The Future of Online Learning with Ease Learning CEO, Laurie Pulido

This article is excerpted from a recent IngenioUs podcast episode with Ease Learning CEO, Laurie Pulido.  Click here to listen to the full-length episode.

Can you tell us about your professional journey, the work you’re now doing at Ease Learning, and where the inspiration to start your company came from? 

LP: Every time somebody asks me that question, I laugh because it implies intention. In fact, the only thing that was intentional about this journey for me, is that I came at it as an educator and it took me years to figure out that I wasn’t just educating clients. I was actually selling things, and educating is a form of business development. I never realized I was the salesperson for the company. I just thought I was teaching people what I know and what I’m passionate about. That energy was synergistic and led to building a team of like-minded people who had the same goal and the same focus. All of us at Ease Learning are still educators first and foremost, and that’s the driving force behind our work. 

I believe this is why our work has a certain authenticity to it. We think about the learning experiences that we create with real intention. We’ve productized this idea of a learning framework and pathways and setting an intention that involves understanding who the learners are that we’re creating learning experiences for. Those frameworks provide us with the ability to scale what we’re doing while maintaining consistency and efficacy in the programs we design. It all stems from that core focus of who we are, what we believe in, and how we think learners should be able to learn. Then you take the expertise of knowing the modality, blend that in, and you end up with a really strong team. 

There are a dizzying and confusing array of terms and verbiage used to describe the space in which you are working. How do you sort through this and what’s the difference between these different terms? Does it really matter? 

LP:  The biggest thing around all of the varying terminology that we encounter is that if the vocabulary is not consistent when you’re working with anyone to design anything, there’s a mismatch in what someone’s expectations are for what you’re doing for them. The very first thing we try to do with all of the clients we work with is indoctrinate them to a set of vocabulary and make sure that it is fully understood. I don’t think that there’s a specific universal definition for distance learning, for instance, versus remote learning.  And yet, the importance of having a consistent vocabulary is often overlooked. We spend a tremendous amount of time, not only doing the work, but also explaining the work we’re doing and making sure that it’s fully understood. A lot of people just don’t get what we do or why it matters. I’m a huge fan of evangelizing why this work is so great. 

Isn’t it also true that the terminology can sometimes be off-putting, with faculty in particular, who may be resistant to the idea of “teaching at a distance?” This notion is not conducive for how the typical faculty member likes to think about student engagement. 

LP:  Yes, for sure.  We’ve had that experience with faculty time and again. I’m in the middle of drafting a blog about faculty, and it’s one I’ve labored over–I have so many things I want to say to faculty who are in this “deer in the headlights” moment where they know their students need them. Some of them are terrified about being thrust into this environment right now, and ‘distance’ does not sound appealing. These faculty are not sure what to do with a learning designer, even if they have one. There’s a lot of that ‘fish out of water’ feeling happening and this sense of ‘how am I going to do this on top of everything else that I’m doing?’ 

My encouragement to faculty is this: let the designer guide you into the modality to make the most of it because there’s so much that you can do that leverages that space and that can transform your teaching and give you a whole new perspective on how to interact with your students that you didn’t know you had. It’s like a superpower that’s tucked away that you haven’t yet fully learned how to use. It’s very hard to do. A lot of faculty that we’re working with right now are just scared. They don’t necessarily have the skills and the training in how to use an LMS to teach online. 

There seems to be increased pressure on our institutions right now to make sure that we’re providing as engaging and robust a remote learning experience as possible. What does this look like? What are the most essential elements in a high-quality remote learning experience? 

LP: This comes back to what I mentioned earlier about frameworks and our belief that these frameworks have two main parts. There’s pedagogy and technology, and it’s blending those two things together and distilling the best practice for the particular learner in that program or course. For example, we start by thinking about the persona of who’s taking this course or who’s in this program.  Next, we think about what the best pedagogy is to meet the needs and the learning outcomes for that particular learner. Then, we consider what technology is needed to support that. We need to be extremely careful in the choices we make along the way and not just for one course—if students are going to take an entire program, we don’t want them to relearn the technology or relearn different pedagogical approaches 16 different times.  That would be like rearranging the furniture in a lecture hall and having 16 different variations of how to conduct yourself in a face-to-face course, which would never happen. 

My point here is that there should be certain pillars course to course.  Unless those things are in place, you can’t get to the personality of the instructor and the great things that the faculty may want to accomplish. There has to be this kind of groundwork for how we structure online learning.   This starts with understanding who the person is that’s receiving the learning experience and then tailoring the experience to the way that they learn best. I think that paying attention to the interconnectedness of the experience from one course to another, including such basic things as streamlining the number of times that you have to log in, these are the kinds of things that can make for a positive and predictably consistent learner experience.  And it matters.

You’re also talking about making sure there are policies in place for ensuring a similar kind of user experience, right?

LP:  Absolutely. That’s a definite part of it, but not just from the perspective of, ‘where do I click for this?’ ‘Where do I click for that?’ Getting the format right is one thing. But there are other areas that are important to consider as well. We work with one school that consistently uses peer review as a way to keep students engaged. They assert that this practice reduces academic integrity issues because the students hold each other accountable much more than proctoring software can do. This is an example of embedding practice in such a way that it becomes the norm, something you become accustomed to as far as what your experience is going to be. If that can be consistent across all of the courses in a program, there is then less friction between the student and the platform—and that’s a good thing. We call this cognitive load consistency, and it means lessening the need to readjust to a different modality over and over again. 

Many institutions are considering how to scale their online learning efforts.  As you know, institutions have a choice. They can go it alone, they can build up their internal infrastructure for things like teaching support, course design delivery, or they can outsource via an OPM or some variation of vendor-provided services.  Regarding outsourcing, there’s a wide range of possibilities. Can you talk about the pros and cons of the various options that institutions might consider?  And how do you decide how best to scale? 

LP:  Ironically, right after this interview, I’m jumping into a professional development series that we’re offering on this exact topic. We teamed up with some other vendors to address the question, ‘How do you build that internal capacity?’ ‘What does it look like?’ ‘Who do you need to engage with?’   Everyone is thinking about this right now.  And there are a lot of options out there, but you need to first understand what you want your institution’s online experience to be. Why are you doing it? Is it a strategic initiative? If it’s a strategic initiative, you need some kind of internal capacity–even if it’s just at a very high level–to manage the vendor relationship. But, you need to retain ownership and the responsibility of guiding the vision. 

Second, you need to understand how the interrelated parts of your university are going to support this because this is a business inside of the already existing business. The experience that you’re putting out there for the students has to represent who you are. There has to be some intention around creating this in a way that feels ‘not disconnected’ from the rest of what you do and not like 200 variations of who you are; there needs to be a cohesive message around the initiative.  

If I were to suggest what I think is a successful approach, I would encourage that you look at the exemplars who are doing this really well and pick apart how they got that way. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) is a great example. I worked there years ago at the very beginning when the intention to spin the online off from the campus experience was launched. There was a very clear and strong strategy about what they wanted to become–SNHU online was, from the beginning, intended to be this separate focus area for the university. It has become everything that it was intended to become. They have a very solid internal team, but they also outsource, and we have supported them from a scalability perspective for years. It’s been a very strong partnership. 

We’re seeing more and more of these hybrid kinds of models. I think they’re very successful. There’s a lot to be said for driving that direction yourselves, especially when considering the value of, long-term, holding on to tuition.  If you can create a strong internal infrastructure and use vendors to support you for particular elements using a fee for service model, the model could actually be very lucrative. But you need to have the right team in place.  

I want to ask you to pull out your crystal ball. What is the future for online learning?  

LP:  I think you’re starting to see it. Unfortunately, I saw a university campus up for auction the other day.  The traditional campus-based model is not completely going away, but I do think it needs to be reinvented. There are better ways of delivering on that model. I think that remote learning offers tremendous opportunity for some institutions. Especially if we can get around some of the inequities of access, it has the potential to bring the cost of a college degree to a much more affordable place. Without this, we’re going to have large portions of our country not getting the education they need to be able to provide the workforce we need. 

It’s very simple really. I don’t know many people who can afford to pay $70,000 a year plus for an education. I’m a graduate of some very expensive universities and yet, I’m advising my own children, “You’re crazy, if you go into debt like that. Look for other ways to get your bachelor’s degree. Do it online, then go do a great master’s program, do anything, but do not go $250,000 into debt for a bachelor’s degree, it’s lunacy.” If we don’t start getting really creative around that, we’re failing the entire future of this country. 

I think this model needs to change and I think the market is going to demand change. People are going to be shopping for alternatives that pop up and these alternatives are going to be successful. To me, the greatest achievements are emerging where the learning design is the strongest, and you’re going to see that over and over again. I really believe that the quality of the online student experience is going to be the selling point and that’s what people are going to consume. Learners are consumers. If you look at what they’re buying and where they’re spending their money and the shifts that it follows, just follow that trend and you’ll see.  It’s not going to necessarily be a name brand because what’s happening is the student experience online is very much following a new round of brands that are notorious for great online learning, like SNHU.  SNHU became the behemoth it is today because their learning design is impeccable. 

Given this, what do you see ahead for higher education that we all need to be paying more attention to right now? What needs to be on our radar today and why?

LP: Supporting faculty is critical. Faculty workload issues and all of the other constraints that make a transition to remote learning possible need to reman front and center.  If we don’t figure out how to remove the roadblocks that impede change, the resistance is not going to go away. It’s not in the best interest of students, and we really need to start thinking about how all of these pieces need to be integrated. We all need to be swimming in the same direction. More than not, when we engage, we still don’t see faculty and administration and designers, and others in the campus infrastructure swimming in the same direction. 

It is all about the students. The students need this now, and more than ever. 

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

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