Distance-Educator.com: Exclusive Interview With Mr. David Gray, CEO Of UMassOnline

Distance-Educator.com:  Exclusive Interview With Mr. David Gray, CEO Of UMassOnline

In May, 2004 David Gray, who has served the University of Massachusetts as Vice President for Information Services and Chief Information Officer, became the CEO of UMassOnline. Dr. Saba, Editor-in-Chief of Distance-Educator.com interviewed Mr. Gray shortly after his appointment.

Dr. Saba:

In recent years, you have been involved in introducing information technology to higher education institutions during a crucial period of incredible growth and development. How did you become interested and involved in the field?

Mr. Gray:

I became CIO of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education in 1995, following twelve years of service there as a senior financial administrator. I had been a long-time advocate of using information technology to improve the flow of information and decision-making. The chancellor of the State System asked me to serve on a task force in 1994 to provide him with recommendations for administrative improvements for the university system. One of our key recommendations and one that I supported was to create a University system chief information officer position. Several months later, and much to my great surprise, the chancellor asked me to step into this role.

The mid-1990s were a heady time in the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Early in my tenure as CIO, I saw that the transformative power of the Web would create fundamental advancement in communications as well as a medium for collaboration and delivery of educational programming. I proposed two major initiatives to the chancellor of our university system and the fourteen institutional presidents: the formation of a virtual library system (which later became known as the Keystone Library Network) and the establishment of a Center for Distance Education (CDE), the purpose of which would be to explore and promote the development of distance education within the State System using the web and other technologies such as interactive video. The chancellor and presidents agreed and funded both.

At the CDE, funds were invested in faculty training programs, curriculum development, and web resources for students and faculty. In 1998, we negotiated with Blackboard what was probably one of the first consortial licenses for a Web-based course management system in the United States. We mounted Blackboard on a server at Shippensburg University and made it accessible to any faculty member within the fourteen-campus system who had an interest in developing Web-enhanced courses or courses for full delivery over the Web. It was tremendously gratifying to witness the rapid growth of this medium and the extent to which it was embraced by faculty and students.

In the fall of 2000, I accepted an offer to come to the University of Massachusetts to become the University's first corporate CIO. I was attracted by the University's mission, diversity and its profile as a first-rate research institution. I quickly became involved in efforts to improve the information infrastructure the University had made major strides in the late 1990s in developing a wide area network known as MITI and had embarked on a system-wide ERP initiative to deploy PeopleSoft.

Shortly after my arrival, the University launched an exciting e-learning initiative called UMassOnline. I was a member of the search committee that recruited Jack Wilson to become its founding CEO. I also served as co-chair of the UMassOnline Platform Committee, which was charged with selecting a learning management system. As the head of the University's central IT department, it was then my responsibility to successfully deploy and maintain the selected learning management systems that were so critical to the development of academic programs and which have enabled UMassOnline to achieve its growth objectives.

Dr. Saba:

In May of this year, you were appointed as the CEO of UMassOnline. What is the role of a CEO in an academic institution?

Mr. Gray:

As is the case for most, if not all, organizations, the role of a CEO is to provide vision, leadership, and a sense of organizational direction. In an academic setting, vision and leadership are not always accepted when they are applied in a top-down, hierarchical manner. One's vision must spring from and be shaped by the community's shared sense of institutional mission and purpose. Vision needs to be informed by the institution's culture and its traditions, but to be truly effective cannot stop there. Visionary leadership should provide members of an academic community a sense of direction and possibility; it should use the institution's past and present strengths as a springboard to reach for an even stronger and more vibrant future.

As the CEO of an online learning enterprise and one which is comprised of five separately accredited institutions that are part of a university system my role is to encourage multi-campus collaboration. At UMass, this sometimes means encouraging our campuses to yield some of their individual identity and autonomy in order to achieve larger goals than they could attain operating individually. There must be sufficient trust and "buy-in" that people in the organization move beyond simple acceptance and into a model of full participation. Effective leadership, in that sense, is partly about building a sense of shared ownership. Of course, it goes almost without saying that part of the role of a CEO in an academic institution is to provide stable direction and management. If a CEO is presiding over an organization that is financially unstable or otherwise poorly administered and unable to execute, s/he will have a difficult time driving a vision or asserting leadership.

Dr. Saba:

UMassOnline has been on a growth path, both in terms of revenue and enrollments. To what do you attribute this remarkable growth?

Mr. Gray:

Yes, our growth trends have been remarkable. For the academic year just concluded, our online course enrollments grew by 32% and our revenue from these courses by 39%. While there is no single or simple explanation, I attribute it largely to two factors: great teamwork and bringing the right products to the marketplace. With respect to teamwork, this cuts across two dimensions.

The first dimension is our ability to work well with our campus counterparts. This has entailed building both formal and informal communications with campus staff and faculty. My predecessor (and current university president), Jack Wilson, convened the campus directors of continuing education on a regular basis. UMassOnline offered to reimburse each campus 20% of their continuing education director's salary in recognition of their contributions to the entire online learning enterprise. In addition, UMassOnline pays additional compensation to many of our faculty who teach online courses. We have engaged campus faculty and administrators very deliberately and very intensively in important decisions both concerning online learning technology and policy issues. All of this has helped to forge a sense of an extended team around which there are some shared values and goals and an increasing sense of trust.

The second dimension of teamwork is more inwardly focused. UMassOnline has a very small, but tremendously dedicated, core of five individuals who work very effectively with one another and their campus counterparts. I think that there is broad recognition across the University that this team brings a great deal of "value-add" to the table. They have competencies and areas of focus such as the marketing of e-learning programs, academic and faculty dimensions of e-learning, and supporting the related technology infrastructure that no single UMass campus could afford to duplicate.

The second growth factor involves being attuned to and aligned with the marketplace. Our campuses have made local investment decisions and UMassOnline has made central investment decisions in developing high quality online programs that address the demands and needs of online learners. We will not invest scarce resources in any program. There first has to be a well-defined market that matches with an area of academic strength on one or more of our campuses. We then need to work with our campus colleagues in continuing education and the academic departments to see if we can obtain the appropriate commitments of time, effort, and resources. In most cases, we have succeeded. There are, however, a few remaining areas where I believe there is market demand for our programs and we have not yet been able to match that with the commitment to develop and support online content. Obviously, we need to keep working on those and also keep our eyes on the market for shifts in demand.

Dr. Saba:

In April, you announced the Online Certificate Program in Homeland Security . Are there other programs under development at this time that would offer new online learning opportunities to college-age students and working adults?

Mr. Gray:

Yes, we are always working in tandem with the UMass campuses to deliver new programs online.

Since April, we have introduced several new programs that we are very excited about. We have a new Online M.Ed. program in Reading and Language that is delivered by the Graduate School of Education at UMass Lowell providing aspiring educational leaders a mix of online courses and field experiences to help them achieve licensure as Reading Specialists. We have a new Online RN-to BS degree completion program for registered nurses delivered by UMass Boston. We also have two new certificate programs. The Certificate of Online Journalism is an innovative five-course program that examines the new field of online journalism. The Certificate in Instructional Technology for Educators is a 15-credit certificate from the UMass Boston Graduate College of Education to prepare teachers to meet the National Technology Standards of the International Society of Technology and the Performance Indicators for Teachers.

We are also very excited about online programs that we are developing cooperatively with the University of Massachusetts Medical School. We will soon have programs online that offer innovative ways for medical professionals to earn CMEs, as well as some multi-discipline programs that leverage research and expertise from several institutions in Massachusetts to address some growing health problems.

Dr. Saba:

How do you see the future of distance education, and what role UMassOnline will play in such a future scenario?

Mr. Gray:

It is readily apparent that the tools of distance education (such as web-based learning management systems and synchronous communications applications) are being applied to a great extent and very beneficial effect with our so-called traditional population of on-campus students. UMassOnline has made its e-learning tools available to all faculty whether they are teaching a course at a distance or simply using these tools to web enhance an on-campus course. Many of our UMassOnline students are pursuing hybrid degree or certificate programs; by "hybrid," I mean their program involves a mix of face-to-face and online courses. Over the next five years, it would not surprise me at all to see the term "distance education" fade or morph into "distributed education" or perhaps simply "education." As the technologies that support distance education mature and become more widely embraced which is happening as we speak the focus on the tools and the geographic distance at which they are utilized is likely to decrease. Our fascination with the web as an exciting new medium for learning and collaboration will most likely give way to seeing it as a common utility that people make use of routinely. Education and learning will happen, of course, and it will be a rare course indeed that does not take advantage of the tools of technology and high speed networks to aid and abet the learning process. I suspect that a steadily increasing share of the continuous learning requirements of mid-career professionals will take place at a distance, but the novelty of this will have subsided and acceptance of it will be broad. UMassOnline wants to be a part of helping to normalize and mainstream distance learning. We will measure our success by the extent to which we broaden access to a UMass education and help to grow the total market share of the University.

Dr. Saba:

Thank you for participating in this interview. I am sure our readers will find your remarks informative and valuable.

Date: 06/21/04

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