Shannon Reynolds got into education because she had great music teachers. In elementary school, in junior high, “my band directors inspired me that the sky’s the limit, you can achieve whatever you want!” So she learned every instrument in the band room, and knew that she wanted to become a band director herself. She went to college, majored in music history and education, and achieved her dream.
But not every school would allow her to be as inspiring as the teachers who had made such a difference in her life.
“I am not a ‘sit in your seat with your hands in your lap and sing quietly’ kind of teacher,” she said. “I’m a ‘learn by movement, sing louder, dance around, feel the beat’ kind of girl. That did not translate well in the Texas schools where I was teaching. I had no classroom management issues, my students loved it, but my principals hated it, so I moved on.”
She started working for an online education startup. “They asked me if I would be interested in learning how to teach an online course in music history, and then I became their first instructional designer,” she said. “They didn’t know how much they needed me when I was hired, and I didn’t even know how much I’d love it. I was there for five-and-a-half years, and ended up getting my masters in education technology. It was a fantastic experience.”
She enrolled in a PhD program and went to work for the continuing education branch of a community college. That college didn’t have a single online course when the pandemic hit. Suddenly it was her job, personally, to bring over 300 courses online and teach both faculty and students how to make it work.
“I had over 100 faculty members who had no idea how to use the internet, let alone Zoom,” she remembered. “I had to put my skills into quick action.”
She got the entire college course load moved online in seven months. It was a triumph, but it also wasn’t what she wanted to do. She wanted to find new ways to make college better for more kinds of students, not migrate conventional courses online. They’re not the same thing.
“I was looking for something where I could be creative for the benefit of students,” she said. ”Someplace that would be innovative and supportive and let us really try new things.”
That’s why she came to work for Calbright as a member of the instructional design faculty.
“At Calbright we’re doing on-demand training, industry certification based training, we’re working with our student population to make them employable in new industries, all things I’m passionate about. But it’s more than that,” she said. “Calbright has a vision. We move faster than the speed of business to create the environments our students need.”
The first thing that makes Calbright innovative and important, she said, is the way in which Calbright doesn’t make “online college” a one-size-fits-all experience, but rather “creates a unique one-to-one experience for each student. They design their own personal plan at the beginning. If they get stuck in the middle we figure out what the issue is and come up with a personal solution. Then at the end we support them in a job search that meets their needs. We focus on students as individuals in a way that is very unique.”
The second innovative thing that Calbright does, Shannon said, “is bring resources to our students. We’re not telling them to do what we need them to do, we’re figuring out what they need us to do, and bringing that to them.”
The third, and perhaps most important, is that “Calbright is constantly improving. It never stops, it never settles. We’re not finding students who can work with our model, we’re constantly iterating our model to work for more students. We use as many platforms, modalities, and approaches as possible. We’re always improving. Our president, Ajita, talks about having ‘a sense of urgency,’ and that’s it: every opportunity to do better is urgent, because we can help students today, not next semester.”
At Calbright, she said, “you can have a conversation about something that isn’t working for students, get a quick approval from your team, and then fix it. Whereas in conventional colleges you have a conversation, then you have a group, then you have a meeting, and then a working session, and then you write a memo about it, schedule a lot more meetings, ask ‘what would the process be?’ and before you’ve even started the students are gone!”
That difference, she said, “is why I love my job. Is why I’m so excited to be here. No two days are alike. The needs of the students change, the needs of the economy change, and so we innovate to keep ahead. Creating sustainable education for sustainable jobs doesn’t stop. It keeps going.”