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3 Questions for Alt-Ac Jenae Cohn

On moving to a director of academic technology role during a pandemic.

February 9, 2021

Jenae Cohn is the director of academic technology at California State University, Sacramento. She is the author of the forthcoming book Skim, Dive, Surface: Teaching Digital Reading, which will be published by West Virginia University in June 2021. Jenae graciously agreed to collaborate on this Q&A.

Q: You recently moved from Stanford to California State University, Sacramento, to take a role as director of academic technology. What has it been like to make this transition to a leadership role during a pandemic?

A: This transition has been simultaneously rewarding and challenging, and I think that reward and challenge emerges out of the same core context: the pandemic has really given everyone on college campuses an opportunity to think critically about the future of higher education. This critical thinking is exciting, insofar as it allows us to ask big, fundamental questions about higher education, like, where and how will learning happen in the future? What role does technology have to play in creating environments to foster meaningful learning experiences? What can we do to continue making higher education more accessible to everyone? These are the questions I’m thrilled to help answer.

I’m also working to answer these questions on something of a half-full tank. I know I’m not alone when I say that I’ve been working pretty much nonstop since March. University staff, especially those in academic technology and learning innovation offices, have been right at the center of addressing students and faculty needs during remote instruction in the pandemic. I’ll never forget the Friday night in March when I saw the email from the provost at Stanford about all on-campus classes moving online. From that point on, I was working long days, nights and weekends to accommodate the needs of the faculty I worked with, and that pace barely let up, even through the summer. When I transitioned to my new role at Sac State in the fall, I was entering an office that had been working at a similar pace for as long as I had. I don’t think that anyone working in academic technology has felt like they’ve fully caught their breath yet!

All that said, I’ve felt energized by building relationships and listening to the stories of faculty, students and staff I’m meeting on campus. The pandemic has been exhausting for everyone; we will all have trauma to recover from. But I’m truly inspired by the centering of care in every conversation I’ve had, and that’s where I begin to have hope: that once we all restore and recover, I’m optimistic that we will have renewed capacity to reimagine what we can do to make higher education even better for everyone.

Q: What do you see as your big priorities in the next 12 to 36 months in your new role? How is our experience with COVID-19 shaping your thinking about the future of teaching and learning at your institution?

A: I see two big priorities in the next year or two. My first priority is to center universal design for learning (UDL) as the core framework for guiding decision making about technology support on campus. For the unfamiliar, UDL is a framework based on the science of learning, which suggests that learners benefit from having choices for engaging in their classes. When classes offer students multiple modes of engaging with content, multiple kinds of opportunities to participate and multiple means of expressing interest, students can feel valued and included.

We’ve known for a long time that students and faculty have always had diverse needs in constructing and participating in learning environments. But if the COVID-19 pandemic has clarified anything, it is that technology can have a tremendous effect on whether those options are, in fact, available.

For example, we’ve seen a lot of debate during remote instruction in the COVID-19 pandemic about whether asynchronous or synchronous instruction is “better” and about whether engagement is “possible” online. But in these conversations, we’re missing the forest for the trees: asynchronous and synchronous learning can be effective. Engagement takes multiple forms and modes alone and off-line. And when we “return” to a post-pandemic world (whatever that means or looks like), we can sustain this flexible thinking about where, when and how learning can happen. For an academic technology office, this is especially important, as I think one of our core jobs is to make the many options for teaching and learning with technology clear, accessible and comprehensible to students and faculty alike. I know workload and burnout have been major concerns for faculty, and hearing about making even more options available may seem overwhelming at first. But technology offices can be at the forefront of helping faculty and students embrace these options without getting overwhelmed. We can help provide guidance, scaffolding and support for adopting these solutions bit by bit.

A second priority for me relates to the first: to help the campus community become more critical consumers of technology. Unfortunately, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen the many ways that technology has been weaponized against students, from remote proctoring solutions that have flagged the behaviors of students with disabilities and students of color as “suspicious” to draconian “camera-on” policies that force all students to reveal their private home spaces without their consent. As a leader in an academic technology office, I think a priority has to be examining why we’re supporting these solutions and to lead campus in conversation about adopting technologies that benefit, and not harm, students. Adoption of these tools may come from a place of wanting to sustain high standards for academic excellence, but evidence from the scholarship of teaching and learning and in higher education pedagogy abounds about clear alternatives to harmful practices. For example, the AAC&U promotes high-impact and student-centered practices, such as service-based learning, e-portfolio pedagogy, writing-intensive courses and project-based learning, as practices that can clearly advance departmental and program-based outcomes. Technology offices can leverage this scholarship and work with faculty leaders to develop the technology-based infrastructures to make these student-centered practices possible.

Beyond these two concrete priorities, I also hope to keep building trust over the next couple of years. Faculty and staff will need to work together even more closely now than in the past to make higher education environments as inclusive as they can be.

Q: Your Ph.D. is in English. You are in an educational technology leadership role. Can you share some insights about your career path for others thinking about an alternative-academic career?

A: Well, if you had told me when I started my Ph.D. in English that I’d wind up in a technology leadership role, I probably wouldn’t have believed you! I found my way into this career because I was lucky enough to have an adviser who invited me in the first year of my Ph.D. to collaborate on building an online writing class. As part of that collaborative experience, I got to meet university staff in our Center for Educational Effectiveness and our Academic Technology Services programs who showed me what a career in higher education could look like beyond the professoriate. Indeed, I would advise other Ph.D. students who are considering jobs outside the professoriate or teaching to recognize that their universities are tremendously diverse workspaces to explore. I encourage Ph.D. students just to do some research on what kind of work the offices on their campus do: student affairs, academic affairs, institutional research and development are just a few examples of places to look. There are lots of rewarding careers related to education that may have nothing to do with academic research but that draw upon many of the same skills cultivated during a Ph.D. program.

I can guarantee that on every college campus, there is a Ph.D. holder working in a nonacademic role. By looking up the staff lists of different offices on your campus, you can likely find those individuals and set up informational interviews with them to learn about their paths. I’ve found that everyone I’ve asked about their career journey loves to share what they’ve learned. In fact, if you’re reading this as a Ph.D. student and want to chat more about career pathways, I’d love to hear from you!

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Joshua Kim

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