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Business Officer Magazine

On Balance

The chancellor of Western Governors University Texas, Mark David Milliron, discusses how his institution employs infrastructure, processes, and data to bring clarity to institution decision making.

By Paul Jenny

Mark Milliron's Data-Driven Drive

*Many find it easier to debate the quality of data rather than have a substantive conversation regarding what the numbers may suggest about institution challenges, notes Mark Milliron, chancellor of Western Governors University Texas. But the numbers can be your friend, he asserts. Good data allow leaders to make crucial assessments about where and how to deploy resources in support of student success and to identify areas ripe for innovation. In this interview, Milliron advocates for business officers to champion data initiatives to bring clarity to institution decision making.

Recent years have brought fundamental change to higher education, including the rise of online and blended learning environments. In what specific areas must leaders focus their innovation efforts going forward?

Because so many are offering online learning opportunities, I think this is now largely seen as a commodity. The more interesting conversation today centers on at least four developments, each of which impacts how online learning is deployed. One is the rise of learning analytics and the strategic use of data, which has already changed the consumer and health-care industries and is beginning to change education as more data get to the front lines.

A second development is the transformation of the course content publishing model. Third is the rise of robust kinds of simulated, game-based, and immersive learning in both augmented reality and deep virtual worlds that will continue to challenge higher education leaders with regard to infrastructure. Business officers in particular have to think about this much more broadly as bricks-and-mortar capital concerns and technology requirements converge.

Read An Online Extra

For more about WGU Texas and the WGU learning model—which recently celebrated 15 years in operation—see "Western Governors Takes Hold" in Business Officer Plus at

A fourth important development is the evolution of core strategies and models for the provision of education—everything from the flip model, where lectures are posted online so that class time can be used for other valuable purposes, to competency-based learning, where students have the ability to progress based on what they know, not on time in seat. Because all these developments involve money, process, and infrastructure, the chief business officer is front and center in thinking about how to leverage them to support the transformation of higher education.

Would you elaborate on each of those points, starting with what you mentioned about the blending of facilities and technology infrastructure?

By and large we continue to think in terms of a traditional capital budget—how much we are spending on bricks and mortar—and then separately consider how we spend for technology. We need to think of facilities and technology infrastructure investment in the aggregate and have a strategy for deploying these two in concert. This creates a different set of conversations at all levels of the institution. So, you can't have a board committee focused on facilities and another focused on technology and then not have the two talk to each other.

Likewise, while we've traditionally kept administrative technology separate from instructional technology, these are starting to come together because they share much in common. For instance, the learning management system is increasingly becoming a core operational system throughout the institution.

Does this mean the business officer should push for more of a portfolio approach?

For starters, it means getting others to think about how you integrate and deploy a combination of buildings and online infrastructure—everything from your Web site to your learning management system to your student information system—in a way that ensures the student has a unified experience.

The business officers who will thrive in this new environment are those who believe they are partners in the common cause of helping students get on pathways to possibilities.

Many forget that your college or university is what a student experiences. If 50 percent of that experience is online, then you need a robust user interface to make sure that environment meets student expectations and needs. This is true even if you are a residential campus. It's not only about the look and feel of student housing or the labs or the dining hall. It's also about whether students can navigate their online course materials and support services and your administrative online tools.

You also mentioned learning analytics and the strategic use of data. Where must leaders innovate in this area?

Most of our data initiatives in higher education, while well intentioned, are far too slow, and many are focused on getting data to accreditors, legislators, and trustees as opposed to the front lines. Meanwhile, every piece of learning research tells us that regular feedback and high-level interaction aids academic tenacity and persistence. At Western Governors, we are deeply committed to evaluative feedback. One specific example is in our student advising. We have one group of faculty—student mentors—who are focused solely on this function. They conduct weekly sessions with students using a coaching report specific to each student that tells that student whether he or she is on-target or off-target, and where to get the resources to get back on track.

And how is the content publishing model evolving?

Similar to the way the music industry had to reinvent itself as it went digital, the same is happening with course content. I think some leaders underestimate how much of an infrastructure shift this represents and what is required to revamp contracts and pric-
ing models. You also have this interplay between the open content movement and the paid content movement, which presents a real curation challenge for institutions and instructors.

What impact has this had for your university?

In one example, our data indicated that a number of our low-income students in particular were having difficulty mastering course content. We found that many of them weren't buying the curricular resources. They simply couldn't afford them. That forced us to do some soul-searching about how we price and provide our content. We decided that instead of having students buy resources one at a time, we would charge a $149 per-term curricular resource fee, regardless of what courses students were taking or what they were studying.

That put the onus on us to go back to the publishers and other content providers and renegotiate contracts. As part of this process, we pushed publishers to make their content digital and modular so that we could institute a strategy of deploying resources cost-effectively across multiple devices. We also proposed paying providers based on the success of students in achieving anticipated learning outcomes using the resources.

Did they accept this?

One by one we've been able to sign new agreements that offer a value proposition for providing resources and a structural incentive for publishers to fix content that doesn't work. The real innovation is that we can now give our content providers granular data about what resources students are touching, how they're using the material, and the outcomes of their learning assessments.

A fourth development you noted was the changing strategies and models for the provision of education. Where do you see higher education as an industry 5 or 10 years out in using technology as a delivery vehicle?

First, I think it's an exciting time for higher education across the board. While there has been a tendency for many to conflate online with for-profit, there is significant recalibration taking place in the online arena and a real convergence of players from all institution types setting the stage for robust innovation ahead.

In conjunction with this, I think we will see much greater innovation with learning-centered models. We're currently involved in a project with the Department of Labor to work with three community colleges to roll out competency-based degree programs at those institutions. We are also at a point where more entities are willing to partner and experiment with lots of different approaches and resources. Great teaching has always been about creating rich, interactive, and dialogic learning experiences for students. Going forward, this could include a blending of these massive open online courses [MOOCs], deep-simulation experiences, augmented-reality experiences, and on-ground learning.

How do you look to your business officer as a partner in assessing and leveraging data to move your university forward on this front?

The challenge for all business officers is determining whether the systems implemented are meeting the mission requirements of the college or university. Are you deploying scarce resources in a way that optimizes learning outcomes? Have you eliminated the slack? Is it easy for everyone to navigate your systems? There is no way to move forward without rigorous analysis of whether the organization is deploying its resources to fully support its completion agenda, its community outreach agenda, its research agenda, or whatever else.

This is hard work, but it is the topic du jour. The business officers who will thrive in this new environment are those who believe they are partners in the common cause of helping students get on pathways to possibilities, and who want to use their talents to help others be successful in the education enterprise. As CBO, your aim is to enable folks who want to innovate with the best information and resources possible to take on the challenge at hand. 

PAUL JENNY is vice provost of planning and budgeting for the University of Washington.