Kathy Johnson is preparing faculty for digital education's next steps

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Kathy Johnson, IUPUI's executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer, helps lead the Association of Chief Academic Officers' Digital Fellows Program. Photo by Liz Kaye, IU Communications

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis is leading the way in online course availability, and a recent fellowship will help continue that growth.

In the spring 2017 semester, IUPUI offered 591 online sections, the most of any Indiana University campus. That number should steadily increase with every academic year, thanks to demand and campus leaders like Kathy Johnson, IUPUI executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer.

In July, Johnson gained entrance into the Association of Chief Academic Officers' Digital Fellows Program. Supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the program is designed to provide university leaders nationwide with resources, information and strategies that help faculty members understand and adopt quality digital courseware. The initiative also puts special focus on first-generation, low-income and underrepresented minority students.

The yearlong fellowship opportunity includes meetings, workshops and support from the Gates Foundation for campus projects focused on digital learning.

"I'm really looking forward to learning about how the field is evolving and what some of the thought leaders in this space are doing to close achievement gaps for students from underrepresented groups," Johnson said. "I hope to share this knowledge with faculty who may teach gateway courses that may benefit from adaptive learning tools."

Johnson, also a professor of psychology, is the only educator from Indiana among the 32 selected.

Q: How will the fellowship help you and IUPUI get to the next level of digital education?

A: Ideally, this could help reduce gaps in foundational knowledge that may have arisen in high school or through prerequisite courses taken at two-year colleges. I also think that these technologies could prove quite helpful to adults who are returning to college to complete degrees after taking years off from mathematics courses.

Q: What will be the next breakthrough in digital technology?

A: Some universities are exploring how some laboratory courses might be augmented through virtual reality -- not simply computer simulations, but actual VR experiences of carrying out an experiment. What I find most compelling about this is that it actually could help students learn more than what they would in a "live" laboratory. In an actual laboratory, students typically get a single result from which to derive conclusions. In a VR lab, students theoretically could repeat the lab several times, altering variables in order to explore the impact of that variation on the outcome.

Q: What is a recent example of digital education enhancing a program at IUPUI?

A: Thanks to our colleagues in University Information Technology Services, IU is a leader in the use of digital textbooks, which frequently come with digital homework exercises or adaptive learning technologies bundled with the text. Faculty at IUPUI who have adopted digital textbooks have also seen value in capturing analytics from e-readers that help them see where students may be struggling in their mastery of content. 

Q: What are the greatest challenges in implementing new digital technologies into courses at IUPUI?

A: Implementing digital technologies in one's teaching demands a leap of faith. Faculty need to be assured that the technologies are effective and that they are sufficiently well-aligned with one's curriculum and one's chosen textbook or course readings, and they need to be confident that everything will work -- both in the classroom and outside of the classroom. At a minimum, they need to know that good technical support is available to them and to their students.