Ray Irving has grim memories of his earliest days as a distance learning specialist in higher education. Those memories include 45-pound boxes stuffed with books, massive postage bills—and disappointing drop-out rates as students struggled to engage with dense material and connect with remote faculty.
Those drawbacks have given way to high-speed, two-way video, collaborative software platforms, digital learning materials and a wide assortment of communication tools to connect students and teachers. In the years since starting in higher ed, Irving has leveraged those tools to build world-class e-learning platforms. He joined WashU Olin in April to repeat his success here.
Irving is partnered with Nina Kim, who comes to Olin from the University of Iowa with nine years of digital experience in instructional design, and together the pair is overseeing the construction and launch of Olin’s Center for Digital Education. Work is underway in the space behind Frick Forum on the first floor of Knight Hall and Bauer Hall. It’s expected to open in October.
Irving’s team is also building a new web-based digital learning platform called learn.WashU (“learn WashU”), which debuted already as a tool for the new class of first-year MBA students who started June 24. Read the Desk of the Dean from December 5, 2018, for more on that.
“The way the world’s changing, you have to keep increasing your knowledge and skills,” said Irving, director of the new center. “Universities have a real place to place in this because faculty are at the cutting edge of research and should be able to transfer the latest thinking.”
That philosophy is at the heart of the three goals for the new center: enhancing the Olin learning experience, extending the reach of the school and engaging learners for life—long after they’ve left Olin as alums.
“I was really excited about being a part of creating something,” said Kim, associate director. “This is truly an opportunity to figure out what online learning is at Olin—and all of WashU—and have the ability to create a team that was not already established.”
The pair envisions a center complete with green-screen studios that can put faculty on camera in authentic environments as they address classes. Banks of high-powered computers will support the creation of video-driven learning. And through it all, faculty members will partner with e-learning experts to help them structure their materials for a new audience.
In addition to physical construction, the Center for Digital Education is hiring up to 11 team members by year’s end with titles such as multimedia developer, video production specialist and media production manager. They’ll work hand-in-hand with faculty to produce instructional materials.
“Faculty are subject matter experts, but generally, they have never taken any education courses—or how to teach online in particular,” Kim said. “Once people talk with us and they learn what we do and how we can help them, they have been very open to working on their courses with us.”
Based on past success
Irving knows he and Kim can do it because he’s done it before—at the University of Warwick in the UK, working with Dean Mark Taylor when he led the business school there. The school won accolades for its online learning. “The reason Warwick was ranked No. 1 in the world in 2018 and 2019 by the Financial Times was because of the investment he made back in 2011,” he said. “It’s about dealing with faculty and investing in support, facilities and technology. That all comes back to leadership.”
In his public addresses on the subject, Dean Taylor has acknowledged Olin isn’t an early mover in this area, but he has expressed confidence that the school can benefit from the experience of those who have come before. “The early bird catches the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese,” he said.
In addition to the MBAs on their global immersion, PMBA students will start using the learn.WashU platform in January, EMBAs will follow in April and some executive education courses will start appearing on the platform in the interim. Irving and Kim expect everyone at Olin to be on the platform by fall 2020—including alumni, who will be granted access as needed for continuing education opportunities.
There are no plans yet to put the MBA program online, but plans are underway to create online versions of the specialized master’s in business analytics.
As Irving notes, we’ve come a long way from shipping books.
“In history, the biggest challenges would be technology, but that’s gone,” he said. “We never have a technical barrier. It comes back to people—persuading people that online can be as good if not better.”