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National summit explores how digital education can promote deeper learning

The conference, held at Stanford, was organized to help universities imagine how digital innovation can expand their reach, improve learning, and better serve the public good.
Matthew Rascoff facilitating a conversation at the Digital Learning Summit, moving between tables of participants with a mic
Matthew Rascoff, vice provost for digital education at Stanford University, moderates a discussion at the 2024 Digital Learning Summit, held on the Stanford campus in March. Photo by Andy Smith.
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Declining social mobility, fracturing civil discourse, skyrocketing tuition, the end of affirmative action, and an epidemic of loneliness — these are “interlocking crises” threatening American higher education, Stanford Vice Provost for Digital Education Matthew Rascoff said in his opening remarks at a gathering of some 80 university and college digital education leaders. With public trust in colleges and universities plummeting, he proposed that digital innovations should attempt to earn it back by addressing fundamental challenges in society. 

Rascoff invited his listeners to think of digital education, with its tools and technologies, as relating deeply to universities’ reasons for being. “We need to recommit digital education to a mission-driven strategy that helps recover the democratic purposes of higher education.”

This call underscored the theme of the March 27-28 Digital Learning Summit, which drew teams to Stanford from online learning units at 20 institutions across the country, including small private colleges, Ivy League universities, and state flagships. 

The event was co-sponsored by Stanford Digital Education and Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners, or HAIL, a network of innovation leaders in higher education. 

Seeking new approaches to improve access and engagement

Offices of digital education, online learning, or learning innovation support a broad range of offerings that vary from school to school. Some offer online and hybrid degrees as well as continuing, professional, and executive programs; others offer some online courses to residential students.

Digital learning teams often include instructional designers, learning technologists, student services coordinators, and program marketers. They often partner with teaching and learning centers, which provide resources and community for instructors seeking to advance their pedagogy. Attendees at the summit included staff in all those areas, as well as program leaders, united by an interest in advancing digital education.

The summit was organized around several key questions: “What might learning design, learning technologies, and educational media look like in three, five, or ten years at our institutions? How will blended and digital education be poised to advance equitable, just, and accessible education systems and contribute to the public good? What structures will we need in place for our teams and offices?” 

Growing an audience on YouTube around curiosity and learning

Arizona State University (ASU), where over 90,000 students are enrolled in fully online degree programs, is recognized as an online education trendsetter, and two leaders of its EdPlus unit, which is dedicated to the design and scalable delivery of digital learning, discussed how they are offering free learning videos on YouTube as a pathway to credit and degrees. 

In their presentation “From Curiosity to Credit: Pathways for the YouTube Generation,” Sean Hobson, chief design officer at EdPlus, and Wayne Anderson, senior director of strategic design and development at EdPlus, described ASU’s partnership with Hank and John Green, the brothers behind the enormously successful educational YouTube channel Crash Course, to present a new channel, Study Hall

Sean Hobson
Sean Hobson (above) of Arizona State University presented “From Curiosity to Credit: Pathways for the YouTube Generation” along with Wayne Anderson. Photo by Andy Smith.

Hobson explained that Study Hall aims to demystify college and make it more accessible. One set of brief videos on the channel unpacks choosing and applying to colleges and accessing financial aid. A second series gives an overview of possible majors and how they connect to potential careers. And a third offers course content from ASU, in which students can then enroll. Once students take a full course, complete assignments, and receive a grade, they can opt to pay a larger amount (currently $400) in order to receive ASU credit. Hobson likened Study Hall to an “academic foam pit” — a safe place to experiment and gain skills without academic or financial risk.

Wayne Anderson
Wayne Anderson, Arizona State University

For Hobson and Anderson, key innovative elements of the Study Hall project are taking college to where people already are; leveraging partnerships; investing in the video medium’s liveliness and quality; and making each step toward enrollment as frictionless as possible.

Using technology to help online students create social presence

Q Quaye gathering feedback during their presentation at the Digital Learning Summit
Q Quaye of the University of Pennsylvania led a breakout session, “Using Slack to Strengthen Online Students’ Sense of Community.” Photo by Andy Smith.

The summit offered various ways to improve digital learning experiences. In the presentation “Using Slack to Strengthen Online Students’ Sense of Community,” Q Quaye, online student services coordinator at the Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning, and Innovation at University of Pennsylvania, discussed a pilot study spurred by the desire to encourage students to bring their full selves to their courses. With online courses, that goal poses a technical as well as a pedagogical challenge. And it's particularly relevant to Penn, where 1 in 10 degree-seeking students is enrolled in a fully online program, and 8 of 12 schools offer online degrees.

Forming social connections is essential to learning. It can happen deep in academic work, but often, community develops in what we may think of as the margins of academic experience: the informal moments when we are waiting together for office hours or a lecture to begin, for instance, or when we run into a peer at the post office. Physical spaces invite connections and the discovery of shared interests in a way that can be hard to replicate online.

And yet, social presence matters for the construction of what researchers have described as a community of inquiry, said Quaye. The Community of Inquiry framework, they said, suggests that students will do best when they are able to project social and cognitive presence in the learning environment. In other words, the ability to create informal social spaces for online students can support their ability to learn. 

The Penn team piloted the use of Slack, integrated with its learning management system through Coursebot, in five online programs for the duration of the academic year, with mixed results. One positive was the way that the messaging app allowed students to interact with each other easily, both synchronously and asynchronously, through voice and video calls as well as text. After fall semester, 48% of students reported feeling more connected to their peers, and after the spring semester, 68% did. Reaching instructors through the app was harder for students, though, and for the programs, vendor support was a challenge. And international relations threw an unwelcome curveball: The removal of the Slack app from various app stores (including Apple’s and Microsoft’s) in mainland China, in late March, did not augur well for its future use by online students in that country.

In closing, Quaye shared three takeaways: online students need a dedicated space to build community; it’s important to obtain documentation from vendors on how the technology works, and how support will be provided; and support teams should seek buy-in from all stakeholders, including faculty, as soon as possible.

Addressing challenges of capacity through forecasting

The rapidly changing nature of digital education leads to challenges in how universities should approach and organize the work in this field — and in determining how many employees are needed to get the job done. At one point in the summit, a participant asked, “How do you justify growth before the growth has actually happened, especially even in the field of instructional design or instructional technology, where you have to be on the ground running when that growth starts?”

Educators from Brown University offered a response.

Melissa Kane
Melissa Kane (above) of Brown University presented “Challenge to Action: Resourcing Design Teams for Institutional Success” with her colleague Maggie Vecchione. Photo by Andy Smith.

The story begins in 2020, during the pandemic, when several independent learning design teams were brought together to form one unit incorporated into the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. That newly integrated digital learning and design team — 16 people at the time of the merger — reflected a goal of the provost: that everyone who taught at Brown be supported in their digital learning needs. “The benefit of having that centralized unit was that anyone could come to us for anything,” explained Melissa Kane, senior associate director of online program development at Brown. “And the challenge with that was that everyone came to us for everything.” One consequence was an unpredictable work flow; another was burnout.

Kane and Maggie Vecchione, assistant director of program management, described how the new unit worked to define their processes and to communicate with partners across the university to develop a common understanding of services, timelines, and needs. They shared that story in a presentation titled “Challenge to Action: Resourcing Design Teams for Institutional Success.”

Kane distilled what their team offered into simple terms, both for their own understanding and their partners’, reducing the categories they used to describe their service from nine levels to three. At the simplest level, they would consult, providing course support; the middle level often involved a partial revision or refreshing of a course; and the last was end-to-end course or program development. To stay current, they scheduled check-ins with the campus partner at regular intervals so that adjustments could be made if called for, including a debrief at the end of the project to identify any lessons learned.

Maggie Vecchione
Maggie Vecchione, Brown University

What team resources were required to support the various levels of projects — course support, course revision, or creating or redesigning a course — and how many projects could a person in a given role take on at once? To answer these questions, Kane set out to forecast and track team members’ time. She predicted hours, using research in adjacent fields, then tracked the actual hours as reported by her team, and compared the results, entering a cycle of refining the predictions, recording the actual time spent, and then repeating the process. After several cycles she felt comfortable in her estimates of how much time and effort the different levels of projects required of different members of her team. As a result, she was able to both define the human resources needed to support new online course development and make a successful case for adding more staff. As a result, Brown’s digital learning and design team is now 30-strong, nearly double the 2020 staff.

Continuing the conversation

This was the second annual Digital Learning Summit, following the first one in 2023 at the University of Notre Dame. The 2025 conference will be hosted by the University of Michigan.

Participants said that they were eager to continue the conversations that they were having in discussion sessions; over breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and in guided walks around the Stanford campus. Whether the topic was developing more expansive student recruitment strategies, innovating to solve technical challenges, or envisioning more engaging course design, they found it valuable to hear how colleagues at other schools were pioneering new approaches.

In his closing remarks, Rascoff said the summit was building upon the communities of practice that arose when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and universities and colleges reached out to each other to steer a path through the crisis with emergency remote learning. 

“To me, there's an immense amount of innovation that's happening in higher education; the past two days are evidence of that,” he said. “I think the question is, can we scale it? Can we do it well? Can we align it with our values? Can we bring our colleagues along with us? Are we focused on solving the most important problems facing our institutions and our society?”

 *        *        *

Jump to the schedule below for a full list of presentations made at the 2024 Digital Learning Summit.

Andre Denham, Priscilla Fiden, Suzanne Dove, and Patrice Torcivia Prusko
Digital Learning Summit planning committee members André Denham, Priscilla Fiden, Suzanne Dove, Patrice Torcivia Prusko, and Sonia Howell (left to right). Photo by Andy Smith.

The 2024 Digital Learning Summit planning committee consisted of Priscilla Fiden, associate vice provost and chief of staff at Stanford Digital Education; Sonia Howell, director of the Office of Digital Learning at University of Notre Dame; Patrice Torcivia Prusko, director of learning design, technology, and media at the Teaching and Learning Lab at Harvard Graduate School of Education; Rebecca Quintana, director of blended and online learning design at University of Michigan Center for Academic Innovation; Rebecca Stein, executive director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning, and Innovation at University of Pennsylvania; and Catherine Zabriskie, senior director of digital learning and design at the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University.



Wednesday, March 27

  • Welcome Remarks
    Matthew Rascoff (Stanford University)
  • Affordability, Effectiveness, and Institutional Values: On-Line and On-Campus
    Paul Krause, Mary Loeffelholz, Rob Vanderlan (Cornell University)
  • Creative Hustle
    Olatunde Sobomehin, sam seidel
  • Challenge to Action: Resourcing Design Teams for Institutional Success
    Melissa Kane, Maggie Vecchione (Brown University)
  • Shaping Change: Evolving Processes in Response to Emerging Design Opportunities
    Rebecca Quintana, Angeline Boyes, Evan Ogg Straub (University of Michigan)
  • Future-Proofing Higher Ed: A Design Thinking Challenge
    Mallika Vinekar, Connor Bacon, Marcy Pedzwater (Vanderbilt University)
  • Workshops Breakouts
    Emotion-Centered Approaches to Empowering Faculty in Digital Learning
    Haejung Chung (Harvard Graduate School of Education)

    Igniting Innovation: An Agile, Inclusive and Sustainable Model
    Suzanne Dove, (Bentley University)
  • Evening Reception featuring: Scaling VR Education at GVSU
    Jacob Fortman, Courtney Topic, Hunter Bridwell, Ruth Yeboah (Grand Valley State University)

Thursday, March 28

  • Technology and Innovation Breakouts
    Using Slack to Strengthen Online Students' Sense of Community
    Q Quaye (University of Pennsylvania)

    Beyond the Chatbot: Exploring Multi-agent Conversations for Simulation and Complex Problem-solving
    Cristian Espinoza (Harvard Graduate School of Education)
  • Online Learning’s Advantages in the AI Age: A facilitated conversation
    Rebecca Stein, Jessica Morris (University of Pennsylvania)
  • From Curiosity to Credit: Pathways for the YouTube Generation
    Sean Hobson and Wayne Anderson (Arizona State University)
  • Ready or Not? Building a Support Structure for Online Education
    Patrice Torcivia Prusko (Harvard Graduate School of Education), Suzanne Dove (Bentley), André Denham (University of Alabama)
  • Leadership Panel and Closing Remarks
    Matthew Rascoff (Stanford), André Denham (University of Alabama), Sean Ferguson (Bentley), Paul Krause (Cornell), Mallika Vinekar (Vanderbilt)

Jenny Robinson is digital community and social media specialist for Stanford Digital Education.

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