On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Jocelyn Widmer to discuss the wider role digital education plays and how land grant institutions can leverage this new form of education to execute on their mission.
Voiceover (00:06): Welcome to Illumination by Modern Campus, the leading podcast focused on transformation and change in the higher education space. On today’s episode, we speak with Jocelyn Widmer, who is Assistant Provost for Academic Innovation at Texas A&M University. Jocelyn and podcast host Amrit Ahluwalia discuss the wider role digital education plays and how land grant institutions can leverage this new form of education to execute on their mission.
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:33): Jocelyn Widmer, welcome to the Illumination Podcast. It's great to be chatting with you.
Jocelyn Widmer (00:36): Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:38): Of course. Now we're live at the Sia conference. So for anyone who might be listening to this episode, I'm thinking, gee, there sounds like there's a lot of background noise that's more or less why how have you enjoyed the conference so far? We're just starting in on day two here.
Jocelyn Widmer (00:50): Yeah, it's been great. I mean, I, I, I think we all agree that the network that UPS I provides is one that, you know, just doesn't exist among any other professional organization like this. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, and we've all become so much closer because of what we had to support during Covid. And so, you know, these are friends mostly Yeah. At this point. Yes. And we, we engage so much virtually that it's such a great opportunity to come together face-to-face and, and, you know, really share our, our successes and our challenges among colleagues and friends.
Amrit Ahluwalia (01:18): Absolutely. Well, you know, what's interesting too is when we think about kind of where our profession was almost a decade ago compared to where it is today, you know, we don't just have deans and directors who are attending this conference. It's a lot of folks with titles like yours that, you know, chancellors, vice chancellors, provost, vice provost presidents, vice presidents, because this conversation is elevated beyond being, you know, operational units that exist on the periphery of the institution. These conversations touch everything the modern college university does. It's an exciting time.
Jocelyn Widmer (01:51): It is, it is. And I think it, I think that segues nicely into what we're gonna chat about Absolutely. Today, but, but for sure. And, and not forgetting about our base Yeah. And our students. That's gonna be a, a common theme. I, I would imagine as we chat today, I mean, the students are what drive what we do. Absolutely. And that's what's driving people like myself to come to these types of events to make sure I'm bringing their voice and their experience, but also you know, representing where, who we are as an institution to make sure it syncs with, with the national landscape.
Amrit Ahluwalia (02:22): No, absolutely. And let, and let's get into it. So your, your work really revolves around sort of bringing digital education, digital learning opportunities to, to students at Texas a and m, which is of course, all Land Grant University. It has a formal extension mission. How does digital education engagement start to fit into that broader mission of, of a modern land grant university?
Jocelyn Widmer (02:41): Yeah, I think it's a great question, and I think you've gotta think about a, a two-way street on this one. I mean, I hate to reference Covid too much in this conversation, but it, I would be pissed. I mean, it
Amrit Ahluwalia (02:53): Would be the, the hard, you know what, it's so hard not to talk about it. It is, it is. I mean, everyone's tired of it. And again, for those of you listening, apologies. But it, it's a foundationally shaping factor to where we are today
Jocelyn Widmer (03:04): And an inflection point. Yeah. I mean, what we, what we learned, really, I mean, this is the anniversary, this is the three year anniversary.
Amrit Ahluwalia (03:10): That's right.
Jocelyn Widmer (03:10): Yep. Of shifting remote. And what we learned at, at that, you know, just at one moment in time is when you shut a bricks and mortar institution, what you've shut off digitally and what students access on campus in terms of, of their digital access and digital needs. So, interestingly, in Texas, we have more unconnected homes than any other state in the Interesting, in the nation. So and that research is done by Connective Nation mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, if you're interested. So what, what we've gotta think about as land grant institutions is it's not just bringing our students in and bringing our students to our, our bricks and mortar institution. It's reaching out and then making sure they have the digital infrastructure digital infrastructure support technology. Yeah. You know, it's not just broadband connections so that they can be successful. Because the reality is, is they're not coming for four or six years No. To College Station or, you know, wherever these land grant institutions are across the nation, they need to stay in their communities mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And and that's what I, I think we, we, we understand that better from the pandemic. Yeah. Now we really need to take action and move forward.
Amrit Ahluwalia (04:21): Absolutely. And I, I'm curious, you know, I think we talk a lot about land grant universities many, many institutions that have that land grant mission will highlight the land grant mission as part of, you know, who they are, what they do, what their mission is. But but one thing I am curious about is why is the, that wider role around digital education so often overlooked when it comes to executing on the mission of a land grant university in 2023?
Jocelyn Widmer (04:47): Yeah, that's a great question. And that, and, you know, it's, it's not a bad question, and it's, it's not like
Amrit Ahluwalia (04:54): It's, no, no, I think it's, it's more I'm cur it's a curiosity, right?
Jocelyn Widmer (04:58): Yeah. And it's, and it's not one where you can really point to any one thing. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, we, we are institutions that have existed for a very long time Yes. Around
Amrit Ahluwalia (05:07): Are you the original public universities? Right.
Jocelyn Widmer (05:10): Around one core component. Yeah. And and it was about coming to these places mm-hmm. <Affirmative> very high, high standards of academic excellence and delivering students out into the world to do what, what we taught them at these particular institutions. So the, it's the deeply seeded traditions and excellence Yeah. That are, you know, a blessing and a, and a, and a ban in this context Yeah. Is we've got to demonstrate and show, improve a concept that the traditions continue Absolutely. In a digital, a digital environment. And again, I think the students are, are a great way to help us illustrate that. I mean, they, they, they want the brand. Yeah. That's the other thing. Yes. With these institutions, they are deeply seeped their brands, and the brand isn't being eroded on even on the margins as we explore more digital pathways, it's what the students want to, to stay in touch with the brand Yeah. And to seek out the brand. So we've gotta adapt. And I think, you know, it starts at all levels of leadership. It starts at all levels of type of students, and can they be successful at our institutions and bridging that gap and making sure we're going both ways with what we're putting in place in terms of infrastructure. We will have students who, who want to come and have a face-to-face experience, but no doubt they're going to have their phones in their hands. Yes. And three other devices, by the way. Yeah. <laugh>.
Amrit Ahluwalia (06:36): Well, that's, it's, it's interesting you kind of bring that up, right? Because when we talk about digital education or digital engagement, it's not a binary mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, it's not about, well, you'll either entirely be digital or you're entirely be on campus. And ne never the two shall meet. It's Sure. It's really about creating pathways to be convenient, responsive to what learners want at points in time. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, I think that's the piece that tends to get lost when we talk about a, a digital environment, is it's not so much replacing the physical world, right. It's about ameliorating or, or supporting the physical world with enhancing, enhancing the digital Yeah, exactly. Enhancing the physical world with, with digital tools.
Jocelyn Widmer (07:13): Yeah. Absolutely. And if you think around think about all the wraparound services and how digitally enhancing those services made them more accessible, particularly during the pandemic. And I mean, you know, I don't think we've talked about the word access yet.
Amrit Ahluwalia (07:29): No, no. I do want to get there. Yeah. That's
Jocelyn Widmer (07:31): A core component of the land grant institution. And, and what, what digitally enhanced instruction, support services connections to faculty and peers and staff at these institutions provide is, is access. It's broadening the access. Yeah. And that's what I, I think if we can keep that as our guiding light and what, what the digital enhancements allow us to do in terms of access, it's a no-brainer. You can't argue with that. No. And we've, we've had some, some wonderful successes with, with, you know, key wraparound services that have almost become a hundred percent virtual at this point mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, because that's what the students demand. Yep. It's about convenience. It's about being in your car and needing support and Yep. Being your car sitting somewhere getting free wifi Yeah. And, and needing that support. So, you know, really thinking holistically about the student experience and where the digital inflection points are key to continuity of that digital experience for students Absolutely. Is where I come at this
Amrit Ahluwalia (08:31): From. And, and I want to get into sort of tactics and operations here. Sure. So, but before, briefly on the history of, of the Land grant and the, you know for those of you who, who are I guess newer to the con. So the Land Grant University was basically established as a way to create more public and, and broad access to higher education, especially for families and for individuals that either weren't looking to a profession like medicine or law or, or philosophy but more towards engineering or agriculture technology and, and creating sort of a, it was the first real public movement towards upskilling and reskilling mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. and then beyond that, the Land Grant University was, was enhanced by the MORE act, which created the opportunity for, for extensions. So basically taking that concept and saying, well, the Land Grant University has this critical role, the secondary role then is to take the expertise of the university and make it accessible to everyone in the state, which in Texas must have been fun. So when we talk about the land grant mission, the extension mission in 2023, what are some of the things you and your team are doing to create those access points for individuals that are reliant on the mission of the Land Grant University and are looking for access through those digital means?
Jocelyn Widmer (09:37): Sure. I think it's a couple of things. And, and scale is something that we can't have this conversation No. And not talk at scale
Amrit Ahluwalia (09:43): In a, well, everything's bigger. Somewhere. <laugh> in Texas, <laugh>,
Jocelyn Widmer (09:48): And particularly at Texas a and m, I mean, we, as, as the land grant institution, we, we really are across the state, and one of the most important trips I made in my first 90 days was down to McAllen, to our higher ed center. Yeah. And it opened my eyes to the type of student, the type of learner we serve today, and we have not yet served. Sure. And I think as I, as you know, as you talk to colos across the country, I think if there's, there's one thing that that keeps us moving forward is there's always that one student who we know we're not yet serving in the way that we should. Yes. And that was, you know, that was what I, what I realized in Macallan and a tremendous faculty and staff down there at the higher ed center who are, who are doing really interesting really interesting approaches to engaging students.
(10:40): And, you know, a tool like Zoom was a game changer for them. Pre pandemic even. Yeah. So you have students coming mm-hmm. <Affirmative> in an hour and a half away and staying all day. And so could they do their advising Right. Via Zoom and stay at home and staff, you know, provide care or have a, a job or whatever it is. So, so really being mindful at scale across the state of Texas at Yes. The, the main campuses in the Bryan College Station area, but we've got, we've got sites across the state. And what do, what does that look like? It looks very different in, in different parts of the state. So keeping, keeping touch with that. So through our governance structures, I mean, we've, we've got our finger on the pulse across the state of Texas to ensure we're, we're serving the learners and all of their diverse needs in terms of some, you know, hardcore operational pieces.
(11:31): One of the really neat things that we've done recently, by recently, I mean in the last four weeks or so Sure. Is we've just integrated a, a mental health button into canvas. Neat. And so this is, was driven by the students. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, the student body president came to me in, in October of this past fall and said, you know, is this, is this something we can do? So we roll out a, a, a template across all about 20,000 course sections each semester. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. So there's a, there's some consistency for the student experience in Canvas. And because we've done that now subsequent semesters the students came and said, you must have a way of enhancing this template where you can provide mental health resources to students. And it was, you know, there was nothing I've done in the past four years that was easier <laugh>. Right. And it, you know, everybody, everybody could get around it. And it was really, I mean, it was tremendous in the first two weeks of that button going live, we had about 10,000 hits from students. Interestingly, 200 of those were from the grade book.
(12:34): In the grade book and realized they needed mental health support. Right. And, and bounced to that button. So we're doing some more things. I mean, we've only had it in place about a month at this point. And messaging and, and campaigns and syncing with Central Markcom mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and task forces. I mean, obviously we're not the keepers <laugh> of, of mental health in terms of what are best practices and, and, and where should the university be going at scale on that issue. But we support the system where, at the end of the day, students spend most of their time. Right. And, and that's why this ask came about. So continuing to demonstrate how the digital learning environment has relevance to the, in the academic mission of the institution is, is a, a key piece. And the students drive that every day. They text me, they DM me, you know, they, they see what my colleague at Auburn is doing. Yeah. And I get a text and say, Hey, why aren't we doing this with grade scope? Here's the link to Auburn.
Amrit Ahluwalia (13:30): Thanks very much.
Jocelyn Widmer (13:32): My good friend has seen it, I screenshotted. I'm like, thanks for killing it on the bubble games show.
Amrit Ahluwalia (13:38): Not for nothing, but Awesome. And I had a podcast episode that we recorded yesterday, so regular listeners. Yes. That's, that's who she's talking about it.
Jocelyn Widmer (13:48): So and you know, that's again, where, where the peers come in. Yeah. It's, it's, I I don't find this a competitive group. It's very collaborative. Yes. And and we wanna do what's right by our students. And we recognize that at land grant institutions, we are serving a certain demographic who are at land grant institutions in the state of Texas, and wouldn't be at Virginia Tech or at University of Florida because they're in Texas. Yep. And so, recognizing that, you know, we need to collectively serve these, these students across the country with this, you know, same vision towards access, affordability is another piece. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, that would be the third piece that I would mention in terms of operational approaches right now, you know, gain gaining data, benchmarking from other institutions, but a significant mindfulness of what are the costs being passed along to students. Yeah. And and how are, what, you know, I think oftentimes they're, they're good intentions by faculty to create efficiencies. Their, their time is so finite and so precious, and they're trying to create these efficiencies. And what these efficiencies create are costs that are pass to students and, and unbeknownst to them.
Amrit Ahluwalia (14:56): Yeah. Well, and because it's interesting you bring this up. Cause I think one of the pervasive themes that is coming through the episodes that we're recording here at Opio, a lot of the sessions that we're having, but then just broadly our industry right now, is this idea of sort of empathetic business excellence. So there's a recogni, there's an understanding that business excellence has to be central to what we do. There's an understanding that we need to find efficiencies, we need to operate effectively, we need to find opera opportunities to cut costs and to reduce costs. But with the perception of improving that learner experience on the one hand and reducing learner costs on the other, and that it, it strikes me as highly empathetic. Tough. Yeah. It's toughs a tough line to walk. Absolutely.
Jocelyn Widmer (15:38): It is. Because what we need to improve that learner experience is an upskill and talent, and it is expensive talent these days.
Amrit Ahluwalia (15:46): Yeah. It's hard to hire, it's hard to hire in general.
Jocelyn Widmer (15:49): It's hard to hire. But yeah, I think as, as institutions, we, we are, so, I mean, what, what we're focused on is packaging content and, and branding it with our institutions in this upskill market that we're in. And what we really need to have that same philosophy internally to our institutions to make sure our talent keeps pace with, with the, the talent gaps that we're serving, particularly in the state of Texas. Yep. that's, that's actually a big workforce initiative in Texas. It's called Talent Stron Texas.
Amrit Ahluwalia (16:23): Interesting. So, yeah. There you go. Yeah. Well, so I'm curious, you know, as you start thinking about this evolution of the role of digital education, I mean, what, what's it gonna take to start making this kind of hybrid approach to, to learner engagement more of the norm than is right now where it's, I arguably the exception?
Jocelyn Widmer (16:43): Sure. I think it's a couple of things. One is happening, and I don't think we can deny that we need the data. We need to be able to collect the data quicker. Yeah. And it's, you know, it's quick data and it's, it's, it's data. Like, you know, another unit is inve investing in, in course redesign. How many of those courses are in campus? Oh, all of them
(17:03): Yeah. Yeah. So now we have, we have really excellent data that we didn't even realize that links to another initiative, another multimillion dollar initiative to, to improve the student experience mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and to improve student success. So sewing the seeds among these investments and not seeing in, in silos the investment in the digital learning environment, the investment in student success, the investment in academic advising, bringing those groups, bringing those systems and those data together is key. And the other piece is continuing to authentically listen to the students. Yeah. The students know what they need and what they want. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> and you know, we, if they don't get it from us, they will go somewhere else. Yes. Absolutely. And oftentimes they will go somewhere else that is, is more affordable and less, less time Yeah. Of a time investment.
Amrit Ahluwalia (17:55): Let me, let's just pick on that a little bit more. Cause that's, it's a fascinating idea. And, you know, again, the concept of, of competition and, and the concept of, of consumers voting with their feed is something that we're, we really believe in it in our publication. But at a lamb grant institution at, at an, at an r one very well respected lamb grant institution like Texas a and m, how aware are folks of the reality of that tendency to competition?
Jocelyn Widmer (18:24): Sure. I, I think it's out there. I, I don't, and, and I think it's something that drives the work we do. Yeah. land grant institutions are, you know, uniquely positioned in each state. Yeah. because we, we don't necessarily have competition in the state.
(18:41): And so, you know, really thinking about, and, and learners are so dynamic as, as, as Jim pointed out this morning Yes. You know, his personas, he's like, there's so much complexity Yeah. To, to the learners that, that he's done an amazing job presenting and illustrating to us Yes. That it's not, you know, it's, it's not an either or. It's not that they can't get what they want, so they go somewhere else. It's, they're, they're, they're so clever and students are so crafty and have such
Amrit Ahluwalia (19:14): Great seasoned consumers. They, you know.
Jocelyn Widmer (19:16): Yes. Yeah. And so if, you know, if it's, if it's not the degree, then they will, they will seek out another experience. Yeah. Because it comes back to the brand and the, the affinity of the institution. And oftentimes with these land grant institutions, there's a legacy too. Yeah. A family legacy. If not, if, if not, you know, specifically if they're first gen, there's an awareness of a, of what a legacy means. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And so I, I don't think we necessarily lose these students, but we need to be more tuned into their needs or, or, you know, always tuned into their needs. I don't wanna say more Sure. As if there's <laugh>, there's a deficit. Because there are a whole lot of people doing so much good work in this space, particularly at a and m. Yeah. but I, I think it's, you know, you, you need that healthy competition. You need some of those, those pressure points to keep you moving, to keep you innovating and to keep you relevant. And I think relevance is, is the key at this point, particularly with land grant institutions where we, what we offer is seeped in tradition mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, and we have all sorts of interesting new ways of earning credentials, and we call 'em credentials of value in the state of Texas that we need to continue to challenge ourselves Yes. To, to stay relevant in that conversation and not be an alternative.
Amrit Ahluwalia (20:38): Yes. No, absolutely. Yeah. I, i, it, the nomenclature around our work, it really does need some work. We have a tendency to define things by what they aren't. We have a tendency to define things as an alternative to the norm. And it's, it's challenging. But critical, I think, in just in, in creating an environment that's maybe more equitable or maybe more understanding of, of where we are. Jocelyn, I, I so appreciate your time. Thank you so much for joining. Now, before I let you go, if someone's going out to dinner in College Station, where do they need to go?
Jocelyn Widmer (21:11): Well, I'll tell you, this is funny. My favorite restaurant, it, I think it's in the process of reopening. Oh,
Amrit Ahluwalia (21:16): Well, that's good timing. Oh geez.
Jocelyn Widmer (21:19): I'm actually a vegetarian. And my ace in the hole is Chicken Oil Company, which is the hamburger company, but they have the best veggie Burger. Okay. So yeah, I'm, I'm hoping it opens back soon, but it's been kind of a, a long-standing establishment in the Bryan College Station area and that's awesome. Fantastic place. But yeah, whenever I wanna have a, a private business meeting, I take people kind of throw 'em off their
Amrit Ahluwalia (21:44): Yeah, no kidding. I wouldn't expect to laugh. That's hell. Well, that's something. So
Jocelyn Widmer (21:49):Yeah, divulge my secrets, but fan, fantastic. Locally owned place.
Amrit Ahluwalia (21:54): That's awesome. Jocelyn, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.
Jocelyn Widmer (21:56): Same. Thank you so much.
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