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Creating a Digital Presence: The Fundamentals of Going Online

The EvoLLLution | Creating a Digital Presence: The Fundamentals of Going Online
Community building is more than just a knowledge transfer—it’s also about creating strong relationships.

Looking into the future of higher education, there’s no doubt that the online world will, in one way or another, be involved. It’s more important than ever to establish and maintain a strong digital presence and reshape programming to shift to the new normal. In this interview, Vincent Del Casino discusses the tools and approaches that can be used to shift into a new normal, the importance of a digital presence and how unbundling programs help serve adult learners in this new vision of higher ed.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Do you think some of the innovations and tools that we’ve used to support the shift to remote education are going to be adopted into our post-pandemic new normal?

Vincent Del Casino (VDC): It’s interesting to compare how much we’ve innovated relative to how much we have reacted–they’re slightly different. The interactive meeting space, like Zoom, has become a necessary outcome of this period of remote working and learning. And, its use may be more of an adaptation to the current reality and a convenience more than an innovation. When we get into innovation, for me, the question becomes, how does pedagogy start to change as a result of bringing these new technologies into the everyday? Or, do we maintain our standard sets of practices?

For example, if a faculty member uses Zoom to largely maintain synchronous courses and manage groups of people, is that innovation or is it simply taking advantage of what’s in front of you? It’s more about the faculty member reshaping the way they teach their lecture. That begins the process of innovating one’s pedagogy, where instead of focusing on old practices, one becomes more involved with the technologies that students are also using. I think some people are maintaining a consistent delivery of their classes, such as synchronous Zoom meetings, and some are finding it to be a challenge. There’s an interesting dynamic happening right now. We know that the workplace isn’t going to look the same post-pandemic. Many tech companies in the Silicon Valley are thinking of extending remote work longer-term. We have to support students going into this new work world, arming them with the tools to engage remotely.

Evo: How important is the university website and its digital presence in maintaining a level of engagements with students, staff and faculty?

VDC: Community building has always rested at the heart of the classic higher education model. You come together, share ideas, have lunch together, join clubs—it’s much broader than just knowledge transfer, as we all know. There’s no doubt that there are technological and digital ways to maintain those levels of connectivity.

Institutions with very large online programs or significant online occasional programs have certainly struggled with the question of creating an online-based community. It leads us to ask many questions. How active is your advising program? What do you do about student government for distance learners? What you’d find is that campuses that have already addressed these questions are able to pivot a little more quickly. That being said, the pressure is on a place like San Jose State, which has both deep residential experience and a lot of students who live off-campus and commute to come up with new and creative ways to engage students.

Mapping those new technologies and outreach strategies, though, can’t take place in a vacuum. They need to recognize what has worked in the past. For example, our various communities are supported through success centers. They are traditionally focused on the place-based student experience.

Building community through the web is a little harder because it takes a design infrastructure, so we need to come out from the classic web and try to create interactive spaces. What’s being demanded of us now is new, improved communication methods that would allow us to tell a story and connect with students through various mediums, which is more important than ever. Campuses that aren’t as ready to do that will have a harder time connecting and creating that sense of belonging.

Evo: During the last recession, higher ed relied on out of state students to build a revenue base to make up for declining state funding. Do you think we’ll be able to do the same or will it be a different approach?

VDC: It’s likely to be a different approach. The mobility of the entire global community is limited. Current strategies are largely based on projecting out and bringing people from out-of-state and abroad into our communities. But the fundamental demographic has shifted in the past 10 years. The first piece to this would be that the adult and continuing education space is becoming increasingly important, even as it becomes harder to attract out-of-state and international students. The ability for campuses to pivot to what Rovy Branon at the University of Washington often talks about as the 60-year-education model will also become more important as people have to reskill numerous times over their careers. So, more campuses will have to pivot while thinking about the diversity of their learners. If not, they’ll have a hard time reaching out and capturing where learning is going.

But, to get back to your question, if we’re going to stay connected with our out-of-state and international communities, we’re also going to have to add new value to that education. For example, a popular reason to come to SJSU is the connectivity of the alumni networking communities that we have, the deep connections we have with various industrial sectors in the Silicon Valley that constitute the innovation economy. We can help students maneuver through this complex network of non-profit and for-project organizations and industries as well as help move them forward in response to the evolving global economy.

At the same time, students are going to look toward campuses doubling down on broader liberal arts education. That’s what many companies are looking for now, students with both the critical thinking skills taught in the liberal arts as well as the soft skills learned in communications programs, for example.

In California, there’s been a shift—it’s anecdotal at this point—but there’s some data around people looking more toward applied associate degrees. There are pathways back to a bachelor’s for these students, but it’s a very different packaging of education than the traditional transfer model. If campuses don’t respond now, they’ll have a hard time recruiting transfer students down the road.

A lot of conversation is happening again around the emergence of mega-universities that’ll be able to swallow up and take large market share. In order to stand up to them, we also have to diversify ourselves in some radically different ways that challenge how we think traditionally about our students: who they are, where they’re going to be, when they’ll come to us and what they’ll need.

Evo: How important is it to start looking at unbundling existing degree programs and finding ways to create more diversified access to start delivering on that new vision of what higher education could be?

VDC: This is the tension–how do we deliver, talk about and think through learning? What it means, how we group it and how we get it going. Recently, I was in a department review in which they talked about their strengths in graduate education. I had asked if they thought about repackaging some of their skills-based courses for a community of learners who really need new methodological training. One faculty asked whether that “dumbs down” the curriculum. My response: it’s actually just presenting the same learning in different ways. You’re elevating the way in which people work every day. That seems to be like a highly valuable intellectual project.

Universities and colleges that will pivot successfully will be those who think about multiple entry points to their school and offer unique pathways to their credentials. That’s not something higher ed has really thought about before, and it’s one of the biggest pieces to the puzzle. If schools don’t re-imagine themselves in relation to some of this, they are going to have a harder time connecting their scholarship, teaching and thinking to where the future communities of learners find themselves.

We’re best to take our missions of access and success and justice and equity out into the world and try to connect with people where they are. That’s going to be a game changer–advantageous to campuses like us. We’re located in the middle of one of the largest and most expensive cities in the United States. We’re not going to grow physically (well, maybe upwards), but we can serve a lot more students by hybridizing and offering learning in different ways. This is not novel, but it’s not actually baked into the DNA of most campuses either.

Evo: How can some of the approaches and fundamentals that have built online education over the years be adopted and create access for adults by upscaling and rescaling programming?

VDC: There’s a huge philosophical debate that is taking place right now over this issue. My approach has been that the faculty need to maintain close ownership of the learning and the connection they share with the student. They need to figure out ways to connect their teaching to new audiences.

What that means is that we need to ask faculty how they like to teach and what the ways in which they can do that are. Some of those pedagogies are scalable, and others aren’t, but both add value in different ways. The right economic model, which relies not on a goal of profit but student access, allows for that flexibility to find the right approach for your campus. Sometimes we’re too rushed to find new markets for our schools, and that’s where we run into some core resistance.

Core resistance is understandable because behind it lies the fear that we’re going to change education in a particular way that devalues all the work and energy of those who have come before us.  Working from the ground up with faculty colleagues and talking about the intellectual project at stake here  tend to get everyone there faster. That scalability becomes more real.

The other piece of the puzzle is making students feel connected to faculty and community. Faculty are often concerned about this disconnection that distance produces. And there is a friction you have to work against as a faculty member in distance or remote modalities. But again, you can scale that sense of belonging by engaging in much more proactive community building. You can do that within and beyond the curriculum. In my experience, not one student has ever participated consistently in class. Now, online has made it mandatory for my classes. People have gotten very animated and talked for really long periods of time in my courses, which is fantastic. I had never seen that before, and I realized that I could teach in new ways because I had technologies that effectively enabled peer-to-peer work. Sometimes we forget to start with our core constituent here, which is people, and passionate faculty  can start to think about translating their work for them. When you ask them to do so, the entire idea of teaching online and remotely or in a hybrid framework starts at a very different place.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on May 14, 2020.


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