APU Careers & Learning Leading Forward Online Learning Podcast

Embracing the Digital Transformation in Higher Learning

Podcast featuring Dr. Marie Gould HarperDean, Wallace E. Boston School of Business and
Dr. Karen Vignare, Executive Director, Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities

The shift to remote learning was a massive transition for many educators and faculty members. What are some of the lessons learned? In this episode, APU Dean Dr. Marie Gould Harper talks to Dr. Karen Vignare about the challenges and opportunities for institutions of higher learning to embrace technology and innovative teaching practices. Learn about the role of open education resources (OER) and why it’s critical to embrace a collaborative approach among faculty, instructional designers, and even publishers to ensure high-quality materials and assessments are being implemented. Also learn about embracing a change management strategy to ensure educational institutions are fulfilling their vision for the new digital learning landscape.

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Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Welcome to our podcast today. I’m your host, Dr. Marie Gould Harper. My guest today is Dr. Karen Vignare. We are going to discuss technology in higher education. I want to share some of your background for the audience.

As Vice President of Digital Transformation for Student Success and the Executive Director for the Personalized Learning Consortium at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, Karen manages a U.S. network of public research universities committed to improving student success, focused on enhancing teaching and learning. The PLC is committed to effective use of technology to scale improved learning. She also oversees several-million dollar adaptive courseware grants, providing leadership and support to multiple public four-year universities.

Karen previously served as the Vice President at the University of Maryland Global Campus (previously University College), the largest online public open access institution, where she led innovations in adaptive learning, OER, student success, and analytics.

She has published extensively on online learning, analytics, and open education resources. Karen, thank you for joining us today. Your background is very extensive. There are so many different things that we could possibly talk about, but I wanted to start off with, it’s been an interesting year for many industries, especially higher education.

In your opinion, what have been some of the challenges faced as well as new opportunities on the horizon with technology in higher education?

Dr. Karen Vignare: Marie, it’s such a delight to get a chance to actually speak with you today and hopefully share some insights as we discuss things with the audience.

This year, as everybody knows, we’ve all lived through a huge transition. I just like to honestly give a shout out to thousands of faculty who have worked tirelessly to convert their classes from what were typically face-to-face with maybe a little technology, to what we would call remote learning. These faculty have worked very, very hard to bring their courses into remote learning so that there could be academic continuity.

What we learned from that are probably two really big takeaways. One, the move to remote is not high quality online learning. I’d want to be clear that there are many public universities, and the university that you represent, Marie, is also high quality online learning. What often happened was faculty did the best they could using a combination of asynchronous and synchronous technologies.

What we think is the second learning is that not all students are ready and prepared to do high-quality work in a digital environment. And many of those are connectivity issues. Some are device issues, but awful lot of it is also about the location. And when I say location, I mean many of our students who are low income, Black, Latinx, indigenous live in locations where the home is multi-family environment, often multi-generational environment, and their access to the kinds of things they have on campus is not as particularly robust.

The digital divide exists, but we as universities have done a really outstanding job at trying to minimize that by giving folks access to bandwidth and internet hotspots. But we also know that those folks can be almost better served in campus environments. It’s exciting to think about the fact that we may have students returning to our campuses that we can serve better. What that doesn’t mean is that we should be abandoning.

The third learning is, there were lots of things in the digital environment that worked like flexibility, convenience, the opportunity to have active learning in ways that all students could be participatory. And other types of opportunities afforded by the digital environment should be continued even as universities come back to campus.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay, great. You’ve provided us an excellent background for us to take off with our conversation today. One of the things I see in your background is OER. I find that particularly interesting because I see a lot of universities attempting a project in that area to lower their costs.

In your opinion, what do you think is the best way to train faculty on how to use OER in the classroom? I’m finding that there’s an assumption that all faculty are instructional designers, but that is not always the case.

Dr. Karen Vignare: I think that’s an excellent point to start off with. I mean, faculty already have a heavy workload. And when universities, and even the faculty themselves, want to start using lower-cost materials for their students, they often need organizational support, and not all organizations have factored in that level of support.

When faculty are looking at, “How am I going to do this?” they should explore what the university is doing and what kinds of consortiums or activities the university may already belong to, right? There are Merlot. There are open skills network. There is OpenStax. Is your university making use of this? And often you may even go to the library and find these types of things, right?

But, secondly, we really have to think about, is it the content that needs to be low cost, or is there an opportunity to rethink lowering the cost of the content so that somehow you can also improve the assessments? And what I mean by that is often there is a focus on OER, open educational resources, as content replacement for textbooks, but we don’t think about the assessment part.

And again, faculty are experts in their content, not necessarily experts in the assessment of that content, right? We really have to think about not only how they belong in an online or even a face-to-face classroom, that is, how does the content get organized? But we also have to think about, if this content is related to your learning outcomes, we have to be able to also help students learn it. And they learn through assessments.

One of the reasons that we absolutely think we are in the early stages of some good adaptive work is not only some of the projects we have here at APLU, but we’re seeing it across the country. More and more college math is a huge success, but the integration is that the content is available and there is a continuous assessment process about that content, making sure that we’ve scaffolded materials. This kind of work is really heavy lift for faculty who don’t have an instructional design background.

One, I encourage you to think about what your institution has. Two, try to work with an instructional designer. And three, if those resources aren’t available to you, I would actually encourage faculty to think about, where can I get these combined resources?

In all honesty, it may be starting with publishers. And publishers, I know, get a bad rap, and I’m not here to defend them, but their pricing has come down, has been because OER has been very competitive in terms of its increased use by faculty.

So if you are a faculty member who doesn’t have access to support at your organization, I encourage you to not only continue thinking about your students first, but also think about places that can support this integration of content and assessment.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Welcome back. I am speaking today with Dr. Karen Vignare about the topic of technology in higher education. You took us in a direction that I find very interesting. I have a two-part question. One is directed towards your strategic thinking, and the other one is more just a process on something that you brought up, and that’s the relationship with publishers.

But from a strategic perspective, you mentioned the part about the instructional technology assessment and the faculty. I agree. I think in a lot of institutions, the faculty are feeling extremely overwhelmed. Not only is this work being put on them, but they’re being asked to do things that they’re not completely qualified to do with some very defined deadlines to get it up and running.

Based on your experience, what do you think the formula should be in the triad relationship between instructional technology department, the assessment group, and the faculty group? Who should be taking the lead on organizing an OER effort? And then what should the roles of each be?

Dr. Karen Vignare: Wow, that’s a really great strategic question. We happen to be part of a group called Every Learner Everywhere that is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And one of the assets that we helped them publish this year is targeted to improving critical courses.

What we talk about in that improvement of critical courses is the fact that you need a collaborative team. You’ve already identified the essential parts of that collaborative team. And we would argue that actually a department chair or a Dean needs to find a project lead.

A lot of times we think the project lead probably needs to be a faculty member, but often instructional designers are trained in project management, so there may need to be a balance there. One of the things that needs to happen at universities, particularly when we think, again, critical courses, and critical courses could be those first-year courses or it could be areas where student success particularly is, one, not as high as we want it to be, and, two, more importantly, not equitable, right? So that means not all student demographic groups are successful.

It’s important to recognize we all want students to be successful. We’re all on the same team when it comes to that. How that team coalesces and moves forward its initiatives through a continuous improvement process becomes absolutely critical when we think of strategy, right? The balance is really building a trusted team. That is a team that understands we are trying to make sure learning outcomes are absolutely achieved.

Sometimes it takes our colleagues from assessment to actually point out where there is difficulty either in content or activities, right? That doesn’t necessarily mean that the faculty is no longer the lead, but it does mean we’ve got to move beyond our historical legacy that essentially says, only we work in a decentralized environment and not a team environment, right? So that legacy has left faculty pretty much on their own, and that is not how we need to focus the next decade, if not longer, our opportunities to improve student success.

So to me, the strategy is much more around change management and collaboration than it is who takes the lead. I really think it’s very important that we move across. And honestly, in math, we’ll see more of this. Like at college level of math, we’ll see instructors working with assessment, working with instructional designers as a team across the university to improve these student outcomes. We need more of that, and we need to think about how we’re going to do that work.

And in some ways, our organization, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, really needs to make this message very clear through the Provost, down to the Deans, down to the department chairs. They’re the change makers. And we have to actually put in the systematic processes to make the strategy a reality for our students.

Second part of the question is, as we think about these things, do our, and I would call them oftentimes partners or vendors that are publishers, have a role? And I’d say that varies across institutions. There is no doubt that publishers have worked hard over the past year securing content from our faculty. They’re not making up the content as a publisher. The people who write those textbooks are our faculty. I mean the higher ed faculty in the U.S.

First of all, we have to keep in mind that the content isn’t just coming out of thin air. Secondly, publishers did probably overprice, and that’s why we came up with open educational resources. And I think it’s fair to say open educational resources are absolutely important. They’re important for two reasons. One, the access to the content is much more freeing. In that if we have learning outcomes that don’t fit a textbook outline, we have to actually break up that outline.

And two, we have to think about cost for students and immediate access. I think publishers have actually come up with plans around that. Two, I do think publishers are moving in the right direction.

The other thing I have to go back and applaud publishers and all of the faculty that they’ve hired over time is they’ve worked actually hard at assessment. Now, one could argue, these are all low stakes assessments. I would actually be in agreement, but I say use those low stakes assessment in a meaningful way.

And many of our OER resources do not have enough assessment in there. So again, back to an earlier answer I provided was think about if you don’t have access to the assessments that you need when you have OER, think about publishers. I am not putting publishers first. I am putting academic collaborative improvement of a course first. And that means faculty are important in making those selections. But we’ve got to remember, content is no longer the only thing that’s important.

The assessment and the activities are also important. I hope that answers the second part on the publisher.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Exactly. Because, first of all, I love your brain from a strategic point of view and I think our audience, there are a number of people out there, would benefit from your expertise in this area. And they don’t know where to start. You’re getting into a lot of things. We identified three major players in a project like this, but it’s time to think about from a big picture view, how do they work together? I actually have another question on that, like a sub question.

You were mentioning some of the roles and some of the responsibilities, even for assessment, how we may have understated the value of that component in the process. You also mentioned that change management is needed because this is something that’s totally different from how we used to operate in the past. Some aspects of the culture has to change.

And one of the things that I have noticed is that sometimes what you have said will make sense to a number of people, the three components, yet they would continue to allow the instructional designers to work by themselves, the assessment team to work by themselves, and the faculty to work by themselves and just say, “We’ll have someone manage the project,” but they’re still operating in silos.

What are some of your suggestions for an institution to put into play some type of systematic structure where the environment is more conducive for collaboration among these groups?

Dr. Karen Vignare: The audience couldn’t see it, Marie, but you had me smiling because yes, the change management and the structural change through the change management are actually probably the hardest part. I think one of the things that we are currently thinking about in some of our newer projects at APLU is really the reward and incentive structures that have to change. And they may be different.

So when we think about this, there are certainly community colleges. There are colleges like yours that are very much focused on just teaching and learning, where we represent not only teaching and learning. But we also represent research and those that are service and integrated to the community.

You may have to think about these incentive structures very differently, but we have to incentivize the collaboration. Here’s a pie in the sky maybe example. It’s not exactly a pie in the sky example, but what it says is instead of a department meeting, we’re working on our course meeting every week.

What I mean by that is collaboratively, we have tens, if not twenties and thirties of faculty talking together about the data in the course. And that data is then the instructional designers, the librarians, the assessment people are all part of it and they are listening. We come up with, “Okay, here’s what we might want to do because this data is telling us 30% of the students are no longer understanding key threshold concepts.” We have to come up with instructional strategies on demand.

This is why we’re very excited about the ideas that we’re getting real time analytics. Now, can you get real time analytics out of an LMS? It’s a little bit hard. We actually need activities that are given to students on a more regular, low-stakes basis.

That’s one way that we begin changing the requirements for faculty in terms of the teaching and learning until we get to that point of continuous improvement. We have to tweak the system in order to achieve the goals.

I think the vision is shared by everybody. Everybody wants to see equitable student success. They want to see adult learners succeed. We want to see Black students succeed. We want to see our low income students succeed. We have to use that vision as a way of respecting the fact that where we are today, while we’ve had lots of wonderful pilots and wonderful faculty doing magnificent things in their classroom, we have to take those evidence-based practices and move them into scale. These are not simple things.

We do know some of the evidence-based practices, but we have to change the system. I would really argue that it’s important to think about the system, including the process of teaching. And what I mean by that is while you’re teaching the course, you absolutely need to meet as faculty to discuss what is happening and how you can change the understanding and the trajectory of the students who look like they might be failing out.

One of the most revealing statistics I’ve seen, and I have good colleagues that publish some of this data out of the current issues of emerging e-learning, which I also happen to be editor on that particular one, but it reveals something really important, that is when our students fail, they’re failing quickly. And what does that mean for all of us? We have this luxury in our mind that over the time of class, people catch up. That is not the actual data that we have. Part of what we have to think about is how important that teaching time is.

We spend, and we have to spend, the time creating a great course design collaboratively, but we also have to spend the time while we’re teaching, collaboratively. We’ve got to make sure that when we have, and if we don’t have the data that we need, we need to change the assessments early on, that we can see students who are struggling and we can reach out to them with interventions that way.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Karen, I want to thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your expertise. You have given us many roadmaps and a lot of things to think about as we attempt to use technology in our classrooms. I think the tips have been extremely helpful for various groups that are in the process. Any closing words from you?

Dr. Karen Vignare: Sure, Marie. I think it’s really important for people to, first of all, have patience with yourself, but be a person who is persistent during that patience. We’ve all lived through a pandemic that has in some way, shape, or form, in some cases, it’s changed our lives dramatically because of loss. In other ways, it has upended our normal routines. We need to be patient, but we cannot stop. The stopping point is we have, as an industry, in sort of looking at national statistics have let down low income and Black and Latinx students.

We know more about learning science and how technology can be used better so that we can be better for those students. So be patient, but challenge yourself. I’m excited where we’re going in this next decade.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Great. You have made me a believer, and I will be following you to find out what’s next from you, especially as we go into the new norm. And thank you to our listeners for joining us today. Have an amazing one.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Dean of the School of Business at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist, and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of experience.

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