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Scaffolding Innovation & Growth with Dr. Adam Fein

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I recently had the privilege of sitting down to speak with Dr. Adam Fein, Vice President of Digital Strategy & Innovation at the University of North Texas (UNT). We covered a lot of ground exploring the great work happening around digital education and improving the student experience at his campus. I appreciate him taking the time out of his busy schedule to speak with me and share all that he did.

Dustin Ramsdell: Can you share your history in the higher ed field?

Dr. Adam Fein: Before coming to the University of North Texas, I worked for the University of Illinois for about 17 years — all of my degrees are from there as well. It’s a really great place but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to come to a research university in a slightly warmer climate. Particularly since we’ve got these amazing demographics being a minority majority institution with 42% first generation students. That’s near and dear to my heart and the mission of public education. So, that was a wonderful opportunity.

I also worked in the corporate world for Quaker Oats, Pepsi, and Gatorade for three and a half years before University of Illinois. So, I have a little bit of experience there too. But, in large part, dealing with online education and training, then broadening that and thinking about digital strategies in the physical and virtual spaces in higher education and today for the University of North Texas. It’s been a great first fourteen months here. It’s a cool place.

DR: What drew you to your current role?

AF: It was the demographics, infrastructure, and philosophy that I saw when I interviewed here. While getting to know my boss, our Provost Jennifer Kyle, and President Neil Smatresk, I could see that they have a true heart for students and really want to do some experimentation to tear down some of the walls that have limited us in this industry where we have not done a good job moving and changing. There’s some good reason for that, and some not so good. There are some tried and true wonderful things about academia that need to stay in place because they have the students at heart. But, I often tell the story of if you were to take a dentist from years ago, let’s say 1920, and take her to 2020, she’s looking around saying “Oh my god, this is what a dentist’s office looks like now!” She would be blown away. If you take a professor and do the same thing, it would feel very similar. That’s a problem. It’s not as if we haven’t learned more about how the brain works and how we learn things. So, our physical and virtual spaces are a little bit behind on that across higher education.

Part of my mission here is to help us think through this upcoming generation of students learning in very different ways. It’s not just the first year class of 18 year olds either, it’s adult learners who are also learning in different ways. They need that flexibility and so all those things really drew me here because it’s a place where you can carry some of that out with the students in the center.

DR: Can you give some examples of the work you do?

AF: To me, it’s really important that we put some empiricism behind this. There’s a lot of anecdotal research out there. That’s good, but we have a Digital Learning Research Center where we’re studying a lot of this stuff so that we can put it right into practice, and we’re partnering with some other wonderful peer institutions like UPenn, Columbia, University of Illinois, James Madison, Penn State, and others.

One of the things we’re doing is we have a biology for non-majors course, like many universities. Just like many universities, this is a tough class for students. So, I went to the professor who happens to work with us and said, “Hey, what’s the one area that students are getting stuck the most?” She said, “Hands down it’s the chromosome. It’s just hard; you can’t look at a chromosome, you have to read about. It’s kind of cumbersome and the scores on assessments for that are really low.” So, what we’ve done is create a virtual reality chromosome. Students can stretch it, identify things, and pull it apart. We’re A/B testing that now to see if it results in better learning performance.

From a programmatic standpoint, we partnered with Coursera last year. I did a lot of work with them at the University of Illinois. It’s really a great company, and they do lots of good stuff. They have a social mission, which is not always the case with for-profits, and they understand academia pretty well.

There are 36 million people in the United States who have started college and haven’t finished. It’s a loss. In the words of former the Under Secretary of the Department of Education, Ted Mitchell, the two dirtiest words in higher education are “some college.” What that means is you’ve got debt, you’ve got credits, but you have nothing to show for it to help you get a career and pay that back.

When I got here, I discovered that we have this amazing bachelor’s degree completion program with 1,200 students in it. We’ve benefited from being in this large metroplex, Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW). I think there are a whole lot more people who need this and, right now, we’re not reversing the trend in this country. We kept working on this and Coursera liked the idea. So, we’ve just launched this program and it’s been great. If we can be a small part of helping people, that’s something we want to do. We’re pretty excited.

DR: What was the extent of UNT’s online programming when you first took this role in 2018?

AF: We had pretty robust online programs, so we just needed to build some things within what already existed. We rethought our intake process and prioritization to put the most resources on the things that matter the most to our colleges.

We instituted a complete “quality matters” review process. It’s not just about the quality of the content that we’re doing but we’re also doing some pretty heavy work into ensuring all of our courses have multimedia. That’s my research area — the cognitive theory of multimedia learning. So that we don’t just have flat, asynchronous learning with text only, we’re enhancing within that area. It’s also really important that we brought in a compliance team because we want to make sure that we’re developing our materials proactively for our students with disabilities. That’s really important to us, and we’ve made huge gains there.

We had online programs and courses, but I wouldn’t say that we had a unified UNT brand across those. We had a website but it wasn’t cohesive. That was an opportunity to lovingly poach a couple of my colleagues from Illinois to staff on our digital growth team. Now we have some pretty awesome pages for each program that not only give you information on the program but also tell you what jobs you can get if you get that degree and even tell you what jobs are currently available from where you’re logging in from. This is 2020, and this is what we need to be doing. Students want to know the cost, how long it’s going to take, and what they are going to get out of it. We need to be providing that information.

DR: How are you working to support the growth of your online students as this trend continues?

AF: We’re very much thinking about all of that. We’re a university of almost 40,000 students here. About 90% of them are residential and 10% are fully online, but that’s growing. So, we now have an online orientation for them, which is not perfect yet but we’re working to improve and grow it.

We feel very fortunate to have continued, sustained growth by virtue of being in the fastest growing metroplex in the country. There are a lot of corporate industries moving here now. That doesn’t mean we can sit on our hands. We still have to continuously improve.

Part of that is partnering directly with companies like the Dallas Cowboys, Cinemark, and JPMorgan Chase. The PGA of America is moving right down the street from where we have our Frisco campus, and we are going to be their exclusive education provider. Those are important partnerships to us. We are a four-year public institution that believes wholeheartedly in the well-rounded student but, at the same time, we want to produce graduates and we want those graduates to get jobs.

Dealing with this growth takes a lot of work. I’ve got some fellow vice presidents and the president’s cabinet, and we’re talking about this all the time about how we can help each other and how we can better communicate. In the end, we’re working together to figure out how we can get students really high quality solutions.

DR: Turning a big ship can be difficult. In your role, you’re tasked with innovation, could you talk us through your perspective on change management at the university and how you gain the trust & buy-in of folks like faculty?

AF: We are fortunate that we have 14 colleges and 14 really excellent Deans. It starts there.

When I interviewed for this position, I thought, “Hey, the President is awesome, the Provost is awesome, but what’s really going to tell the stories are the deans.” If we don’t have the right connection between administration and academia, it just makes everything harder. All 14 of them were at the interview and they asked great questions and, when I got here, we had a lot of one on ones so I could better understand their goals.

Getting to consensus came down to, we don’t have to necessarily stop doing other good things. We’re not stopping teaching face-to-face. We want to do a better job teaching face-to-face. We want to integrate technology and new pedagogical practices. Fortunately, I was able to gain some trust there and then we have been working together on all kinds of new projects so we can do some of these new things and build training.

We’re not trying to surprise people with stuff,  we need to ensure that what we’re doing is part of the strategic plan and then it doesn’t become so difficult. It hasn’t been a huge uphill climb because of the relationships, which allows us to do it from the bottom up and the top down.

DR: What trends are you seeing right now around student success?

AF: We’re working hard here at the University of North Texas on creating better user experiences and helping students track their way through the pathway to their career.

Honestly, that’s not me. That’s the students. Students are helping craft our mobile app and part of that is they just want to pick up their phone and see where they are, whether their assignment is due tonight, or see that they are 61% done with their degree, these are the appropriate prerequisites for this course, that they can take this course but it’s not going to count towards their degree… These are things that we’ve been able to do.

Another trend that comes across my mind is stack-ability. There are times where you need a certificate or a module or whatever your boss tells you you need and we’ve got to create pathways that stack. So, you try this and that was pretty good, then you want to move into a certificate and then into a degree. We want to make those things seamless for people.

I talked to another group about subscription models. Do we need to allow people that can move a bit quicker that freedom and allow other people to go slower? That’s just the tip of the iceberg and, honestly, we can’t do it all at once. There are a lot of governance and legislation that prevents us from ensuring that our students can access federal financial aid. It’s very old thinking and we need to do better on that, but we will get there. I think that’s what our students want us to do.

DR: Is there anything you’re reading/watching/listening to that you’d like to recommend readers check out?

AF: In terms of podcasts, I listen to a few, there’s EdSurge on Air, Future U, and Times Higher Education. Of course, I read most days and read the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed.

I just got a book called Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education by my good friend, Joshua Kim from Dartmouth. I’m excited to check that one out.

Note: This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

It was really great to hear about all of the amazing work happening at UNT. It takes all of us working in harmony to drive student success. Whether it is reaching out to faculty or connecting with community partners and companies in our region. This conversation really affirmed to me that we can go further together. You shouldn’t try to drive disruption on your own. It’s better to reform and improve on the great work already happening on your campus.