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Mark Milliron, President and CEO of National University: The Future Will Favor Flexible Educators

WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
Mark Milliron, President and CEO of National University: The Future Will Favor Flexible Educators


For those understandably concerned about the future of higher education, the optimism of today’s WorkforceRx guest Mark Milliron should serve as a salve. The new President and CEO of National University believes we’re entering an historic era of reinvention due to new tech and tools that foster innovation. “I just think we're going to be able to try, test and learn in ways we haven't seen in a long, long time. It’s going to be pretty exciting,” he tells Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan. Milliron sees a future that will favor flexible educators focused on providing value to increasingly “non-traditional” students with complicated lives. That cohort is already a sweet spot for National University which was founded nearly fifty years ago to serve members of the military and is the largest graduate degree granting institution for diverse students in the country. “It's about offering diversified learning opportunities, allowing for short cycle education that ladders into degrees and offering a mix of on-ground hybrid and fully online to meet students where they are.” And with access to more data than ever before, Milliron believes educators will be able to determine what innovations work based on facts, “not based on who can tell the best story.” Don’t miss this expansive discussion packed with ideas about transforming work-study programs to boost healthcare workforce development, moving to a mastery-based learning system and the necessity of shifting to “whole human” education. “If you're serving adult learners, they're not leaving because they can't academically cut it. They're leaving because life happens or logistics get in the way.”


Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development and healthcare explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host, Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.


On a prior episode of this podcast, journalist Jon Marcus of The Hechinger Report offered a pretty blunt criticism of higher education that many insiders in the industry know to be true: colleges and universities do a poor job of drawing connections between programs they offer and job opportunities. With both the cost of college and level of student debt continuing to rise, this is a shortcoming that needs urgent attention.


My guest today, Mark David Milliron, the President and CEO of National University, is going to weigh in on that issue as well as how to better meet the needs of adult learners and what he refers to as the “whole human” approach to education. In addition to his role at National University, Mark works with universities, community colleges, K-12 schools, corporations and government agencies throughout the U.S. and abroad. He also teaches in the Education Leadership Doctoral Program at the University of Texas at Austin College of Education.


Thanks so much for joining us today, Mark.


Mark Milliron: Glad to be here. Thank you for the introduction.


Van: Absolutely. Well, we first met when you were at the Gates Foundation, and you’ve since been Chancellor of Western Governors University in Texas, Chief Learning Officer for a private sector company, Civitas Learning, and previously led the Community College League of Innovation. You’ve seen the world of higher education from so many vantage points. Have you seen real changes in higher education over your years?


Mark: Oh, yeah. I’m three decades plus into this work, and what’s pretty clear is anybody who says things just stay the same in higher ed isn’t paying attention. I mean, just the amount of transition in our world and the expansion of opportunities for students is profound. And, yeah, there’s a lot of challenges and there are a lot of things we’re trying to do to make things better for more students — and we can definitely dive deeper on that — but especially in the last three decades, we have seen significant change in the education space and the ability and the commitment of people to help not just open the doors but help students succeed.


If you go back 100, 200 years in the world of American education in particular, it was all about the access agenda.  How do we help more people get in?  It was land-grant institutions and it was junior and technical colleges, then it was community colleges, then it was kind of the adult learning models that were rolling in and access was the name of the game. But really, in the last fifteen or twenty years it has been about, hey, how can we not just help them get in, but how do we help them finish what they start? And now, the conversation is not just about finishing but actually finishing with value where we know that it’s actually helping them with their personal choices and their careers. There’s just been a lot of work around that with government agencies, foundations and educational institutions really committing to helping more and more diverse students be more successful than ever before.


So, what I’ll say is it’s been a rowdy time to be in the world of education, and it’s been kind of fun to watch the adoption of the internet, the emergence of broad online learning sectors, the emergence of large national-scale universities all the way down to local community colleges. It’s been fun.


Van: Yes, there’s a lot being reinvented and transformed at this moment in time.  I’m curious, Mark, what had you hoped to see that you are not seeing?


Mark: The thing I wish was going faster is in the consumer space — I hate to say simple thing — but the thing we all expect now, which is if you watch Netflix or if you shop on Amazon is the recommendation function of “a person like you who bought this might like this,” right? “A person who watched this, you’ll probably like this.” That level of personalization and self-service in the consumer space — and you’re seeing it in the healthcare space and other sectors — is not really hitting education at scale.


So, what happens is there’s still far too many people — and it’s usually low-income first-generation folks — that have a problem. If you’re a second, third or fourth-generation student in the world of higher ed, you’re scaffolded. You’re scaffolded by a whole family of people, and when you need to make choices, the world comes to help you make those choices. If you’re a first-generation low-income student, you just don’t have the same kind of scaffolds. What I really hoped ten or fifteen years ago in work with Oracle and SAAS and so many others was that we’d get that data faster to the world of education and the ability to use everything from descriptive data to advanced AI engines and ML machine learning would help students make better choices. They would know that for students like you at this stage in your career, here’s the next courses they took, or here’s the next curricular resources they would access to help them learn this concept. I thought we’d be at the “just-in-time” learning stage, that we’d be farther advanced on that.


There are some good examples of people that are doing some niche things, but it’s definitely not a scale thing.  Most students in this country are still…I hate to say flying blind, but they’re flying blind.


Van: I’ve had to bring together large groups of higher education folks in retreats with the challenge of thinking about the future of higher education. You usually get some incremental ideas, but when I pose the provocative question of, ‘what would Amazon do or what would Google do if they were to enter higher education’ interestingly enough, the ideas that come out are super creative because these individuals themselves want to benefit from that kind of personalized education where there’s a recommendation engine just like Netflix, right? Or just like your Prime Video.


Mark: And so here’s the challenge — it’s the notion of goal displacement. National University is a large nonprofit totally focused on adult learners and it has been since our founding. We were founded by a Navy captain who then went on to become the head of learning and development for General Dynamics. He was deeply committed to adult learning and got just furious that his courses at UC San Diego Extension were not being accepted by other higher education institutions. To him, it made no sense whatsoever. So, he invented a university that would serve adult learners. In particular, he determined that five classes over sixteen weeks makes no sense for a deployed sailor. It makes no sense for a working person. Can we create models that are more working student friendly? So, it’s the one course at a time model. Four-week classes, eight-week classes, you know, one-on-one models, and that’s our history.


It’s gone from that crazy idea to now 220,000 graduates, two-thirds of whom are diverse. We’re now at 48,000 students, and two-thirds of our current students are diverse. We’re the largest graduate degree granting institution for diverse students in the country; number two for doctoral students; number one teaching trainer in the state of California; and I think we’re the top private transfer institution. So we’ve been rowdy about this space and we’re built for purpose. We’re built for this moment. We’re built for this work.


The problem is a lot of the advanced data work is pointed at a certain goal, which is optimizing traffic, optimizing engagement or optimizing profit. For the people who care deeply about learning, what we need to do is train that same data and that same analytics engine — and this was the early work we did at Civitas Learning — to work on helping people improve and expand their learning and make it more likely that they finish what they start in higher ed. What’s going to get us there is getting out of the goal displacement around just getting bigger or making more money.


But actually, I think where this turns into gold is when it’s focused on learning. Can we help students learn more effectively and how can we help them finish strong in a really good way? When I came to National people asked all the time, “Isn’t your goal to be as big as WGU or as big as SNHU? And I’m like, your goal cannot be size. Your goal cannot be scale. Your goal has to be to deserve scale. You have to be so good and so good at delivering value to your students, and then you build the infrastructure so you can scale. Then that two-step works, right? You get really, really good at what you do and you build the infrastructure so you can scale that the whole way. If your first job is scale, you short shrift the learning side. That’s a real problem. And Van, I know you’ll get this in your bones, but that’s one of the challenges I see in the world of education.


People are chasing size. People are chasing scale. They’re not chasing learning quality.  They’re not chasing value. We want this conversation to be about how do we help students learn well, learn deeply, have great experiences that give them really strong economic opportunity, really strong career preparation, great personal learning networks, really good experiences and help them be able to kind of take on the world?


Van: Well, Mark, I love that vision. It sounds like you’re hoping to shape or reshape the future of learning, learning quality and learning value at the helm of National University.  We’re cheering you on in that cause. I’m sure a lot of best practices will come out of your leadership and tenure there. You’ve also made reference to “whole human education.” What do you mean by that?


Mark:  Well it starts with the students we serve, right? We are not serving the right from high school full-time students who want climbing walls in residence halls.  We love our state universities, we love our research ones, we love our community colleges, but if you’re an 18-year-old who wants the campus-based experience, you’re not coming to National and that’s fine. We think that’s wonderful because what we know is that at a different age and stage, you might be coming to us. Our job will be to serve you when you’re working full-time with two kids and now you want an MBA, or now you want a doctoral degree. That’s how we want to be able to pull that, and what we want to be able to do is make sure we can meet you where you are and take you where you need to go.


Now, that means we need to understand who you are, and that means understanding deeply that almost all of our students are “and” students, meaning they’re parents and students; they’re soldiers and students; they’re employees and students. That just drives our kind of flexibility. When you learn more about that, you find out that that complexity is the number one reason students are leaving higher ed journeys. If you’re serving adult learners, they’re not leaving because they can’t academically cut it. They’re leaving because life happens or because logistics get in the way.


So, part of what we have to do is understand the whole student and if you understand the whole student, you’re thinking, “How do I get them to get to the next level?” And you’re thinking, “How can I help the student financially?” Maybe they have housing insecurity, food insecurity, transportation challenges. How can we help them with career opportunity choices and pathing? How can we help them with their community engagement and connections? How can we help them even with their family? What are the things we can do with childcare for those students as they’re coming in? That “whole human” education really matters.


Our theory of the case or theory of change is we believe deeply that we want to use next generation education — the advancing tools and technologies and modalities and modes — combined with whole human education to wrap that kind of support around students with an innovative model and aim that at value-rich education. I know you’ll love this, Van, because I know you. Our definition of value-rich education is this: we think next-gen education and whole human education, if you just leave it by itself, is like a high-tech spa. It’s not aimed at anything. Whole human without the next gen is really like a spa, and next gen without whole human is often dehumanizing, and people don’t feel connected. We think those two together are fantastic, but they have to be aimed at something and the aim is how do we help students really get the most value out of their stage in the world of education?


If you’re just really pushing the completion agenda and just trying to help students finish, the short-sightedness of that is it ends up reducing college to a collection of classes, and we just feel deeply that college is far more than a collection of classes. First of all, it doesn’t have to be classes. What we know is our students’ journeys are really a family of experiences that happen to include classes. The experiences can be orientation, can be peer relationships, can be internships, can be co-curricular activities. What we want to do is curate and connect those experiences — including those classes and other kinds of learning experiences — in a way where a student can get the most value out of their time with us. That means we want them to have a credential-rich experience.


I love the idea of doing the work of curating and connecting a family of credentials for students so they can get badges and certifications along with associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees, so that when they leave, they accumulate all the possible industry certifications and credentials that would matter for them to get really good jobs and have great economic opportunity.


Then, can we help them make the most connections? We call this “connection-rich” because students want to connect with other students. They want to feel like they belong. They want to feel like they’re a part of something. They want to connect with faculty. They want to connect with professionals in their space. Those connections are actually the things they talk about at graduation. They don’t really talk about their learning management system, right? They talk about the faculty and the students.


And then we want ‘experience-rich’ education, where they’re really getting these deep, rich experiences because what we know is those internships, those connections with enterprises, with difference makers really matter. My colleagues often joke with me about this, because we say, “We don’t want students just to finish. That’s the low bar. We want our students to suck the marrow out of this experience. We want them to get the absolute most out of their time with us.” So that means we want to use analytics. We want to use data to tell a student, “Hey, for a student like you at this stage, here are the people you need to meet. Here are the experiences you could have. Here’s the co-curricular activity you can be a part of.”  We want to help shepherd them in a way and scaffold them in a way where they just get stronger and better as they’re going through this entire journey, and they just get enormous value by the end.


Van: This is a good transition to my next question. You’ve alluded to some of the elements. You talked about a connection-rich environment, you talked about a family of credentials, and you talked about experience-rich education. Nearly fifty colleges closed in 2022, and it’s a rising trend. What do you think the next 10 years will bring, and which types of institutions will fare best, Mark?


Mark: I think it’s a hard time for folks who are in the traditional model because we are coming out of a disastrous disease phase, post-pandemic, and then at the same time we’re facing daunting demographics. Basically, if you’re a traditional higher education institution, you’re not going to “high school” your way out of this problem, right? There aren’t enough students that are coming out of that traditional channel. So, I think the institutions that are diversified, that actually have a family of learning opportunities available for students will fare best.


Maybe they have some traditional work, but they’re also doing the non-traditional work, and those monikers probably don’t make any sense anymore. It’s actually offering diversified learning opportunities for students; allowing for short cycle education that ladders into degrees eventually where students can come in and come out; they’re doing adult learning; they’re doing flexible modeling, so maybe a mix of on-ground hybrid and fully online to meet students where they are and help them go where they’re going to need to go. I think the folks who are willing to innovate with modes and models are going to be the most successful, and the folks who are willing to look at their community of service and say, “How can we show up and serve the most effective way?”


I always talk about the fact that I loved Blockbusters stores. A Blockbuster, when it was around, was one of my favorite places. I’m a movie buff. I love movies, and Blockbuster was amazing. To be able to go into that store and go through their shelves and pick your movies for the weekend, that was amazing. But there aren’t many Blockbusters anymore because there’s easier ways to distribute movies. People still love movies. People are still watching movies in lots of different formats, but what we have to think about is there are different ways of distribution. It’s not just the Blockbusters anymore. Now it’s a whole family of options. Same thing with learning.


I don’t want to oversimplify our learning strategies, but what we know is that students, especially post-pandemic, have learned how to learn in different ways. They’ve been exposed to different kinds of learning models and they’re voting with their feet. They’re actually choosing mixed models. And by the way, this doesn’t mean they don’t want face-to-face. It just means the face-to-face might be different. They actually might want learning space where they can connect with other people and they can get just-in-time support and they can get advising, not sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture. It’s just going to be a different mix of how we use people time, and as I’m talking about, how do we use our tools to make our human time precious?


Van: Well, I guess the students are voting with their feet. I’m on the board of the National Student Clearinghouse, and as you know, that data on continuous declining enrollment in higher education across all of these systems is pretty rough to read. So, I would love your color commentary about why there’s continued enrollment losses in some of our traditional institutions, and what’s going right with the big online players like yourselves and ASU Online and Southern New Hampshire University which have been growing over the pandemic. How will you navigate National University’s future?


Mark: It’s a great question. I think, again, it points to daunting demography, right? You just have fewer traditional learning folks who are coming right from high school who want the traditional learning model, and increasingly, first-time, full-time students don’t just want campus-based experiences. Now, I want your listeners to hear this: this does not mean there will not be a market for some on-ground and very traditional experiences. There are some students who are going to want that, but that’s not all students. In fact, what we’re seeing is more and more students want to mix and match. At this time of my life, I’m going to do a very traditional approach, but later I’m going to do online.


We have to think about the family of folks who are in the world of higher education and understand that less than a quarter are the traditional eighteen to twenty-year-old on campus going full-time.  That’s not the dominant model in higher ed. We’ve got to be more flexible to understand the family of folks who are coming through.


I think Western Governors, SNHU and National University were very successful during the pandemic because they were built for that moment.  They were built for flexible learning and online learning for folks who needed that kind of flexibility. It makes all the sense in the world that they’re growing. They also found a new market during the pandemic because a whole bunch of people had no idea this existed, and so suddenly they started telling everybody. So literally some of the organic growth just came from people going, “Yeah, I tried that and I loved it.”


For National it was one course at a time. It was online. It was fantastic. It just ended up with that kind of word of mouth. That’s continuing. The economy is still adding jobs like crazy. Usually, when economy is adding jobs like it is, higher ed always has a hard time. So, you have the combination of an economy adding jobs combined with daunting demography. Anybody in their right mind would look at traditional ed and say, “You’re going to have a hard time for a while” because that’s just how this market’s going to play out. It just means people who are more diversified are going to be in a much better position because they’re able to meet different learning needs in a more robust way.


But this is pretty important, Van. I think we’ve got to be willing to think about almost regional education ecosystems. Low-income first-generation students generally stay within fifty miles of where they were born their entire lives. So, it’s figuring out the family of institutions they’re probably going to interact with and figure out how can we help that ecosystem operate more efficiently? How do we help? We want great high schools, great community colleges, great state universities, great R1s. And I think you want great innovators like NU and SNHU and WGU as well because we serve a market that’s not being hit by the others as well. We’re actually serving that adult learner, the working learner who needs more flexibility.


Here’s a concrete example. We try to be smart about our work with community colleges. We’re one of the top transfer institutions in the state of California for community colleges and that’s because I would argue we’re good partners. We’re not trying to poach their students. We actually have done the math. Students who finish their associate’s degrees are three times more likely to finish their bachelor’s with us. So, we try to put incentives in place to incent the students to finish their associate’s before they come to us. It’s the “finish to go further” strategy.  If you build that kind of partnership, then guess what? Community colleges want you on their campus. They want you partnering with them because you’re a good partner helping them incent completion and then you’re helping their students get on to get their bachelor’s in a more flexible way.


We do the same thing with HBCUs who don’t have graduate programs.  You know, we want their students to finish their bachelor’s at that HBCU but then come into our MBA, come into our master’s in psychology, come into our master’s in social work, whatever it might be. We can be partners around that. That’s where the ecosystem is working at its best because maybe that person gets an undergrad business degree from Arizona State, but now they’re going to work somewhere and they need flexibility while they’re getting their MBA. We can show up and help them do that. Does that make sense?


Van: Yes. You know, I’ve often talked about the ecosystem of the willing…


Mark: (laughs) Oh, I love that.


Van: …and you’re giving examples of how to structure the win-win relationships within that ecosystem. Let me ask you this question: Futuro Health is bringing quality healthcare training programs and partners into our workforce ecosystem to make it easier to connect diverse communities into the credentials that are needed to compete for these healthcare jobs. Are you seeing any innovations in the healthcare area that you’d like us to know about?


Mark: Yeah, I think there’s two or three things I would bring up. One is, one out of four of our students are military affiliated. One of the things we’ve seen is that figuring out how you can on-ramp folks coming out of the military into healthcare positions has become pretty important. Part of that is assessment of prior learning, taking the good learning they’ve gotten in their training in the military and being able to credit map it into our program so they can accelerate towards our degrees in a way that makes sense.  That has become a really big deal, and we’ve worked really hard with our partners to be able to make that happen and to make those pathways as smooth as possible. Nothing’s more discouraging for a student than to have to take a class that they could be teaching because they were on a battlefield doing that, right?

So, we’ve really worked hard around that. I think we’ve worked really hard with our clinical partners to make sure we can accelerate clinical partnerships and leverage the best of AR and VR to create different kinds of relationships. For example, our nursing program was an early adopter of virtual reality to train nurses in COVID and that was hugely beneficial during the COVID pandemic because we were able to turn out a bunch of nurses that were able to help all over the United States, but especially in California. We could train them quickly using VR strategies and partnerships with our clinical partners and get them into the hospitals so they could actually help.


The third one I’d say is the whole focus on “grow your own” strategies to especially try to help diverse communities with a lot of low-income first-generation students understand the trajectory of getting into a STEM field and getting into a health field and help them understand, “Hey, we’ve got to start early. We have to help those third graders master these math concepts, these eighth graders master algebra. We have to get these science courses early so that as they’re rising, they’re not behind the eight ball when they get into higher ed.” That’s a really big deal. So, that means working with our K-12 partners and helping set the bar high in terms of what those experiences are.


We’re doing early college experiences so students can get an early touch of that healthcare pathway while they’re in high school and get them on that pathway faster. It also means we have to work with our policy partners to make sure that they can get their clinicals in a way where they can live and survive. A lot of low-income first-generation students have a hard time doing the clinicals because they have to work, so one of the things we’ve been really championing is the idea of using work-study funds for healthcare clinicals and teaching clinicals because those are the ultimate examples of true apprenticeships in terms of where they’re going. I think we’ve gotten some real juice. We have some people now, I think, on the federal level who are really open to this idea, and I think we can probably get some real traction around it.


So we have all kinds of ideas. We’re pretty passionate about the healthcare field.  I was just down at our Spectrum campus this morning, which is right across the street from a major hospital system, so we’re in this.


Van: I’m happy to join forces especially on the issue of clinicals. I mean, some of these occupations and programs of study require 3,000 hours of unpaid clinical. That’s like working for a whole year without pay. Who can afford to do that?


Mark: It is such a sign of privilege to be able to do that.


Van: Right. We really need to think about how to make these occupations more inclusive, especially when the country needs some of these occupations so direly.


Mark: Yeah. I’m a big believer. I think we should fix the work-study regulations, and we should go for a special appropriation for what I call the “COVID Hero Work-Study Act.” The COVID Hero Work-Study Act would be a massive influx into work-study programs focused on nurses and teachers that would specifically be able to use those work-study funds to be able to fund clinicals so folks could be able to actually make a living and actually survive while they’re going through their clinical practice. I think we could actually help heal those fields post the pandemic in pretty profound ways. So, Van, whenever you want to go with me to the Hill, let’s do it.


Van: That is a smart policy idea. I love that. Thank you for sharing, Mark. You mentioned prior learning assessment and recognition of prior work experience. Tell us more about whether these practices apply beyond the military group and what are the best practices there?


Mark: There’s a few best practices around that. One is there’s a real explosion of mastery-based learning and competency-based learning in general.  There’s the larger skills conversation, of course, with Open Skills Network that’s out there. But I also think, to me, the competency-based education, mastery-based education movement has really taken off. If your listeners haven’t visited, I would encourage them to look at it. is the website of the Mastery Transcript Consortium. It is the largest K-12 group doing competency-based learning in the country. Four hundred independent schools and school districts are partnering around rolling out competency-based learning. And what they’ve done is they’ve partnered in the development of a mastery-based transcript that replaces the grade-based transcript and really is unlocking innovation like you can’t believe.


They have students who are leaving these schools who are submitting mastery transcripts to Stanford, to University of Michigan, to other schools because they’re making it the norm as opposed to graded transcripts. It’s fascinating and I think that is the beginning of where students can now be able to master these kinds of skills in different contexts, including work, and then be able to come back and show, “Hey, I already know that” so they can get their credit for what they already know. We can meet them where they are and take them where they need to go on their learning journeys. So I’m really encouraged. And I think there’s more energy around mastery-based learning than ever before.


I think it really comes out of the pandemic. I think so many people had experiences with homeschooling and really helping folks learn. I’ll just be blunt. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how many students I talk to who say the trauma they have with education is so wrapped up in grades. The grading system is so imprecise and weird. We make faculty members be the keepers of points as opposed to the people who are trying to inspire learning. It ends up in basically a blame and shame cycle where either students feel ashamed for getting a certain grade, or they’re blaming the teacher for giving them a bad grade. No matter what, there’s no good that comes out of it. If you can move to more of this learning model based on mastery, I think you end up in more of a grace and challenge cycle, which is, “OK, you didn’t get it this time, but you know what? Let’s keep at it. Here are the resources you need to bolster your learning, and let’s try it again.”


None of us would give our child a C in shoe tying, and then never help them again, right? No, we’re going to stay with them until they actually get better at that and they’re going to help them master that concept. To me, it’s just so much more organic as a learning enterprise, and builds so much more energy. I think that infrastructure is going to help us, especially when we’re translating the work-based learning, and how work-based learning can sync with formal learning. This is where this enormous work-based learning infrastructure can then begin to interchange with formal higher ed. Businesses and industries and the U.S. military are spending billions of dollars on training and development for their folks. If we could skills map that, competency map that, and be able to map that back into degree pathways, we could get people fast-tracked in ways we can’t even imagine.


Van: Mark, I actually have some personal experience with the mastery-based transcript, because during the pandemic, my son transferred over into Khan Lab School, which is mastery based. It was founded by Sal Khan, of Khan Academy. He has just really thrived in that environment. My concern over time is that with all of the learning loss that we’ve experienced over the last few years, it’s going to be very hard for institutions, but also employers, to figure out what somebody actually knows. So, a mastery-based transcript would be one of the remedies, right?

Mark: I think that’s right. People have known that for a long time. I remember when Western Governors University was being founded, Scott McNeely wrote a big check to really found the IT college. One of the reasons he did is because he was running Sun Microsystems. He’s like, “I am sick of getting people who have bachelor’s degrees from all these institutions and CIS, and they don’t know how to code. They have no idea of how to engineer software. I don’t know what they learned while they were there. I don’t know what they mastered.” With this idea of competency-based learning, at least mastery-based learning, you have an idea of the things that they were supposed to have mastered while they were there.


Van: Well, let’s end with this question to you, Mark. Tell us what makes you optimistic about the future of learning?


Mark: Oh, I am so excited about the moment we’re in, and part of it is because I think you have a confluence of three things right now. You have a deep imperative to help more and more diverse students be more successful than ever before. Our economy won’t work, our country won’t work and our communities won’t work without us getting that right. I think that has brought a lot of people with different kinds of passions and purposes around education together to help begin the innovation.


Two, we have more tools and technologies and resources at our disposal than ever before in human history and that means we have the opportunity to innovate like you can’t even imagine. That’s going to allow us to really try different things and understand what’s working and what’s not.


That brings up this third thing, which is we have more data at our hands than ever before to understand what’s working and for whom and in what way, which is going to allow us to determine what innovations work based on data, not based on who can tell the best story. We can actually understand, “OK, this works well. This doesn’t work well. This works well for some people, not for others.” We can try, test, and tune. What excites me is National University has a real passion and purpose and need for this combination.


If you look over the last 500 years, the only time major educational infrastructures change is when the societal underpinnings have changed. We invented public high schools and land grant institutions when the Industrial Revolution demanded we needed more people at a certain level. We’re beginning to transition now in our education because we’re going post-Industrial Revolution towards the Information Society. We need far more people educated at a much higher level, and we’re going to have to do it in very different ways. We’re going to have to reinvent that.


Because that passion and purpose is there and we’ve got the tools and we have the data, I just think we’re going to be able to try, test, and learn in ways we haven’t seen in a long, long time, probably ever. I think it’s going to be pretty exciting for those of us who are on the front lines of it. There’s all kinds of change out there and all kinds of people doing good to work. I think what you pay attention to grows. If all you pay attention to is Harvard, god bless you! Harvard is like this small percentage of all the people in education. You’ve got to look at the broader sectors and understand, “Wow, there’s big, really interesting innovation at hand.  Let’s put our energy on that, and understand how we can help that grow.”


Van: Well, that’s a beautiful summary, Mark. Thank you so much for being with us today. We learned so much and I’m sure our listeners have benefited greatly.


Mark: I love stirring the pot with you, Van. Whenever you can bring me on, let’s do it.


Van: I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health.  Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.