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Portrait of Kemi Jona, vice provost for online education and digital innovation at the University of Virginia

Kemi Jona

Kemi Jona has been the vice provost for online education and digital innovation at the University of Virginia since November. This seems like a good point in Kemi’s tenure to look forward regarding his work at UVA and back on his higher education career.

Q: You moved to your current role at UVA from your previous role at Northeastern University, where you were the assistant vice chancellor for digital innovation and enterprise learning. What attracted you to the UVA role? And what are the big goals and challenges that you are tackling at UVA?

A: Thanks for the opportunity to participate in this Q&A, Josh, and for your thoughtful analysis and writing about online and digital issues and trends. There is always a lot going on in the space (especially recently), and I value your column to bring important news and perspectives to light.

The role at UVA was appealing on a number of levels for me. First, UVA is one of our leading public universities, and while I have had the privilege to work at several top schools during my career, I always wanted to get back to a public institution. An animating principle for me is the power of online and digitally mediated learning to enhance access to high-quality educational opportunities, and that aligns perfectly with the mission of public higher education. I began my academic journey as an undergraduate at University of Wisconsin at Madison—another great public university—and I was excited to be able to contribute to advancing UVA’s role in serving citizens of the commonwealth and our country.

Second, while UVA has incredible brand recognition and has some pockets of strength in online programs, there is so much potential to grow that portfolio in really strategic ways and reach learners that can not relocate to Charlottesville. That was another appealing aspect of the role.

In terms of challenges, one I find super interesting is that UVA has a reputation as an institution with a strong residential experience. So, finding the sweet spot for reaching new learners via online learning while honoring the ethos of the UVA experience will be key. Beyond that, I think we face the same challenges as our peers, and those are primarily driven by the macro trends you and others have been covering for some time: the regulatory changes being advanced by the Education Department and how they will impact both online and traditional programs, the unfolding drama among OPM vendors, changing preferences of both learners and employers, and an increasingly crowded online marketplace.

Q: You’ve had a long academic career, starting with a Ph.D. in computer science and moving through various faculty, administrative and leadership roles. What career advice do you have for anyone thinking about the steps necessary to ascend to a university’s top online education/digital innovation role?

A: I think my background and training as a researcher and developer of learning technologies has helped me a great deal along the way. To be successful in this type of role means deeply understanding the affordances of new technologies and how they might best support teaching and learning in exciting new ways. In the current moment, higher education needs innovation more than ever, and simply offering commodity programs as the market gets increasingly crowded just won’t cut it. My advice for those thinking about leading in this space is to always bring forward creative ideas that will push the envelope beyond business as usual. How can digitally mediated learning help advance the mission of your institution or serve new populations in ways that might not have been feasible before? If you can add value to the leadership conversation in these ways, you will find success.

Q: As UVA’s top online education person, what keeps you up at night? What should those of us leading our institution’s online learning efforts be worried about most?

A: You and others at Inside Higher Ed have been covering the perfect storm facing higher education in the coming decade: a shrinking population of high school graduates, the affordability crisis and political, reputational and regulatory threats. Any one of these would be a lot, but we must navigate all of them at once along with the unanticipated second- or third-order effects. For example, will colleges that find themselves in financial straits stampede into online offerings to stay afloat? What impact will that have on the marketplace and consumers’ decision-making? How will schools differentiate their online offerings and attract learners if there are 10 to 100 times more programs than today?

These are tough challenges, to be sure, but it is also a tremendously exciting time for those of us in the online and digital learning community. The role of online learning is only going to get more important to the viability of higher education institutions and their ability to achieve their missions. So, for me, this is an exciting window of opportunity for those leading online learning at their institution to step up and meet the moment. And I expect to see a lot more collaboration and not just competition in the years ahead.

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