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3 Questions for Swati Carr, Research Fellow at Extension Engine

On alt-ac careers and higher education after the pandemic.

March 3, 2021
 
 

I’m fascinated by the increasingly varied and nonlinear career paths of academia. One of the coolest academic career journeys I’ve heard about is that of Swati Carr. She agreed to tell us her story.

Q: Tell us about your job as a research fellow at Extension Engine.

A: It is a very new and rather unique role, and I am still working on defining it as I go. I started the role in January 2020, and we can agree that 2020 was hardly a typical year for anyone.

I study the digital learning landscape through a variety of lenses -- pedagogy, business models, sustainability, capacity, scale and cost -- so that we are always giving our clients, whom we truly think of as partners -- the best advice. This process works also in reverse: I take what we have learned from launching 200 online programs with over 65 clients and identify and build best practices on how to design, build and launch successful -- and sustainable -- online programs. It is easy to get lost in the intricacies of a single digital learning experience. I make sure we are looking at each tree in the context of the larger forest and ecosystems within which the tree must exist. My work helps our clients understand an industry that they may not be as familiar with as we are.

Last year, I wrote a white paper on how to turn in-person programs into rich, engaging digital experiences, but more importantly, how to cultivate the organization such that the digital transformation does not happen in a top-down way, held together by force rather than acceptance. I wrote it for nonprofit leaders, but really the principles apply regardless of industry.

When I left MITx, I was worried I wouldn’t ever find a job I was as happy in as that one. But I needn’t have worried at all. Extension Engine has indulged my natural curiosity and cultivated it into a role that benefited me and the company. It has been a great fit.

Q: Your Ph.D. is in synthetic biology. What was the path that took you from the lab to Extension Engine? What advice do you have for others thinking about an alternative academic career?

A: Towards the end of my Ph.D., I came across an interesting opportunity at the MITx Digital Learning Lab: designing assessments in applied biology for residential education and for MOOCs. The assessments had to meet MIT’s standards for its own students and had to require higher-order thinking. A Ph.D. in a field of biology was a must for the job. As was a deep interest in teaching and learning. Instead of being situated with other instructional designers, my group, MITx Bio was embedded in the Department of Biology. It was a perfect transition for me. I took it upon myself to make sure that every summative assessment (and many formative ones) was fun in a geeky, MIT sort of way.

I transitioned to Extension Engine as a learning experience designer after two years at MITx Digital Learning Lab. I was curious to discover if I could still design truly engaging and rigorous learning without being a subject matter expert. Like many skeptical professors, I didn’t fully believe it was possible. I took the job as a sort of field experiment in learning design. I was the first instructional designer at Extension Engine that had no formal background in education. I had obviously picked up knowledge along the way, but it was always in the direction of learning and cognitive sciences research to theory rather than the other way around. I found that some professors -- especially in STEM fields -- responded better to me because I didn’t talk in education jargon. Coming from a research background, I pushed our learning experience design group to look at the latest education and brain research. I proposed A/B tests we could run to determine which of two possible approaches would be best.

Eventually, when Extension Engine decided it needed to conduct research more consistently and created the position of research fellow, I applied for that job and got it.

My advice to anyone seeking an alternative academic career is this: seek out small and big opportunities where you are so you are learning the skills you will need. In my last full year as a Ph.D. student, I took on an NSF-teaching fellowship designing project-based science education for middle schoolers. Before I had my U.S. green card and was eligible for government-funded fellowships, I helped professors design new courses, created curriculum for my department’s outreach programs and even created strategy guides for tackling the Subject GRE tests for people with limited time.

I would also advise people to look at the experience they already do have and examine how the core skills they applied might transfer to the field they want to work in. I had my own food blog for years, which taught me to write short, conversational and sometimes even clickbait-y pieces. I might not have done A/B tests in education, but I had designed thousands of high-quality experiments on bacteria. The skills required to design good experiments are fairly universal.

Q: How are you thinking about higher education after COVID-19? What should colleges and universities be doing now to prepare for whatever comes next?

A: Firstly, colleges and universities have to be ready for the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic will not end at the same time for everyone and that there will be a continued need for flexibility. Older students and faculty may still have to take on additional childcare or elder-care responsibilities that could prevent them from being able to attend all their classes. Staff will need the same. Those with chronic illnesses might wish to continue online until it is safe for them to be on-campus in person. And some students might want the flexibility to choose on any given day or week whether to attend class live or in person.

One thing that surprised me in the higher ed pandemic response was that most large universities and many smaller colleges had already invested in LMS technology long before the pandemic, but only a handful of faculty had actually used their institutional LMS. Most didn’t even have a course shell. It is a big waste to spend money on technology just to have it languish until disaster strikes and the technology is called upon. Now that we know how disruptive a pandemic can be, institutions have an obligation to be better prepared in the event that something else as disruptive to normal life should strike again.

And while I cannot imagine higher ed not adopting more technology into teaching and learning going forward, I feel they should really lean in to the technology and use it to improve the on-campus education experience. In the K-12 space, textbook publishers used online content to both differentiate themselves from their competition and to lock the sale of their textbooks down. Either way, the K-12 space has been ahead of higher ed in integrating online learning into the learning -- but especially in the formative assessment -- process. Higher ed should also follow that lead, but with a model that makes sense for them. With good instructional designer support, faculty at higher education institutions can and should leverage these technologies more to improve residential education. Digital media allows faculty to provide richer content that the students can interact with. It can be used to deliver formative assessment so students don’t have to wait until a high-stakes assignment to find out if they are learning. In turn, higher ed can leverage multiple-format courses and effective checks on learning to meet the growing demand among adults for reskilling and upskilling for the post-pandemic job market.

I also think there is an opportunity for higher ed to serve adults who lost their jobs during the pandemic and are looking to reskill or upskill quickly so they can find new jobs or leave jobs at which they were underemployed. However, higher ed can only capitalize on this opportunity if they respond quickly to this market and think like job seekers instead of academics. They would need to collaborate across departments and offer these skill seekers the education products they need (short courses mapped to skills, certificates, hands-on training) rather than the products they typically sell (degrees).

Lastly, we don’t really know the answer to when the COVID-19 pandemic will end. Will everyone across the U.S. attend classes in person in fall 2021? Or will it take longer? Institutions were unable -- with good reason, of course, but unable nonetheless -- to deliver on the package deal of education and a new adventure to an entire year of freshman students who attended college classes from their childhood bedrooms instead of in lofty classrooms. It might not be possible to return to these students what they have lost in terms of that experience, but institutions need to be able to create something else to take its place that will make their investment in college worthwhile … and memorable. Shrugging the 2020 freshman year off might have serious ripple effects downstream -- students who might have elected to return to their alma mater for a grad program, or later for continuing education may decide to do it elsewhere or online. They may not recommend their college. They may be unwilling or simply not invested enough in their college to make donations later in life.

Crafting a new value proposition for college is uncharted territory, and higher ed institutions can approach the task creatively to differentiate themselves from similar institutions. Perhaps they create a new business model that allows students dropping out of college to return later, or pursue college piecemeal in the background of whatever else is at the forefront of their lives. Perhaps there are ways to accelerate their learning, or break their degrees into stackable microcredentials that they can use right away to get jobs? All these options will require higher ed to think outside of the monolithic model they have always forced students into.

It might be worth it for universities to bring together their internal stakeholders -- administrators, deans, department heads, representative faculty and learning design staff -- and go to the drawing board and create some alternative systems that complement rather than cannibalize their existing systems and capture those students that they are at risk of losing.

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