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Regional News

Pandemic Education At Western Governors University

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Courtesy of Western Governors University
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The pandemic has forced schools to move their teaching online for safety reasons. But there are education institutions that went online years ago to be more convenient for their constituents.

One is Western Governors University, a non-profit, online college that was created by western governors about 25 years ago to provide a lower-cost alternative to traditional higher education.“We provide online access for individuals who are looking to advance their degrees. Maybe they want to become teachers, go into the health professions, business or areas of IT. Those are the high-demand workforce areas that we primarily serve," said Tonya Drake, the chancellor of WGU’s Washington subsidiary.

Drake was in Spokane last week for a policy summit sponsored by the Association of Washington Business. I asked how the pandemic has changed a university that hasn’t had to spend time worrying about in-person learning.

Tonya Drake: “We’re seeing a large number of students who are rethinking their careers post-pandemic and what they want to do. Individuals who might be at Hanford and engineers and are transitioning because they want to be STEM teachers in the area and so we are excited, not only to see the growth in the programs, but in the mindsets of our students about how they can make a difference in their communities as well.”
 
Drake was joined in Spokane by WGU Washington’s executive dean for the College of Education, Mark Milliron.

Mark Milliron: “We really leaned hard, for example, into a new program that we’re calling our para-pro-to-teacher pathways. We got about a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to leverage federal work-study to work directly with school districts to allow them to help their para-pros, help fund those para-pros, get them into educational programs and, as they’re working as teacher aides, as they’re working as support folks in the schools, they can get on the pathway toward becoming a teacher and, as you can imagine, it’s a great way to make sure somebody who’s from Spokane can stay in Spokane because they can get paid as they’re on that pathway even while they’re doing student teaching and becoming a teacher of record. We’re definitely leaning into innovation during this time. We’re seeing big expansions in cybersecurity. We’re seeing big expansions especially in behavioral health care. That’s going to be happening post-pandemic.”

I asked about how the college is recruiting people for careers that seem to be losing their luster, where there are shortages of workers, in teaching and health care.

Mark Milliron: “We’re seeing a big rise, for example, right now. We’ve had a 20% increase in our applications for teaching in the course of the last quarter alone. Part of it is because we’ve heard from parents who had to help homeschool their kids for the last year and they’re actually rethinking their careers. They’re saying, hey, I actually like this teaching thing. I can do this for a living. The idea of doing something that has meaning. I think the same thing happened post-9/11. People took a deep breath and they said, I kind of want to do something that’s going to make a difference and if I can find a way that I could work while I learn and get on that pathway, I think I’m willing to try it. We’re seeing the same thing with nursing and with teaching. If we can give them a viable pathway for them to be able to work and learn and get on that pathway of meaning where they can make a difference, they’re willing to jump in and do it. I think we’re going to have to double down on that work because we are going to have some real challenges with folks who have been burned out and who have had some real heartbreaking situations in teaching and in nursing over the course of the pandemic. The occupations of meaning are going to have real attraction to a lot of people, especially post-pandemic.”

Tonya Drake: “You know, I’ve heard story after story during the pandemic of what our students have been through and the online model who have been applying the skills that they learned to their own classroom and have become mentors within their own schools and that are telling others about this online flexible model.”

Mark Milliron: “I think there’s a lot of sloppy conflation out there where people are equating online learning with the emergency remote learning that people had to do. A lot of teachers and a lot of schools did heroic work to immediately go online. The challenge is that was emergency remote learning. That’s totally different from the 25+ years of experience people have in doing high quality digital learning. That’s kind of like equating an emergency life raft with a luxury liner. They both float, but they’re very different things. What we’ve been trying to do is help people understand there are people that are really good at doing online hybrid learning and we want to make sure we can help them experience that with something like Western Governors, if they’re going to do it. The second thing I would say is we’re really worried about people leaning into, and I hate to use this technical of a term, but reactionary traditionalism, where the whole idea is let’s get back to normal as quickly as possible. We actually think this is a moment in particular, in the world of education, but also maybe in health care, also maybe in law enforcement, maybe in other areas. The idea that we can take a beat and envision not just a new normal, but maybe a new possible. Let’s figure out how we can recreate things, leveraging the new tools at our disposal and do things differently. That’s what our college of education is trying to lean into is can we catalyze the next generation of education.”

Tonya Drake is the chancellor for the Washington subsidiary of Western Governors University. Mark Milliron is the executive dean of its College of Education.