Providence Business News - Five Questions With: Ken Udas

Providence Business News - Five Questions With: Ken Udas

By Ted Nesi

Dr. Ken Udas will take over as chief executive officer of UMassOnline, the University of Massachusetts’ eight-year-old online education program, on Sept. 14. Udas, a University of Massachusetts Dartmouth graduate, was previously executive director of Pennsylvania State University’s Penn State World Campus. He talked with Providence Business News recently about his new job and the future of technology in higher education.

PBN: As you prepare to take over, how would you say UMassOnline currently compares to other universities’ online degree programs?

UDAS: UMassOnline is unquestionably among the very best higher education organizations providing academic programming and support services in the sector today, not only in the United States but also internationally. Now, it is important to recognize that the sector is very diverse and different organizations have different levels of commitment and objectives for their online and technology-enhanced programming. For example, there are a host of for-profit universities whose principal commitment is maximizing the wealth of their equity holders, which is just fine; it is part of working in a market economy. There are also many colleges and universities that look at online learning as a supplement that supports business as usual. As an outstanding public university, in perhaps the education capital of the world, UMass has to balance its public service mission and market pressures, and this has created a very exciting and forward-thinking university.

I think that it is important to consider that UMassOnline falls into a rather small and select group of public and nonprofit institutions that have taken leadership in distance and online education. This is reflected in the allocation of responsibility for academic and instructional quality to those parts of the university that embody the traditions of academic excellence, rigor, and integrity. This is complemented by creating new capacity through UMassOnline to meet the changing needs of a dynamic economy, globalizing society, and increasingly networked community of students and instructors (learners and faculty). The core value that UMassOnline brings to the university and student body is expertise in technology infrastructure, a strong market orientation for academic offerings, and a focus on what online learning is becoming and the potential it is unleashing. This combination brings together the very best traditions of high-quality education with the opportunities that technology provides, and student focused programming, under an incredible university brand. I don’t know how it gets much better than that.

PBN: How do you see technology in the classroom evolving over the next few years?

UDAS: Once again, at any point in time different universities will have different missions and will view the use of technology differently. For UMassOnline, technology is viewed as a way of expanding access, enhancing teaching and learning options, improving quality, improving opportunity and learner success, and ultimately leading to enhanced civic and economic capacity.

In this context, I do not think that the “classroom” is a very good metaphor for what we are doing. After all, the use of interactive technology, social networking tools, and low-barrier personal and collaborative publishing environments have not only extended and virtualized the “classroom” but have, in many cases, transformed the physical classroom into something quite different than the lecture theater with which many of us grew up.

I see a continued trend toward the use of small, flexible and inexpensive learning tools becoming available to teachers and learners over the coming years. Learning is a very personal activity. We all learn differently, have different motivations, desired outcomes, standards for success, and capacity. Until recently, most of us were forced to engage in rather standardized forms of education “delivery,” during which the learner’s role was principally that of a consumer. New technologies and approaches to education will help transform the role of the learner from passive recipient and consumer into co-creator, which is increasingly what our economy demands and what our learners expect.

Think about the use of common current social software applications like Facebook and Twitter. They are tools that allow self-expression and the development of community to share ideas. How might that impact education? Well, to start, it potentially changes the traditional relationships between teachers and learners and among communities of learners. It allows for distributed communities of interest to form and ideas to flow openly, which catalyzes the creation of knowledge. It always has, but until recently limitations to low cost access has constrained the potential. Couple these types of communities with personal publishing, social ranking, group publishing, and community tagging applications, and the role of the physical classroom, although potentially important, is radically changed.

Our challenge now becomes how we develop curriculum, courses and pedagogy that take advantage of faculty expertise and leverage traditional strengths of the university, while recognizing the ubiquity of information and enhanced potential for social development and application of knowledge.

Although the technology itself is important, there are commitments that we have to make as consumers and creators of learning technologies based on the small-tool concept. We have to be committed to open standards that allow for flexibility and interoperability. We have to think about the benefits of open source software in promoting access and flexibility, and we have to really rethink how we are going to treat the licensing of intellectual property to maximize the benefits of technology-enhanced and socially-mediated learning. Systems of open learning require the reduction of barriers to knowledge access so new knowledge can be created, and our traditional models have been focused elsewhere. We are fortunate here in Massachusetts as the state has already shown a clear policy commitment to open technologies, which is a very progressive thinking.

PBN: What do you think students and people already in the work force should be considering if they want to succeed in the years ahead?

UDAS: Everything is changing. Yes, I know – everything has always changed. But not at the current pace. The job market is overcrowded with individuals who have obsolete skill sets, but the market is starved for technical and professional contributors who are adaptable, understand the process of learning, are intellectually agile, and are critical holistic thinkers. Professional development has to be a career and lifelong commitment.

Although important, it is not enough to simply stay technically competent. Contributors to a work force that is part of an information- and knowledge-driven economy need to remain intellectually agile and creative, which requires lifelong engagement with education partners, like UMassOnline and professional communities. Optimally, they will work in tandem, ensuring relevance and rigorous credentialing for knowledge portability.

PBN: What is your vision on where distance learning should go in the coming years?

UDAS: First, I think that “distance” is becoming an inadequate descriptor for what we are becoming and what is needed. We are seeing convergence across the spectrum of traditional distinctions within education. I like to think about “distance” education in terms of “ubiquitous” education. Distance education addressed the need for instruction and support to meet the needs of physically remote learners, while we are really trying to address larger issues of access beyond geography and relevance beyond the university. As we see a convergence among school, work and life, we are recognizing the needs of a mobile society, participating in a global economy, with individuals choosing increasingly varied lifestyles. There is a lot of “distance” to bridge. This is very exciting, but provides challenges to the traditional role and approach that most colleges and universities have taken and the assumptions made about the needs and expectations of students and faculty.

We may only see incremental improvements and refinements in traditional undergraduate education serving full-time students between the ages of 17 and 21, for some time. But outside of this group, it really is wide open. I think the educational ubiquity and the quality of real connections between the university, work force, public sector and individual learners will separate relevant institutions from those that are less so. Relevant institutions will attract more support from public, private, and industry sources than those that are not. Online learning will play a central role in the relevance and effectiveness equation. This will place some colleges and universities at the center of social and economic development, while helping individuals meet their personal goals and improving their quality of life. Isn’t this really what we expect from our education system and, for many, its unmet promise?

PBN: What innovations coming down the pike do you think will have an impact on online education programs?

UDAS: I think that the development of online education is experiencing development and growth for a whole lot of different reasons. There are multiple causes and effects. Two of the most obvious are, of course, innovations around the development of social learning tools and ubiquitous fast and reliable connectivity. Innovations in communications infrastructure and distributed technologies that can be applied to education allow for much of the richness and creativity that has been lacking in the early days of online education. Obviously the technology is not enough – without open standards and open resources, artificial barriers are erected that stifle the most intriguing and creative forms of knowledge and culture creation, transmission, and recreation. This is starting to be addressed through innovation in software licensing and development models with open source software, content licensing through models like the creative commons that allow creators of intellectual property to enhance its value, and more generally open educational resources and text books that allow the freer use, modification, and reuse of resources to support better educational outcomes, more efficient use of public funds, and smarter application of our creative potential. This of course is the currency of economic and social well being in a knowledge economy.

I would also assert that online learning itself is an innovative response to a market demand for high-quality, accessible educational services. With the growing popularity of online learning comes a wider and more diverse student body, the need to accommodate more learning styles, learners with various physical and cognitive challenges, different levels of preparation, and simply the need to serve more learners, each of which creates new challenges and cycles of innovation. The innovation extends beyond the teaching and learning environments into services such as student support, career counseling, advising, and retention efforts, where peer and social presence through the development of community provide support networks that go beyond and complement traditional university social and support activities. That is, it will not be uncommon for learners to participate in graduation ceremonies, social events, and orientation remotely through the use of electronic spaces.

What we are just starting to see on the policy level is an understanding of the impact online learning can have on work force and civic development. Online education creates a larger market with more choices for learners to select from, and also allows the aggregation of students on a global scale so programs whose markets would be too small to run on a local campus can run through online programming. Online education is also a way to keep local talent in local communities, reducing “brain drain,” and it provides opportunities for education to be viewed as a life-long process integrated into professional and family obligations. Learners who can study part-time while working forgo the opportunity costs associated with leaving the work force. It is in the interest of the national economy and our standard of living to actively promote the development and delivery of high-quality online programming, and I can only imagine that with this knowledge, public policy will be developed to inspire and nurture innovative solutions to address what is left of the digital divide, affordability constraints, and other access issues that impact online education.