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Walden Magazine // Jan 16, 2019

The Future of Learning is Here

How student-inspired insights are driving Walden’s innovation and new technology.

For many, the choice to earn a degree begins with a desire for something more: more career opportunities, more money, more personal fulfillment. Walden has shown how distance learning and online education can provide a path forward, but it is also familiar with the obstacles along the way.

Tight household budgets. Ever-changing schedules. The shadow of self-doubt. Most students have dealt with these concerns—and then some. Walden’s beginnings are rooted in understanding personal challenges that many universities have failed to address.

Walden was among the first to show society that an online education is a powerful force for good. It has given generations of students the freedom and confidence to take a leap forward. But the university’s evolution has been about more than the internet. It has been driven by anticipating and meeting student needs.

Dr. Andrea Lindell, vice provost of Walden’s College of Health Sciences and College of Nursing, notes that to meet the changing needs of society and culture, our roles must change as well.

“There are so many opportunities,” she says. “At Walden, we’re continuously asking, how can we create a better process, a better model? What can we do to create a better world for the future?”

The answers to these questions are found in the way Walden fulfills its mission of education for good and education for all. This means updating curriculums and processes while utilizing new technologies to ensure students and faculty have the skills to flourish in a changing world.

Innovation in Action

One of higher education’s biggest existential challenges—even before the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic—has been finding ways to make learning available and accessible for students leading busy personal and professional lives. “Student-centered learning” has become a common catchphrase in admissions materials, but few institutions have effectively turned this concept into reality.

“When you look at higher ed in general, everyone is experimenting with how to deliver to and reach students,” says Walden University Vice Provost Marilyn Powell. “It’s a transition from, ‘I’m a member of the academy, I have this knowledge, and I want people to have it’ to ‘I need to know what’s going on in your life and your profession, the rhythms and the content that works best for you. I can form the knowledge I have into any of those formats.’”

Over the past decade, Walden has developed new programs and provided new learning options to support this student-centered philosophy. Offerings such as Tempo Learning®, the One-Credit track in the MS in Education (MSEd) program, and microlearning-based experiences are being deployed to empower current and future students on their path of lifelong learning.

“Where Walden, I think, stands out is that we have not sat still on things,” says Sue Subocz, Walden’s chief academic officer and provost. “I think some other institutions have found a model and feel it’s really good, and so they stick with it. That’s not us. We’re constantly surveying the field.”

Choose Your Speed

About five years ago, Walden introduced Tempo Learning®, a format that allows students to customize the pace of their learning.

“You have more flexibility in terms of when you are graded. You set your pace based on your own schedule,” Subocz says.

For example, in professions related to information technology or business management, where the need for upskilling is constant, Tempo Learning® allows students to move faster than they would in a traditional 12-week course. But in professions like education—where the time an individual can devote to learning varies significantly during the year—students can choose to go slower when they need to.

Control Your Course Load

Teachers seeking an advanced degree have long made up a significant portion of Walden’s student body. But over the years, leaders like Powell began noticing a concerning trend.

“We were seeing folks take leaves of absence when things got busy. They needed a more flexible way to adjust their course load,” she says. “That’s when we began talking about one-credit courses.”

The One-Credit MSEd track requires the same total number of credits as the traditional program track but is structured differently. Students choose a completion option—12, 16, or 20 months—and can complete up to three 1-credit courses during each four-week term.

“The flexibility will be a bonus for teachers who need to ebb and flow in their own learning,” says Powell, who adds that students are currently enrolled in all three tracks of the program.

Upskill as Needed

For many people, an advanced degree program isn’t the ultimate goal. Millions of professionals each year seek opportunities to upskill—to quickly acquire new competencies they can immediately apply in their jobs—without enrolling in a degree program.

After working with employer partners to pilot custom learning programs for their staffs, Walden launched the School of Lifelong Learning in 2019 to provide similar opportunities to the general public. The platform offers single courses, short courses, and microlearning experiences that range in intensity and length—from a couple of hours to a full semester.

“For employers, we can package together small bits of courses from different disciplines into a just-in-time, curated, tailored learning experience that is specific to job descriptions or promotion criteria,” says Steven Tom, senior vice president of student experience and chief transformation officer.

For students, Walden can offer lifelong learning opportunities that advance their careers, in between and beyond their degrees.

Technology’s Envelope of Care

Any conversation about technological innovation in higher education typically centers on the classroom. But not all online learning is created equal. Walden has been at the forefront of instructional innovation for decades, pioneering the platform and perfecting the experience. That’s evident in Walden’s efforts to use emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

This is not tech for tech’s sake. It’s a deliberate and sustained commitment to enhancing the student experience at every touchpoint with the aid of new tools.

“We want to be partners in this learning journey with our students to help them get to their final destination,” says Tom. “Technology enables us to provide an envelope of care and support for the student experience. The more we can do to essentially walk the journey with our students, the better we can serve them.”

It’s the kind of thinking that has served as a North Star for some of the most recognized brands in the world. Companies like Amazon and Chipotle have thrived by creating a large variety of offerings, making it intuitive and even enjoyable to find what you need when you want it. Think of Amazon’s “Customers who bought this item also bought” feature, which recognizes the behavior and current needs of a customer and helps provide them with possible next steps. Whether you’re looking for dish detergent or choosing a degree, a customized experience makes all the difference.

Digital Assistants Help Students Get It Done

Many Walden students juggle work and family responsibilities while pursuing their degrees. Their time to focus on coursework and other school-related obligations often falls outside of the usual schedules of university staff. Who is available to help them with their important questions at 3 a.m.? Walden made challenges like this a priority.

Enter Charlotte, Walden’s student support chatbot. Originally programmed to perform fewer than 10 tasks, two years later, Charlotte is capable of more than 80 different functions and can provide students with individualized information.

“Charlotte isn’t just answering questions but doing things like ordering official transcripts and checking financial aid status,” Tom says. “It’s not, ‘Here’s where you can go,’ but, ‘Let me do that for you.’”

The reality is that not everyone learns at the same pace. And not everyone is motivated to learn 24/7. To address this challenge, the university has developed tools to guide student learning, not just support it. Based on the principles of “nudge theory,” Walden’s Doctoral Navigator uses positive reinforcement and in-the-moment reminders to keep students on track.

“Instead of you figuring out what you have to do, the Doctoral Degree CoachTM says, ‘You’re at this step—here is the book, or rubric, or resource that you need so you don’t have to go around looking for it,’” Tom says of the technology, now available in almost all of Walden’s doctoral programs. “It helps you get started, saves time, and tracks your progress against your goals.”

The Value of Virtual Reality

Another challenge Walden students face: limited time and opportunities to complete the in-person field experiences necessary for many degrees. The increasing accessibility of virtual reality, Tom says, helps solve that problem.

About a year and a half ago, Walden collaborated with Google to develop a field safety training experience for students in the Barbara Solomon School of Social Work using the tech giant’s Daydream and Cardboard products. Over 90% of students found the experience helpful in preparing them to go out in the field.

“It was important to our social work faculty to be able to use this tool to help Walden students develop instincts for heat-of-the-moment encounters during home visits,” Tom said in a Google case study about the program. “The more we prepare our students for the most stressful situations, the better our students will be able to help those in need.”

Building on the success of the social work training experience, Walden is working on bringing virtual reality to more programs that can benefit from simulation experiences, including school counseling, education, and nursing.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Fifty years ago, Bernie and Rita Turner made their dream of education for all a reality with the founding of Walden University. They recognized an educational need. They built a center of higher learning devoted to positive social change. And they opened it to adult learners from diverse backgrounds. Innovation is woven through Walden’s history.

As these new technological applications take root, Walden will continue to seek inspiration from its most valuable resource: students.

“The experience is a big reason why a student chooses a place of higher education, or why they would decide to continue once they started,” Tom says. “The more we can make the experience frictionless, cater it to you, make it convenient to you, the more we’re going to help you be successful.”

The tradition at Walden is to always look ahead, developing solutions that give generations of students the freedom to be ambitious and the confidence to take that leap forward. Just as Walden pioneered online learning, it continues to lead in developing new technologies and teaching methods that enhance the experience of today’s students, preparing them for the workforce of tomorrow.

Wherever today takes Walden students and whatever tomorrow demands of them, they’ll be prepared. Because, for half a century, Walden’s been preparing for them.