Worcester Business Journal - Shop Talk: Q&A With Ken Udas
By Christina H. Davis -
Ken Udas got in on the ground floor of online education and hasn’t looked up from his desktop since. He was recently named CEO of UMassOnline, the Shrewsbury-based arm of the University of Massachusetts system focused on virtual learning. A native of Massachusetts, this new post brings Udas back to the Bay State after stints overseas and most recently, as executive director of Penn State’s online division. Here, he discusses the early days of the online education as well as the future of collaborative learning on the Internet.
How did you get involved in online learning?
While I was finishing at Texas A&M my ex-wife got a job in Europe. We moved overseas, and I ended up teaching for the University of Maryland’s European division, which is headquartered up in Heidelberg, Germany. The program principally served the military. At the time it was all face-to-face but non-traditional, because they were soldiers and contractors. At the same time, the army was being mobilized to go to Kosovo and the University of Maryland started looking for professors interested in teaching online. I virtually raised my hand and said, “Absolutely!”
What was the technology like then?
Back then it was very primitive. We didn’t have learning management systems and there was very little protocol. I was fortunate because they were all disciplined, adult learners. We used a listserv, which was very primitive.
What inspired you to get involved in higher education?
Although I was a biology student at Southeastern Massachusetts University (now known as UMass Dartmouth), I was very involved with student activities. The level of care and thoughtfulness and nurturing that came out of student services division at SMU are really part of the reason I didn’t just drop out of school. It was at that point that I started to realize that higher education was a space I wanted to be in. I realized I wanted to be in a helping profession.
Were you always a computer guy?
Back in my undergrad days as a biology major, there were no PCs and so for certain biology labs we had to be very close to the technology. In other words, we’d have to write the code ourselves for certain experiments. Also, when I began working at Salem State after graduating with my biology degree, I was the operations manager for the student union. One of the things I was charged with was introducing computers to the students.
Do you see similarities between UMass and Penn State, where you previously worked?
There are similarities. Starting at the very highest level, Penn State and UMass are both leading land grant universities, public universities that have been founded to serve the economic and social well being of the state. They both have very strong public service roles, which is one of the reasons I think both have exemplary online and distance education programming. That’s because traditionally distance education was one of the few ways you could reach out to your remote community — working adults, single parents.
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about online learning?
Very frequently, it’s assumed that the online programming is of lesser quality and I think that’s a misconception for institutions that take this type of learning seriously. I also think there are misconceptions about cost. Online learning done really, really well can be as costly, if not more so than, face-to-face for all sorts of reasons.
Are there any subjects that you’ve found don’t translate at all to online learning?
I will say that there are courses that I have been offered to teach online sections and I refused. Some of the challenges are around laboratories. I think there is a legitimate question: Do you want your phlebotomist to have learned how to draw blood online? The answer is no. Now does that mean that every single course for phlebotomy has to be taught in a face-to-face environment? Absolutely not.
Watch as Ken Udas talks about what he enjoys most about his job: