This is a 2019 SHRM Annual Conference and Exposition (#SHRM19) interview is with Western Governors University, the nation’s first online competency-based university. Below is a quick Q&A with Dr. Bruce Stetar, the Program Director at the College of Business and Ashley Dent, HR Management Program Chair.
Who is Western Governors University!? Tell us everything, just as you would someone approaching your booth and asking you this question at #SHRM19 in Las Vegas.
Ashley: Western Governors University is a university passionate about student success! WGU is an innovative, online, competency-based university (the first, actually!) that ensures students earning a degree through the university are receiving the most industry relevant skills in their chosen degree programs to best prepare them for professional and personal success.
Ashley: Western Governors University is a nonprofit, online university established in 1997 by 19 U.S. governors to expand access to quality higher education. It is the nation’s first accredited competency-based university and still the only university providing competency-based education at scale. WGU has students living in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as military personnel who are stationed overseas. At WGU, our quality is proven by student outcomes and success. WGU provides affordable access to higher education that is aligned with workforce needs and focused on the student experience.
Let us in on the magic. What’s it like to work the WGU? Do you utilize your resources to educate your employees?
Ashley: I have been with WGU for a little over three months now, and I can tell you that hands down this is the most student focused group of higher education professionals I have ever collaborated with! Every decision is focused on student success, and the staff and faculty are incredibly passionate about the work they do every day. In the HR program especially, staff and faculty are really excited about continuing to strengthen our relationship with SHRM - we have started a virtual student chapter this year, recently had our curriculum re-aligned with SHRM’s standards, and have a large contingent of WGU staff, faculty, students, and alumni attending the annual conference in Vegas. We are also looking at partnering with SHRM on a potential research project!
Ashley: I have been at WGU for just over one year and I chose to come to WGU because its educational values lined up so well with my own - to provide world class relevant programs to students that will help transform their lives and the lives of their families and communities. At WGU every decision we make is with the student in mind and we aim every day to provide an education which meets the student where they are and that fits into their lives, rather than forcing them to fit their lives around our system. My past work at traditional brick and mortar and online universities dovetails perfectly with the direction WGU is taking. Working with organizations like SHRM helps us to ensure that our students make a successful transition from the classroom to the workforce as smoothly as possible.
What are the biggest challenges companies face when educating their employees? How do they overcome those challenges?
Ashley: Training and development is one of my HR passions, and it all ties back to that desire for all employees - regardless of position level or title - to feel truly valued and respected in regard to the work they perform every day. I’ve seen firsthand how critical it is to maintain employee engagement, and a part of that is ensuring employees have the resources and knowledge necessary to perform at their best levels. If they feel supported and see that their organization is taking the time to invest in their ongoing professional and personal development, it can transform their employee experience.
Leadership has to fully support making the time and allocating the necessary resources to offer targeted training and education opportunities for all staff. An online, competency based program such as those offered through WGU are fantastic educational opportunities for employees in a multitude of professional roles and industries, as the employees have flexible study options, they can work with a mentor on an individualized program pacing plan, and they are learning skills applicable to their day to day professional lives. They can take the skills and concepts they learn in the WGU classroom and immediately apply that to their careers.
Bruce: Companies today face an environment that is changing at a faster pace than at any previous time in history. Companies need their employees to be constantly gaining new skills, sharpening old ones and adapting to a changing environment. Today employees need to take the outlook that they will be constantly upgrading their skills as their employers demand new things from them. So gone is the “one and done” mentality of getting a degree from a college or university and then leaving, to be replaced with the idea that people will form a career-long partnership with a school - returning to take classes whenever they need new skills and knowledge. Companies need to provide their employees access to such educational systems and support to attend them; and in turn except the curriculum at those institutions to be relevant and up to date.
What do you wish more HR professionals and recruiters knew about online education?
Ashley: I think there is vast opportunity to have HR professionals assist employees with researching degrees that could benefit them based on their professional goals, and educating employees about any potential organizational benefits to assist them with furthering their education. Many times, we can assume that employees know all of the benefits available to them, but someone could be hesitant to further explore something like tuition assistance. Maybe they just need to know the employer truly supports their professional development to take that first step toward earning their degree! I think HR professionals also have an opportunity to encourage employees to stay current in their fields by going to/back to college via an online program. I recall a co-worker years ago who was taking an online class at the same time I was, and we would share tips weekly on what we learned in our classes that we could use at our jobs. Even seemingly small things, such as how to develop a pivot table in Excel - I learned this in an online class, shared it with my team at work back then, and it saved all of us considerable time on different daily tasks from that point on out!
Bruce: Online degree programs are an affordable, flexible option for working adults that provides access to high quality programs designed to be industry relevant. Many employers still have the idea that it is not a “real education” when in fact online degree programs are real degrees that simply have a different delivery format. As a form of online learning, the competency-based learning that WGU provides allows students to earn their degrees by demonstrating what they know and can do (competency) rather than spending time in class to accumulate credit hours. Competency-based learning is ideal for adult learners, who enroll in college with different levels of knowledge as well as a wide variety of learning styles, because it allows them to move quickly through material they already know so they can focus on what they need to learn. Online learning is one of the best tools employers have to meet the challenges they are facing today and will face in the future.
How important is it to stay educated in today’s business world?
Ashley: I would go a step further and say it isn’t just important, it is critical. Technology, regulations, company cultures - these things can change so quickly, and if you are not continuously educating yourself on what is happening around you and your organization, you can quickly fall behind! Take some dedicated time every day and skim an online journal in your chosen field; sign up for automated legislative updates related to your profession or industry; try to complete continuing education courses or seminars regularly. Not only does staying educated in today’s business world help you better understand how your day to day tasks fit into the broader picture of the industry your organization operates in, it also gives you the opportunity to continuously update your professional network! Connect with authors of articles and blog posts via Linked In, make the time to follow up with other professionals you meet at conferences, and put yourself out there to present on a topic you feel passionate about in your field!
Bruce: I agree completely, staying up to date in your field, acquiring new knowledge and skills, remaining flexible and adaptable - they are critical to being successful in today’s fast paced, ever changing work environments. Staying educated, learning new things, acquiring new skills and knowledge - however you label it is just part of a modern career. Formal education through a higher education institution is not the only way to that - Ashley points out some great alternatives - but it is one way to continue to learn. That being said, that learning does not always have to be in the context of a formal degree program, which is why WGU is looking at things like micro-credentials, certificates and badges as ways for people to gain, and quantified, learning. However, whatever the label, ongoing education is a fact of life for anyone in the workforce today.
For anyone who won’t be able to make it to the WGU booth in Las Vegas, what do you want them to know?
Ashley: WGU delivers a really special, unique energy to all that they do, and the 2019 SHRM Annual Conference in Las Vegas will be no different! We have a number of live webcasts planned throughout the conference, with various HR professionals speaking on some of the most relevant topics those of us in the field of HR face regularly. We also have a live launch event on Monday, June 24th from 2:30 p.m. - 3:30 p.m. PST to officially launch our WGU SHRM Virtual Student Chapter! A panel of HR experts will be answering questions submitted by our WGU HR student chapter members, and the event will live stream on our WGU College of Business Facebook page, so if you cannot be there in person, we encourage you to check it out on Facebook! If you want to learn more about WGU and will not be able to make it to the booth in Vegas, there is a plethora of information on our website.
Bruce: That WGU is here to help people to transform their lives and achieve their dreams. That at WGU students come first because our sole focus is on student learning and success.WGU is distinctive, not because it is all online, but because the university uses competency-based education to measures learning rather than time. Like SHRM, WGU is all about helping people be better professionals, which is why we are so excited to be a part of this major SHRM event. Ashley has listed all of the things that we have going on at the conference, including our live webcasts, so you don’t need to be at the conference to be a part of the excitement. Join us online and take another step down your personal road of ongoing development. Come see what SHRM and WGU are doing together to improve the field of HRM and to help HRM professionals to be better in their field. Our theme for the conference is “brave leaders” - so be a brave leader, join our online webecasts and add some new skills and knowledge to your professional and personal tool kit.