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Interview with Karen Vignare, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Personalized Learning Consortium at the Association of Public & Land-grant Universities (APLU)

About Karen Vignare, Ph.D.

Dr. Karen Vignare is the Executive Director of the Personalized Learning Consortium at the Association of Public & Land-grant Universities (APLU), where she oversees an adaptive courseware grant and manages the implementation personalized learning initiatives among a network of APLU institutions. She has worked in higher education as a professor, administrator, and researcher for over 20 years, and has published extensively on learning analytics, online education, and adaptive learning technologies. In 2016 she and Dr. Patsy Moskal served as guest editors for a special issue of the Online Learning Consortium’s Online Learning Journal that was devoted to learning analytics.

Prior taking her current position, Dr. Vignare served as Vice Provost at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), a Director of Michigan State University’s MSU Global, Senior Research Analyst at Rochester Institute of Technology, and Assistant Professor of Business at Alfred State College. Dr. Vignare holds PhD and EdS degrees in Computer Technology for Education from Nova Southeastern University, as well as an MBA in Marketing and Public Policy from the University of Rochester’s William Simon Business School.

Interview Questions

[] Through your research and your work, you’ve had an opportunity to view the evolution and growth of online learning up close for twenty years. How did you become involved in online learning, and are there specific technological and/or pedagogical advances you noted along the way that you believe were particularly significant?

[Dr. Vignare] I have been involved in the field for well over 20 years. I taught my first online class in 1997, and became interested in the Internet before it was formally known as the Internet. We were using what tools were available in 1993 and 1994 and I was thrilled at the prospect of being able to communicate online and provide access to information and education using this technology.

Access to information doesn’t necessarily imply education. What it meant was that we could integrate this new means of accessing information into the ways we organize education. As soon as I came to that conclusion, I started thinking about how these new technologies would impact the field in which I was teaching. At the time, I was working in the State University of New York (SUNY) system at Alfred State College, which was mainly a junior college with two-year and some four-year degree programs. I was teaching business courses. The focus at Alfred was very much about getting students into jobs quickly rather than a traditional liberal arts degree. So what pulled me into using new technologies in education was the opportunity to have our students graduate with skills that included being able to use the Internet on the job.

As I became more aware of online bachelor’s completion programs and the work that was being done in offering graduate degrees online, I was introduced to the Sloan Consortium, which is now the Online Learning Consortium. I was impressed by the researchers there and by the folks who were building degree programs, including the people at SUNY who were building the SLN, which was short for the SUNY Learning Network. The SLN made it possible for people working within the SUNY system not just to create new degree programs, but also to collaborate statewide. It was an impressive organization to work around.

While Alfred was very interested in the potential of online teaching, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) was moving faster in that area. I had created courses using the Internet at Alfred, but I taught my first fully online course at RIT in 1997. RIT had gotten an Annenberg grant to have what we now call a bachelor’s completion program that allowed students to finish their degree online. So I moved to RIT as both an administrator and a research analyst to help the school launch online programs. That’s how I got a much deeper understanding of what kinds of programs and what kinds of markets were right for filling the needs of adult learners and others who might benefit from online courses and degree programs.

[] So you were at the early stages of looking into where the demand for online programs would be but also what could be practically accomplished through online programs. Is that a fair characterization?

[Dr. Vignare] Yes, that’s fair to say. There’s some ancient work out there, probably from 2000 or before, where we were looking at service models for online education and at reaching students who had limited time to be in a classroom but who were very much interested in pursuing additional education. At that time, the Sloan Foundation referred to that as “access.” Today my work is with public universities, and access is still a major focus. Whether students are choosing to take courses online or they literally cannot come to a traditional classroom because they have to travel for work or they have personal obligations that make getting to a classroom difficult, we are looking for better ways to provide students with access to higher education. So student access is still fundamentally a core value in the work we’re doing.

I do think a shift occurred in the 2000s to concerns over quality. Once we figured out that online learning wasn’t working for everybody, we started looking at how we can improve the quality of online courses. We’re still a little bit stuck there. The questions we have to ask are: Who is online learning for? And how do we make sure that they are adequately prepared to learn online?

My PhD was in computer technology for education, but I had the opportunity to work with the American Public University System and one of their researchers allowed me to run a massive dataset to try to determine whether or not there is a certain age at which students perform better in online courses. The answer was: it’s mixed. Generally speaking, the analysis showed that students under the age of 21 did not perform as well as we would like them to in online classrooms. That was as recently as 2011. So we have to think about other technological approaches that my be better suited to younger students, or improve upon existing approaches for beginning students, younger students, and for students who haven’t yet learned how to learn effectively. That represents a huge opportunity for us.

We know that there are plenty of high quality programs serving more and more of our graduate students very well. Not only are we seeing high completion rates with online graduate programs, but we are also seeing a high level of general student success with online coursework at the graduate level. When it comes to outcomes for undergraduate students, we are still seeing a mixed bag and we are focused on making improvements where we should. By that I mean that there are aspects of teaching that may require some face-to-face support and we may be able to do that through synchronous online work. But I don’t think we’ve reached a point where we can say that everything is equal in the undergraduate space. For example, the data shows us that undergraduate students and, often, underserved undergraduate students – that is, low-income and minority students – do not have the kind of success with online learning that educators would like to see.

[] Unfortunately, that issue is not unique to online programs, particularly when it comes to first generation colleges students, minority students, and students from other groups that have traditionally been under-represented at the college level.

[Dr. Vignare] That’s why I have been exited about the work I have been doing over the past five years. After I finished my PhD, I had a great mentor and colleague at Michigan State who asked me what I really wanted to do. I told her that I wanted to figure out how to use technology to support our beginning students – what I would call the core. I have had great opportunities through my work at Michigan State, RIT, Alfred State, and University of Maryland University College (UMUC), which is now University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). To me, all of those are institutions that have a different feel to them, but none of them were working in this space around how to leverage adaptive technologies regardless of modality (i.e., online or campus-based courses) in a way that improves student success in foundational college courses, particularly for this core group of learners who I often refer to as underserved.

[] That leads to my next question, which is about your work at the Personalized Learning Consortium, which focuses on the use of adaptive learning technologies and courseware to improve student outcomes and to improve the quality, scale, and breadth of online programs. Is that an accurate description? And can you offer some examples of how adaptive learning technologies are being deployed in the context of online teaching and learning?

[Dr. Vignare] The focus is not just online programs. It is also blended and face-to-face programs. We believe adaptive learning technologies can be used fundamentally across modalities. Our experience here at the Personalized Learning Consortium is actually working more with face-to-face and blended modalities than with purely online programs. We have institutions that are seeing improved student success in online programs. But we don’t have the same level of enrollment in online courses in the project set data that we’ve run.

[] When you say adaptive learning technologies, what are you referring to specifically?

[Dr. Vignare] While it can be complicated, we like to start by keeping it simple. One of the things that we think is important in talking about adaptive learning technologies is that they help students practice in ways that improve their comprehension and understanding of course material and terminology. On a basic level you could be talking about something as simple as making sure students have read the book. But the new technologies are helping students read in ways that they are more accustomed to and it’s helping them to practice through iterative learning. It isn’t practical for faculty to give students a test every five minutes, and that is not where we want to use their expertise. This is why these technologies are powerful. We know that the “old technology” of telling students to read the textbook and then expecting them to come to class prepared to learn doesn’t work for everybody.

Adaptive learning technologies can help students practice. They help students learn basic concepts. And students who have access to these technologies come to the classroom better prepared to learn. The flipside of helping students is that these technologies provide faculty with a flow of data that helps them to intervene with students as needed. Some of these interventions are student-by-student. We’ve seen examples in which faculty are able to identify who are at the 65% level in terms of understanding the course material, and intervene with those students to get their grades up to a B level. And we’ve seen examples of faculty who are changing what they do in the classroom based on feedback they are getting from adaptive learning technologies. They get data that shows them that 30% of the class doesn’t understand a particular concept, so they come back to that concept in the next class remediate before moving on to the next concept.

So, these technologies are a great way for faculty to get very close to real-time data that allows them to intervene with individual students and to make adjustments in how they are teaching the class. Are all of these adaptive learning technologies perfect? Are they all the same? Are they all truly adaptive and using artificial intelligence and machine learning? The answer is that there is a wide variety of adaptive learning technologies in the field and we are not comfortable saying there is only one correct choice. We believe that faculty and institutions are in the best position to choose the right technologies for their purposes. However, we can help connect them with faculty at other institutions that are already using adaptive learning technologies, and we can help introduce faculty in a particular discipline such as biology or math to the tools that other biology and math departments have found useful.

[] So the work you’re doing with adaptive learning technologies is linked to the work you’ve done in the area of learning analytics in the sense that these tools are designed to provide faculty with data that indicates how well their students are doing throughout a course.

[Dr. Vignare] Yes. But we have to recognize that not every faculty member has the same level or training or capability to interpret data. So, part of what we’re doing is trying to figure out how we can work more collaboratively in this field. Some institutions are lucky enough to have an IR (information retrieval) shop that includes a data scientist and some are not. Some have instructional designers and some do not. So one of the challenges is figuring what kind of support an institution may require in order to effectively use adaptive learning tools.

Large institutions, like many of the universities I work with at APLU, may have invested in a course coordinator. We can help that person and department chairs understand what can be done with adaptive learning tools and what we can do pedagogically to integrate adaptive learning tools into how students are assessed.

There are great opportunities to apply learning analytics inside the classroom and at an institutional level, across the spectrum of very large universities and smaller colleges. And learning analytics can also be used as a student success tool. A lot of student success systems are tagging into the fact that we may not have activity from a student, and maybe that’s the time that an advisor reaches out to that student. But we still have a lot to learn about learning and about when and how we should be reaching out to a student who isn’t succeeding in a course. Should we be considering other courses for a particular student? Or might it be better to let a student struggle longer before intervening? This is really complicated.

We have to be careful in our work around learning analytics to not jump to conclusions and, for example, assume that we should be moving students in or out of fields until we have a better understanding of how these technologies work. So that’s what we’re looking into. We are very focused on the instructional use of learning analytics versus the side that focuses in which algorithms are used simply to predict student success. We need to connect those two aspects of what can be done with analytics. But right now we don’t know enough to make that connection.

[] So, while there may be potential benefits to using analytics to predict how well a student might do in a particular field of study, your interest right now is in using learning technologies to provide faculty with tools to help them track student progress.

[Dr. Vignare] Yes. Faculty are increasingly aware that they don’t have all the information that they need from their students. And that can be one of the benefits of using learning analytics. There are concerns out there that these technologies are meant to replace faculty. In our minds, they are not. In fact, faculty become even more integral to the learning process in an environment where students are working on their own on assignments because faculty can use the feedback from learning analytics to make the time that students spend in class more impactful.

[] That makes sense. I am curious about some of the other work you’ve done, specifically in online program design. You wrote papers on two initiatives that leveraged online learning technologies when you were involved with Michigan State as Director of Project Planning and Implementation for MSU Global: the blended/hybrid science courses for first-year students at two of Michigan State University’s medical colleges, and the Food Safety Knowledge Network program that offered online training in food safety and nutritional science.

[Dr. Vignare] I had more hand-on experience with the Food Safety Knowledge Network than the medical courses. But I can touch on both.

Essentially MSU, like many institutions, was trying to serve a wider population around training doctors throughout the state, and there was a need to not only collaborate with folks in different parts of the state, but also to serve students coming from different parts of the state. Michigan is a big enough state that your students are coming from different population centers. So two of the medical schools at MSU wanted to create a set of courses that covered material that medical students would need to learn regardless of their eventual area of specialization.

At that stage, we were looking at using synchronous lectures that some students would be able to attend outside of Detroit or in Lansing and that others would view online, and then providing the proper online support to students who could not meet with the professor. That was the design opportunity there, and it was a very good design for students of that caliber. It may not be the model that you would use at a community college, but for high-level medical students it was very effective. So that is an example of how the design of an online course depends on the type of students you intend to reach.

With the Food Safety Knowledge Network we were working with MSU’s College of Agriculture, which is known for its international development work. To give you some context, at the time it was common for companies to sponsor individuals who needed food safety training, and to pay their tuition, which could be as much as $15,000 for training that would qualify individuals for certification. We wanted to reach people in lesser-developed countries who didn’t have that kind of support or financial backing, but who needed food safety training in order for their agricultural products to reach international markets. We had to figure out a way to provide this training using less expensive open and online educational resources. We had a lot of support from the United States Agency for International Development, the Department of Agriculture, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and we were able to create a program that is still a very good model for how we think about getting professional training and expertise to people in developing countries at a reasonable cost.

[] What advice would you or do you give to educators who are in the early stages of taking a course or program online? Are there particular strategies, course design elements, and/or instructional resources that you’ve found to be particularly useful?

[Dr. Vignare] My thinking on that is informed by a group of researchers lead by Dr. Karen Swan and Dr. Phil Ice and their work in the area of community of inquiry (CoI) theory. What CoI tells us is that, while the design of a course is important, the success of that course depends of cultivating a community of learners in the class. In other words, it’s not just about the content of a course; it’s about social learning experiences that are happening in the course. We absolutely want to make sure that the content and the objectives are completely clear to students. But we also need to remember that there is a need for social learning experiences. Some of that can be done well with online discussion boards, and some of that may have to be achieved in other ways.

As faculty, we need to think about what our presence is going to be. In some cases, you have faculty who are working at institutions that have master courses with clearly defined content and objectives. But even those institutions will tell you that they need your teaching presence and expertise to come across to students. So, you want to think about the presence that you will bring to the community of learners. Often times, what you need to bring is not just the fact that you may have a PhD in the field, but also direction in terms of how the course material gets applied, how students may eventually use certain ideas, and why it is important to understand certain concepts. Being able share those kinds of insights as a teacher is important.

What I do find is that many institutions have already done a great deal of prep and groundwork for faculty, which is probably a good thing. So the focus of the faculty member can be less on picking the content and more on figuring out how to present that content in an effective way.

[] In a similar vein, what advice would you offer to students who are considering enrolling in an online/hybrid program versus a traditional campus-based program and who may have concerns about the online learning experience?

[Dr. Vignare] It’s a great question. I feel like the answer depends on so many variables. It is more and more common today that a student will have had some prior experience in an online course, which is really helpful because a student’s comfort level with online learning is such an important consideration. And here’s where I’ll use my daughter as an example. My daughter got an MBA at the University of Maryland about three years ago. She wanted to enroll part-time, and she looked for program that gave her a choice of online and campus-based options because she wanted a convenient program that would have social networking opportunities. That was important to her. I don’t know that every program has to have that kind of flexibility, but for her it was important.

I want to stress that students can have great social experiences in online learning. I got to know some of my online students as well as any students I have ever taught. But I think you have to ask yourself what kind of learning experience you want to have as a student. For some students, it may work better to start with some face-to-face learning in order to become comfortable in a subject area before moving to online courses. Other students may already feel quite comfortable with learning online and really don’t need that face-to-face component. That’s why we see a number of options out there.

I do worry about undergraduate students who haven’t had a lot of prior work experience making the best choices for themselves in an online program without a teacher around. We may see that adaptive learning tools can be helpful in this area. Ultimately, the confidence of the learner is a key factor. Many students can be taught to have more confidence, and some develop grit and determination on their own. But we don’t have a reliable way to guide every student through that process. And we still need to do a better job for students who have been through multiple learning experiences and who have yet to be successful.

So that’s what I would say to students looking at undergraduate programs. For graduate students, I think they just have to determine their own level of comfort with online learning and consider what their goals are in pursuing a degree. I would suspect that anyone who has been through an undergraduate program would probably find an online program an absolutely wonderful fit.