3 Questions for Stanford’s Andy Saltarelli

On alt-ac careers, open online learning and the impact of COVID-19 on the future of higher education.

September 7, 2020

Andy Saltarelli is the senior director, evaluation and research, learning technologies and spaces at Stanford University. Saltarelli is an influential scholar and leader in the digital learning community. He generously agreed to answer my questions about his role at Stanford, open online education and the impact of COVID-19 on higher education.

Q: What does a senior director of evaluation and research do all day long? What has been your career path? And do you have any advice to anyone contemplating a nontraditional academic career?

A: How long do we have here? Turn back the clock a decade, and I could never have imagined doing what I do now. My first real job was as a juvenile probation officer in a rural county, which was a very formative experience. Long story short, I came away from that job with a few core interests and beliefs: education can be a tremendous healer or an insidious perpetrator of inequality, social contexts shape us more than we know, and extending care and love is step one of any useful pursuit.

Fast-forward many years and degrees in human development and social and educational psychology. I came out with my Ph.D. at the nadir of the 2010 recession, and tenure-track jobs were few and far between. Along the way, my interests in education, social context and technology (I funded much of my education as an instructional technologist) found a happy marriage in research in online learning. While it was very discouraging not to enter the professoriate, I came up at exactly the right time when there was a growing desire for instructional designers that not only shepherded course design projects, but were also educational scholars that could be thought partners with instructors. Through a series of incredibly fortunate events, I got to rapidly expand on this theme and surfed the wave right into MOOC mania (and beyond!).

When the MOOC wave crashed at my institution, I was thankfully able to fall back on my dual experience of being an instructional designer and moderately productive researcher and scholar. The result is that I now spend much of my time as a translator of sorts -- helping designers, faculty developers, analysts and researchers talk to each other and better understand educational research and data in a way that (hopefully) drives practice in positive ways.

What advice would I give? First, I would just emphasize that I’ve been incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time and somehow fall in with some of the most lovely and capable colleagues. (This color of my skin and my gender and the privileges that affords has no doubt contributed to this “luck.”) Second, I would encourage folks to pursue (force your way if necessary) diverse opportunities and skills and make yourself useful in various areas that seem core to your institution’s mission. I somehow tripped into becoming a periodically useful generalist, and this role has grown more important during COVID-19 and time of social unrest.

Strained resources and the complexity of the problems facing our institutions have privileged those who can see the big picture, deal with ambiguity and do many different things at once. It’s been tempting at times to rededicate to a single vertical that’s either more lucrative (data science, ed-tech start-up du jour) or secure (tenure-stream job), but the messiness is oddly appealing (and often frustrating!), and I think it makes me better able to play a part in helping all students and our institution in a more holistic way. Finally, supporting others -- whether colleagues, students, faculty, clients -- and trying to care for them (however small or ham-handed the gesture) never comes back void. Similarly, can you educate someone if you don’t care for them first? I’ve yet to be able to outgive the higher education community. I always get back more than I put in. We have so much work to do if higher education is to reach its potential of providing upward mobility and equitable opportunity for all students. But it still attracts fantastic human beings and is situated in such an advantageous place in our society to enact positive change.

Q: You and I first met in the open online education community. I don’t know about you, but nowadays I don’t spend much of my time on open online education. Can you give some thoughts to where open online education has been, where it is going and what COVID-19 has to do with this story?

A: Same here. Obviously open online learning predates MOOCs by decades. While the 2012 form of MOOCs may be sledding down the hype cycle, I think we’re already seeing a more productive equilibrium that’s closer to historical progenitors. There are many components of “open” learning, but some of the most compelling to me are generosity, access and connection in digital spaces. COVID-19 and the subsequent rapid shift to remote or online learning has heightened the importance of all three of these in my opinion. Those who already had a habit of freely sharing their educational resources in digital form and adapting from others’ materials seem to be much more ready to successfully and quickly move their courses online. Likewise for students and institutions (both K-12 and higher education) that promoted access to and use of open online educational resources and making connections beyond their institution. Further, I think MOOCs helped some institutions realize a lesson that had already been learned by those who had been doing online and hybrid education for decades: fixating on the distinction between and debate about the relative efficacy of online versus face-to-face instruction is mostly counterproductive. Those that had already gotten on with the business of leveraging and combining the unique strengths of face-to-face and online education respectively have been better able to adapt and meet students’ needs.

In 2015, we interviewed a number of MOOC instructors about what motivated them to devote so much unpaid labor to this enterprise, and two themes stick in my mind: intellectual generosity and experimentation. MOOCs tapped into both, and these instructors saw them not as new motivations but foundational pillars to the mission of higher education and education in general. Can you really educate someone if you’re not generous with what you have and know? Can you really prepare students for “direct usefulness in life” if you’re not always experimenting and trying new ways to make learning personally meaningful and relevant to what’s happening in the world? MOOCs and open education didn’t create this vision, but I’m heartened that these efforts have reminded us of what’s most important and why many of us got into this business in the first place. I believe this ethos has served us well during COVID-19 and this period of social unrest.

Q: I want to ask you about distributed academia. How do you think COVID-19 will change, is changing, how we think about the relationship between higher education employment and location? What has been your experience with navigating a nontraditional academic career and the bridging of campus and remote employment?

A: I believe you and I first met at one of the HAIL Storm meetings. I don’t know where I’d be without this distributed academic community and others like it. I’ve come to lean more and more on these types of groups as cherished, like-minded colleagues at my home institution have moved on and our local priorities changed. The strength and support I get from these cross-institutional relationships made me more confident that things would work out when I transitioned to fully remote work over two years ago. Many problems (and opportunities) we’re all facing are so much bigger than just our home institutions, and none of us have all the resources (material, psychological, emotional) we need within our respective silos. Accordingly, I do worry about those that don’t have access to such groups and implore us to be more cognizant of who isn’t in the room and intentional about inviting them.

I’m not smart enough to know how COVID-19 will change higher education and employment writ large. But one happy consequence of quarantine and rapid shift to remote work and online education is that it’s brought into sharp relief our foundational human need for connection, belongingness and community. (Social belongingness theory identifies these as innate needs -- cf Maslow’s hierarchy -- the satisfaction of which is necessary for higher-level functioning such as learning. Our research suggests that this is also true, if not more so, in online learning contexts.) It’s becoming clear that gestures of humanity and care and connection don’t just make us feel good for a moment, but are core factors in how well we function and learn. Unfortunately, the inequalities we see in face-to-face environments have persisted (and are probably exacerbated) in this shift to online work and education. In a recent paper, we invoked the Inverse Care Law and applied it to our current situation in higher education. (The Inverse Care Law was originally an indictment of market-driven health care, which I offer without comment.) In short, those in most need of connection and care have the least access to and are least likely to experience these foundational resources. It will take intention and dedication to reverse this trend.

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Joshua Kim

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