An Educated Guest

Ep. 13 | Post-Pandemic Online Learning: A New Digital Revolution


Guest: Bob Ubell, Vice Dean Emeritus of Online Learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering & Senior Advisor to Stevens Institute of Technology

 

Todd Zipper, President of Wiley Education Services, welcomes Bob Ubell, Vice Dean Emeritus of Online Learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering & Senior Advisor to Stevens Institute of Technology. Todd and Bob discuss the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on online learning and the future of digital education. Listen to their conversation on your favorite podcast platform.  

Topics Discussed:

  • The shift in attitude, from pre-pandemic to now, on the efficiency of online learning  
  • How online, digital education will be crucial for universities long-term 
  • How online learning is shifting from a faculty-centered learning model to an active learning model 
  • The need for university leadership to devote the same energy to online programs as their on-campus programs 

Guest Bio

Bob Ubell is Vice Dean Emeritus of Online Learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering and Senior Advisor to Stevens Institute of Technology. Considered an expert of digital education, he consults for universities and edtech companies including Coursera, NYU, and The New School and his online programs have enrolled more than 30,000 students. For almost a decade, he headed Tandon Online, ranked #2 by US News & World Report of the nation’s Computer Information Technology online graduate programs. 

Bob has also taken his expertise overseas. In China, he headed three online master’s programs and was a member of the board of the Lianyungang Universal Vehicle Manufacturing Company. In London, he served as American Publisher of Nature, the prominent science weekly, and launched the journal, Nature Biotechnology.

Bob has contributed nearly 90 articles to scholarly and general periodicals, is a columnist for EdSurge, a contributor for Inside Higher Ed, and is the author or editor of 20 books. His most recent book, Staying Online: How to Navigate Digital Higher Education, was released in September 2021.  



View Transcript

Speaker 1:
You’re listening to An Educated Guest, a podcast that brings together great minds in higher ed to delve deeper into the innovations and trends guiding the future of education and careers, hosted by the president of Wiley Education Services, Todd Zipper.

Todd Zipper:
Hello. This is Todd Zipper, the host of An Educated Guest. On today’s show, I speak with Bob Ubell, Vice Dean Emeritus of Online Learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering and Senior Advisor to Stevens Institute of Technology. Bob is an expert in digital higher education. He has contributed nearly 90 articles to scholarly and general periodicals, is a columnist for EdSurge, a contributor for Inside Higher Ed, and is the author or editor of 20 books. His most recent book, Staying Online: How to Navigate Digital Higher Education, was released in September, 2021.

The key takeaways from our discussion today. First, at the beginning of the pandemic, 8% of students thought online learning was effective. Now it’s more than 50%. Second, online digital education is going to be a crucial capacity for universities longterm, moving the question from should we do this to how we do this well on a massive scale. Third, online learning is helping push from faculty centered learning model to active learning model, which has proven to be more effective. Lastly, university leadership should devote the same energy to online as on-campus programs. It has to be at the center of the university, not something that is happening on the side.

Hello, Bob, and thank you for being here today on An Educated Guest. Bob, you are considered one of the experts in online learning and higher education. I found you to be a steady voice helping to separate the signal from the noise, and the last couple of years has been quite noisy in the world of online higher education. But before we get into this, please tell us how you got started in this field and what drove you to be such an advocate for online education.

Bob Ubell:
Well, it was about 20 years ago when I was looking around for stuff to do for a small publisher where I was appointed head of media. It was at a time when nobody knew what the digital revolution was going to be like. So they appointed people like me with absolutely no digital experience, cleverly, to investigate what they might do in the digital arena. One of the things I did, I went around the country and I interviewed folks who were doing experiments in digital media. And so one of them was at Stanford and I spent a weekend there with some really incredible people and I saw the first kinds of stuff that Stanford was doing in online learning. The faculty was on the stage or upfront in the classroom and they were streaming the faculty’s lectures all the way across Silicon Valley to departments of other education departments as well as mostly corporations around the Silicon Valley that were looking for things to do, looking for education in various areas that they had that Stanford had online.

And so I was completely overwhelmed by this fascinating thing. I had not seen it anywhere else. I don’t think all but a handful of schools around the country were experimenting with it, but Stanford was going full speed ahead. So I brought the idea of developing a streaming video application, a streaming video division to my small publisher back in New York after I had an exciting experience out at Stanford. I walked into his office, he looked at me and he said, “Online really has no future.” That was not a good opening line for someone who was now interested in online as opposed to print.

Very quickly, within a week or two, I looked at the Times when the Times had wanted, which it doesn’t have anymore. And lo and behold, there was an ad at Stevens Institute of Technology for someone who would run their visionary online program. I applied for the job and lo and behold, with only a weekend experience with online learning at Stanford, I got the job as online dean at Stevens. The reason why, on reflection as to why I got the job with no experience whatsoever, is that nobody else must’ve applied except me. I was the fool who stood up and did it because it was quarter of a century ago and nobody except me had the audacity to say I was interested. That’s the background.

Todd Zipper:
That’s great. Before we jump in here, I’d love to define what online learning is. I often even hear the term digital learning or virtual learning. So maybe in your best way, can you define what it is online learning and also following up with that, what does the landscape of higher education look like for online?

Bob Ubell:
It’s a good question. It’s made up of many, many things and many, many different opportunities at different institutions, both commercial, university, industry and so on, all using different modalities. And so what we could think of as comprising online learning are things like video streaming, real-time synchronous learning, MOOCs, which we can get into later on this podcast. I’m sure most people know what it is without me defining it. Flipped classrooms, high flex instruction, and blended or hybrid learning. Those are the things that comprise online, digital, virtual, remote learning.

Todd Zipper:
Let me jump into your book in the opening line, which I love a lot here. “Steering the giant lifeboat of academia from on-campus to online in just a few weeks in the spring of 2020 has to count as one of the most unimaginable, exceptional feats ever achieved in higher education.” Do you talk this up to necessity is the mother of invention or is there something else at play here?

Bob Ubell:
Well, they were already all of the technologies in place. This was not something that happened overnight even though the necessity was overnight. The infrastructure was there and it’s true that it was not only the infrastructure there for universities but for industry as well. So the digital revolution had already happened many, many years ago, but the ability to transform industry and the universities so that people could work at home or study at home, that of course was the revolutionary thing. And the two technologies that made it happen was LMS and the Zoom like effect that also was in place.
So while it seemed completely revolutionary at the time, most schools already had everything ready for such an event but it wasn’t put in there for the crisis. But these two technologies overcame the crisis. It’s extraordinary for technology to have that kind of capacity to make institutions like the US schools and corporate America and international corporations as well to overcome their adversity and continue operating as if nothing had happened. That has never happened before. And I think that’s the strength of that opening sentence that you read. The extraordinary thing was that universities and industry could go on as if nothing happened, and that’s never happened before in the history of any history of the world industry or higher education that I know.

Todd Zipper:
And yet in your book you talk about a survey soon after the pandemic started and everybody went remote, thousands of students and faculty. Merely 8% of those online during the crisis say their experience was very effective, but I think that’s changed a bit. Can you talk about that?

Bob Ubell:
Yes. We now have the latest results. The question’s not the same about effectiveness, but the response is similar. More than 50% of higher education students say now that they want to continue online, so that it jumped from 8% to 50% give me more, and that’s a transformation I think that also was surprising. In my book, I was less bullish about the effect of online learning from the kind of pandemic. Some people were more than I. I felt the lack of quality pedagogy was going to undermine it. And I think the first reaction of the 8% who were not thrilled, well, it came from the fact that most schools did not actually deliver quality online education. Most schools just plugged in with Zoom and other facilities like Zoom to have their faculty teach the way they always taught. The reason why, in my opinion, the 8% was revealed as being a sort of so-so response is that they were not given the kind of active learning participation that online demands.

Todd Zipper:
Do you think that the modality of online versus in-person where things, frankly, can’t be tracked and managed, whether it’s a good or a bad thing it depends how you look at it. In business and in life we use data constantly to optimize what we do. Do you think this has an opportunity here to really improve instruction, because you talk a lot about in the book how ill prepared and you just mentioned it, your traditional faculty member is to teach versus to research and other things that they do in their jobs.

Bob Ubell:
That’s a very good question. I’ve written about it. There’s an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that I wrote a number of years ago about how digital education in which you can track every word, every movement, every nuance that’s delivered either by the faculty or the student within a classroom, within a virtual classroom, is now capable of data analytics. And this is a new field, actually maybe not that new, maybe 10, 15 years old, called education data analytics. And I think that capability now has transformative possibilities once faculty themselves, because I don’t think this can be done without faculty participation in a deep way. The faculty has to understand the consequences of the data that they generate and that their students generate.

Once they understand the nature of those data points on how to transform their teaching to be more participatory and more active, then I think we’ll have quite a different modality that’s online. We’ll have something that like scientists or engineers, faculty will no longer be without any tools. They walk in with no tools at all, whether it’s online or on-campus. But once you understand the nature of the data generation that happens in class, you will be like a Russian Sputnik flyer who now can control themselves throughout space, so can the university instructor, university teacher be like in a spaceship rather than in a classroom.

Todd Zipper:
Yeah, that’s very promising view of the future. And so I want to switch gears a little bit to your book, Staying Online, and I love the subtitle, How to Navigate Digital Higher Education. I would argue that this is probably a guidebook for presidents and provosts and others really trying to guide their university. It’s not just for the university environment. I as an ed tech and services provider certainly appreciate it and enjoyed seeing the entire landscape. So I’ve got a couple of questions, but how would you kind of frame the book, sort of it seems like it’s a bit of a response coming off the pandemic or wherever we are in the coming off the pandemic. So what did you discover while writing it and what are the major highlights for you?

Bob Ubell:
Well, the major highlights are something already of what we’ve talked about about the role of the faculty has changed online dramatically from merely standing in front of the room and declaiming. That is what I call faculty centered teaching or faculty centered learning in which the center of the experience is driven by the faculty member rather than we turn our attention to the student because the learning happens in the minds of the students, not in the minds of the faculty member. The faculty member already knows everything they’re talking about, or at least we hope in class. And so it’s not the key to positive, active learning is to turn the attention away from the faculty member, put the faculty member on the side and give the students the opportunity to learn independently and learn in groups and learn collaboratively by interacting with their peers. And of course, interacting with the faculty member as a part of that ecosystem.

So this is something that’s been going on. This idea of student centered learning and active learning has been something that has gone on since the middle of the 19th century. Most observers and most of the leadership in pedagogy, people like John Dewey, Jerome Bruner, Paulo Freire and Lev Vygotsky, those were people who were not satisfied with faculty centered learning. They felt that the student was pinned to their seat in the classroom and that was not the kind of energized self motivated learning that should happen. And they, through various theories, tried to undermine or reconfigure the classical classroom experience into something more active. And this is way before digital education. So what we’re doing is that digital education actually discovered these leadership, these guys, John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky and others as a perfect modality for what they were saying in the 19th century.

Todd Zipper:
My colleagues and I talk a lot about career connected education. Do you see in terms of this active learning model and that coming increasingly into this student centered model, do you see them also bringing in job criteria skills so that when individuals sort of matriculate and go through those courses in a complete program, they’re really ultimately more job ready and even building business models from the university around that so they make sure that the cost of those educational programs line up with the salaries that ultimately these students get?

Bob Ubell:
That idea of integrating the workspace with the university space also goes back to the 19th century, and still those ideas of merging work and scholarship is alive and well very much so in the United States and elsewhere. There are many schools that have industry participate in the curriculum and have students participate on the industry shop floor in addition to the classroom. So, yes, I think there’s no question that more of that would be beneficial and would be for many students a plus. Many students don’t have the enthusiasm for scholarship, but they do often have enthusiasm for active participation in industry.

So I think the digital world has a greater capacity to participate in that kind of integration. So I say yes. Let’s investigate how best to do that. There are models already that have happened at dozens of universities now in the United States. They started in the late 19th century and early 20th century and they’ve learned a lot. There’s a whole literature about it. There’s a whole experiential, by the way that word is relevant. It’s called experiential learning. I would encourage that. I think it’s part of active learning and I would see more and more schools participate in it, but I would also like to see, because I don’t think that’s done yet, how digital means can make that participation even more integrated and more valuable.

Todd Zipper:
I want to hit on a couple of the chapters from your book. One is you talk about universities funding and developing their own online programs. I’d love to hear you reflect on this a bit.

Bob Ubell:
Well, you know already that I’m on the side of self creation of digital means by the university largely because it seems to me now that so many schools and so many students and the whole industry, whole higher education industry is turning less frightened and more enthusiastic about the possibility of online learning at their institutions. So long-term online learning, digital education is going to be a crucial capacity part of the university. It won’t be off there in some corner where Bob Ubell and a few of his buddies are making things happen and nobody cares except for a few people in the provost’s office if you’re lucky. So, now those people like me and others who’ve tinkered with online education, I think that phase has passed. My experience with online learning was experiential in the sense that we were doing an experiment for Stevens and for NYU and does it work? Is it good? All that sort of stuff.

Those questions are no longer as relevant. Does it work? Is it good? No. The question is, how do we do this and do it well? It’s no longer a question mark. It moves from a question mark to feed on the floor, hands on the computer. How do we do it best? How do we do it well? And so the capacity to do that, to do it well on a massive scale within the university it seems to me is best done by the institution itself. Online learning is not the cafeteria where you can send in vendors to do your cafeteria. Online learning is not people who travel at your corridors for security. They’re not security officers, which you can also maybe not so effectively these days farm out. Online learning has become a core competency. And if you want to farm that out, I think you’re in a dangerous territory.

However, not every school wants to have all of its courses, all of its degrees online. There are pockets. There are maybe even some universities, not just pockets, but maybe half or more of the university won’t be online. Or there are only these degrees and these courses should go online according to the leadership at the university. When it’s like that, when it’s an opportunity for the university to do tinkering with online rather than whole scale core competency, I think commercial vendors have a place because it’s not easy to launch a full-scale all of the things that are required for online learning.

You need not only faculty who know how to teach it and you have to train them. You need student services, online student services. You need all sorts of marketing, particularly a kind of digital marketing that is required to make successful enrollments in online learning. So those things may not be what a university wants to learn how to do.

Todd Zipper:
Yeah. And it can be quite daunting; the capital that’s needed, the marketing. I mean, these things are evolving by the day in terms of how to do certain digital marketing tactics, for example, on one end or even learning design on others I can see. It leads me to a couple of other questions. One is, really since the start of online education, first, it started with, like you said, public universities, but I would also mention that you had large for-profit universities that sort of came into existence that commercialized a lot of these things we’re talking about here. They’ve largely kind of either diminished or gone away. Some of them have sold themselves like Kaplan to Purdue and Bridgepoint to University of Arizona.

But nevertheless, over the last several years, you’ve had these mega nonprofits like Western Governors, Southern New Hampshire, Arizona state really pop up. And so do we see the evolution of higher education going in a similar direction like other technology industries where there’s a little bit of a winner takes all model just because of the need for scale, or do you see this as maybe not as oligopoly as scale, if you will, than other industries; and we could keep this sort of beautiful system we have today that has hundreds if not thousands of providers?

Bob Ubell:
Yeah, there is that. I think it would be a danger. There is that danger, so I’ll call it a danger for that. But I think the university is a different kettle of fish than industry in general because it has the quality of providing different things for different markets. It’s not a one-size-fits-all. It’s a coat of many colors. Certain students, certain families go to schools for various reasons. I can imagine that everybody in the United States who wants Coca-Cola could have it and there’s a kind of acceptance of the massive commodification of Coca-Cola across the world. My wife loves diet Coke. She could have others, but Coke itself as a capitalist brilliant has dominated that industry because of its marketing scale and because of all kinds of other international engagement.

I don’t think learning is Coca-Cola because it’s not the same idea as a product. It’s always evolving. It’s never fixed. The individuals who teach are not straitjacketed by a curriculum. The curriculum does not sit easy if it’s directed at the top. The kinds of industries that you talk about where there’s a dominance by one or two players, it’s a top down way of marketing and achieving their ends. The university, even though it’s becoming more top down than ever, more directed by the senior leadership than ever, you cannot control what it delivers. Every faculty is a universe in his self or herself. So I don’t think it’ll happen.

And as a matter of fact, the massification of education is not new. I have some numbers here in front of me. The University of Central Florida has 71,000 already. Texas A&M has 71,000 students. The national systems, I mean, the state systems, New York State system has 394,000 students. No online school has that many. University of California has 285,000 students. So already the massification of education has existed since the early 20th century, but in a different way than capitalism. The massification of regular classroom teaching throughout the United States was a move towards democratization, not towards capitalism.

Todd Zipper:
So let’s add a couple of zeros onto those numbers and talk about the MOOCs, which you have a chapter on and you’ve talked a lot about in the past is maybe not in the most positive light, although you’ve shifted gears a little bit here. So the MOOCs, Coursera talks about 70 or 80 million students on the backs of the most incredible brands in the world, not just even in the US. And so I get that a university is a university and a MOOC is something else, but is it? It still is a course and it might not be giving a diploma away within, although that’s shifting too. They’re adding MOOC like degrees on these platforms. So I’d love to hear your reflections on MOOCs and whether they in five or 10 or 20 years maybe are the new, big, massive university.

Bob Ubell:
I did in the initial phase of looking at MOOCs and I’m a little embarrassed by how rejecting I was because in the beginning, MOOCs provided streaming video lectures to large numbers of students with very little interaction at all. And since I believe that pedagogical interaction is a key to learning, I sort of poo-pooed MOOCs as being rigid and just a passive learning experience rather than an active learning experience. But I got to know them so well that I was a consultant for one of them for a while and enjoyed my experience with them and I learned a lot about how deeply they’ve, at least Coursera, thinks about things. So I’ve changed my tune and I believe that there’s a way in which MOOCs, because of their ability to do massive education in a way that’s never been done before, where you could have 160,000 students in one class, which is shocking.

That was their first class had 160,000 at Stanford, by the way. That was the first large scale. By the way, the term MOOCs began in Canada. It was named there and it was for almost standard digital education. And then it evolved into what’s now the ability of courses to teach tens of thousands of students at a time. And what that has done, because it’s moved into a direction that I find very laudatory, and that is the more people who get educated the better. And so I don’t any longer stand in the way of innovations that have large-scale consequences, and MOOCs have large-scale consequences, even though most of the MOOCs had students enroll in them that had already completed their bachelor’s degrees.
So they weren’t teaching an unwashed student body. They were already teaching a fairly sophisticated student body. People who enrolled in MOOCs from the beginning already had degrees. I call it a finishing school. MOOCs were finishing schools for highly educated engineers and scientists and such. A lot of my friends take MOOCs as a kind of a post-graduate-

Todd Zipper:
Life long learning, yeah.

Bob Ubell:
… sniffing around, yeah. What people used to do with the night school now are in MOOCs. But when MOOCs changed their tune in order to make money, because all of this was all free, they had to find a way to make money. They started collaborating with notable colleges and universities to provide degrees in a massive way, moving from 30, 50, 100 students in a class to 100, 200, 300, maybe more in a class getting a degree. I think there are some degree granting programs that have tens of thousands of students in the degree. So, that’s all to the good. And not only that, they’re getting degrees at premier institutions. They’re getting degrees by quality professors at first grade schools and getting degrees that are impressive.

Todd Zipper:
So you think it can impact more than the lifelong learning crowd with already bachelor’s and master’s degrees?

Bob Ubell:
I think it’s now doing that. In terms of numbers, there’s no question. There’s like 150 million online learning folks now at Coursera and edX and other places all around the world. China has a MOOC division as well. There obviously is a market for this, either free or paying marginal amount, but the money-making market in MOOCs is degrees from notable schools.

Todd Zipper:
Yeah. I don’t think we’ve seen the data yet on that because you have Southern New Hampshire with 175,000 students, which is probably still greater than the students on a MOOCs that are actually getting some kind of credential of that kind. So the numbers are distracting writ large.

Bob Ubell:
Yeah. It’s still early. We’re early days.

Todd Zipper:
I want to hit on another chapter because in the beginning of my studies of online education, the promise of self-directed learning, of adaptive learning for that individual. I’ll never forget taking my GMAT and as I got questions right, it made questions even harder, which is sort of the early predecessors of this, of using sort of machine learning. Where do you think we are in this emerging technology where we can actually start to promise the individual a more individual path forward versus this generic, the old Ford adage if you can take any color as long as it’s black.

Bob Ubell:
We’ve always, since the beginning of instructional design of that kind using AI and other media, providing that kind of instruction where you get whispered in your ear or on the screen or in other ways you’ve taken the wrong path. How about using this approach and you might get to where you want to go, and you might master this if you go this way? That’s like having a mentor sitting in the next chair and whispering in your ear, but this is done digitally and it follows every key stroke on your pad and it follows everything you do on the screen and every path you take, where the technology is participating directly in your learning is quite extraordinary.
One of the leaders in this field told me from research that he had done that with some of these technologies, students can get just as much quality mentoring as they can with a human being. Just think of that. I don’t think we could ever have dreamed that a machine could tell us more than our buddy who knows a lot about science or whatever it is. So these are like technical buddy systems and they’re getting more and more powerful. McGraw Hill, who’s a leader in this, and I was on their board for awhile, has done an extraordinary job in making this possible, largely for high school and elementary school students.

They don’t have these systems, I don’t think, I could be wrong here, for higher education. But studies have shown and the company has shown and the school districts that hire them to do this that struggling students can be really helped by these systems. The jury is out yet on whether it works in things other than let’s say mathematics, which is a kind of a way that digital forms of education have an affinity for because there’s ones and zeros and so on. They map against the digital world, mathematics and science and all those kinds of STEM fields where this has been proven to be a success.

So I think it’s still early days even though it’s been around for maybe 50 years. It was always a dream of certain kinds of digital inspired scientists and engineers to do this. I think right now it has a modest success. That we can say that is even extraordinary. So, can it be moved further and be available and successful in all fields I think we don’t know yet.

Todd Zipper:
You recently wrote a great article about the ivies and how they’ve been called laggards if you will in the online space. They certainly have lent their brands and their faculty to move platforms in certain courses. Are we talking about a classic innovator’s dilemma issue where they just can’t disrupt their existing business models, like what’s going on here?

Bob Ubell:
Well, yes, I think they were a lot about that. And as I interviewed various people within the ivies, one of their first objections to online learning, the folks I talked to, was that they worried about their brand equity. I think the Ivy League schools, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, those schools, have so much brand equity they can give some away. It’s so rich. The real brand equity that they have has been going on for a couple of centuries. So in my article I just wrote about the ivies, I think they worry too much about their brand equity. I think over the years, they’ve allowed in blacks, they’ve allowed in women and they’ve allowed in poor people. I think it’s time for them to allow in people who work for a living too who can go online.

University of Pennsylvania sees the opportunity to use the brilliance of their faculty and the quality of their education online and they’ve opened up, I think, seven new online degree programs, whereas the others have one or two at the most. Although frankly, Columbia was one of the first online programs in the world, their engineering program. You could get a full engineering degree in practically any engineering field by signing up for a Columbia engineering degree today and 35 years ago as well. So that’s extraordinary. So I think the ivies are too uptight about their reputation. I read an article in one of the scholarly magazines about business that said that brand equity is over stated. That once you have it, it’s hard to lose it.

Todd Zipper:
Right. And no one’s veering too far from the party line, it looks like.

Bob Ubell:
No.

Todd Zipper:
I’d like to ask you what makes a high quality program. I know you built one of the best programs out there in engineering with NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. How can a learner, a consumer really understand, oh yeah, this is going to be great for me in my career. Is it just about brand equity? I mean, what should they be thinking about?

Bob Ubell:
It’s very hard to answer that question because most students don’t know what goes on inside the box. All they see is numbers from the ranking agencies. I mean, we’ve been lucky and we’ve worked very hard to get to it to make the Tandon Online School of Engineering number two for 15 years. We could never beat Columbia. At first, my staff thought that they were fudging their numbers so that they’d be number one all the time. I said, “Well, let’s give it up. Number two is not bad. To be ivies is all right.” So the student looking at all of this from the outside really doesn’t have a clue about what the real quality is and can never. All these ranking agencies don’t really talk about quality at all. They rank selectivity. They rank how much is in the bank, where their faculty comes from, all those things.

If you try to find a measure of quality, you will not find it in the ranking systems. It’s a shadow boxing business and people believe it. I believe it. I was so much devoted for years at NYU to get to be number two or number one. I spent a lot of energy doing that, but it showed no sign of quality at all. If you could ask the right questions as a student once you go and visit the school or go online and talk to the school, especially about online, there are a few key things that I think make it possible for an outsider to understand whether they are a good results. One is the graduation rates. If they’re high in the 80s and 90s, you can be pretty confident that they know what they’re doing. Yes. Retention rates. If they’re also high in the 80s and 90s, you’re okay.

If you ask about online learning support services, do they have them? Many schools don’t have them. Many schools rely on their on-ground services to support their online students and that’s a disaster. So if they have services for online students that are directed specifically towards the online population, then they’re okay. So I think those three things, you don’t have to think about too much more. I think about the other things as an administrator to find out what are they really doing to make this successful? Those three data points should get you more or less what you’re looking for.

Todd Zipper:
Do you think they’ll really make public those student satisfaction scores with the experience that they’re having in the courses overall?

Bob Ubell:
It would be great if they did. You can look up-

Todd Zipper:
That are objective, of course.

Bob Ubell:
Like rate my professor?

Todd Zipper:
What I was just looking at, yeah.

Bob Ubell:
But that’s complicated because rate my professor in a course of a four years undergraduate school, you’ll have 300 faculty members, maybe more. You’d have to plunge through 300 different websites. And then you still won’t find out because the rate my professor is full of hostility as well. If you didn’t get the A you wanted, boy, could you blow up on rate my professor?

Todd Zipper:
Bob, this has been great. I’ve got two remaining questions for you. What is the one thing you would like to ensure our listeners walk away understanding from our conversation today?

Bob Ubell:
I think I alluded to it just now in the last conversation. And that is, online has to be as secure, as well-funded as everything that the institution thinks about online. There should be no difference in the energy devoted to online as there is to on-campus from the top. It should be a daily concern of the president, faculty and senior staff. It shouldn’t be a side issue. It has to be at the center of the university. Without that, it’ll limp along at those universities that don’t give too much attention to it. For those who are listening in this podcast who are in leadership, as well as the faculty who have access to leadership, that I think is the key message I would like to deliver.

Todd Zipper:
Well, thanks Bob. Here’s my last question and I ask this of all my guests. Part of what we love about education is that we’ve all had learning champions. Who has been a learning champion for you and how has that person helped you in your life?

Bob Ubell:
I’m going to actually not mention one name. When I came into this business, I had no experience whatsoever in education at all or in digital technology at all. And just by happenstance, I wandered into a conference run by the Sloan Foundation, and this was 25, 30 years ago. I was a novice and I was embraced by the guy who ran the Anytime, Anywhere Learning Department of the Sloan Foundation, which they ultimately gave $175 million to support online learning in the United States at various schools. But I found a community of scholars, a community of devoted intellectuals and devoted people who understood the need for online learning in America, and they were my mentors.

They were skilled, honest, devoted, and took me under their wing. I was probably twice their age. I was already 60 when I got into online learning. They were probably in their 30s and 40s. I became their toyboy via online education. I loved it and I’m still friends with all of them. One of them just died and I’m as sad and as unhappy with having her left us as I would be with somebody in my own family.

Todd Zipper:
The unsung heroes of online education for sure. Bob, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today. I’ve learned so much and I’m sure our listeners did too. Until next time, this has been An Educated Guest.

Speaker 1:
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