How BYU Pathway-Worldwide Is Creating Online Programs to Support a Changing Demographic of Students: Interview with President Clark Gilbert
Welcome to Higher Ed Transformation for the Campus of Tomorrow, an EdTech Times podcast series where we talk to higher ed leaders and strategists about the need for innovation, and the best strategies for building an institution for tomorrow.
Over the past decade or so, many higher ed institutions have invested heavily in online education, in an effort to both increase enrollment and create a sustainable model for the future.
One of the many organizations trying to increase access to education online is BYU-Pathway Worldwide.
Yet according to Clark Gilbert, President of BYU-Pathway, online programs are more than just a tool to reach a larger number of students. They’re a tool to reinvent higher education as we know it.
President Gilbert believes that in order for online education to be successful, it needs to be crafted specifically around that medium.
According to Gilbert, “We should be asking ‘What can we do with online learning that you can’t do in a traditional classroom?’ And that’s where we’ll start to see the real outcomes.”
Gilbert says that with the increased accessibility of online education, universities must adapt to meet the needs of a different demographic of students than traditionally found on campus.
“If you make online learning available, you’re going to reach a larger audience. You’re going to reach an audience that traditionally didn’t come to residential campuses — which means you’re also going to expand the risk profile of that audience.”
Many students previously considered “non-traditional” — returning students, working parents, or full-time workers — might not have the tools or support to succeed in a “traditional” college environment.
While some schools might see this as a challenge, BYU Pathway was specifically created for these students.
“We designed BYU-Pathway from the ground up, for the student who wasn’t going to college, or wasn’t completing college,” says Gilbert.
To reach this demographic, BYU-Pathway created a program to help boost confidence and build employability skills from the very start, so that students are more likely to get jobs and stay on track.
To find out what BYU-Pathway is doing to create a sustainable online education model for a changing demographic of students, we had EdTech Times CEO Hester Tinti-Kane speak to BYU-Pathway President Clark Gilbert.
Listen in to the full interview to learn more about the organization’s vision for the future of online education.
Hester Tinti-Kane: This is Hester Tinti-Kane. And today we are speaking with President Clark Gilbert. He is the head of BYU-Pathway Worldwide. Our topic today is transforming higher education for the future. And President Gilbert, we would love to hear a little bit about BYU-Pathway Worldwide.
Clark Gilbert: Great. BYU-Pathway Worldwide, as a formally established organization, is just barely a year old. And yet, it’s lived inside the BYU system for several years. And its purpose was to expand access to education all across the world. And by making education more affordable, helping students build confidence, and taking the educational opportunities where they live.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So speaking of worldwide, I would love to hear a little bit about your student population. And I did recently watch your inauguration video. So one of the quotes that you mentioned there was, you know you’re planning to “reach low and lift high.” So, if you could talk about the population and talk a little bit about that quote, that would be great.
Clark Gilbert: Inside the BYU system — you have BYU, which is our flagship; R1, National Merit Scholar profile university. You have BYU-Idaho, which is a residential teaching campus.
Clark Gilbert: And BYU Pathway was created as an online program that can operate anywhere in the world. Not to replicate the other schools, but to reach a population they wouldn’t normally reach. And so, we have 40,000 students. We’re in over 70 countries.
Clark Gilbert: The student population tends to be one of three archetype profiles. The 18 to 19-year-old who never thought they would be going to college. The twenty-five year old stop out, who started but didn’t think they could make it. And then the adult learner, who tends to be underemployed. And is either going back for better employment, or in some cases, is a mother who didn’t finish her college earlier, and wants to finish. But those three archetype populations tend to make up the majority of our student profile.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Thanks for sharing that information. So, I know as well as leadership in higher education, you’ve had leadership roles in other industries. And you’ve done a lot of work in disruptive organizations. And I’d love to hear a little bit about your work in other industries and how you have, as a leader, achieved successful transformation.
Clark Gilbert: You know, I spent 10 years at the Harvard Business School as a formal academic scholar looking at industry transformation. And in particular, how disruptive technologies reshaped the structure of industries. When you have a disruption — in this case, online learning — we tend to, too often cram it into our existing models. But a lot of innovations allow new models and new populations to develop. And that’s what online is doing.
Clark Gilbert: I used online when I served as president of BYU-Idaho, to enable the growth of that university within its existing model. But we spun BYU Pathway out of the university, so we could focus on a new model for a different population. And that’s when it truly becomes disruptive.
Clark Gilbert: And so a lot of the work we’re doing in BYU pathway is to say, “There’s a whole population who doesn’t go to college. The majority of Americans don’t finish college.” And we designed BYU pathway from the ground up for the student who wasn’t going to college, or wasn’t completing college. And we’re really designing a new model in higher education that’s built for the students, higher ed either doesn’t serve or serves very poorly.
Hester Tinti-Kane: It would be great to talk a little bit about your model. And sort of what the students in your program go through first year and onwards. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Clark Gilbert: Nearly ten years ago, when we were first studying and trying to look at this population who doesn’t go to college, we tried to look at them and understand, what were the constraints to a traditional university education?
Clark Gilbert: And our research led to three primary conclusions. One is, I can’t afford it. Second one is, I couldn’t make it. In fact for us, we are very much a faith-based organization, and we share quotes with our students about the spiritual importance of being educated. And we’d read these quotes to them and we’d say “Do you believe that?” And they’d say “Oh yes.” And then we said, “Why aren’t you getting an education?” And they’d say “Well, that’s for smart people.” And it would break your heart.
Clark Gilbert: And the third constraint is, “I can’t stop my work. I can’t move to another location. I’ve got to be able to do this where I live.”
Clark Gilbert: And so we kind of built the program from the ground up around those constraints. The program consists of three main components. The first is what we call Pathway Connect, which is a preparatory program that takes one year and gets the students ready to be successful in college. The second program is a certificate. You are a matriculated student at that point. And then the certificates all stack into our degrees.
Clark Gilbert: And let me just walk you through each of those. So the one year pre-matriculation program, preparation program we call Pathway Connect. And this absolutely is not a remedial program. Yes, we need to teach writing and yes, we need to teach quantitative reasoning. But most remedial programs do the worst thing you could possibly do for this profile student. They reduce confidence. And Pathway Connect is all about building confidence. So the three core academic courses in that program are a life skills course, a professional skills course, and a college skills course. Now, we teach writing all the way through those three courses. We teach quantitative reasoning and mathematics all through each of those courses. But the students don’t think they’re in remedial math or a remedial writing course. We also teach grit, persistence, and confidence all the way through that.
Clark Gilbert: And then, if the student gets a B-average over the course of that year, in those three academic courses — we also do three religious courses. That makes up the first-year Pathway Connect curriculum. If they can get a B average, they automatically matriculate into our online degree program. They don’t have to take the ACT. They don’t have to go through a formal application process. So that’s the first step. It’s the pathway connect program.
Clark Gilbert: The next step is we start with a certificate. I already said remedial education is the bane of these students existence. The second thing traditional higher ed does so poorly for these students is it drops them into general education. And our research on the impact of general education on these high-risk student populations is…not very encouraging. If you were to come from a high risk population where your parents didn’t go to college, you came from the bottom quartile of income, and we drop you into a course on Beowulf and a pre-algebra course, you immediately start saying “I don’t know if college is worth it.”
Clark Gilbert: If instead, we drop you into what we call our certificate program, where we teach you a job skill immediately. And you realize “This has relevance. I’m going to be able to get a better job.” We see huge changes in persistence. For example, we have about a 60-percent persistence rate in the online degree program pre-certificate. Once our students get a certificate, the persistence rate jumps to 90 percent. So, we don’t teach any GE [general education] credit until they’re done with that first certificate.
Clark Gilbert: So unlike traditional higher education, where you go and start in your GE courses, we want you to start in a certificate. We’re going to weave the GE in your sophomore, and even more likely your junior year.
Clark Gilbert: And then we have a limited number of applied bachelor programs. And every certificate stacks into the bachelor program.
Clark Gilbert: We created the certificate, because we knew not every student would make it to the bachelor’s degree. Ironically, what’s happened is they do the certificate, they gain confidence, they have an interim step in their education, and they see its value. And instead of having an off-ramp, the probability they stay on the path to a bachelor’s goes up by 30 points.
Hester Tinti-Kane: That’s really exciting, just to hear about the shape and the model of what you’re doing with your program. And that brings me to another question that I have. You’re taking some risks here. I mean, you’re doing things in a very different way. And that’s not always comfortable in large organizations. So, tell us a little bit more about where you sit within your organization. And then, basically, what kind of strategies you’re able to use in that shared governance environment.
Clark Gilbert: Yeah, shared governance can always create complications. Our board decided the best governance model was to have it report directly to the board, and not to any one President. Even though we use the accreditation of our sister schools. I can’t create degrees in isolation from my sister-school partners. And that means I have to go through their faculty governance process. I have to work with them.
Clark Gilbert: They also can’t create degrees that we don’t say meet the needs of our students. So, you know, that part of the shared governance — they have a check on what we do because it goes through their curriculum counsels. But we also have a check on them because we say these are our standards. It has to be high employability. There has to be high student demand. It has to start with a certificate. We have a whole category. And until we can get a program that meets that, we don’t have to offer anything from any of the sister schools.
Clark Gilbert: We have a deep partnership and relationship with BYU-Idaho. That’s where I had formerly served as president. But I can’t just say “you guys have to do this.” We have to work together on the needs of these students.
Clark Gilbert: That can create challenges. But on the flip side, our board also knew it would keep them grounded on the needs of what we call everyday students. And so, we manage those boundaries carefully.
Clark Gilbert: In the end, all of the schools in the BYU system report to the LDS Church Board of Education. They have ultimate governance over the whole system. And I report to the commissioner just like each of the presidents of the other schools reports to our commissioner, and he reports then to the board.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Wow that’s really interesting. A lot of checks and balances and a lot of collaboration is needed, which of course is always a challenge. So, you’ve written a book called Dual Transformation. And I would love to hear about one of the focuses of the book: the three crises.
Clark Gilbert: The premise of the book starts with the idea that navigating a disruption is really difficult. As Clay Christensen and I studied the track record of incumbent firms, less than 10 percent of incumbent firms ever successfully make it through a disruptive innovation. But the research also shows of the 10 percent, no one ever does it from inside the incumbent organization. There’s always a dedicated group. Now, it might be totally separate like I was describing earlier. It might be inside the organization, but a dedicated separate team. Or it might be a pure play startup. I think if you look at the top 50 online enrolling universities, the vast majority have those organizational forms.
Clark Gilbert: Now, the book was really built on the premise “Well, let’s look at those who made it, and what does the lifecycle look like?” It usually takes as much as a decade. And during that time, what are the evolution of the challenges for the senior executive leading the change?
Clark Gilbert: So with that early period, it’s you have to have leadership focused on “why is this so important?” And sometimes even ahead of the data. Right. And that takes a real strategy.
Clark Gilbert: The third crisis is a crisis of identity. And that’s the one I’m just coming into and out of with BYU-Pathway Worldwide.
Clark Gilbert: I was president of BYU-Idaho. It’s a 30,000 student residential campus, but I had 40,000 BYU pathway students. And so “am I a residential campus or I’m and I am I an online education organization?” And what we found is while you’re always trying to say “I’m both.” you didn’t maximize the excellence you needed to pursue an either one. And by separating out, we’re working through that crisis of identity.
Clark Gilbert: As I studied dozens, even hundreds, of organizations who ‘d gone through this, the cycles were compressed or expanded, but they tended to always have these three crises they went through. The first one was a crisis of commitment, getting resources to a disruption. Second was a crisis of conflict, where the incumbent organization tried to discount or pole in the disruption. And the last one was a crisis of identity.
Clark Gilbert: If you’re a university and you have more online students, who are you? If you’re a newspaper organization or a media organization and you have a larger online audience, are you a TV station where are you an online organization? And those crises are pretty persistent across organizations, whether it’s in higher education or in other industries.
Hester Tinti-Kane: That’s very interesting. So, it would be great to understand how online learning is really providing a sustainable future growth in higher education. So what are your thoughts about that? I mean, there’s so much going on in higher education right now. And people are looking for their own economic viability, their own sustainability, and growth. So tell me where you think online learning plays in that space.
Clark Gilbert: I’ll first talk about what it means for traditional higher ed, and then I’ll talk about what it means for student outcomes.
Clark Gilbert: Within traditional higher ed, two mistakes I see happening too often is online is viewed as a profit center to prop up a broken model. And you see that in lots of universities. A lot of traditional, even nonprofit universities have realized, “Hey, the economics of online learning are really superior to bricks and mortar campuses. So I’m going to use that to subsidize the brick and mortar campus.” I think that if you don’t track its financial impact independently, you can mask a model that actually is really challenged. So that’s one issue around the traditional higher ed model.
Clark Gilbert: The other one is just around student outcomes. If you make online learning available, you’re going to reach a larger audience. You’re going to reach an audience that traditionally didn’t come to residential campuses — which means you’re also going to expand the risk profile of that audience.
Clark Gilbert: So you need to have two things at the center of what you’re doing. One is student outcomes. And the second one student retention.
Clark Gilbert: We have a phrase in BYU pathway that “everyone is responsible for retention.” The curriculum team, the mentoring team, the field management team, the student. Everyone is responsible for retention. And you have to sign up for that focus. And I think the really serious online educational institutions are really focused on student outcomes, not just viewing this as a low-cost distribution vehicle.
Clark Gilbert: So if you’re going to focus on student outcomes, then you also have to focus on learning outcomes. And not just persistence, but the quality of the learning experience.
Clark Gilbert: The metaphor I’d use for this is theater and film. I love Les Mis. And it’s so powerful to be in the live theater setting and hear the emotion and feel the power of a live performer onstage. And in some ways, film can never replicate that exact emotive force. But when I saw Les Mis produced on film and I saw the opening scene in the dockyards and Jean Valjean pulling the rope and the scale of the scene they just created. You can’t do that on stage. And film learned a long time ago, don’t try to be as good as theater, try to do something theater can’t do. And do it powerfully and differently. And for too long online learning has tried to replicate the classroom.
Clark Gilbert: I see the Harvard Business School where I used to work with a sea of iPads and a professor trying to replicate the traditional classroom case methodology. But we’re cramming the model, again the technology into the old model. And we should be asking “what can we do with online learning that you can’t do in a traditional classroom?” And that’s where we’ll start to see the real outcomes.
Clark Gilbert: My online vice president presented to our board a little while ago and he said, “One of the things we’re trying to do with online is deepen the interactivity and the collaborative nature of of the online course.” And the board kind of started to push back at him saying “Classrooms are collaborative and interactive, how can online be interactive?” Well, it turns out that in an online classroom, I have data, I have a dashboard in front of me about every student and how they’re performing.
Clark Gilbert: I was a case method teacher for most of my career at the Harvard Business School. I love looking into the eyes of my students, reading their body language, calling on someone, building on the last comment that was just made. But at the very best, I got in a third of the classroom. I didn’t know actually who was fully prepared. I didn’t know what everyone would say on a given comment. Well with online, everyone can participate. And I can put people into teams, and they can collaborate. And one of the things we’re doing at BYU pathway is finding ways to actually press our advantage rather than say “We don’t have classrooms as our core delivery mechanism, how do we make it almost as good as a classroom?”
Clark Gilbert: We’re actually trying to press our advantage and say “what can we do online that can’t be done in a traditional classroom?” And it’s flipping the model just like we’re doing in the structure of the degree program.
Hester Tinti-Kane: That’s very, very interesting. So final question. Why do you think innovation is crucial to the survival of higher education?
Hester Tinti-Kane: I think, frankly, for too long, we’ve had impediments to education. You’ve had a guild structure in the existing incumbent firms. You’ve had endowments that protect universities from having to compete in the true marketplace. You’ve had regulation that’s supposed to focus on outcomes but far too often focuses on process. And I think what you see happening now is consumers, therefore our students, expect greater choice. They have greater choice. Nontraditional students are flocking to places where traditional higher education once reigned supreme. And if we don’t innovate, we’ll lose our role as guiding and shaping those conversations.
Clark Gilbert: People aren’t going to wait for traditional higher education to catch up. If we don’t keep moving, alternative uhh educational institutions are going to take our students.
Clark Gilbert: I admire and look up to many of these innovators. But I also know traditional higher education has a role to play in shaping public discourse and dialogue. I don’t want us to lose that role, but we’re going to lose it if we don’t keep innovating.
Clark Gilbert: I often say “disruption is the hardest challenge in business.” It’s the hardest challenge facing higher education. But it’s also the era of discovery. And there’s opportunities ahead of us like there’s never been before in the history of learning. It couldn’t be a more frightful and a more exciting time ever in the history of learning.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Well, President Gilbert, thank you very much for your time today. It’s been a great conversation.
Clark Gilbert: Thank you Hester. It’s been great.
This episode is brought to you by Huron.
Huron is a global professional services firm with an extensive history in higher education. For nearly two decades, Huron has provided consulting services for over 500 educational institutions, including all 100 of the top research universities in the United States.
You can learn more about what Huron does by visiting huronconsultinggroup.com.
Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.