Q&A with Penn State’s Rose Cameron on Innovation in Traditional and Online Universities

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Rose Cameron, Director of Innovation (Outreach & Online) at Penn State University

Rose Cameron is the Director of Innovation at Penn State University, making her the woman who brings a fresh perspective to the university and fosters an environment of innovation and transformation. Recently, Jay Sharman, of StoriedU, sat down with her to discuss what her role means to the university and what she sees as the challenges of marketing both a brick and mortar institution and an online educational experience.

Jay Sharman: As Director of Innovation, both outreach and online, at Penn State University try to encapsulate what that means in terms of what your role is.

Rose Cameron: Primarily I use 2 analogies.

1: I’m the woman who opens up the window and lets the fresh air in. We need constant refreshing of our perspective and need to see outside the mountains of Happy Valley. In many ways my role is to look above and beyond the mountains and see what’s happening, what’s critical to how the university functions and how we remain relevant for the next 5, 10, 20 years. That’s kind of my purview over what is the world doing in the arena of education, in the arena of innovation, in the arena of consumer expectations.

2: Then internally my purview is being the Jiffy Lube of innovation as I jokingly call it. It’s not my job to take over all the projects, say I’m the expert, enforce my view on things. My job is really the Jiffy Lube. When people need inspiration, when they need new ways of doing things, they kind of drive in, we fluff them up, we give them new projects, teach them new skills, introduce them to new partners, and then let them drive off the lot as it were forward into that innovative space that they’re going to be creating.

JS: I want to talk about your perspective of both Penn State University and Penn State World Campus. What does it mean to have to market and manage a traditional brick and mortar campus and the online World Campus, with two pretty distinct audiences?

RC: We’re considered to be the largest alumni network in the United States if not the world. We have over 600,000+ alumni, and many of them are very engaged with us. If you look at LinkedIn we have over 350,000 [people] connected which is really impressive. One of the challenges I think that any brick and mortar plus online university is going to face are those very distinct communities.

Let’s start with residential. We have an incredible base of students and alumni. The relationship they have with Penn State is truly unique. It is such a warm family community that we have. A lot of those people, the students in residence, are going through a state of individuation. They are defining themselves. They come to this beautiful idyllic environment of Happy Valley and they are defining themselves in a very safe environment. They can focus on their studies; they’re not distracted by big city stuff.

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Now pan over to the online community. Our average age right now is 32. We’re expecting it to ratchet downwards over the coming years. But the majority are 32, your upper cut of millennials. These people are not individuating. They’re upgrading.

When we look at them we’re seeing people who know who they are, who have additional pressure. They don’t have the focus of Happy Valley. They don’t have the focus of 24/7 priority of education. They have other priorities that often supersede education. They’re fitting education into their lives versus education being their lives: two very different animals. We found there were 9,000+ discussions by our world campus students online. What we were seeing is that their definition of Penn State family is their own family. Their husband, their wife, their children, even down to the dog.

. . . The question is how complicated is this going to be as we see more of a merge of online and residential?

JS: I love your framing. It’s visually enticing: the upgrade versus the individuation. You could argue that online universities have been one of the larger disruptions in the higher ed market of this century. Where do you see things going, as director of innovation with World Campus and with online universities in general?

RC: On the university’s side we are blessed with, I think, 24 different campuses. Can you imagine? A total of around 90,000 students across those 24 campuses and then you have the addition of the World Campus, which is currently sitting around 18,000 or 19,000.

There is just so far that you can scale a terrestrial body, okay? As an R1 land grant university, one of our core responsibilities is to educate the people of Pennsylvania. If you think “Okay, to educate them they have to come into a classroom. They have to meet a teacher” prior to the technology that we have now, that meant that we had to have a campus in that area, right? We have all these really wonderful commonwealth campuses who have a variety of different specializations and skill sets that were seen as very attractive, to now having a completely different form of audience.

A lot of international students are making up a big chunk of our commonwealth campuses. A lot of those commonwealth campuses are close to large cities that those international students may want to experience. They get affordable education, they get the name Penn State, and they get the opportunity to explore these big cities. That’s an interesting transition of what’s happening with our commonwealth, but they can only scale so far.

The same way with UP, University Park. We can only scale so far without it breaking.

How do you scale quality education? I think that’s the real question.

World Campus doesn’t have limitations of a physical space. We have the ability to leverage academics from all over the world who don’t have to move to the middle of Pennsylvania with their families. It’s tremendously scalable. We have objectives to scale from our current 18,000 -19,000 [students] to around 45,000 in the next 10 years.

There is this growing desire with the complex issues that we are facing today to take more of the design school approach to tackling those issues. What it means and what it demands is the collaboration of more than one college. It demands multiple expertise coming together in a neutral space to sort out issues. It means bringing people in from around the world for their broader perspectives. It means making sure that our students have a global perspective so that when they get out into the workforce they have a relevant skill set and that they are able to tackle some of these issues and work with a global cohort of solution creators prior to leaving university. What that requires is being online. Not 100% of study time, perhaps, but definitely by extending our classroom either by subject specifically, or by bringing together different expertise, different areas of study in a cost-effective fashion. Online is great for that.

JS: In most technologies in the history of the world they’ve adapted the previous iteration and tried to refine it. I’d be curious to get your take, as World Campus has evolved, on what the perspective is from a faculty person who is now touching thousands of people, as opposed to maybe 100 in a semester.

RC: We have a lot of academics who have explored the whole arena of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) and have come back and said to us “This was the greatest learning experience I have had in my X number of years of teaching” because, you must remember, a lot of these people are experts in their field of research, but their area of comfort may be with a small group of highly intelligent students who are also very passionate about that subject area.

What I think they found in the evolution of their role is much more moving. Going from this monologue to more of a mentor relationship. And how do you mentor 1,000 plus students? Additionally, how do you navigate that number of conversations? This is the movement toward the flipped classroom, where you’re not there to answer all their questions, you’re there to actually ask them the right questions so that they can explore the content that you’ve shared with them in a deeper sense. That means changing the way some of these lecturers interact with students. Additionally, it’s about putting more of an onus on the students themselves to be moderators of the discussion.

Rose Cameron continues the discussion in part 2 of her interview, available here.  

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About Jay Sharman

Jay Sharman is the CEO and founder of TeamWorks Media, a purpose-driven marketing company in Chicago’s West Loop. TeamWorks helps not-for-profit and higher education clients combine purpose and profit by creating innovative marketing strategies... More about Jay Sharman »

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