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Kelvin Bentley is the assistant vice president for learning strategy at Six Red Marbles and an influential contributor to the broader conversation on the impact of digital learning on the future of higher education. He generously agreed to answer some of my questions.

Q: Kelvin, good to (virtually and social distantly) see you again. We last saw each other, I think, at the 2018 HAIL Storm gathering at CSU Channel Islands. Some folks may know you from your active Twitter feed (@blacktimelord) and your Digital Learning Daily site, others from your educational and leadership roles in digital learning. Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of your academic background and professional path?

A: My background in digital learning began in 2001, when I found a job ad for an assistant professor position in psychology that included having the responsibility of managing a new fully online bachelor of science program at Northwestern State University (NSU) in Natchitoches, La. The position initially piqued my interest because NSU was only an hour away from my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife and mother of our two awesome kids.

Prior to applying for the role, I was working as an assistant professor at York College of Pennsylvania, and Courtney and I had just started a long-distance dating relationship. The role at NSU came at the right time in my relationship with Courtney as it allowed us to see each other much more often. Also, I was attracted to the role given I was already a fan of using technologies to support my face-to-face instruction and I thought it would be interesting to offer students fully online courses.

During my time at NSU, I gained invaluable experience designing, developing and facilitating my online courses. I also took steps to promote the program to prospective and current students using a website Courtney helped me design and build, and I used AOL Instant Messenger to answer student questions about the program.

These experiences directly strengthened my interest in wanting a position in which I had greater responsibility to administer online learning programs across an institution and not just within an academic department. Since 2003 when I left NSU, I have been fortunate enough to have led online learning programs for two- and four-year colleges and universities, and I have served as a digital learning consultant for companies like Blackboard, Entangled Solutions and Tyton Partners as well as in an independent capacity.

Q: As you know, one reason that I wanted to do this Q&A with you is that I am always interested in colleagues who are navigating an alternative academic career. Can you share some details about your current role as assistant vice president of learning strategy at Six Red Marbles? What do you do, and how does this role relate to your previous teaching and leadership roles within academia?

A: As the vice president of learning strategy, I regularly have the opportunity and pleasure to speak with faculty, administrators and support staff from different colleges and universities to learn how our digital learning content development and faculty development support services can assist their institutions in improving their online learning reach. I also work to share my conversations with our teams so they can use this information to continually improve the services we offer. I feel that my almost 20 years in digital learning aligns well with what I do now. I can easily relate to and empathize with leaders and support staff who lead and support online learning initiatives and I thoroughly enjoy working with our team at Six Red Marbles to help institutions actualize their visions for digital learning.

Q: Let’s talk about COVID-19 and the future of higher education. How do you see colleges and universities changing -- or not changing -- over the next three to five years? What positive and negative impacts do you see for higher education from the pandemic? And what do you think is the most important thing that higher education leaders should be doing now to prepare for the future?

A: The pandemic has exposed many vulnerabilities within higher education, which have been known for some time. Many institutions are ill equipped to offer engaging digital learning experiences regardless of the modality of the course in part because faculty at many institutions are not required to do so. Quality in instruction continues to be uneven for several reasons given lack of and/or disinterest in faculty development, competing priorities such as research, and college and university administrations that have gravely underestimated the true cost of building, managing and scaling innovative digital learning courses and programs.

I believe in the next three to five years, more institutions will start and/or continue efforts to better examine their pedagogical approaches including remote, blended, HyFlex and fully online instruction. This work will require strong intentional and consistent work to engage in a postmortem reflection of what is working well and not so well for both faculty and their students when digital teaching options are offered. Data from learning management systems, faculty surveys, faculty peer evaluations, course evaluations and student focus groups will be used to guide continual improvement planning.

I see this work also influencing pilot projects that will be based upon good practices suggested by research and the recommendations faculty and students share with their respective institutions. The time is now for institutions to better understand what worked well this fall compared to the spring and find ways to scale good practices across courses within and between academic departments.

I do think that some obstacles will make the work I have highlighted difficult. Tenure and promotion policies will need to be examined to determine how they can be revised in order for faculty to be recognized more for their work in supporting continual improvement in their teaching. This effort needs to apply both to younger faculty at research universities who are encouraged by their tenured peers to value research above innovations in teaching and posttenure faculty who might have the ability to be recognized for a variety of professional activities other than learning “new tricks” in how they offer their courses.

I feel that many institutions will also resist improving their digital teaching efforts because it’s not in the DNA. Faculty have always had a choice around whether they could offer digital learning sections. The pandemic required a more concerted “all hands on deck” approach to meeting the needs of students while campuses were closed. When more campuses can remain open consistently, it will be hard for many institutions to resist the urge to revert back to their pre-pandemic practices. Engaging in discussions around innovations in pedagogy might have to take a back seat to things like faculty burnout, given the Herculean efforts faculty made in offering digital learning courses to their students.

So what is the path forward for higher education? Intention planning for the future coupled with honest conversations about how to improve our approach to digital teaching and learning. This work will need to give digital learning directors and instructional designers more seats at the right “tables” so their expertise and opinions are used to shape policies and procedures. Instructional designers, for example, must be seen as true collaborators with faculty in enhancing their digital teaching practices and not just at the “hired help.” In addition, new conversations will need to begin and/or continue about how best to appropriately resource digital learning initiatives so that faculty, digital learning directors and instructional designers have the means needed to help their college or university be agile enough to design engaging and impactful learning experiences for its students, regardless of the modality of the courses offered and irrespective of the reality of a pandemic or not.

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