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Building the Zion Classroom: Prophecy and Pedagogy

Through a union of divine guidance and modern instructional methods, educators are unlocking new and innovative educational approaches.

The innovations are fascinating: stackable certificates. Fully-online education. Lowered costs and scholarships for all students. BYU-Pathway Worldwide is doing groundbreaking work in higher education. It is, very seriously, living up to words like “innovative,” “disruptive,” and “transformative.”

But my interview with Brian Ashton, President of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, suggests something more than just differences in methods. Yes, BYU-Pathway is doing something distinct, but the different methods are also for very different reasons. These innovations come from a mission about theology and telos and foretold promises. This is about prophecy, not profits. Religious institutions like BYU-Pathway are different in their DNA.

To Latter-day Saints, Zion is the Holy City—the just society, prophesied in scripture, in which there would be a righteous people of one heart, with “no poor among them.” BYU-Pathway Worldwide has as its mission to “develop disciples of Jesus Christ who are leaders in their homes, the Church, and their communities,” but there’s a strong sense that it is doing something more ambitious still: building the foundations for a better world—one in which everyone has access to the life of abundance. 

In other words, a world with “no poor among them.”

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length. This is part II of a two-part interview. Find the first part here

Public Square Magazine: President Ashton, I wonder if we could start by having you tell me about yourself, about [BYU-Pathway], and a bit of the history of how you wound up getting involved. What is your role, your background, and what drives you in this work? What do you bring? What do you hope you bring?

President Brian K. Ashton: When I was in the Sunday School General Presidency, Clark Gilbert called me up. We had been friends since we were students together at BYU. He called me a few days after a meeting—they’d decided to spin out Pathway from BYU-Idaho. I joined as the vice president of field operations. Then I was asked to take this role.

In terms of BYU-Pathway, this was all incubated in Rexburg, and it was well-shepherded there and established as its own institution in Salt Lake. My role has been to make it a fully scalable organization to let it become whatever the Lord and the Brethren want it to be. 

PSM: I work at BYU-Idaho and love this place. I didn’t realize that the stories of the two organizations were so deeply tied together.

BA: This is all just an extension of Jacob Spori’s vision. This place (gestures at BYU-Pathway) would not exist if it were not for BYU-Idaho. It doesn’t exist without Kim Clark. It doesn’t exist without Clark Gilbert, or Henry J. Eyring, or … (pauses).

PSM: I’ll bet there are a lot of names.

BA: Yes, but that’s not it. It’s the Lord’s program. He is leading us. Do we stand on the shoulders of giants? Yes. But let’s not water down the message: we are led by the Lord. There are some smart people here, and they are giving their all to make this work. But this is the Lord’s effort.

I show up, and miracles occur. For us to take any credit—and for me, in particular? That would be totally inappropriate.

It is successful because Jesus Christ is guiding us.

PSM: Imagine a prospective student comes to you and asks for advice on how to be successful. What would you say?

BA: I tried to learn Mandarin in college. I had a very hard time because I have a hard time hearing tones. So I started saying that I wasn’t good with languages.

Then I get called to a mission to Peru. It’s not like I can tell God He made a mistake, right? So I go, I try, I learn. My Spanish was passable, but I was probably the worst Spanish speaker in my cohort of missionaries. But now I can hear tones—certainly better than I could in the past!

Here’s the lesson: You know what learning isn’t? It’s not about smarts. You know what it’s about? Three things: desire, discipline, and learning from the Holy Ghost.

I hear students say, “I can’t learn math” or “I’m not a math person.” But you know what? They have the desire, they have the discipline, and they ask God for help, and all of a sudden, they’re learning the math.

PSM: What challenges do you—that is, does BYU-Pathway Worldwide—face? What keeps you up at night?

BA: I sleep very well at night. It’s the Lord’s work, so I let Him worry about it.

But opportunities? We have a few of those. Growth. Scalability. Making sure that our students have had enough to eat.

34% of our students don’t get two meals a day. In Africa, that’s 69% of students who struggle to get two meals a day. 60% don’t have access to reliable housing. 68% it’s internet and computers.

Some of our students must fast so that they can afford data to submit assignments on their cell phones. 90% of our international students who drop out do so with passing grades on the assignments they’ve submitted. When we ask them, the top three reasons they cite for dropping out are all related to finances.

I’m not sure there’s an institution of higher learning that works with students who face so many hurdles—even though we get really, really good students. Helping them stay in? Helping them find ways to get access to the internet? Helping them get jobs? That’s critical to the work we do.

PSM: You said that you lose students due to finances. What is your success rate?

BA: In the US, in the lowest income quartile, the graduation rate varies from year to year but almost always is lower than 20%. Among the same population, our graduation rate is roughly double that. It’s a bit lower overseas, but we have students getting two or three better-paying jobs just during the course of their classes. Students get a certificate, and suddenly they’ve got more credentials than anyone in their village. They can get all the jobs now—and many do. We also have a significant chunk of our international students who have local degrees but come to BYU-Pathway to learn English or other skills that help them get jobs, and many of those only complete one certificate, or PathwayConnect, or EnglishConnect.

PSM: Someone might say that you are successful only because of subsidies from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Tuition is low, but only because of those subsidies.

BA: No. It’s not just that tuition is low. The fundamental cost is low. The structure is sustainably low-cost. We’ve built a model that works. There’s a subsidy, but it’s not all subsidy.

PSM: A critic might say, hey—you’re only serving yourselves. This is only for members of your church.

BA: 30% of our students aren’t members of our faith. You don’t have to be a member of our church to join.

PSM: How do you guarantee quality? How do you make sure classes are good across the board?

BA: In traditional education, you have a wide spread of teaching quality. (Draws a large bell curve with his fingers.) In [BYU-Pathway], we have a lot less spread. Our results are focused around a tighter mean. (Draws a second bell curve that is tighter.) Traditional universities have rockstar teachers who probably outperform what we do every once in a while, but our numbers are stronger on average compared to traditional settings.

In traditional education, the professor just writes their own curriculum. There’s some ability to see how students internalize it, but it’s pretty tough—you have to train teachers on gathering formative feedback, setting up quizzes, and all that stuff. The quality of the professor varies considerably.

We’ve actually productized the curriculum: it’s presented identically every time. There’s no deviation in the curriculum. 

So when you ask about quality—when you ask students—what you find is that satisfaction rates and learning rates are a much tighter curve and a higher curve. You get better results. In a traditional classroom, you have a bigger tail—there are some amazing professors who are phenomenal. But you also have a spread and a tail on the lower end too.

Now, we have another benefit. We’re online, so we can see how students are interacting with the curriculum. We can see if they’re clicking and following, and you can intervene if they’re not doing well. Everything becomes a formative assessment. We have an army of people improving each course to make it accessible, to improve quality, and to keep the content top-notch—and when we make one class better, we’ve just improved the experience for every student involved.

We’ve also centralized the grading. Professors probably spend a ton of their time lecturing and grading, and that’s not us. Our folks work with students. That’s their job. They can intervene and work one-on-one.

PSM: (Laughing) If only traditional instruction were so easy to improve! It reminds me of some research I read on class-size findings: class size is not a good way to improve instructional quality. You’re telling me that you have this vastly scalable enterprise that is actually more effective—almost like bigger class sizes.

BA: That may be, but class size is imperative for us. You need a class size that is small enough that the teacher can know every name. Students need role models. They need someone who loves them and cares about them.

What do traditional faculty do? They spend much of their time doing research, lecturing,  or grading. Not our instructors. They spend 100% of their time working with students. We’re all about relationships. Our faculty are to be context experts—but most importantly, legendary relationship builders.

PSM: What about engagement? Online education is notorious for being less engaging than traditional classroom settings. How do you manage?

BA: There are certainly advantages to in-person education, but one advantage to an online system is that everything is a formative assessment. Every click, every hover, and every practice question is a chance for our team to gather data and improve the quality of the course.

PSM: What are your plans for the near future?

BA: Interview me again in six months.

I can’t wait to tell you what we’re going to be doing. I just got back from Eastern Europe—Armenia, Georgia, and Albania. I’ve been all over the world. In so many places, there just aren’t jobs. The labor markets just don’t work. Not always, but often, it’s corruption. You just aren’t going to get a lot of direct foreign investment. How do you grow when your population is mostly underemployed? Unemployed?

Companies in developed economies can hire these people to work remotely because they have the skill sets needed for our economies. We can use these folks. Those jobs are a huge blessing to our students. And these students are capable. They’re capable of doing the job. These good people deserve a shot, and we intend to give them one. When you interview me in six months, the big news will be about jobs—not just graduation, but how we can transform lives with more career options.

PSM: How will you evaluate your success as president? Now, in 10, 25, 50 years?

BA: I mean, look. We’re here to do what the CES board wants us to do. Doing what they ask us to do is really important to us. We need to follow their guidance and their direction. Elder Holland said once, “BYU-Pathway is an answer to my 50-year prayer that we could find an equitable way to serve the entire church with the blessings of education.”

So I suppose that my metric is, are we aligned with our leaders? Are we taking education to the whole world?

Then next, we want to evaluate the lives of our students. I want to know that students who went through this program are faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, who are following the Savior, and raising families. It’s not just about graduation; it’s about thriving—jobs, relationships, discipleship. We’re aiming deeper than just completion.

Finally, [BYU-Pathway] has a role in building Zion. Moses 7:18 says that the people were of one heart and one mind. They dwelt in righteousness. There were no poor among them. BYU-Pathway has a special role in making that happen.

My wife has said that no other Church institution has the worldwide reach and access to spiritually-based, job-ready certificates and degrees like BYU-Pathway. [BYU-Pathway] can provide relief from spiritual and temporal poverty, and those students can, in turn, help others until there are no poor among us.

The US and Canada have been served well by CES. And some overspill has occurred! But to serve the whole world? We needed something else for that big of a vision.

Can we build a world in which there are no poor among us?

Well, we’d like to try.

*****

When I spoke with President Ashton, I figured we’d talk pedagogy and disruption and innovation and governance—graduations and certifications, and all that. What I did not expect, however, was his intense focus on lives changed. The purpose of BYU-Pathway isn’t to produce graduates; it’s to give them opportunities—and President Ashton is laser-focused on the transformative power of education. How many of them are getting jobs? How many of them are seeing their career path change? How many of them are meaningfully better off?

I wrap up my interview and see a notification on social media. There he is again, this time announcing a new series of scholarships for students. And then, the news that BYU-Pathway will start offering access to 90-credit bachelor’s degrees from BYU-Idaho and Ensign College. The innovations don’t stop. I’m sure there are more in the offing.

But the purpose isn’t to try new things or make the press. The purpose is always about the people involved—and giving them the best possible shot at life. 

To make—one life at a time—a people of one heart and one mind. A people who dwell in righteousness. A people with no poor among them.

About the authors

Benjamin Pacini

Benjamin Pacini is a husband, father of four, and faculty at BYU-Idaho in Elementary Education. He served as a teacher and administrator in Baltimore City and Washington D.C. for ten years. He is currently pursuing an EdD from BYU.

Brian K. Ashton

Brian K. Ashton is the President of BYU-Pathway Worldwide. He previously led an EdTech startup and served in the General Sunday School presidency. He has an MBA from Harvard University.
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