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Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, considers himself “terrible” at using technology in his personal life. His awareness of technology as an education tool also has significant deficits. But as digital learning has become essential to maintaining a viable institution, he’s embraced his gaps and sought others to fill them.

“I just think it’s part of one’s job as a teacher and as an institutional leader to try to get a ton of people who really do understand how these technologies enhance pedagogy,” Roth said. “I haven’t figured that stuff out in any way, but I have tried to put myself in front of people who have thought long and hard about it.”

Presidents face many challenges in this tumultuous period for higher education, but among the most pressing is the rapidly advancing technology landscape and its potential to fundamentally reshape the higher ed experience. Even as digital learning gains a foothold at the assistant/associate provost level, many campus leaders see digital learning as imposing or challenging, even as some argue it could motivate worthwhile transformation. 

Inside Higher Ed touched on this issue last month during its annual survey of presidents. Asked to rate how well prepared they were for each of 12 issues related to their jobs, presidents acknowledged significant shortcomings in their comfort with issues of digital learning. Of those 12 issues, digital learning earned the smallest number of “very well-prepared” or “well-prepared” responses -- slightly less than half of respondents registered those positive feelings.

A 2017 survey conducted by the American Council on Education presented similar findings. Just a hair below a quarter of more than 1,500 respondents said they felt unprepared for technology planning; only one other issue -- fund-raising -- drew more “unprepared” responses.

Though he doesn’t share the trepidation that some presidents associate with digital learning, Roth thinks he knows its source.

“There is a reasonable concern that one of the powerful dimensions of online learning is that it operates at a scale that undermines the attractiveness of the distinctive way any university or colleges teaches its students,” Roth said. “One of the things the [Inside Higher Ed] survey was registering was the concern that, even after MOOC mania is well behind us, online classes are going to grow in popularity and effectiveness.”

“Inside Digital Learning” talked to administrators about their experiences with digital learning, and to search consultants about institutions’ expectations for top officials. Conversations revealed that institutions expect presidents to be passionate about the possibilities of innovative teaching and learning and willing to consult experts on digital learning issues that leave them confused. Technology expertise is lower on the priority list -- though it can be useful.

Views From the Search

Search consultants say they’re slowly seeing an increased interest among institutions in presidential candidates who care about improving the learning experience. But institutions don’t often see expertise in technology as a must.

Higher education administrators often come in with a nagging sense that technology should be a central focus, but without the tools and expertise to accomplish such goals on their own, according to Phil Tang, a consultant for the search firm Witt/Kieffer.

“Some institutions perhaps thought that they could wait it out a little longer or didn’t need to address the challenge, whether because it was not relevant to the institution or to their culture, or that on the list of institutional priorities it was just not high enough,” Tang said. “There is a little bit of unavoidable peer pressure now for new chief executives to feel a bit behind the eight ball, given how many institutions appear to be doing something online.”

Many potential candidates have been in higher education for a long time and aren’t necessarily in a position to have hands-on technology experience, according to Jessica Kozloff, a senior consultant for Academic Search and former president of Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.

In some cases, according to Kozloff, search committees made up of faculty members are reluctant to hire someone with a reputation for “innovation” and “disruption” -- buzzwords that can foreshadow unwelcome changes.

Resources for Eliminating Digital Learning Anxiety

The Association of Chief Academic Officers is midway through a pilot fellowship program to train top university administrators on preparing for digital learning developments. Participants have been sharing updates and musings.

When in doubt, take a course. While at Smith College, Katherine Rowe -- incoming president of the College of William & Mary -- learned about modern American poetry through a Coursera offering from the University of Pennsylvania. "I did that for about three weeks, and that was enough for me to get a real sense that liberal arts teaching practices could be made really successfully into a massive online open course," Rowe said.

“I think boards are more interested in finding people who don’t necessarily have the exact experience in an area that they know needs help, but [have] the skill set to hire good people to do it, the ability to persuade the campus community that change can come without destroying everything they love and believe,” Kozloff said.

The increasing prominence of digital learning administrators indicates a growing interest in the issue at the administrative level, as well as an acknowledgement that others might have expertise that presidents lack.  

Jan Greenwood, partner and president of the search firm Greenwood/Asher & Associates, likens digital learning to the institution’s audit function: presidents need to know enough about it to confidently hire a competent person who oversees it more closely.

Respondents to the Inside Higher Ed survey below age 60 reported feeling well prepared or very well prepared for digital learning in slightly greater numbers than their peers 60 and older -- 52 percent in the younger category, 42 percent in the older one -- but generation alone isn’t the only factor in a president’s facility for digital learning, Tang said.

“There are many institutions and many chief executives who are of another generation who are doing very innovative things,” Tang said.

Rather, he believes the volatility and increasing diversity of the online market can be daunting.

“For an institution that has perhaps not invested in online education or has not developed a strategy recently, it has become increasingly difficult to figure out where to start,” Tang said.

Presidents Vary

Some presidents -- either by luck, intuition or some combination of both -- have found their entry point into digital learning, and now feel confident leading initiatives and setting the campus's technology agenda.

Katherine Rowe, currently provost and dean of faculty at Smith College, will assume the presidency at the College of William & Mary with deep experience in digital learning, having developed Smith's first MOOC, among other accomplishments. She sees digital learning as an essential component of an institution's mission, given the extent to which it's affecting other industries simultaneously.

"As we’re entering a period of very rapid change, both in our technology, our communication, new kinds of data coming into every profession, we are particularly going to need critical thinkers who have a breadth of knowledge to be able to adapt to those new modes of work and new tools," Rowe said.

For Merodie Hancock -- who started last month as the fourth president of Thomas Edison State University, a largely adult-serving New Jersey institution with a substantial online footprint -- the key to developing skills necessary for driving that mission was being intentional. She got her start as an upper-level administrator at the University of Maryland University College, where distance education was part of the campus culture from the beginning.

"From the early days, I thought, 'OK, I need to learn to teach online. I need to learn to do my business in various ways through various modalities,'" Hancock said. "'I need to find my information the same way our students do today. I started trying to exist in that world.'"

Hancock says she positioned Thomas Edison at "the cutting edge, but not the bleeding edge" of digital learning innovation -- experimenting when possible but keeping the focus on improving student outcomes. She acknowledges, though, that many administrators aren't in the same position to be motivated toward experimentation. In those instances, she recommends finding early adopters on campus who can champion initiatives, rather than pushing an ill-advised agenda from on high.

"Find those pockets of faculty and show how you can do some strong programming that aligns with your mission and open the door for experimentation with other faculty," Hancock said.

Guidance can come from other administrators as well. Search consultants said they often factor in a candidate’s capacity for making smart hires for areas in which they lack expertise. Institutions that know they’re behind the curve but don’t know how to get ahead often have to find dedicated team members focused on digital learning, according to Tang.

Overcoming Faculty Resistance

Presidents looking to invest in digital learning might fear backlash from tradition-minded faculty members -- until they've read these tips from Santa Ono, president of the University of British Columbia.

Identify local champions. Faculty members respond most strongly to concrete examples and success stories. When Ono served as president at the University of Cincinnati, he convinced faculty members that digital learning could work by pointing to an already established instructional design unit in the institution's nursing school. Connecting the existence of that initiative to improvements in retention and outcomes was convincing.

Talk to them directly. Don't send a deputy to meet with the rank and file. Demonstrating personal involvement in the process helps faculty members feel secure in taking risks.

Provide seed funding. Great ideas can come from anywhere. Providing reasonable but substantial funding can turn whims into full-fledged initiatives.

Once there, the right attitude can lead to fruitful collaboration. Kristen Eshleman, director of digital innovation at Davidson College, in North Carolina, said she was heartened early on in the tenure of current president Carol Quillen, who assembled meetings that included Eshleman as well as faculty members and other leaders of digital initiatives. The meetings helped define the institution’s fruitful partnership with edX -- and demonstrated to Eshleman a model for digital learning leadership.

“She spends a lot of time harvesting ideas by talking to a lot of people. It’s a very liberal arts approach to our problem,” Eshleman said. “She’s just outstanding at really understanding every possible angle, synthesizing that information and applying it to Davidson’s context.”

Being proactive isn’t always enough, Eshleman cautions -- even the most engaged presidents can still fall prey to hype. Eshleman said digital learning leaders often serve as a valuable source of rationality when outlandish proposals arise.

“Presidents at large universities can fall into the trap of thinking of ed-tech as a silver bullet,” Eshleman said. “That’s why I think digital learning folks can really close a gap between [top administrators] and education research.”

Listening to consumers can also be instructive, according to Santa Ono, president and vice chancellor of the University of British Columbia. In his prior job as president of the University of Cincinnati in the early 2010s, he detected a groundswell of student frustration about the institution’s digital learning offerings, of which there were virtually none at the time. Enrollment shortages and budget crunches added pressure.

Identifying areas that needed improvement helped Ono lead the charge. He sat down with the business school dean to confront him about why his department hadn’t yet established online programs.

“The faculty will look toward the president and provost,” Ono said. “They will look to the central administration to provide seed capital, which is essential to providing digital learning platforms, and to navigate the challenging but potentially rewarding deployment of distance education programs.”

The Road Ahead

Ushering in culture change was daunting, Ono said. Cincinnati’s information technology system needed a massive and costly upgrade to accommodate the new programs. But he’s translated his success with those initiatives to his work in Canada.

“You don’t personally have to understand the technologies, but it’s really important that you have individuals in central administration but also embedded within colleges and departments,” Ono said. “Some of the activity has to be very local, but you really have to think about an integrated system.”

It is possible to go too far in reshaping an institution for the digital present, Hancock said. Thomas Edison has a long-standing reputation for online programs and digital innovation. But institutions whose strengths lie elsewhere shouldn’t contort themselves to be something they’re not, she argues. Presidents can help strike the right balance.

“The beauty of the U.S. higher ed system is we have people who are experts in different areas, and students can pick matches. I feel sorry sometimes for presidents who get caught into this mismatch of what their college is about, should they be offering whole programs online, should they be going into that area, maybe or maybe not,” Hancock said. “It’s the president’s responsibility to align with the mission and the strategic plan.”

Collaboration breeds innovation, observers of digital learning agree. Prepared for digital learning or not, presidents must accept that a certain percentage of experiments are going to be risky -- but doing nothing might be riskier.

“I think that what deans and presidents have to get over is the fear that they might make a mistake, and to say, ‘We’re going to make a mistake and that’s why we’re doing it,’” Roth said.

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