the wave of the future, then the partnering institutions are well positioned to restart the Store.
I learned a lot from my experiences with the University Learning Store. One key lesson is that despite the numerous articles about alternative credentials and micro-credentials, and prognostications about the disruptive impacts of alternative credentials on the future of higher education, there is little evidence that much will change. Credit is the coin of the realm because the entire American higher education regulatory system supports that currency. There is no other higher education currency. Unless the regulations change, it is unlikely that the market will change. And given that substantive changes in the regulations require Congress to change the law, such changes are unlikely in the current and foreseeable political environment.
Another key lesson is that talk about market need is not the same as actual market need. Just because employers say that they want people with certain skills does not mean that they will hire people with those skills even if higher education produces them. Higher education and employers must engage in far more substantive and direct conversations than they have to date, and they must develop concrete agreements about paths from education to jobs. Without this level of clarity and certainty, there is little incentive for the public to trust the hype and engage in the learning. Put differently, formal learning (credit or noncredit) is extremely expensive in terms of time and money for most consumers, so the value of the investment must be clear to the consumer. Without it, the value proposition is lost.
Finally, my experience with the University Learning Store reinforced to me that without risk there is no progress, and failure is essential for learning. When construed this way, failing loses the individual stigma and becomes a critical element of personal and professional growth. Risk involves a likelihood of failing, and each one of us should be willing to take calculated risks to help our organizations and ourselves grow. Without this, we are but cogs in a wheel, perhaps safe today but with little to show in the future.
David Schejbal is vice president and chief of digital learning at Marquette University. He works with faculty and senior leaders across the University to expand Marquette programs throughout the nation and the world. Prior to Marquette, David was dean of Continuing Education, Outreach and E-Learning at the University of Wisconsin-Extension.
David writes and speaks broadly about higher education and how higher education is shaped by social, economic, technological, and political forces. David’s academic interests focus on issues of higher education, sustainability, and the environment. His academic background is in philosophy, and he received his doctorate from the University of Connecticut. He was president of the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) from 2015-2016. Presently, he is vice chair of the Board of Visitors of the Army War College and a member of the board of the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN).