On This Episode
Imagine having an opportunity to completely redesign the higher education model. What would that look like? How do we ensure that we're better serving our end-users, or in this case, students? Our real-world Student Experience Lab helps institutional leaders tackle these issues head-on, through our Design Methodology we can pave the way to a better understanding and actionable model for educational change, but when it comes to leading by example, Scott Pulsipher and the team at Western Governors University (WGU) has taken the lead.

What started as a simple premise to provide access to higher education to underserved working adults in a timely, affordable way has developed into a success and standard for what a working higher educational model could look like.

Now in their 20th year, WGU, the nation’s first and largest competency-based university, has realized a vision of creating, delivering and capturing value the founding 19 governors set out to achieve. “They recognized that their system (of existing higher education) wouldn’t be an environment that would allow them to innovate or create a model of higher education that would serve the population they were seeing to reach really well,” Pulsipher tells us. “Sometimes when you have to disrupt the thing, you almost have to separate from the current model and say, if we started this all over again, how would we do it? What are the tools available to us? What information do we know about students that would change it? You have to afford someone the unbounded environment in which they can create everything new.”

Pulsipher blends a personal drive for making a difference in the lives of individuals and families through education and a passion for technology-powered innovation. At WGU, he is driving continuous innovation to improve student outcomes by focusing on rapidly advancing curriculum quality, new faculty models, data-driven learning, and a different cost model.

About This Podcast

The Business Model Sandbox Podcast is a series of conversations between BIF’s Chief Catalyst Saul Kaplan and leading business model thinkers and doers. Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. Stay in touch: Get notified when new podcasts, articles, and case studies are released.

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(Antioch College; BIF Student Experience Lab(SXL) project partner)

One of the most difficult experiences for those in education is to understand challenges within our system but have no method for creating meaningful, transformative change. Issues persist and frustrate individuals at every level — from classroom to district to national. We have circled around the same issues for decades, at times designing useful innovations to incrementally improve them. However, on a systemic level, we have a lot of work to do to create a multitude of new approaches needed for a robust 21st-century education ecosystem.

At present we have a few major problems. First, we have engagement issues — over 40% of students are chronically bored or disengaged from school. A Gallup poll found that from kindergarten to 12th-grade engagement drops every year bottoming out in the 11th grade. The stories for teachers look eerily similar, 57% report feeling disengaged and these feelings increase the longer educators have been in the field. A large predictor of student success is engagement in the student experience and teacher effectiveness. However, both students and teachers do not see the value in what they are doing, making it almost impossible for deep, meaningful learning to happen.

Second, we have an equity problem — students are receiving different educational experiences based on their region, economic status, and race. Data from Stanford’s Center for Educational Policy Analysis point to massive achievement gaps: test scores for Black students are on average two grade levels lower than white students and Latino students are one and a half grade levels lower. In addition to academics, there are wide disparities in suspension rates, a lack of culturally responsive teaching and pedagogy, decreasing levels of funding going to K-12, and diminishing numbers of teachers of color — who leave the field 24% more often than their white counterparts. We need a system that looks beyond equality(giving everyone the same thing) and moves toward giving every student and teacher what they need for growth, agency, and success.

Lastly (at least for this post) we have a sustainability problem. Teacher credentials aren’t correlating to the capabilities we are expecting from them in the classroom. The cost of higher education is outweighing its benefits and students are forced to pay while in school or take on massive amounts of debt which many can’t sustain with their income — about 3,000 borrowers default daily. For this reason, and because real-world experience has become increasingly more valuable, many students are opting out of college. Some business executives suggest that college degrees are worthless, while others like Peter Thiel even offered to pay students not to go at all. Similar to K-12, many colleges are not offering experiences that are engaging and relevant for students or that are preparing them for their next stage of life. Innovation leader Clay Christensen has predicted that by 2020 half of higher education institutions in the US will go bankrupt.

We have a system that isn’t relevant or meaningful to students. There is an experience gap that goes deeper than academic instruction — most students don’t leave high school or college prepared for life, future education, career, or civic engagement. This is unacceptable.

Looking at all of these issues without solutions has driven many to seek point solutions or tweak what already exists. However, these issues point to a greater need — business model innovation within education. We need a new way of addressing education in the US — from early learning to higher learning. Amidst the sea of issues and frustration, leaders often don’t know how to explore and test new models.

Business model exploration is the new way. To make this easier BIF has introduced a proven methodology to help leaders explore and test next practices and new business models.

Methodology DL

Our methodology makes transformation attainable, actionable, and most importantly user-centered. It serves as a guide that allows us to:


SHIFT our perspective using human-centered research and design to identify the problems to solve.

How might we bring the experiences of young men of color to life in a way that makes their voice central to our conversation about transforming the education system to improve their college experience and completion rates?

(Students at SXL Design Studio)

Create an innovative CONCEPTUAL DESIGN. We co-design with leaders, educators, & students to create something that is relevant & to teach them the process of iterative design.

How might we reinvent a 165-year-old college to be as agile as a startup?



PROTOTYPE & TEST minimally viable business models. Before we launch entirely new programs we create prototypes that mirror aspects of the final design to make sure they are valuable to end users.

How might we co-design a design thinking platform that allows teachers to creatively solve problems that arise in their classroom or school?



COMMERCIALIZE & SCALE to spread the impact of the model and crowdsource critiques. We take (or create a plan to take) the final design into the world and strategize plans for scale.

How might we highlight, spread, and create ongoing conversation around educator-created hacks within the classroom?



(Student at SXL Design Studio)


Our methodology is a tool to move from frustration and tweaks to creation of next practices and new business models. Next practices answer the question ‘How might we deliver value to students and educators in a new, more powerful, and purpose-driven way?’ We ask a similar question in our Teachers for Equity fellowship which positions communities of practice as a catalyst for more equitable outcomes for students. Next practices improve the way that current business models work or lead to new business models.

Our work with Southern New Hampshire University highlights the formation of a new business model in which students are credentialed according to how they demonstrate the knowledge and capabilities required to meet an established skill set, rather than traditional course completion. New business models combine next practices together to create, deliver, and capture value for everyone involved in an institution — from students to administrators. In this case, SNHU was able to stand up the first competency-based Associate’s degree program to be approved by the US Dept. of Education.

(SXL Teachers For Equity Fellows)

By following this methodology, we break the cycle of committees whose ideas don’t make it off the whiteboard, policies that are out of touch with practitioner needs, and frustrations of institutional leaders, students, and educators. With it, we plan to transform business models and fundamentally shift how the education system works. Most importantly, as the Student Experience Lab, we are dedicated to using it to dramatically change student outcomes and create opportunities for students to thrive.

Part of this effort is creating a community of people who will drive towards transformation with us. If this excites you, let’s figure out how we can use our methodology and team of designers to create a next practice or new model that will take your work to new heights. Email  jbrown@bif.is  to connect.

Methodology DL