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Interview with Matthew Rascoff, Vice President, Learning Technology and Innovation, University of North Carolina

About Mr. Matthew Rascoff

Matthew Rascoff is Vice President of Learning Technology and Innovation for the University of North Carolina (UNC) System. He oversees the University’s online and blended learning strategy, including research and development, student experience and outcomes, faculty development, and marketing.

Before joining UNC, Mr. Rascoff launched JSTOR’s first international office in Berlin. JSTOR, or Journal Storage, is a digital library that provides access to thousands of academic journals and other materials. He also co-founded the strategy group at Ithaka S+R, an incubator and think tank for higher education technology ventures. Other companies with which Mr. Rascoff worked include: Wireless Generation, an education technology company; Katzenbach Partners, a strategy consulting firm; and Google.

Mr. Rascoff holds an undergraduate degree from Columbia University and an MBA from Harvard Business School. He also attended Bogazici University in Istanbul as a Fulbright Scholar. In 2013, Mr. Rascoff represented the state of North Carolina as German Marshall Memorial Fellow.

Interview Questions

[] The University of North Carolina (UNC) offers several distance learning options, including online degree programs. Can you discuss the institution’s online learning efforts? What makes UNC’s online degree programs effective and/or unique?

[Mr. Rascoff] UNC Online offers over 350 programs from our 17 institutions, from certificates to doctorates. Each year we have over 25,000 fully online students across the UNC system and over 95,000 students taking at least some of their courses online. That scale translates to a diverse portfolio of programs and certificates for nearly any learning goal or interest a student might have. We harness resources from across our 221,000-student system to improve outcomes and offer the best possible experience for our students. Faculty and staff at UNC institutions work nonstop to innovate in course design, instructional methods, and technology with the goal of improving the experience and outcomes for our students.

One system-wide collaboration here in North Carolina is our UNC Online Language Exchange. The Language Exchange is a network of 15 institutions in our system that offer dozens of online and video-based language courses to student across the state each semester. The program allows us to make instruction available in lesser-taught languages, even on our smallest campuses. Our faculty work together to make sure their departments offer courses that are complementary to those offered by other institutions in the UNC system, maximizing the diversity of courses and languages taught each semester, and minimizing redundancy.

The Language Exchange has been so successful that we are now taking this model to new disciplines, and supporting collaborations among faculty in developing and delivering complementary course offerings online.

[] Recent data from IPEDs and the Babson Survey Research Group suggest major public universities like UNC have become online education’s biggest adopters. What motivates large public institutions to invest in online programs and how do they benefit the institution and its students? Are there any barriers that limit broader adoption?

[Mr. Rascoff] Online programs provide the flexibility that gives working students access to higher education that would otherwise be impossible. As America’s first public university, UNC’s mission remains close to our founding ideals – to discover, create, transmit and apply knowledge. Our number 1 goal is to raise the share of adult North Carolinians with a college degree from around a quarter to a third in the next ten years. To do that we need to meet the needs of a changing society by providing high-quality online and blended programs.

Online learning innovation is crucial to maintaining the strength and success of North Carolina’s public higher education system. Simply put, with the addition of online programs, UNC can offer educations to more and different kinds of students than we could serve with residential programs alone.

At UNC we’re concerned that faculty are being asked to teach online without the preparation and professional development necessary to be successful. It can be daunting to figure out how to provide a meaningful learning experience and evaluate student performance when they’re no longer sitting in front of you. Last year nearly a quarter of our 16,000 faculty members taught at least one online course and 5 percent taught fully online. But the resources available to faculty to support these efforts have not kept up with the demand.

At the UNC system level, we’re creating professional and peer-learning opportunities to support online course design and delivery. Our signature online and blended course development program is called the Instructional Innovation Incubator fellowship (i3@UNC). This annual program brings together faculty for 10 days of intensive online course development, supported by the best instructional designers and technologists in the UNC system. We bring in national leaders in online learning to inspire our i3@UNC fellows and give them small grants to keep working on their courses when they return to their campuses at the end of the fellowship. Alton Banks, a chemistry professor at North Carolina State University, taught in a face-to-face setting for 39 years. He developed his first online class, “Chemistry and Society,” through the 2014 i3@UNC fellowship and it was offered online this fall for the first time.

[] According to the same reports, online enrollments are at an all-time high, but most students have no online learning experience. What advice would you offer readers considering online learning for the very first time?

[Mr. Rascoff] There are many different criteria a prospective student should evaluate when they’re considering online programs, both instructional and (social). It’s also important for students to understand their own learning style and motivations. Students should assess the full range of the experience when determining which program meets their needs best.

For a working mom, a program that offers self-paced assignments and a flexible testing schedule might work best. For someone who’s re-entering higher education to finish a degree full-time, a program with an emphasis on group discussions and assignments, and that provides a single academic advisor, might deliver the important social experience he or she needs to be successful.

Students should explore their goals and their needs with a program coordinator or advisor. Just a few considerations might be: How much interaction do students within the program have with one another? What technology is used for course instruction and how is course material delivered? How are tests administered and does flexibility exist to accommodate working students? Are student advisors available and how are students matched? How does the program support student growth and program completion success? What is the average program completion timeframe?

Another important factor that prospective students should research is the employment outcomes of the program, and the debt burden they will take on. Good programs more than pay back the investment that students make. The new College Scorecard from the U.S. Education Department is a good place to look for job outcomes. We also encourage students to review the College Portraits site, which includes performance data about all our institutions, and NC Tower, which shows earnings for all our graduates who remain in North Carolina.

Online programs offer flexibility, but students need to be well-prepared and equipped to take on the time management challenge and the financial investment.

[] Online programs are incredibly diverse, which can make them difficult to compare. What are some of the most important factors they should consider as they evaluate online schools?

[Mr. Rascoff] Building on the previous question, I think it’s really important for students to understand how they learn and what their goals are when considering online programs. Students should determine what their preferences are when it comes to instructional methods and information delivery, and be realistic about their comfort level with technology. An online program coordinator can speak to the prospective student about program match depending on their personal learning style.

In terms of importance, I’d list these as the top three factors students should explore when comparing online programs:

  • Instruction and course information delivery methods
  • Support services (such as advisors, career planning resources, student mentorship, etc.)
  • Flexibility of schedule

One last factor students should consider is that large, public universities – like the institutions within the University of North Carolina – maintain rigorous regional accreditation standards (actually a higher level than national accreditation), and that ensures students know they’ll have earned a quality (and permanent) degree. It doesn’t hurt to have the prestige of the University of North Carolina attached to that degree either!

[] Online programs can accommodate a range of students unable to attend campus courses, including military service members and veterans. Active-duty and reserve military service members can have particularly difficult logistical considerations: they could live in different time zones, have unpredictable schedules, or be subject to transfer. How do colleges like UNC meet the needs of military students enrolled online?

[Mr. Rascoff] Active duty military and veteran students are incredibly important to the University of North Carolina. Their drive and discipline can make them some of our most successful students; and as citizens who’ve served our country, it’s important that we do as much as possible to support their success. North Carolina has the second-largest population of military affiliates of any state – we have around 750,000 vets and 162,000 active duty military. We want them to study with us.

Each of our campuses, as well as our UNC system office, manages distinct efforts and programs aimed to support our military students. For instance, last year we launched a program called UNC Core, which helps military students build up the credits they need to qualify for transfer into one of our online BA programs. UNC Core makes it easy for active duty service members and veterans to complete core requirements through self-paced or semester-based courses and transfer them to a UNC program to complete their degree.

As of this year, we are granting in-state tuition to military-affiliated students no matter where they are in the world. There are some special requirements to qualify, so check out our resources for military students, a starting place for military members and veterans to understand the options.

[] Not having to report to a campus makes online education accessible, but one would expect social dynamics to be different without a physical classroom structure. In what ways can online learning environments help and hinder student discussion and collaboration? How can online colleges help remote students feel connected with their schools, instructors, and classmates?

[Mr. Rascoff] While the social aspect of online learning is significantly different than in a residential program, technology can allow our students to have very rich interpersonal experiences. All of our programs make use of Learning Management Systems that facilitate sharing and discussions, and sometimes incorporate social media tools and blogs for assignments that create a more social experience. We are also piloting a new system called Uvize, a new online platform that helps military students build mentoring relationships.

Instructors across the UNC system are experimenting by creating profiles and encouraging students to do the same, which adds a warmer, more human element to the shared learning experience. Students and faculty can connect based on shared personal characteristics and enjoy a certain camaraderie through the online learning environment.

Beyond that, our various programs also offer different types of student support. Advising and career services are something that are readily available to all students, but many of our campuses and programs organize in-person informational or networking events and student mentoring programs. Those initiatives can give students a better chance to connect one-on-one with their peers and get individual support, both academic and personal, that supports and propels their success. As we grow the number of programs offered through UNC Online, we also want to continuously improve the options students are given that allow them to feel a greater sense of connection with their classmates and the program.

[] Do you have any additional advice for readers considering online degrees?

[Mr. Rascoff] Online programs offer so much flexibility. Adult and non-traditional students for whom residential programs aren’t feasible can complete courses on a schedule that allows them to balance work, family and school while earning their degree or certificate. Education opens doors, and as we face the need for a more educated workforce, I’d encourage anyone who’s contemplating whether an online program might be the right fit for them to explore the programs offered at UNC and reach out to a program coordinator.