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A Conversation with EdX's Nina Huntemann

On giving up tenure for a leadership role in open online learning.

May 15, 2019
 
 

Dr. Nina Huntemann is the Senior Director of Academics and Research at edX. 

Nina graciously agreed to answer my questions about her transition from a traditional academic faculty position to move to edX.

Q1:  Tell us about what you do as the Senior Director of Academics and Research at edX?

My role at edX is to represent the voice of the educator to both our internal product, engineering and services teams as well as to our 140+ partner institutions.

What this means in practice is, I draw upon 20 years of postsecondary teaching and 8 years of higher ed administration experience to enable our partners to design and deliver effective learning experiences at scale.

To do so, I collaborate with our product delivery teams to build evidence-based teaching and learning tools informed by education research and learning science, and advise our partners how best to use the Open edX platform.

Since we started offering credit-eligible courses and programs on edX, I am also responsible for setting policies and advising on issues such as academic integrity, curriculum design and accreditation.

Q2:  You left a tenured faculty job to join edX.  Explain.

The path to tenure, while hardly transparent and certainly challenging, is a tangible goal that is well understood and broadly recognized. But, the goal after tenure is far less clear.

Like many colleagues I discussed this with, after I was awarded tenure I asked myself “what next”?

When I considered the organizational structures of the institution where I had achieved tenure and the realities of transferring tenure elsewhere, opportunities within the academy felt very limited.

I began to see that many compelling possibilities for skills development and career advancement existed outside of the university.

I love teaching and believe deeply in the transformative power of education, so I was also searching for a role and organization at which I could have a greater impact on students.

I was awarded tenure in 2009. In 2011, a good number of my current and former students were involved in Occupy Wall Street, occupying and volunteering at Dewey Square, Boston’s version of Zuccotti Park. This park is a short walking distance from where I was a professor at Suffolk University. The students were posing hard questions about student debt, the rise of contingent labor replacing livable wage employment, and the value of their education in the “new” economy.

Later that year MOOCs arrived, and the hype that followed only amplified these questions and criticism of traditional paths to postsecondary education. To be clear, invoking these events is not to suggest that either forecasted or fixed the challenges facing higher education today, but both were heavy on my mind when I asked myself, “what next?”.

The opportunity to join edX came along as I was contemplating my own future as well as the future of higher education. The academic and research director position brought together my strengths as an educator and researcher, and my knowledge of how universities work.

I was thrilled and terrified; the job challenges and the working environment were very different from academia, where I had spent most of my professional life. I requested and was granted a two-year leave of absence, which made the leap from a college campus to an edtech startup safe to try.

I am grateful Suffolk University supported me, as walking away from tenure was like jumping off a cliff, but the leave of absence was my net.

Four years later, I couldn’t be happier with my decision.

Q3:   What will be different about higher education in the U.S. in 10 years?

The unrealistic expectations and hype about MOOCs from 2012 still lingers, so I am quite cautious when asked to forecast the future of higher education.

The trends that I believe will continue to change how universities design and deliver education and how students access it - modular learning, stackable credentials, and anytime, anywhere materials that support lifelong learning - have been well-covered by others, including here in your IHE column!

At the frontlines of technology, I would say, I am excited about employing artificial intelligence and machine learning to make a student’s learning journey more flexible and personal.

I see virtual and augmented reality increasing access to labs and test environments that are otherwise impossible for students who live far from well-resourced facilities.

Scalable digital platforms will enable more colleges and universities of all types and sizes - from elite, private schools to regional, public universities and community colleges - to create high quality and lower cost online and blended learning programs in order to reach more and different students.

Open source, networked technologies will empower learners to advocate for and navigate their education, and connect them to peers and domains of expertise heretofore undiscoverable and inaccessible.

If it isn’t obvious, I am an optimist, and the past four years I have been at edX has made me even more so.

The innovations we see today will continue to expand access and increase the quality of higher education.

Our work over the next ten years, however, is to ensure that better access and higher quality is more equitably distributed, reaching those who will benefit the most, not just those who already benefit.

What do you want to ask Nina?

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