Higher Ed Leaders as Online Ed.D. Students

A conversation with Gina Clark des Cognets.

January 12, 2020

Gina Clark des Cognets is a seasoned higher education leader focused on imagining and building powerful initiatives that lead to transformative educational outcomes at inspiring organizations.

Q: Gina, you are currently a student in the online doctor of education in leadership and learning in organizations from Peabody College at Vanderbilt University. You already have an M.B.A. from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Why did you decide to enroll in this Ed.D. program?

I’ll start with why an Ed.D., and then speak more specifically to why Peabody Online. In early 2018, I was 12 years into a rewarding career in higher ed administrative leadership at Tuck, and grateful to spend my days finding ways to creatively respond to a dynamically evolving higher ed landscape while coaching and mentoring talented colleagues. I envisioned someday leading a school or program and recognized that many higher ed leaders in those roles had doctoral degrees. Being in a classroom learning is one of my happy places, so I found myself researching Ed.D. programs that would fulfill my desire for a doctoral degree in educational leadership.

The Peabody Online program hit several important notes for me -- Peabody is a highly ranked, well-regarded school of education. The curriculum focuses on developing leaders who can successfully orchestrate systemic change in their organizations and appealed to my desire to gain practical knowledge and skills I could apply in real time. I loved that the program could be completed from anywhere -- my classmates live and work all over the world, which brings an incredible diversity of thought and experience to the program. Last but not least, what better way to learn about and understand the emerging force of online education than to be a learner and participant in an actual program? I feel a bit like I am getting two degrees -- the Ed.D. itself, and one in the experience of being an online learner.

Q: You are co-founder of the coaching and personal development company Connection 101 and are also building a higher ed innovation consulting practice. Tell us a bit about your current work and the career path that led you to where you are today.

Co-founding Connection 101 is the culmination of a dream I’ve had for over 20 years -- to create and build a business from the ground up. Ashley, Amy and I came together around a shared desire to empower teens and adults with frameworks and tools to build stronger human connections. Leveraging our combined experience in instruction, curriculum development, social entrepreneurship and business leadership, we are piloting our offering with teams of all kinds -- sports teams, business teams, research lab teams.

As a team, we appreciate and celebrate the many ways our individual skills and strengths complement each other, and are committed to building a positive working culture built on the framework we share in our workshops: trust, self-awareness, communication, connection and collaboration. Early feedback from our clients is compelling -- knowing our work makes a positive difference in how people live their lives is a privilege.

In addition to Connection 101, I am building a consulting practice focused on translating innovative educational ideas into action. My experience as an administrator helped me build a deeper understanding of the many tensions that exist in organizations as they approach change. Understanding the culture, the power structures, the impetus and urgency for change, and the resources available is critical to leading a successful change initiative -- neglecting to identify and understand these issues may lead to a less than beneficial outcome. I bring an understanding of these issues, in combination with relentless positive energy and grit to tackle uncertainty to every challenge I face.

I’ve always thought of my career as one built on meaningful zigs and zags versus a linear path. There is a quote attributed to Steve Jobs that really resonates with me: “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

Before attending Tuck I worked with a remarkable team of people led by Ken Lerer at his boutique communications firm, Robinson Lerer and Montgomery. My experience was deeply formative -- the work was intense, deeply collaborative and in service of some incredible brands: Microsoft, AOL, MTV Networks, The New York Times, NBC … the list goes on and on.

My two years as a student at Tuck ignited my passion for entrepreneurship, leadership and strategy. My plan postgraduation was to lead an emerging start-up food business, but to make a long story very short, that dream was not meant to be. I pivoted and spent a year working with and learning from Ken Novack, a brilliant leader at AOL TW. From there, I reconnected with a colleague in the Tuck network and joined Liam Donohue and his team to grow and build Business Intelligence Advisors, a distinctive research and training firm for investors. I was the ninth employee when I joined, and when I left three years later, we had close to 50 employees and a strong, profitable business.

I enjoyed my work at BIA yet felt the itch to be back in a more traditional educational environment and joined Tuck as a member of the alumni relations and development team in 2006. Over the course of my time at Tuck, I put my leadership, management and strategic thinking skills into practice as director of alumni relations, director of marketing and communications, chief of staff to the dean and associate dean of planning and operations, and did so in a collaborative and thoughtful learning environment, much like the one I thrived in as a student.

I started my courses at Peabody last January, while still at Tuck. The very first course in the program is Leadership Theory, and I had the privilege to learn from Chris Quinn Trank, who is one of the best professors I’ve ever had. The course involved weekly reflections that invited us to apply leadership theory to our own experiences. Our final assignment was to develop a personal narrative describing our definition of leadership and asked us to outline how we would embody leadership in the future. I was in San Francisco working on a project with IDEO when my final was due. As I sat in my hotel room, adding my voice-over to my slides, I recognized a familiar itch -- I was ready for a new career opportunity to share my experience and talents in a meaningful way while supporting my own needs for growth and development. I left Tuck in July in pursuit of that dream, and here we are.

Q: Your online Ed.D. program is run as a partnership between Vanderbilt and the for-profit OPM company 2U. As you know, OPMs are controversial in higher education. Can you speak to your experience as a student in the program, and your perspective on university/for-profit educational partnerships in general, based on your prior leadership experience at Dartmouth College?

Organizations, like people, approach change with varying appetites. So for many schools, my sense is that partnering with an OPM allows them to explore opportunities in the online space without feeling entrenched -- schools can experiment on the edges, do so in a (hopefully) high-quality way, and the new program can be executed without fear of head-count creep (the bane of trustees and university financial leaders) or a need to eliminate other roles to invest in an untested future program. And of course, as you’ve noted in this column many times, the ability to scale quickly and with an existing and skilled marketing engine to drive enrollment is a huge selling point.

Where I think partnering with an OPM could be less appealing, despite the obvious benefits stated above, is for schools that have highly established brands and expectations around the student experience and overall culture. Building a program in-house versus through a partnership may allow more of the nuanced and distinctive pieces of the on-campus student experience to be honed and drawn into the online experience. At Dartmouth, the MHCDS program is a terrific example of how a program built in-house successfully delivers an experience that incorporates those high-touch culture and experience nuances in a seamless way. The proof for me is in the enthusiasm of MHCDS alumni -- graduates are as passionate, if not more passionate, about Dartmouth as any graduate of the on-campus programs. That is quite an accomplishment.

From a university perspective, when the partnership works well, it feels seamless for students and faculty. The OPM learning platform is easy and intuitive to use for all students and feels integrated with university platforms. Faculty feel supported and empowered when using the tools and are energized and excited by the opportunity to scale their impact by disseminating their hard-earned knowledge to more students in new ways. The OPM team is highly responsive to feedback on how to make the learning experience stronger, and the university brand presence is predominant throughout the experience.

From the OPM perspective, the primary goal must be to deliver a very high-quality learning experience that builds on the learnings from each new partnership, creating efficiencies and improvements, while also being responsive and sensitive to what makes each partner unique. This is where I imagine there might be a tension between leveraging learnings and experience from different partners, while ensuring that each school’s online experience ties back to what makes its core programs distinctive.

My experience in the Peabody program has been quite positive -- the faculty are authentically engaged in my learning process, my peers push my learning and are supportive and kind classmates, and taking asynchronous and live class sessions has become second nature. A highlight is the highly personalized video feedback I received on one of my assignments -- it was like having one-on-one time with my professor, despite being in two different states.

One area of opportunity I see stems from my formative years as a student and an administrator at small-scale schools with distinctive, closely knit cultures. Given our small but mighty cohort sizes, I believe the Peabody Ed.D. program could be even stronger if students had a more intuitive, simple way to stay connected to each other -- both within our own cohort, as well as across cohorts. The OPM’s existing social networking and connection tools could be improved -- perhaps by leveraging existing platforms such as LinkedIn -- to fertilize more meaningful connections among students.

Developing a rich sense of community among online student cohorts is an area many online programs could look to their on-campus cousins for inspiration and guidance. Investing in more intentional efforts to create connections throughout the student experience -- both online and off-line/in-person -- would offer a low-risk, high-yield approach to build engagement across students and alumni. I’ve seen firsthand the way investing in this kind of network yields great benefits: increased career opportunities for students and alumni, deeper pipelines of talented students for the program, access to new and interesting speakers for classes, etc.

Q: What are you thinking in terms of your medium-to-long-term career goals and objectives? Where would you like to see your education, credentials and experience eventually take you? What is your dream job?

I have a dream career path versus a dream job. In it, I continue to feed my deep desire to learn and grow while also make a positive impact as I share my energy, abilities and experience with mission-driven organizations that align with my personal values.

As the cost of education continues to rise and escalate, I’m deeply curious and interested to be a part of organizations that are finding innovative ways to increase access to affordable, meaningful education for all. As one example, programs like the College of Innovation and Design at Boise State are inspirational in their willingness to break out of traditional approaches to create positive, meaningful and affordable learning opportunities for their students.

If I continue my “connect the dots analogy” from earlier in this piece, my near to midterm goal is to keep striving for “dots” or opportunities that make me feel equal parts exhilarated, challenged and animated when I reach for them. Those opportunities will include building and creating -- whether starting something from the ground up, or from the inside of an organization, I am someone who enters an incredible flow state by translating ideas into positive action. My work will also offer me opportunities to mentor and coach future leaders -- I am inspired by what I learn from those I have the privilege to support on their own learning journeys, and I am grateful for and humbled by their belief in me as a leader and coach.

My ultimate goal is to be able to look back on my career as a whole and to know I made a positive and lasting difference for as many people as possible by enabling access to life-changing education. For me, the opportunity to learn and grow is as important as food, shelter and love -- learning and growing makes us human.

Thank you for the opportunity to connect and to share my experiences!

What questions do you have for Gina?


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