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Interview with Dr. Karen Pedersen, Chief Knowledge Officer for the Online Learning Consortium

About Karen Pedersen, Ph.D.

Dr. Karen Pederson is Chief Knowledge Officer for the Online Learning Consortium (OLC). OLC, formerly Sloan-C, works to advance quality online education through professional development; faculty and institutional support; research; and best practices publications. Dr. Pedersen leads OLC efforts in several key areas, including: learning innovation, quality enhancements, publications, research, and policy. She brings years of higher education leadership and online learning development experience to the organization.

Before joining OLC, Dr. Pedersen was the Associate Vice President for Extended Campuses at Northern Arizona University where she oversaw a system-wide enrollment management transformation, marketing, technology, and academic operations. Prior to that, she served as Vice President for Professional Studies at Southwestern College, where she developed, launched, and sought accreditation for more than 25 online degree programs, and expanded military partnerships. Other roles previously held include associate and dean positions at Upper Iowa University’s Extended University and a faculty position at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Dr. Pedersen earned Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University.

Interview Questions

[] You have a great deal of experience working with online education within colleges, and now through the OLC. Can you shed light on some of the biggest trends, milestones, and challenges shaping the field right now? Perhaps some of the most significant advantages of online programs?

[Dr. Karen Pedersen] For me, one of the greatest changes in online education has been the emergence of a dizzying array of vendors, partners, and learning solutions that colleges and universities must consider in today’s digital learning landscape. In the very early days, you had a learning management system and talented faculty members, and that was about it! You built it, but you built it alone.

Today, as we think about operations focused on learner success, there are many, many more social, instructional, collaborative, and learner support technologies that are impacting on both strategic directions for colleges and universities as well as day-to-day operations. The question today for many administrators is, ‘what do we build internally and what do we outsource?’ Secondarily, it’s a focus on the question of efficacy and what’s influencing learner success and ultimately persistence.

We’re also seeing new technologies impact on the learning environment. From learning analytics solutions to adaptive learning approaches, customized and personalized learning solutions focused on the needs of each learner are continually emerging and shaping today’s learning landscape.

I just have to say that it’s an exciting time to be in the field of online learning!

[] OLC is well known for its expertise in tracking and reporting key online learning trends. Can you discuss who, on the student side of the equation, is taking advantage of online programs, and why?

[Dr. Karen Pedersen] The Online Learning Consortium has for years provided an annual survey outlining the ‘state-of-the-state’ with regard to online learning. The most recent survey and previous reports are available for download. What we’re seeing in the trends is that a record number of higher education leaders, such as chief academic officers, are seeing online learning as critical to their institutional long-term strategy (70.8% in 2014 compared to 48.8% in 2002).

With this movement, more and more institutions are offering an array of learning opportunities, from fully online programs (at all levels – associates, bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees), as well as blended programs where both online and classroom-based learning are combined for a rich and engaging learning experience. The emergence of more competency-based education (CBE) models is certainly shaping and reshaping the learning landscape.
Add to this Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), with professors touching thousands of learners globally and a host of other providers (think, Straighterline and General Assembly, to name a few) and you have a full and very robust array of offerings, solutions, and providers contributing to a cornucopia of learning opportunities.

So how does an individual or prospective learner navigate the landscape? From the individual learner perspective, it’s a question of what’s needed? A degree, a certificate, or “just-in-time” learning to enhance workplace readiness? It may be one or all three or it may be something not yet on the horizon! What is apparent is that higher education institutions and others are continually positioning themselves in an ever-evolving education marketplace with new and different offerings to support evolving educational needs.

[] OLC works with a handful of organizations to survey and cover online learning trends at the institutional level, including its adoption, faculty and administrator perceptions, and plans to launch or expand offerings. Can you shed light on some of these trends and any other major milestones or challenges within the field?

[Dr. Karen Pedersen] We are really excited about a project that we’re working on with several other partner organizations to launch focusing on online learning. The last time this landmark study was done was in 2008. It is interesting to note that this is still a heavily downloaded report, but we all know a lot has happened in the last seven years. So, the ability to assess the K-12 learning landscape and provide an updated touch-point is critically important.

We recognize that today’s kindergartner or high school senior will at some point be pursuing an associate degree or bachelor’s degree or technical credential with one of our member institutions. Understanding today’s and tomorrow’s K-12 learning environment will help college/university faculty and administrators prepare for those learners on their campuses. This study will help those institutions think proactively about what will be needed with regard to faculty development initiatives to support faculty. It has the potential to shape thinking about emerging student support needs, plus, showcase best practices.

[] The Online Learning Consortium’s Online Learning Journal tracks and publishes research on the use and effectiveness of various instructional methods and course design practices. What advice might you offer long-standing instructors venturing into online education for the first time?

[Dr. Karen Pedersen] If we were looking at the early ’90s or today, my advice would be the same…find a community or network to connect with, learn from, and share with. The Online Learning Consortium (formerly the Sloan-Consortium) may be just the right community. From our journal Online Learning to our conferences to our professional development courses offered through the Institute, our community will surround you whether you are a novice or an expert—whether you are teaching a 100-level online course or a doctoral course—or whether you are working at a small private liberal arts college or a massive state institution. Finding a community is a critical first step because today you don’t need to “go it alone.”

In addition, I would like to point out that the Online Learning Consortium supports an open-source research journal, Online Learning Journal, which is filled with articles from faculty members, administrators, and others who are bringing research findings and insights gleaned from their campus or their course to a wider audience. I just picked up three editions of the journal and selected a handful of titles that may be of interest:

As a former faculty member, I know the power of research, especially as we explore something new. We’re in a time of a plentiful body of research in online and blended learning to draw from for guidance and best practices, whether it is about a pedagogical practice, a technology, or a case study focusing on a particular subject matter. I would also encourage you to do what faculty often do – a literature review.

[] What about students? What can they do to succeed in online programs?

[Dr. Karen Pedersen] This is a topic for which I could write a book! But simply put, for students, it is still about knowing yourself, researching your options, and asking lots of questions to find the right learning solution.
I always start with knowing yourself – do you like learning with others and find that being in a classroom is important? Do you consider yourself a savvy technology user? Do you have ready access to a computer? Are you self-motivated with the determination and “grit” to succeed in all learning environments or is one a better match? A simple Google search for “is online learning right for me” will yield a number of readiness assessments that can help you consider your readiness.

Next, researching options. This is where a Google search can certainly take a student to a lot of different places! What is important to note is that many online learners attend an institution that is within 100 miles from their home (Clinefelter & Aslanian, 2015). So, I always recommend starting by looking at institutions close to home and then broadening your search.

Finally, it is about asking a lot of questions to ensure a student is selecting the right institution for them. This is where institutions need to have personnel available to answer questions and ensure “best fit.”

From an institutional perspective, I am a believer in a strong on-boarding experience for new learners. It is important that new students know how the institution works and that they understand the resources they can tap to ensure their success.

Like I said, there are lots of facets to this question and all could be chapters in a book!

[] You must be especially tuned into how online education developed and factors that could shape its future. What do you foresee happening in the online learning movement 20 or 30 years down the road?

[Dr. Karen Pedersen] It’s interesting to think about what’s on the horizon and where we will be in 3 years, but looking 20 or 30 years out is mind bending! I’m not necessarily a futurist type that lays out predictions or pronouncements. I’m more of a pragmatist looking at nearer term opportunities and the probing and perplexing questions that result.

I believe one of those opportunities really focuses on issues around higher education costs (financial aid) and increasing access. The system we have today is in many ways unsustainable and for many, a higher education degree is unattainable. So, what does this mean for existing accreditation processes, alternative credentialing providers, higher education institutions, learners, and other stakeholders?

As we think about education, there is a continuum of needs over a person’s life. What if we began to think about education from a lifespan perspective and marry up experiences rather than have them in separate (or seemingly separate) silos? How would that shape and reshape the competency-based education conversation or any number of other conversations?

Within the educational landscape, what is it that separates exemplars from others – whether that is school districts, higher education institutions, alternative credentialing providers, workplace training programs, etc.? If we can isolate those best practices in a way that expands our thinking, our collaboration, and our partnerships, then we can weave together a seamless and personalized educational experience.