Reflections on Presidents’ Forum 2017: Leadership and Innovation in a Time of Transition

Presidents Forum 2017 innovation PowellNote: This article is Part 1 of a multi-part series.

Each October, the Presidents’ Forum convenes to “advance the recognition of innovative practice and excellence in online learning.” The Forum provides an opportunity for higher education leaders focused on alternative and online learning to meet and dialogue on strategic, innovation-related, and regulatory issues. To say that these are interesting times for higher education, and especially online and alternative learning, would be an understatement, given the recent sessions here in Washington, D.C.

This year’s gathering focused on questions and perspectives related to innovation and the future. In this post and subsequent ones, I focus on key themes that emerged from the presentations and related dialogues: 1) our use of language and the need to re-define/clarify terms used in distance learning; 2) development of leaders for today and for the future to serve and advance our environment; and 3) emerging and rapidly evolving learning technology.

In regard to the importance and relevance of language, several examples of word use in question call for discussion, reflection, and change across higher education.

First, the word “online” was questioned by Dr. Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University and College for America, in his keynote presentation. Is it outdated? Has the word seen its day? Has or should the word “digital” be used instead? Follow-on questions from participants and me included: Is there another word or phrase that should be used instead? What is included in the concept of “distance” learning? Is it only online? Does it include competency-based learning? What is the place of blended learning in this definition? What about machine learning, augmented reality (AR), and/or virtual reality (VR)? Is “distance,” “digital,” or “online” learning inclusive of all? Should it be, or not? These collective questions call for an updated lexicon that provides guidance to universities, accreditors, and regulators alike.

The recent Office of Inspector General (OIG) report on Western Governors University was also a noteworthy topic of conversation in that it exemplified the need for both current and future definition of the phrase, “regular and substantive interaction.” Embedded in it are other questions, including: What is interaction in support of learning? Is it the same as, or different from, instruction? Is an in-person lecture considered interactive instruction? What about the traditional face-to-face classroom experience whereby an instructor lectures for 45-60 minutes with no dialogue with students — how is this substantive interaction? What if a student is watching a video remotely? Is this substantive interaction between faculty and student? Is an interaction with IBM’s Watson on a campus as a teaching aid considered substantive interaction? If not, why not? Is faculty coaching, advising, or feedback on assignments either in writing or recorded considered substantive interaction? What about adaptive learning, whereby the faculty member has defined the learning outcomes and content/knowledge competencies to be achieved with advising and coaching available to students and consistent and continual reinforcement of learning is promoted? Are these substantive interactions?

An industry-wide understanding of, and standard for, substantive learning interaction is clearly needed. There are no easy answers. Perhaps the focus needs to be on demonstrating learning outcomes and holding faculty and universities accountable for demonstrating student achievement here versus focusing on “substantive” and/or “regular” interaction. Is there is a definition or word that can be used in either situation on which institutions, accreditors, and regulators would agree? Given the fast-changing environment in which we live and work, if we agree today, what is the lifetime value of that current language or word? How do we keep it simple and allow for flexibility of interpretation by institutions in collaboration and compliance with accreditors? Interesting questions for reflection!



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