American Public University System: The future of learning - Dr Karan Powell and Michelle Maldonado, United States of America

APUS is creating an alternative value proposition for both adult learners and their employers through online learning. The internet has had a profound impact on every area of our working lives. It has broken down physical barriers, allowing for collaboration across geographies and areas of expertise, and has given employees the flexibility to work in ways that suit them. One area where this new freedom has had an especially powerful impact is corporate talent development and retention.

Acquiring new skills while working a full-time job has traditionally meant either scheduling classes, training sessions or regular study periods during the workday, which were often perceived as disruptive by employees already faced with heavy workloads, or attending evening college courses that can be difficult to schedule around family and other personal commitments. By utilising technology, employees can fashion their learning around work and family obligations, an opportunity that has been wholeheartedly embraced by online learning institution American Public University System (APUS).

"We offer an asynchronous environment," says Michelle Maldonado, the university's associate vice-president, corporate and strategic relationships. "Students have a formal syllabus of assignments with deadlines and prescribed points and methods of interactivity, but they are not required to log in to a classroom at a specific time of day. We are trying to create a clear value proposition for non-traditional adult learners and their employers that allows both to create talent development and retention strategies that align with organisational objectives."

APUS began as American Military University, which was founded in 1991 to provide affordable, high-quality, post-secondary education for members of the armed forces otherwise unable to pursue degrees in a traditional classroom. The success of this model attracted interest from other non-military employees, which led to the foundation in 2002 of a sister institution, American Public University. Today, APUS has more than 100,000 students in more than 100 countries and offers 173 online certificate and degree programmes.

"The aim isn't just to make quality education affordable, but to create one of the best online universities offering career-relevant programmes with a high level of academic rigour and appropriate learning outcomes to help prepare our students for leadership in a diverse, global society," Maldonado explains. "To help us do this, we incorporate a variety of key resources, including faculty that consists of practitioners and scholars who are able to weave real-world experience with concepts and theory. We invite experts from industry to participate in industry advisory councils (small groups of APUS academics and industry leaders) to evaluate our curriculum and help ensure we prepare students for success in their chosen industries."

Collaboration is key

The APUS model, recognised for quality by such prestigious industry organisations as the Sloan Consortium, combines formal and informal modes of learning. Students access a virtual classroom containing information on their assignments and grades, along with APUS ePress digital resources, including more than 120,000 volumes and 35,000 academic journals. Social media sites and blogs allow for collaborative learning and there is a student centre where e-mentoring guidance can be offered on practical matters such as essay writing and correct methods of citation. Maldonado is keen to stress the importance of catering to a diverse range of learning needs.

"There are as many ways to learn as there are people," she says. "Not everyone is going to want to learn entirely online or entirely through a brick-and-mortar experience. Online education doesn't necessarily have to replace other forms of learning, but can be a meaningful and complementary solution. Many of our programmes are career-relevant to help meet the needs of working adults and their employers. The right approach helps employees and employers see learning as an integrated component of everyday life, rather than a small component of annual professional development plans."

A good example of this is the recent partnership between APUS and retail giant Walmart. Internal Walmart surveys revealed that a large number of its associates were keen to obtain a degree, with nearly three-out-of-four surveyed associates expressing a preference for online study. The company set out to find a school offering business-relevant programs, delivered in a flexible format that could be more easily fitted in around the work day. From 81 potential suitors, Walmart opted for APUS as its education partner, and has since worked with the organisation in the development of an undergraduate certificate, as well as Associate and Bachelor degrees in retail management.

Identifying leaders

Walmart had a detailed understanding of its own employees' strengths, challenges, attributes and learning needs, and therefore understood the programmes it wanted to see made available to its associates for their personal choice and development. This knowledge, combined with clearly defined long-term goals, is the right formula for success. "I've been a chief learning officer, so I understand the need for this balance," says APU's executive vice-president and provost Dr Karan Powell. "Walmart has a very strong competency model that takes into account the behaviours, attitudes and abilities required by employees across the company. Having this so clearly articulated allows us to identify appropriate and relevant learning resources to support their business goals and strategy. While associates are encouraged to pursue a programme of study of interest to them personally, understanding the gap between where the individual is and where they desire to be further strengthens their abilities and enables their learning needs to be met."

Therein lies a key long-term benefit from both the employees and their employers' perspectives. Many companies today are looking for cost-effective ways to uncover and cultivate future leaders. The common method of identifying talented middle managers and sending them abroad to prepare for increased responsibilities has seen diminishing returns in recent years.

"In an increasingly globalised and networked workforce, many corporate organisations are in a difficult spot," Maldonado says. "They often must align their talent development and retention initiatives with investor and/or market expectations. The first challenge with this framework is that talent development is a long-term investment; the marketplace likes short-term results.

"The second challenge with this is that if you don't invest in strategically aligned succession planning upfront, you may have to invest more later in order to find, hire and retain future leaders," she continues. "Viewing education as a lifelong learning endeavour that is as an integrated part of strategic HR and succession planning, as well as viewing it as a worthwhile long-term investment with a measureable return at the outset, can help reduce future leadership gaps and costly employee onboarding expenses while ensuring that employees remain competitive and progress in their careers.

Future Lab

As a new generation of leaders emerges, APUS works to ensure that new modes of learning, often the product of advancing technology, keep pace with the learning needs of these future leaders. The university's Future Lab initiative allows faculty to try out and offer feedback on new technologies before they are adopted in the classroom. The dominant trend in online learning will continue to be towards greater mobility, which brings with it pedagogical as well as practical challenges.

"Today, people want information, learning resources, and opportunities at their fingertips, at any time of day or night," Powell explains. "We are 100% online and have students and alumni worldwide who are used to that. I believe in the future there will be new distinctions made between learning requirements for learning delivery format.

Differentiation will be made between what needs to be instructor-led, what needs to be totally online, and a growing redefinition of what is known as a 'blended learning approach'. We are also paying attention to younger learners, or so-called 'digital natives', who often learn differently. Gaming techniques and new technologies mean that we have to provide access to learning on multiple devices so that learning is device agnostic. We are exploring how we need to modify our learning strategies and methodologies to meet emerging learning needs of these digital natives."

The current economic recession has led many companies to adopt a more strategic, long-term view of the ROI of many key business functions. Applying such perspectives to talent management often results in a more effective workforce, with greater leadership potential, at a lower cost.

APU’s executive vice-president and provost Dr Karan Powell.
Michelle Maldonado, APUS associate vice-president, corporate and strategic relationships.
APUS is 100% online, giving students the freedom to acquire new skills while working full-time.