Cynthia Baum, president of Walden University in this interview, with BusinessDay, speaks on the use of technology to increase access to information and the role of online education in bridging learning gaps for countries like Nigeria. Excerpts:
About Walden University
Walden University was founded in 1970 by two educators in the United States who were inspired by the concept of a university designed around and for the student.
They recognised that many adult learners interested in pursuing their doctoral education were unable to find programmes accepting of them if they could not commit to a traditional full-time schedule. For more than 40 years now, Walden has supported the academic goals of working professionals who are interested in making a greater impact in their communities and professions around the world.
At Walden, we are committed to empowering our learning community to effect positive social change across communities, countries, and continents. We ensure that our students are equipped with the practical tools and knowledge they need to be the leaders of tomorrow and make a difference in their communities locally and around the world.
Today, more than 50,000 students from all 50 US states and more than 150 countries are pursuing their bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees with us. We offer our students more than 80 degree programmes with more than 370 specialisations and concentrations in health sciences, counselling, human services, management, psychology, social work, education, public health, nursing, public administration, and information technology.
What are the benefits of online education compared with traditional learning models?
The online modality increases access to higher education, which is particularly important in countries such as Nigeria where higher education isn’t always available to the general population.
It offers an alternative for students who want to begin or continue their studies at any stage in life, have family responsibilities to consider, or want or need to continue working while earning a degree. Our online students also greatly benefit from the asynchronous online environment, which allows students to learn on their own time.
Another benefit of the online learning environment is the opportunity students have to network with classmates and faculty from different countries, regions, and around the world. For those who have never had the chance to interact and engage with others outside their local community, this presents an amazing opportunity to benefit from the practical experience and shared knowledge of their global peers.
How is your approach to online education different from that of others—what sets Walden apart?
Walden is very focused on understanding and supporting the academic goals of working adults. We understand that many of our students are employed full time, enrolled in one of our programs while also maintaining a family and other personal commitments.
But it’s not only the convenience and flexibility of online education that we offer our students. Because Walden is in tune with what the workforce needs are both now and in the future, we develop our programmes with an eye to emerging needs and long-term trends.
We involve subject-matter experts and curriculum design experts to develop our courses, and we seek employer input. Our programmes emphasise the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are needed to address workforce demands so our students can take the skills and knowledge learned and immediately apply them to their careers. And we can ensure that every student is presented with the same core learning experiences regardless of when or with whom they take a course.
What do you think are the three most important points a potential candidate for online learning should consider when selecting a partner institution?
When selecting an institution, either a traditional campus-based university or an online university, one of the most important things to consider is the academic quality of the institution and its programmes. In most countries, the approval or accreditation of organisations to offer higher education is governed by a national or provincial system, and the procedures for assuring academic quality are embedded in these systems and carried out by approved organisations.
For Walden, as we are a US-based institution, we are accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, of the North Central Association, one of six regional accrediting organisations in the US that grants accreditation at the institutional level.
It’s also important to research the faculty of the institution. A university’s faculty reflects its mission and values. Making sure the university is employing faculty who are scholars, researchers, and distinguished leaders in their fields is incredibly important to the success of the student and institution.
Another important consideration for prospective students is the support services offered by the institution as they can make a big difference in their educational success. Walden offers comprehensive support services to all of our students, from the enrolment advisors who help with the admission process to the academic advisors who help with programme planning.
Our support services also include 24/7 technical support, disability services, the career services centre, the writing centre, undergraduate tutoring, and numerous self-service opportunities through written and video tutorials.
What are the barriers or challenges to online learning?
Online learning isn’t for everyone. However, to ensure our students succeed in the online classroom, we offer a variety of support services such as, orientation for new students to help students understand how to engage in the classroom and share with them the variety of available resources.
Students also have access to a well-resourced virtual library, research support, and our virtual communities where they can connect with other students with similar career interests as well as cultural and ethnic backgrounds to help create a sense of camaraderie and belonging to the institution.
Additionally, our support teams are available 24/7 through email, phone, and chat to answer questions and guide students in order to ensure there aren’t barriers to their learning and that they can be successful, build their networks, and thrive in their careers.
Are most of your students from within the vicinity of your home base or are they from around the world?
Our academic headquarters are in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the US, but our students are from around the world. In fact, we have students and alumni from more than 170 countries.
Nearly 80 percent of our students are working full time or are self-employed, and women comprise 80 percent of our student body. As our international student enrolment steadily increases, we continue to become more diverse and create a global network of students, alumni, and faculty that our community can benefit from every single day.
Do you think that online learning could one day supplant the on-campus teaching and learning experience?
There are a variety of higher education models worldwide, with each fulfilling different needs for different students. We’ve seen, in recent years, that the lines are blurring between online and on-campus teaching and learning.
Additionally, partnerships between on-ground institutions and other online educational models continue to grow as the market demands increased access to higher education.
As the future of higher education advances, I believe we will continue to see new disruptions in the education marketplace in the years to come that will continue to challenge and change both online and traditional approaches to learning.
For example, in many countries, we have already seen the introduction of MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses that provide broader access to education. Both online and traditional campus institutions will need to adapt to meet the needs of the growing global student.
What are you doing to secure your reputation in the realm of higher education?
At Walden, we take our reputation very seriously. One of our unique aspects is our focus on student outcomes and the impact education has on our students’ careers and professions.
We regularly survey our students, alumni, faculty, and the employers of our students and alumni and publish this information so people can learn who our students are, what they are expected to learn here at Walden, and how they are applying their knowledge to advance their careers and effect positive social change.
In fact, from our surveys, we know that more than 94 percent of Walden’s international students who responded to a 2012 survey indicated that they are satisfied or highly satisfied with the university, and more than 88 percent are likely or very likely to recommend Walden to others.
In addition, our institutional and programmatic accreditations demonstrate our quality. Walden has been accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) since 1990 and was reaffirmed in 2013 for another 10 years.
We have also received several specialised accreditations for our schools and programmes, acknowledging we successfully prepare our students for advancements in the field.
Do online teaching and learning have any impact on graduate employability? Are degrees obtained via online learning “lesser” than those obtained traditionally?
Recent surveys of our graduates’ employers tell us that our graduates’ education is making an impact. Almost 87 percent of employers of Walden graduates who responded to a 2013 survey say they are satisfied or very satisfied with the Walden graduate employed at their organisation and 98 percent of employers of our graduates say they would hire another Walden graduate.