Education Futures Podcast 33: TEL’s Director of Curriculum

by | Oct 12, 2021 | Education Futures Podcast

In every career path, there are usually a few bends. Possibly even a u-turn or two. But certain things stay constant, such as the path itself, and the skills you bring with you (and the ones you learn along the way).

TEL’s Director of Curriculum knows this first-hand. Brooke Heard took the helm of TEL’s Curriculum department earlier this year and is helping our non-profit organization find options that meet students where they are. In this conversation with Executive Director Rob Reynolds, they discuss some of the reasons why TEL is adding options such as course bundles and certificates to meet the needs of employers and adult learners.

Identifying Underlying Skills

When she was first starting her college coursework, Brooke was not thinking about curriculum design. While earning her associate degree in graphic design, most of her classes were set up as an advertising agency. Small, local companies would engage the class to help with various marketing initiatives. She would help assess the needs of the client and provide the deliverables to match.

Although it probably wasn’t on any of her syllabi, Brooke had to learn empathy for her clients and problem-solving when creating the materials they needed. Today, these are skills she uses daily to manage a team of production specialists, editors, and subject matter experts.

This is the same philosophy that TEL uses when designing courses. All courses are mapped to 21st Century skills and competencies that learners need no matter what career they choose. On the platform, students earn badges as they exhibit mastery over these skills throughout the courses they take. For example, a student may earn points toward a critical thinking badge after writing a comparative essay in Language and Composition and when comparing different political ideologies in American Government.

Reaching A Diverse Audience

After graduation, Brooke moved to financial services. She started as a teller, rose into leadership, and then took a position in customer service at the bank. Working with a variety of people helped her better understand how to put herself in other people’s shoes.

“I’ve had to really grow to adjust my forms of communication with a lot of different types of individuals, whether that be an executive who owns a very large company or it would be somebody who’s older who doesn’t understand technology,” Brooke said. “I think that has brought a lot of opportunity in this [Director of Curriculum] position for me to give that back, to give that to students, to give them that perspective as somebody who has had to do that.”

The learner is central to the course design at TEL. The team not only has to think about making sure the course content is accurate and engaging, but they also have to think about the students’ lives outside of the course. Do they have access to a strong internet connection? Do they have support through their local school and family? Students taking TEL courses come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences so it’s important to be able to meet them where they are.

Building More Flexibility With Certificates

In thinking about what today’s learner needs, Brooke and the TEL leadership team realized there was more we could do to provide affordable access to college credit to the 130 million adults age 25 and older who don’t have a college degree.

Flexibility and affordability are at the heart of TEL’s mission. But a college course can be daunting for someone who hasn’t had success with college-level learning in the past. So Brooke and her team are working on providing stackable certificates that break the course up into sections so students see success faster. They can also finish the first section, take a break, and come back to the second section when their schedule allows.

“So these courses, the students can take in about five to six weeks. It’s about half of a traditional course that we offer here at TEL but we’ve broken it up so students can have a little bit more flexibility,” Brooke said. “It’s giving them the option to work toward their education rather than just feel like they can never get to that point.”

These certificates are part of the program we’re launching to help employers provide education as a benefit to their employees. To learn more about our work with employers, visit

Full Transcript

Rob Reynolds: Hi everyone, Rob Reynolds here. I’m the executive director of TEL Education and I’m here with another podcast and today I’m really delighted to have with me Brooke Heard, who is TEL’s director of curriculum development and in that position, Brooke is responsible for overseeing the development review, ongoing editing, et cetera, of all of TEL courses that we offer for college credit and for certificate credit and so that’s a lot of responsibility and so we thought it would be fun to have Brooke come on and tell us about some of the things that she and her team do.

Before we jump into that, I thought it would be helpful to have Brooke talk about some of her own experiences before she got to this particular professional place in life, kind of the things that have gone into her thinking based on her own professional experiences and learning experiences to get here. So Brooke, why don’t you start off with that and we’ll then jump into some of the curriculum stuff?

Brooke Heard: Gotcha. So when I was a little bit younger, getting into working, I started working at a local pizza place here in Norman and I-

Rob Reynolds: So you’re saying that you can go from a local pizza job to be a director of curriculum development, who knew, right?

Brooke Heard: Mm-hmm (affirmative), and that was obviously my first real experience getting into working and learning and trying to understand that field.

Rob Reynolds: So when you started in a field like that, there’s a lot of process things like you’re working a pizza place, you have to learn whether you’re working at the front, you’re taking orders or you’re working a phone, you’re talking to customers or you’re in the back, here’s how you make this kind of pizza, that kind of pizza. So it’s a pretty good place to start because you learn that it’s a lot about learning steps and processes, et cetera, and then how to scale all of that.

So I can say that would be really useful. So what’s another experience you had where you saw what people do and how they learn?

Brooke Heard: So kind of, as I was working there as well, I was in Moore Norman Technology School. I went to school for graphic design. I took a two-year program there and essentially we worked as an advertising firm. That was how the entire class operated. So we would get clients that would come in, we would assess their needs and kind of just design from there. So that was kind of how-

Rob Reynolds: So in that, it seems like you’re really learning about empathy, user-empathy. So you’re really trying to empathize with the client what do they need? You can always go out and design what you want to design, but what client wants that right, they want you to design what they want and so, okay. That’s really good.

Brooke Heard: And I mean, and a lot of those businesses would be small businesses that we would work with people who didn’t have access to a larger advertising agency or graphic artist. So it was really great to get out and help the community when doing that.

Rob Reynolds: Oh, no. That’s terrific. Also know that, to detour in there somewhere, you worked at a bank.

Brooke Heard: Yes, I worked at a bank. I did a few things at the bank. I worked as the teller when I got on there, it was a lot of transactions and building those personal relationships and that was the best part of that job for me because again, it was a local company. I seemed to really love a smaller business feel, but that was the most substantial part for me is just building those relationships with those individual customers, knowing them, understanding their needs and making adjustments for them.

So after I was a teller for a while, we moved into more of a leadership position and then moved on to working in customer care and helping support the customers when they needed additional help.

Rob Reynolds: So you’ve had this varied background, both in terms of training and education, but professional experience, before you ended up coming to a company like TEL and you were helping us out with a variety of positions on our curriculum when you got it started and working on also processes and how to keep improving what we’re doing in management. What are some of the things that you, as you think about that past experience, that kind of have translated into making you effective as a director of curriculum development?

Brooke Heard: So for me, it’s really about understanding process and working with people, developing them and training them so that they understand. So, I’ve had to really grow to adjust my forms of communication with a lot of different types of individuals, whether that be an executive who owns a very large company or it would be somebody who’s older who doesn’t understand technology. So I’ve really had to adjust the way I communicate and so I think that for me, has brought a lot of opportunity in this position for me to give that back, to give that to students, to give them that perspective as somebody who has had to do that.

Rob Reynolds: No, I think that’s great and just speaking between two of us that work here, our whole mission is really about trying to make higher learning available to everyone and by everyone it’s a diverse community out there and so we really have to think about what are the needs of all of our students, whether it’s someone with limited internet access and in a rural zone, if it’s somebody who has access to a lot of resources, somebody who doesn’t have any access, somebody who has other, has very special, personal needs, different scheduling and everybody brings something different, many different interests.

So in our curriculum development, I know with one of the ways we’ve tried to address that is by trying to create a curriculum and a curriculum process that is really learner-focused. So we really work at trying to make things understandable, consistent, and again, that process-driven. So now that you’re in the position of kind of managing our curriculum and overseeing the team that does everything and you’ve been on the job for a few months now, what are some of the things that just stand out to you as a leader, that make our curriculum strong, maybe unique, maybe it’s a different approach? What are some of the things that stand out to you?

Brooke Heard: Well, some of the things that stand out to me would be for one, the way that our team looks at the content itself. They really try to look at it from a student perspective, looking at, can I understand the content, does this make sense to me and that’s something’s so important to bring to the student because if we can’t even understand it here, how can we expect a student to understand the content itself?

Rob Reynolds: So I think one of the questions that we get a lot is, and I kind of think of these, so traditionally, when you think about education, a student goes to class, they meet with a teacher, the teacher talks, does some things, they get in groups, maybe more work, they read some things, they take an exam but one of the questions we always ask is how do we know if they learned anything, because they got a grade on their report card or they got a grade on a transcript, but did they really learn anything? So as you look at curriculum, what are some of the things that you and your team kind of think about doing to be able to show that students actually learn something, that they can demonstrate that?

Brooke Heard: So I think a great example of that would be mastery and measuring mastery. I think that’s something that we’ve really been working towards and trying to do the research to see, back that up and also kind of going through several iterations of review. That’s been the biggest thing to me to kind of measure that student learning and measure whether or not they feel that they’ve achieved something.

Rob Reynolds: So you talk about mastery and it is something we talk about a lot internally. So within a course, how do we do that? I mean, how do you decide what people are going to master? How do you map to that? What does that look like?

Brooke Heard: Usually we have a subject matter expert come in and take a look. So usually these are people who have worked in the industry, have taught these courses for many years and so they’ll come in and they usually help us work out what defines that at least for the particular course and then we also try to write our assignments at a high enough level for the students to really feel… Really apply the content or evaluate the content.

Rob Reynolds: I know in terms, because we use this in our curriculum development, the whole Bloom’s Taxonomy and so those types of activities are really designed at a much higher level and the goal is to get students to show that they can synthesize, apply, create knowledge in those specific areas they’ve been studying in new work like you said, with subject matter experts to do that. I think one of the other interesting things about mastery is those assignments aren’t just about information. They’re also about skills and competencies. So how does that work?

Brooke Heard: So we’ve mapped out skills and competencies that students can use in their everyday life, whether that’s working in a professional setting or just basic skills. So we created those list of competencies and so we map out all of the content to apply to that.

Rob Reynolds: Yeah, that’s great. You know, and of course one of the things that manifest itself in our courses is students can earn badges for those competencies that are focused on our 21st Century skills and that really does give them not only a sense of they did something in the course, then they have a badge or something to show for it that they really have done this and they can share that and feel confident about it. So I think that’s really special. So I know that one of the challenges, and you mentioned this earlier, is that it’s not just enough to build a course, right? There’s more to it than that.

So talk a little bit about the life cycle of a course? So it’s an idea, right, and then it gets developed and you can tell me how long that takes and then what happens once it gets put out there and people start using it?

Brooke Heard: So currently it takes about six to eight months to develop a course and essentially we start at the very bare bones, getting into developing an outline for that course, what’s going to go in there and getting into a little bit of research as far as what the course will contain, what’s typical for a college course at a little bit of a lower level for the associate degree and then we, again, partner with a subject matter expert to sort of fill that out a little bit, but we also kind of have some guidelines there as well, working with them to build out units and modules and learning objectives.

We really have the ability to build a great course. We don’t have to follow any one textbook and then we get into developing and writing out those lessons with subject matter experts, reviewing that content really well with our in-house curriculum team, getting a really great edit on it and then moving on to getting it produced on the platform and then shortly after that, we’re ready to go live with the content. The students can take it as soon as we’ve got it up.

Rob Reynolds: And once a course goes live, is that it or do we keep working on it?

Brooke Heard: Yes. So we have developed a really great review process that these courses will go through every couple of years just to make sure that the content is staying accurate and up to date and focusing on areas where students might be having issues.

Rob Reynolds: I know something that often happens is, and I know this just comes up in a matter of business, we may have a course out there and there may be an editorial error. So, how do we respond to that? If someone out there a teacher, a student, et cetera says, “Hey, I think that’s a wrong answer on a quiz,” or “There seems to be something wrong with this map or this particular paragraph.” How do you fit in or even work with other teams at TEL to resolve that?

Brooke Heard: Typically that comes from, they usually reach out to their point of contact here at TEL, which would be either academics or our support team and then if there’s a content error, they reach out to us. We work with the subject matter expert in order to get it corrected. We do this really quickly and we make sure it happens within 24 hours of it coming up because we want to make sure that the students have the most accurate content possible.

Rob Reynolds: So you can do that. So a student can, or again, a parent, teacher, et cetera can say, “Hey, I think there may be a problem with this,” or “I’m not understanding this,” and you can get that communication, review it and actually make the edit and have it updated within 24 hours.

Brooke Heard: Yes.

Rob Reynolds: That’s excellent and I think that’s really important in today’s world, especially online as attitudes and expectations have really changed in terms of what can happen and how quickly things can be addressed and it’s long way from where we used to be in the textbook world. So what do you find most… We’ll start with this one, what do you find most rewarding about your position here?

Brooke Heard: Well, there are actually a couple of things, but I think the number one thing is to be a part of something that matters, that’s going to have an impact. That is the most important thing to me, but also, I mean, we’ve built a great team here and I couldn’t do it without them. Those are the big things for me.

Rob Reynolds: What do you see as you move forward as your biggest challenge, the biggest opportunity that you have in curriculum? What comes to mind?

Brooke Heard: The biggest challenge, I mean, I think the biggest challenge in growing, especially developing in your career is just taking on the challenge of learning, getting out of your comfort zone and pushing yourself to do that.

Rob Reynolds: Well we could argue there’s a lot of value in having to go through a learning process.

Brooke Heard: Yes.

Rob Reynolds: Every time you do something, if you’re a person in charge of an aspect of learning.

Brooke Heard: Yes.

Rob Reynolds: One of the things, and you know this from working for me, that we really stress here is a learning culture. We want everybody to learn. Everybody is always taking courses. Everybody is trying to improve themselves, be involved in different growth aspects of their lives and being promoted in a new position is another form of learning and you learn new things that you didn’t know before, and that makes you a better teacher, because you’re a learner, because somewhat doing that, it helps you to be sensitive to the needs of everybody else going through the whole learning process. So, one of the things that’s great about where we’re headed at Tel, that I’m so happy about is this whole idea of badging, credentials, et cetera and I know you’re part of a new initiative right now where you’re doing some course redesign to kind of support that a little bit more.

So can you tell us a little about what that looks like as I know our traditional courses are kind of 15 designs, 15 week courses and you just kind of go through them, at the end, they get a grade. So you’re doing some redesign that kind of can change that a little bit. So what does that look like?

Brooke Heard: Absolutely. So we’re going through a redesign to focus on offering some new certificate courses. So these courses, the students can take in about five to six weeks. It’s about half of a traditional course that we offer here at TEL but we’ve broken it up so students can have a little bit more flexibility. So yes, we offer a really flexible product as is, but these students, they may be working a full-time job or have other, you know, have children have other responsibilities. So it’s giving them the option to work toward their education rather than just feel like they can never get to that point. So it’s giving them the ability to have stackable credentials and that way they can get college credit for them in the future if they decide to take both first half of the course and the second half of the course.

Rob Reynolds: That’s really nice. So basically you can take a course like American Government.

Brooke Heard: Yes.

Rob Reynolds: And you can split it up into two halves and you could earn a credential for each half to put them together for a course but completing that section, which is kind of a complete thing in and of itself might only take five or six weeks. So you get immediate feedback, you get a sense of accomplishment early on and you don’t have to worry about dropping out over 15 weeks. You can do that and could you take a break in between that? Like if you wanted to do the first one and then maybe wait a couple weeks and something, so then to finish the second half and put those together?

Brooke Heard: Yes. Yeah. You could absolutely do that. You know, at the end of the second course, it’ll be a little bit more focused on summative for the entire course as a whole, but you know, if the student learned what they needed to and out of that the first part, then they’re good go.

Rob Reynolds: Then you give them a practice exam, et cetera on these summative items.

Brooke Heard: Yes.

Rob Reynolds: That’s really cool. I think this whole idea of making courses more accessible in the sense of meeting the needs of people and where they’re at, I know that some institutions like National University, for example, that offer a lot of short term courses that they kind of do that four and five week courses and this is a way to take traditional courses and break them up and to your point, you could do that for college credit, but you could also do it as these stackable certificates that you could add up and we’re fortunate enough to have partners who are willing to look at that and later down the road, if a student just wants to do some of that now, they could work with one of our partners and convert that to college credit later, if they decided to enroll in a degree program. So lots of flexibility there. I really like that. It’s very, very exciting. So as you look in your own life and where you’re going, now you’re a leader here, what are any goals or what are visions and dreams that you have?

Brooke Heard: So I have a lot of different ambitions, some in the education realm and some outside of that, but I definitely do plan to pursue a degree in instructional design, but I also have other external thoughts about developing my own sort of product and moving towards inventing and creating and getting into that side.

Rob Reynolds: So last question for you, probably should have led with this a little bit as we were doing in the first part, but you’re a mom and how does being a mother and having a child who, is he eight?

Brooke Heard: He’s seven.

Rob Reynolds: Seven. Sorry, I got ahead of myself there, Preston, I knew the name. So who’s seven and now he’s in school and been doing that. How has that impacted you and helped inform your experience about learning and even developing curriculum for other students?

Brooke Heard: It’s made a very significant impact. I know with COVID last year, a lot of parents went to the homeschool option and I was one who was fortunate enough to do that as well and it really showed me what it’s really looking like. I guess it’s, I had done a little bit of online classes when I was in high school and a little bit in college as well, but what it’s really looking like for kids in the, at least the K-12 market and showing… I mean, it’s substantially getting better, but it’s got a long way to go.

Rob Reynolds: All right. Well, again, I’ve been joined by Brooke Heard, TEL’s director of curriculum and development, and it’s been fun to talk to you, Brooke, learn more about what you do and kind of where you want to go with all of that and so thanks very much for spending time with us today.

Brooke Heard: Thank you.

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