Reporting on the connections between education and work

What happens when the ‘hybrid college’ goes virtual?

PelotonU, a pioneer of the hybrid college, is rethinking its approach in the wake of the pandemic. We talked to the nonprofit’s co-founders about what has proven essential (coaching, and a lot of it) and what is open to change.
Photo by fizkes via Shutterstock

Hybrid colleges began popping up several years ago—aiming to combine the flexibility of online learning with the in-person support and connections of a traditional college. 

About 15 nonprofits, such as AdvanceEDU, Duet, and PelotonU, now offer this model. 

Students pay tuition to attend online programs from institutions like Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Colorado State University Global, with a focus on competency-based degrees. And, for a share of the revenue, the hybrid colleges provide in-person coaching, career advising, child care, and other supports.

“It was college meets coworking, for working adults from age 18 to their mid 60s,” says Hudson Baird, executive director of PelotonU, a hybrid college he co-founded a decade ago.

Or at least that’s how it used to work. The Austin-based PelotonU’s approach changed permanently because of the pandemic—and a fully online experience will be the norm for most students.

We talked to PelotonU’s co-founders, Sarah Saxton-Frump and Hudson Baird, about what it means when the “hybrid college” shifts away from hybrid.

Coming out of the pandemic and the online pivot, how will PelotonU’s model change? What did you learn about what matters most for students?
Sarah Saxton-Frump, co-founder and chief operating officer of PelotonU

A: Before the pandemic we told students that the magic of our model was the flexibility of CBE embedded within a community of peers. It was college meets coworking, for working adults from age 18 to their mid 60s. It’s a model we miss.

What we didn’t realize was that requiring attendance at a space, even when that can change each week, is also prohibitive to all sorts of students—those without transportation or who live further away or who have caregiving responsibilities. We preached flexibility and didn’t live that value like we thought. The main reason students came to the space was to meet with their coach more than it was to study.

The pandemic forced a migration to fully virtual support, and we found that the trusted coaching relationship was the key ingredient—not community. We still believe in and operate a physical location, that’s now more like a drop in library, and are also learning that a fully virtual model can serve students in more places while creating a trusted relationship between coach and student.

You serve a population that is less likely to attend college right now, for a lot of reasons. What tend to be factors they cite in taking the plunge at PelotonU?
Hudson Baird, co-founder and executive director of PelotonU

A: There are a lot of good reasons to be wary of college right now—the return is too low and the investment of time and money is too steep. Many of our students have tried college before, often attending part-time and taking a break with the hope to return. Life’s just full with schedules that often change, so that’s tough to find time for.

The primary reason students first chat with us is because they’re introduced to PelotonU by someone they trust. We work through partners—mainly nonprofits and values-aligned employers—to offer this option to their community.

Once they hear about it, it’s the flexibility and affordability of CBE that really stands out. Students find it hard to believe that there are other ways to design the structure of college, and, once that feels true, a degree begins to feel possible again. So they give it a try, and we offer a free six week pre-college period for students to build the muscle of learning online through a competency-based pedagogy before they enroll with SNHU or WGU.

Once they’re in—and this is my favorite part—they build a trusted relationship with their coach. PelotonU coaches are veteran educators who work with no more than fifty students and are invested in the students’ whole journey, not only their academics. Over time, this tends to create a secure attachment which allows space for students to make regular progress in their studies.

Coaching and wraparound supports increasingly are described as a necessity by most institutions that enroll vulnerable students. But offering those services is hard and resource intensive. What are common mistakes? And what sort of per-student price points and scale are realistic?

A: There are two things people get wrong: automation and emphasis.

First, in a drive towards scale and cost effectiveness, schools rush to replace people with machines or outsourced service providers. When this allows for deeper relationships, it’s a powerful thing. Too often though, we see it get in the way of a student feeling known or cared for. When a student has the sense that they’re just a number and their deeply cherished goals are only a university metric, it’s hard to persist.

We wish that the same energy that was put into automation was put into building teams who deeply care for students.

Second, when coaching does happen, it’s too often opt-in, infrequent, and focused solely on academics. Think of it like the writing lab students have to find on campus. There’s friction, and none of the process was designed with the student experience at the center. This works for some students, but for many more, it’s the holistic relationship with a person who knows their story and cares about their goals that makes graduation possible. 

We believe the core of education has always been a guide working with a student on a journey to help them uncover the skills to learn on their own. It’s not rote memorization, but learning to love the process of education. Trusted relationships help us do hard things. That’s why our coaching meetings are weekly and focused on the social, emotional, and logistical support in their journey. Coaching, for anyone doing something hard—whether it’s recovering from past trauma, starting a business, earning a degree, or building proficiency in a sport—makes a world of difference.

We don’t yet know what sort of per student price points and scale are achievable. That’s the question we want to continue to explore with our students and other partners. We are confident it is less expensive to grow than existing brick and mortar models, especially for the populations we serve.

Is it difficult to convey how CBE works to potential students? Is the modality a draw for some?

A: Yes, it’s difficult to convey. Like with anything we haven’t seen before, especially in inequitable systems or entrenched norms, it’s hard to imagine a new modality. At first blush, there’s an appropriate skepticism of CBE, both from partners and students.

As people begin to understand that it’s a more intuitive way to learn and see the legitimacy, they get excited. The flexibility of the pedagogy, around the rest of a working adult’s life, is a key differentiator. Then, the project-based assessment approach becomes the big draw. This gives students both artifacts of expertise and the confidence that they can tackle work that’s new to them in their professional lives.

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