An interview with Dara Warn Chief Operating Officer Penn Foster
Jamai Blivin: Penn Foster has a unique history— being the oldest online learning institution in the US. How does this impact your organization as you prepare for the future of working and learning?
Dara Warn: Not many organizations have been around for over 120 years but Penn Foster has. That longevity has been possible because we have adapted with the changing world. Training for careers in 1890 is very different from what is needed today and what will be needed tomorrow in terms of access and technology and substance, i.e. what is taught. But what has remained the same is that the learner is at the center and we believe that by building a system that supports the learner in academic, motivation and financial ways we can best serve them. In addition, we have always been very employer and employment focused. From training workers for open coal mining jobs to putting more allied health professionals to work each year, our learning needs to align to skills employers need and value.
What do you see as the biggest shift happening in the US and globally around the future of work?
Without a foundational set of skills that include people skills like teamwork, dependability or personal skills like integrity and adaptability, it is very hard for individuals to be successful in the world of work. So for me, it is the combination of these foundational skills plus working with technologies of all kinds that I see as the biggest shift happening. There is a renewed focus on ensuring that individuals have these skills when they show up for a job.
How is Penn Foster providing opportunities for learners around this shift?
We incorporate soft skills in all of our programs and courses – learning to work with others, the importance of showing up on time and ready to work is foundational to the careers we are training for – across manufacturing, retail, allied health, and business. In addition, because our platform is digitally-based, our learners are building digital literacy skills through all of the work they do – and this is often a big hurdle for some but once they get onto the platform and start learning they see that technology is accessible to them.
As a mother of three boys, how often do you relate your own work to their future? How does it impact your own vision?
The core of what we do at Penn Foster is providing opportunity – an opportunity to complete your high school diploma as an adult, the opportunity to upskill for the allied health career you want, the opportunity to earn the credential you need to work as an auto mechanic. We provide opportunity through making our platform affordable and accessible and relevant to jobs but learners still have to work hard to get there. They need to be willing to work through the content, make time for learning and practice their material but we also play a strong role in motivating them and keeping them going all along the way. I want everyone, including my boys, to know they have an opportunity and that there are people and organization there to help them – even if it has not worked the first time. We are trying to tap into that intrinsic desire to succeed in all of our learners. And I am reminded of how important the work we are doing is when I see my own boys growing through acquiring knowledge and practicing their skills. I see in my boys that they have the intrinsic desire to learn but they often need supportive nudging, coaching and teaching to help them overcome obstacles – not unlike our learners!
Looking back, What has been most meaningful work you have done at Penn Foster?
Well, how to choose . . . but I think at the core, the most meaningful work we have done is to re-design our platform with a focus not just on curriculum but on support services for the learners. Over the past five years we have continually added new services such as AI-driven nudges to help learners progress and overcome challenging areas within the course to our certified Success Coaches that provide outreach and support through phone, email, text, and social. Last year we added Career Coaches into the mix and are running regular resume writing and interview prep sessions with the help of new technology tools. Our full teaching and learning system combines the best of curriculum with leading technology and human interactions which we believe to be the enduring value.
As you look forward, what do you hope to accomplish at Penn Foster for the future of learning to assure an equitable future for working and learning?
Our goal is to continue to sharpen our offering to align to specific employer needs – those of today and tomorrow through using data to improve learning and to support achievement and mastery for our individuals. We need organizations like Innovate and Educate and our corporate partners to help us do that but we will continue to be a voice and an advocate for the adult learner in these fast-growing occupational areas.