Use Online Learning to Drive Change, Create Opportunity & Thrive Amidst Disorder
Sasha Thackaberry, Ph.D. recently joined the executive team at Pearson Online Learning Services (POLS) as Vice President of Student and Partner Services. Previously, she led Louisiana State University’s online program organization, where in just four years, her team grew from supporting 800 students in 9 programs to over 12,000 in 120+ programs, while keeping a strong focus on quality. Her online learning experience has been honed throughout a career at LSU, SNHU, and other innovators. See how her experiences shape her current work at Pearson to help learners and institutions thrive.
Sasha, tell us something we should know about you.
I get really geeked out about what’s next, and how to drive change – both in education, and in my own teams. I’m interested in building teams that get addicted to evolving, and to making the next big thing happen.
Even today, change is underrated. Disruption is going to occur continually, and I’m passionate about how we move things forward towards a more effective fusion of education and technology.
“High-tech, high-touch” isn’t a new concept, but in higher education, historically, we haven’t done it all that well. Now, though, there’s a lot of insight we can draw on to do better. For instance, we can use more of what’s been learned by behavioral economists. The techniques so often used to sell us stuff can also be used to remove barriers to learning and encourage people to continually engage in it.
You’ve said institutions can go beyond resilience to become truly “anti-fragile”: able to thrive amidst disorder and chaos. How?
It starts with creating and building a foundation that enables you to be proactive and flexible, no matter what. Then, there’s a reactive piece: when you see something coming down the pike, always getting ready, seeing what works and what doesn’t, pivoting quickly. You can build in “space” in your systems and processes, and keep things as simple as possible.
Two issues are key. First, institutions must invest heavily in their technology infrastructures. Valuable data is everywhere, but you can’t react if you don’t know what’s going on.
Second, there’s culture: committing to pivot on a dime and be super creative. One of the best ways is to be very upfront about failures because they teach us how to change. Obviously, there are exceptions, but in higher ed environments, failure is too often viewed as a lack of competence. Instead, we need to embrace smart risk, and then be ready to pivot fast if it doesn’t work. You need leaders who can approach "Black Swan” events as opportunities to do really great things, as some institutions did during the pandemic.
COVID changed things forever, but what are we learning about the new higher ed environment that’s emerging?
We now have a marketplace of many different sizes, types, and forms of learning – and our audience looks radically different. A generation ago, few expected the post-traditional audience to become the only part of higher ed that was growing. Twenty years from now, people will look back and ask each other, “Do you remember when they based everything on the degree?”
We see young people who aren’t all headed straight to college. They’re doing other things first. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I just think we must accommodate their needs as learners.
Then, there’s “education as a benefit” from employers. Our infrastructures need to accommodate that, and many other flexible options – not just paying by credit card, but also subscriptions. More of what we do needs to be time-variable. People are voting with their enrollments, and they’re saying: I want shorter, faster, more applicable.
You were a pioneer in stackables. What advice would you offer to those who worry about learner outcomes and building viable programs that don’t just cannibalize current programs?
To begin, you can’t overly focus on cannibalization of revenue. If an early automaker thought, “If I build cars, I’m gonna cannibalize my base of horse customers,” they missed the point. It’s about what people want. It’s not about what we want to create for them. If you don’t disrupt your own business, someone else will.
But it’s not just about defense. You can start a virtuous cycle of creating stackables by yourself, partnering with content providers to build them, and ingesting them from other places.
Colleges and universities have amazing resources for learning in their faculty and their content knowledge. Many times, those same faculty and that same content can be used to create short-form credentials that open the door to a wider set of learners. It’s not only about the degree or a single point-in-time credential. All of us will need to continually learn and collect new credentials throughout our careers. Stackables empower institutions to set up lifelong partnerships with their students – from a traditional experience through a fully online experience, from a degree to a single hour-long, just-in-time learning session.
Some folks worry about whether microcredentials will really have the value they promise. But institutions can develop a lot more information about what is being learned. And as we get better at intervening with post-traditional learners, we can get better at moving them to the appropriate classes or paths.
You do, however, need to remain focused on your institution’s actual mission, to avoid mission creep. Not every institution needs to be everything for every learner. Each institution has its own unique strength, lens, and approach to learning. In the online space, it’s no different.
You led LSU’s initiatives in non-degree and degree online learning. How did you bring faculty aboard?
There are always champions: people who’ve discovered ways to get innovative things done. Find them. Then support them with all the expertise and political capital you can. If you make early adopters successful, others will come on board. I’ve never been in an environment where you didn’t have innovative faculty. It’s always a question of critical mass and political will.
LSU was proud of building its own internal online learning organization without an external OPM. Now you’re at the company that pioneered the OPM model. Can you reflect on the decision to partner or go it alone?
I had a very unusual situation at LSU. I had Board support, strategic focus from the President, and the best boss I’ve ever had – a Provost who promised to block and tackle for me, and came through every time, whether it involved changing policies or getting mainframes reprogrammed. She was willing to be unpopular – and that included fighting to protect our budgets.
When you work with an OPM partner, there’s a contract in place, and dollars for things like marketing and recruitment are protected through that contract. Many institutions really don't know the true cost of learner acquisition, marketing, and recruitment. They may not know what it means to do digital campaigns, or the differences between a website and landing pages, and the implications for marketing spend. That requires specific talent, and it can be hard to get.
At LSU, I was empowered to build a team from the ground up, where we had to be super-creative, use super-modern techniques, and be super-efficient. And it worked. But when an average institution has a strategic communications budget of, say, $200,000, and you propose dropping $6,000,000 on marketing for an online program that has 5,000 students this year, that budget line tends not to get preserved. You might start out with the commitment, but it gradually turns out that you can’t afford to market the program to reach the scale needed to sustain it.
Even just the technology behind online programs can be challenging. You need a CRM, autodialers, texting, chat boxes, web development. Universities are not historically excellent at all that. If you can’t build that, you must get it externally.
Not everything is either-or, and when we build service packages for new partners at Pearson, they’re differentiated and customized to each institution’s needs. But I can 100% say that if you don’t have certain ingredients to scale, it’s better to go with a partner.
You’ve been a thought leader at institutions like LSU and SNHU, but also in organizations like Quality Matters. Based on all you’ve seen, can you share any final reflections?
I’ve had the incredibly good fortune of meeting many great people who’ve been eager to have candid conversations about online learning. It seems strange to say this, though: this is still a relatively small and new field. The opportunities are wide open. We really are still at the very beginning of online education.