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UMGC Global Media Center
The Building Blocks of a Learning Experience Revolution

Mary Dempsey
By Mary Dempsey

LEGO®s. Children play with the snap-together blocks. Adults collect them. Museums mount exhibitions featuring miniature LEGO® buildings or even entire cities built of the interconnecting pieces. Now University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) is using what is akin to a pedagogical version of those famous plastic bricks to carry its learning experience into the future. Flexing the muscles that have put it at the forefront of higher education innovation, UMGC will at every opportunity—from seminars to courses to certificates to degrees—begin snapping together tiny blocks of skills to build learning experiences.

“Historically, education has operated as something of a black box. Learners signed up, paid tuition and fees, and immersed themselves in a learning experience without a clear understanding of what they could expect to receive in return,” said UMGC President Gregory Fowler. “We told students, repeatedly and convincingly, that they needed to go to college—and even that their long-term success was contingent on earning a degree. But we were not always as conscientious in ensuring that the courses and programs we offered were what students actually needed—or even that our learning experiences were structured to deliver the knowledge, skills, abilities, and dispositions that are the common currency of today’s workforce.”

To counter that deficit, UMGC has embraced a new and nimble shift in course design. This new approach lets the university laser-target the skills students acquire while also providing measurable assurance to employers that UMGC graduates are workforce ready. 

“It is a deliberate approach to designing with the end result in mind, and that end result is successful performance in the workplace. It is the philosophy we’re applying as we develop new learning experiences,” said UMGC Senior Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Blakely Pomietto. “It is no longer subject matter experts sitting down to put in all the content they think students need to learn. It’s now about verifying and refining those assumptions through external data—employers and jobs—and building a learning experience that develops and cultivates in learners the specific knowledge, skills, abilities, and dispositions that have explicit application in a real workplace.” Pomietto said the change marks a move away from a focus on the content of individual courses toward a more granular and stackable curriculum whose endgame is employability.

This academic revamp incorporates more intense experiential learning, including capstone assignments and teamwork projects that replicate real workplace tasks and problem solving. It also makes certain that students understand the exact skills they are developing and how to talk about them in job interviews.

“If I, Blakely, can’t sit down in a conversation with a supervisor or hiring manager in an interview and articulate with specificity and confidence what my skills are, an employer can’t really know if I can contribute to their company. We are trying to bridge that language divide,” Pomietto said.

This redesign responds to the fast-changing pace of today’s labor market. It brings forward the deeper learning that adults are calling for. It counterweights growing skepticism about the value of a college degree. And, as an added benefit, the breakdown of learning into smaller modules may also cut the time—and cost—for students to achieve the credentials they need.

Pomietto noted that when students no longer have to take or retake entire courses to gain one specific component of knowledge, they can move faster along their educational path. At the same time, the use of information modules for verifying skills could make it easier to transfer course credit because what has been learned can be more easily verified. 

The first learners to benefit most deeply from the education redesign will be the 2,700 expected to enroll in the university’s MBA program this fall. By 2026, the whole university will be aligned with the new course design.

“I’m really excited. I think it will serve our students well,” said Pam Carter, portfolio vice president and dean of UMGC’s School of Business. “We started with the MBA to make it more focused on specific skills. It’s not just what skills should be generally embedded in the program or what we have already presented in the program, but it is more in deciding that learning those things is not enough. Students also have to understand what skills they are acquiring and be able to articulate that.”

Carter said three overarching themes in business are being elevated: sustainability, entrepreneurial thinking, and innovation. No longer do students take specific courses on those topics but, rather, “those themes will be woven throughout their learning,” Carter explained. “And we incorporate those themes in a way that is transparent.”

Carter said that the School of Business is breaking the learning experience into small bricks of information that can be laid side-by-side, or atop one another, to develop exactly the skills students need for the jobs to which they aspire. These bricks can be dismantled and reassembled in real time whenever the needs of employers and students change.

“This is future thinking,” Carter said. “We can be agile even as a huge university. We can combine different skills. If we know, for example, that this skill now requires new technology . . . we can add in that technology.”

The first phase of the redesigned MBA rolled out in fall 2023. This coming fall, the program adds a significant change, pivoting from a generalist MBA in which students all take the same classes to a more customized program that allows students to specialize in specific areas, if they so choose.

Although part of the redesign is taking place behind the scenes, Carter said some changes are already obvious to students. For example, an introductory course—originally designed to put all students on a level playing field, regardless of whether they came from a business background—has been retired.

“We found that some students needed it but others did not—and those who did not were not appreciative of having to go through the material again,” Carter explained. “So instead of one course that everyone has to take, students in all our basic core courses can take an assessment that helps us see what prerequisite knowledge they may be weak on. What they will get back is a personalized blueprint that says, ‘We’ve assessed that you might need to have additional assistance in one or two areas.’”

For students who fall short on a prerequisite or have been out of school long enough to need a refresher, the personalized blueprint guides them to supplemental materials they can tackle at their own pace, with a faculty member assigned to each set of supplemental materials who serves as an additional resource for students. One consequence of this streamlined approach is that the MBA now requires only 30 credits of study, rather than the previous 36. And within those 30 credits, students can take electives, an option that wasn’t previously available.

The MBA program offered a good launching point for the revised learning model because it already carried a strong experiential learning component, a pillar of the new academic framework. 

“We will have project-based assignments that are more contextualized to solve problems. What should you be doing next? What kind of data do you need to analyze?” Carter said. “We will also have, as part of the capstone, a simulation setting where students bring together everything they have learned. They make decisions, the simulation runs, and they can see the results. Then they go through another run.”

The dean said this active learning enables students to use their new knowledge immediately, putting them on top of what they need to be successful in their current jobs. It also gives them a good foundation to pursue other career avenues. “Student success is our focus,” Carter said.

The MBA may be the launching point, but noncredit programs and other professional development offerings are also being shaped by the new approach to learning.

“We’re getting ready to develop a whole range of noncredit programming alongside our for-credit programs,” Carter said. “There may be potential students who want to get ahead in their careers, but that doesn’t always mean getting a degree or even a certificate. It may be that they just need a snippet of information.”

By way of example, she pointed to the Capital Region Minority Supplier Development Council (CRMSDC), which had grant money to help CEOs of small and midsized businesses weather the COVID-19 pandemic. CRMSDC came to the university, which developed a six-week noncredit program offering the very specific expertise those CEOs needed.  

An Incremental Process

This new vision for learning has been percolating behind the scenes at UMGC for several years, but it ramped up when MJ Bishop, vice president of Integrative Learning Design, joined the university in 2022. She is nationally known for her scholarly work at the forefront of learning environment design and evaluation and—after nearly a decade as director of the University System of Maryland’s William E. Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation—she had a long history of collaboration with UMGC. Key to her current role is the creation of a university-wide culture of collaboration.

Although changes are well underway, Bishop described the full process as “an evolution over time, a gradual evolution with incremental change along the way.”

Traditionally, decisions about curriculum are left to the academic departments, schools, and faculty. While those entities are involved in the current shift, the new learning experiences also integrate input from the university’s financial leadership, instructional design experts, career advisors, success coaches, technology experts, tutoring services, and elsewhere.

“There’s a huge organizational change with shared accountability and shared commitment,” Pomietto explained. “We are thinking from the beginning about what kinds of specialized academic support services will be essential. We are looking at the long-term financial model for every program. We’re asking ourselves if there are any partnerships we want to establish or to leverage. We have brought the entire leadership team into this work. We are seeing how every area of the university is committing to deliver success.”

Bishop said the push forward will also be shaped by an unrelenting commitment to research, data analytics, and emerging technologies that will keep UMGC at the forefront of learning improvement.

To close the gap between what employers say is important to know and what educators are teaching, UMGC must be able to document that its students have the abilities they need for tomorrow’s jobs. For some years, the university has been piloting the use of Comprehensive Learner Records—a transcript of a student’s skills—in some programs. That document, which can be shared with potential employers, offers explicit information on how the skills were acquired. The Comprehensive Learner Records now are being made available university-wide. At the same time, classes will be marked with skill icons so students can visually gauge whether they are acquiring the expertise they want and need.

Bishop said that digital badges—another means of verifying specific expertise or achievements—may also become part of the new learning model. Meanwhile, in the not-too-distant future, students may even have a mobile app that allows them to upload their transcript and résumé, punch in their career goal, and get feedback on where they still have learning gaps—and the courses that could bridge the voids.

“A lot of things are happening at the moment,” Bishop said. 

How do these LEGO®-like blocks of learning work? Bishop explained using the example of PivotTables in Excel. Project management students need to know how to use PivotTables to calculate and analyze data. So might cybersecurity students, or even nursing students. So, PivotTables expertise will be a brick that is plugged into the learning experiences of all three programs. The learning experiences will be customized for each career field involved.

Bishop said an important part of the transition is labeling the bricks consistently. One degree program may incorporate critical thinking while another, focused on the same outcome, may call it critical reasoning or objective analysis. An employer may refer to the same skill as conceptual thinking. Artificial intelligence (AI) will play a role in translating the terminology across the university. It will also be used to simulate workplace learning experiences, including interactive and virtual reality learning.

Technology: The Linchpin in Curriculum Redesign

Barry Sugarman is vice president of learning platforms at AccelerEd, a for-profit education technology company that was spun off from the university’s technology team and now provides services to both UMGC and outside institutions. As a strategic partner with UMGC, AccelerEd’s role is to identify learning management technology that will be needed to execute the new learning goals—and make it all work seamlessly at an online university with asynchronous classes and students around the globe.

“Our learning management system was designed at a time before we talked much about skills,” Sugarman said. “We talked about the holistic design of a course, about learning outcomes, about what resources students would have. And we designed courses from the beginning to the end. For the past 15 years, that has been the industry standard.”

UMGC is now shaking up that best practice, and Sugarman said that no one is better suited to that task. “This university is not afraid to take chances. It has become the DNA of who we are. And that is important as we talk about movement toward the future,” he said.

Sugarman pointed to AI as one of the most striking examples of shifting employer needs. Since late 2022, when the OpenAI startup unveiled ChatGPT, investors and venture capitalists have poured billions of dollars into the technology sector, and the impact on the labor market has been immense.

“We’re constantly looking at what is happening in the workplace and what we need to do,” Sugarman said. “A curriculum needs to stay up with the skills that an employer is seeking.”

Since it was founded in 1947, UMGC has been focused on its students’ employability, including the transition of military students to the civilian workforce. AccelerEd is now involved in determining how best to leverage enterprise software to make certain that UMGC remains a future-thinking entity.

“It is very difficult to take a traditional higher education institution and scale up the work the way we are at UMGC. We will become the go-to place for employers who want well-trained students,” Sugarman said.

At a time of rising U.S. student loan debt, he also believes that universities have an imperative to offer students “good employability outcomes so they can pay back their student loans.” Even students using military benefits to advance their academic credentials are incurring financial responsibilities, he noted. The revamped learning design could support this goal.

Pomietto and Bishop said all universities should be rethinking the way their students learn.

“But I don’t think they are,” Pomietto added. “When you look at the thousands of institutions of higher education, UMGC is at the forefront. And that’s largely because of our mission and our deeply entrenched commitment to knowing and meeting the needs of our specific students.”

This article appears in the 2024 issue of Achiever magazine.