Tag: Center for Digital Education

In December 2018, I reflected in this very column on our plans to bring WashU Olin into a digital space—investing in virtual, online learning experiences. Mere months later, we welcomed Ray Irving and Nina Kim, who built a team and launched our state-of-the-art Center for Digital Learning in the fall.

Nina Kim and Ray Irving

Neither Ray nor Nina nor I could have imagined just how essential their services would become—and how urgently they’d be needed. Not even a semester past the CDE’s launch, the coronavirus pandemic forced a full migration into virtual classrooms.

Our world-class faculty, staff and students have been dynamic and resilient in this unprecedented situation.

“We had always planned to engage faculty in developing online sessions,” said Ray, the CDE’s director. “But that plan had been based on a more gradual transition over the next 12 months—not 200-plus faculty and staff in 10 days.”

When Ray and Nina signed on at Olin, no one could have anticipated a global pandemic that would empty university campuses around the world. But Ray and Nina—and the stellar team that they have recruited, including instructional designers such as Kella Thornton—have leapt into action to provide crucial faculty and staff support and training in online learning at this critical time.

CDE team member Charlie Drexler demonstrates the CDE’s green screen studio to faculty.

“Although online learning is new to Olin, it’s not new to Nina, Kella or myself,” Ray said. The urgency to deliver online learning support was. The CDE team moved hundreds of faculty and staff—many of whom had never used platforms such as Zoom—into a fully digital classroom environment.

“This was an all-hands-on-deck situation,” said Nina, the CDE’s assistant director.

Indeed, it was. Almost immediately, the CDE created collaboration resources with the faculty administration team to ensure a smooth transition for students, instructors and staff. The team scheduled training meetings, created a training program from scratch and provided the necessary resources for faculty, staff and students to remain connected—wherever they might be.

“We fully understand this is the worst possible circumstances,” Ray said, “but we were determined to play the hand that was in front of us.”

They have more than delivered. I’m immensely proud of this team, and of our community’s ability to pull together in this extraordinary moment. More than simply creating an environment where online learning is possible, Ray, Nina and their team—along with our outstanding faculty and staff—have provided the space for our school to truly thrive in difficult times.

“We have heard from multiple students,” said Ashley Macrander, associate dean and director of graduate student services. “They say they are truly enjoying the online classes and think everything has gone very well.”

I’m grateful as well for the teamwork and collaboration the CDE has received from the faculty. “The faculty have been amazing,” Ray said. “They have simply got on with the task in hand, worked with us and made this happen—in extremely short order. I guess that’s what you’d expect of world-class faculty but it’s been truly remarkable to see this happen in real time.”

Tom Fields, professor of accounting, teaches Strategic Cost Analysis via Zoom.

In fact, faculty have banded together on their own, creating a faculty learning group spearheaded by Andrew Knight, professor of organizational behavior. That group suggests new and innovative ways to use Zoom features as well as soliciting support and feedback from students, many of whom are technology experts and are gracious in sharing their insights.

Ten days after moving seamlessly into our new way of teaching, I’m proud to say we have 115 faculty teaching 230 classes across numerous time zones to many hundreds of students. We are ensuring that our students will continue to receive world-class education until such time as we can safely bring them back to campus.

I’m grateful for the foresight of our senior leadership team and the National Council for providing the resources and the talent to assemble the CDE. Most of all, I am grateful for the way the faculty, students and staff have rallied together.

We are getting through this like the world-class school that we are.

Pictured at top: Center for Digital Education team. Back row, left to right: Ray Irving, Wes Murrell, Shawn Bell, Emily Furst; Front row, left to right: Kella Thornton, Nina Kim, Charlie Drexler

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.

Mockup of the entrance to the Center for Digital Education on the first floor of Knight Hall. Rendering by Katie Wools.

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.”

Clear goals

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.”

Another view of the planned entrance to the Center for Digital Education. Rendering by Katie Wools.

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.”