On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Asim Ali, to discuss the need for an entrepreneurial approach to higher ed and the responsibility leaders have to be aware of the transformation around them.
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 Asim Ali, who is Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Innovation at Auburn University. Asim and podcast host Amrit Ahluwalia discuss the need for an entrepreneurial approach to higher ed and the responsibility leaders have to be aware of the transformation around them.
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:33): Awesome. we're at the UPCEA conference. Welcome to the Illumination Podcast. It's great to hang out with you,
Asim Ali (00:37): Man. It's great to be here. Thanks for the opportunity. Amen. Absolutely. Well,
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:39): I appreciate you taking the time out. And, you know, this is, we, we tend to bump into each other every 12 months or so at this exact conference. What is it that makes this conference really jump out at you?
Asim Ali (00:50): I, when I started in online education about a decade ago, my first conference was the summit for online learning out in San Antonio. And it was just, I just felt like at home right away. And I think about that a lot actually, because, you know, this year we have the largest conference in the history, about 1100 folks here. And I think what it is, is just the style of our working, you know, the, the approach that we take. The folks are working on some of the most interesting projects and ideas in the most interesting way. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> and all of that just comes together into, and just by nature we tend to be very collaborative in terms of sharing what we're learning with each other. And it's just, it's great, man. I, I keep in touch with the folks that I meet here all year round. Yes. It's so fantastic.
Amrit Ahluwalia (01:31): You know what, I, it kind of, it strikes me I was thinking about that. Cause I remember the OPIA conference in 2019, I think was Seattle and it was 800 people and it was the biggest one ever. And, and it's just consistently grown and grown and grown and grown and it makes sense. You know, we're starting to see continuing in professional education at sort of the forefront of what universities are trying to do. We're seeing this work becoming more and more common and important in figuring out where we are. And, and this is the gathering spot for those individuals. What's exciting, and I guess concerning at the same time is that I feel like we need to find ways to start getting out of our silo when we're talking about these topics. Cuz I still feel like at many institutions the concept of micro-credentialing seems like something that has to be built from scratch. Right. The concept of innovative, innovative program modeling, or flexible scheduling or sort of student centricity as a concept Yeah. Is something that feels like it needs to be built from scratch. And the reality is that, you know, most of, most it, by the way, if you're listening to this podcast and, and you feel like those questions are true to you, that these are brand new things. I guarantee you, on your campus, someone is doing that work right now and it's in the continuing ed unit.
Asim Ali (02:36): Yep, exactly. Yeah. And I think, and it's probably in the continuing ed unit because the units originally started and, you know, with us, we're not continuing ed, we're Auburn online largely. But, you know, this whole idea started because we needed we recognized a need for an entrepreneurial approach to how we're reaching learners who perhaps weren't a part of the regular, you know, marketing efforts and, and programming and things like that. And, you know, as our, as our access mission from being a land grant institution, that was such an important concept for us. And it continues to be. And, and I think those ideas find a home in continuing ed and, and online units. Yeah. Because we're, we're tooled we're built for reaching those who typically aren't being reached. And and you know, when we think about these innovative ideas, the emerging technologies and, and emerging concepts and ideas, not just necessarily technology, but even, you know, how do we approach certain decision making those tend to find a home in, in, in units like ours.
(03:38): Because those are the kinds of, that's how we're tooled. That's how we've been designed. And it's a really interesting opportunity also because if we think outwardly, right? Like it helps us reach more learners, it helps us reach more people. Yeah. But then if we look internally to our institutions, it lets us be that conduit for our faculty. Like, Hey, who's gonna help me make sense out of what's happening on this? Hey, now we're actually able to same take those same principles that we know about, about reaching learners who are, you know, otherwise very busy working their daily lives. Which, let's just be honest, like, faculty at our one institutions are <laugh>, you know, and, and so now we're able to say, Hey, I know you're busy. I know you got a lot going on. You got families and things like that. Here's self-paced, self-directed, asynchronous learning that you can take advantage of for your own kinds of resource. Any, you know, things like that. I, I think it, it, I think it makes sense for us cuz it comes naturally to us. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> that's how we've been tooled. Absolutely.
Amrit Ahluwalia (04:29): And so it's actually prepare for the seamless transition. You know, I think one of the things when, whenever we're talking about these topics, we talk about higher education as a millennia old industry. And in, when we think about it in context, a lot of these ideas that we're talking about here kind of have been in the, coming into the mainstream for maybe 20 years or so. And I guess you would consider that maybe a, a new arrival in, in the context of so much history. So, sure. I'm curious as, as you think about the concept of trends, like why do you think it's important for, for leaders, especially in this space, to be aware of sort of the trends and the transformations that are shaping the industry around us?
Asim Ali (05:07): Yeah, I think it's really important for us to, to have a pulse on what those trends are simply because we have a responsibility to our communities and those that we're serving to make sure that we're serving them in, in the things that are going to be relevant for them. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> and and, you know, and it's our respon and that's, that's our responsibility. That's who we are, that's what we need to be doing. If we aren't that, then we cease to be, you know, relevant. Yeah. Quite frankly. And and that's not a good idea. You know, that's not a good approach, that's not great. That's not great for a, for a competitive approach. But yeah, I, yeah. I think plus it keeps you connected with the community. You know, you're, it shows that you are aware of, and, you know, there's regional differences when it comes to these kinds of things. There's certainly some macro trends, but there's certainly you know, regional ups and downs and shifts and things like that that are happening. And so it, it's a conduit to building those relationships that are so vital for just the survival of institutions or just the making sure the institutions are serving mm-hmm. <Affirmative> the communities that they're in.
Amrit Ahluwalia (06:06): So when it comes to the idea of like trends mm-hmm. <Affirmative> how do you start to differentiate a trend that's going to stick against one that's more of a flash in the pan? Like how, what, what's your rubric for determining whether something's really worth diving into?
Asim Ali (06:22): There's no way to really know, right? Because I gotta use the QR code as an example. <Laugh> like, what a comeback story. We thought
Amrit Ahluwalia (06:27): That was a terrible idea for a good
Asim Ali (06:29): While there. I mean, it was like, it was so complicated to create them and then, you know, like people you had to like, until Apple like said, sure, you can just use the camera app to read the cure. Yeah. I mean, those things like that we're missing. Well,
Amrit Ahluwalia (06:40): Do you wanna know what, and sorry, just for the context of our listeners here. Yeah. where as and I are currently seated, I would say we're surrounded by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, about nine separate stereotype QR codes. All for different things. Right. But it's, it's incredible, right? Yeah. Because you're right, it, in that instance, the idea was a good idea that the technology hadn't really caught up yet. Sorry, I was, I interrupted.
Asim Ali (07:06): Yeah, no, I mean, so if you look at any of those trends, right? Like the, the iPod wasn't the first MP3 player, it was just the better design and on time. So I think there are, it's hard to say what's going to be the trend that sticks. Certainly a few things that I look at. I always for, especially when it comes to ed tech, for example, I'll look at who the where the private equity money is coming from mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, especially now with like, you know, the interest rate's going up. I think people are gonna be a little bit more selective about what kinds of ideas they're investing in. Hey, people who are investing millions of dollars, hundreds of millions of dollars into what ideas gonna work, they're doing their homework. Yeah. I, part of those conversations before with some of the PE firms and what I pick up is the way they do their homework is just really impressive.
(07:49): We can't replicate that. And so I do like seeing, okay, what are the kinds of things that they're investing in? I keep in, you know, keep in touch with those kinds of areas. So that's one way to to that's end. That's a piece of information. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. The other, I'll share with you, I have this I picked up on the, I think it was at it was so by Southwest a few years ago. Timmel Grandlin was a speaker. I think she talked about this. I either it was her or one of the other speakers talked about this idea of jelly beans and how, if you think about all these different ideas and trends around you as jelly beans, you know, and Jelly Belly would say something like, oh, if you take two strawberry jelly bellies and combine item with the vanilla, it tastes like cheesecake or whatever.
(08:27): Right? And so that's really what trends are, is, you know, their ideas and eventually the true evolution of those is how they merge with other trends and what's happening to create the new thing. And, and so you also wanna take a look at the origin of where those ideas are coming from. Right? Well, how did we end up with artificial intelligence? Well, we ended up with artificial intelligence. It's been around for decades. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, I took a class in it in my undergrad two decades Yeah. 20 years ago. But, you know, if we look at the trends of, in terms of machine learning and the capabilities of just chips that are in our devices and, and you know, mach, you know, and just natural language process, all these other things that have led to this point. Yeah. And so you, you know, does that have sta staying power as well? Or is it just like a whi that just came about? Yeah. so I think those kinds of things help. Of course. There's no way to know for sure. So keeping up with those trends and reading about them and seeing who's adopting and who's experimenting with them has a lot to, to be a part of it.
Amrit Ahluwalia (09:26): You know, what kind it blows me away is one of the topics that we've, that's come up over and over again on our publication over the past sort of year or so, is around, you know, is online learning a trend or is it a flash in the pan? Is the the transition from being, you know, faculty center, student centric? Is it, is it, are these all things that came about because of the pandemic? Or are these things that were long standing ideas? And it's kind of, it's fascinating thinking about this conference again, actually in the context of there, there's 1100 people
(09:55): We went from a stage of all this work kind of happening in the, in the periphery happening in the shadows to being work that's happening at the center of the institution, right. And it happened kind of because of this moment. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, these were all good ideas over a long period of time, but they didn't have the circumstance hit at the right point. And that's kind of what you're framing out here when you think about the difference between trends and flashes in the pan. It's, you know, do you have that moment?
Asim Ali (10:18): Yeah, that's a really good point too. And the other thing to notice is we're, we're at institutions that are in the knowledge business, right? Yeah. We are knowledge centers, and so we value knowledge, we value expertise because that's what we're essentially, that's what we're trying to, you know, sell as a, as a crude way to say it. Sure. But I mean, that's essentially what we're trying to build in our learners, right? Yeah. And so so as those trends became more noticeable, then the next question becomes, well, okay, on my campus, who's got the expertise? Who's got the knowledge on this? And guess what, <laugh>, you've got somebody on your campus, we might
Amrit Ahluwalia (10:51): Need to find a sign or something. When you think about the, the, the trends that, that you think have staying power right now, what are you keeping an eye on? What should we be
Asim Ali (11:00): Watching? Well, definitely been tracking ai, artificial intelligence, I think is, is the real deal, quite frankly. Anybody who uses it even in a very, you know, simplistic way, will immediately recognize some advantage here. I use it in the class that I teach with my business students. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I see a lot of just their insights in terms of how they perceive it being a part of their professional careers. There's lots of conversations happening on our campuses, campuses around it. You know, it checks out the other things, right? It's a, it's the result of a lot of longstanding growth and development and trends, and it's the result of a lot of investment in from a lot of different people. It's the you know, and so, so it's got, it checks those kinds of options. Yeah. But, you know, when you use it, it kind of just makes sense, you know? Yeah. Terms of
Amrit Ahluwalia (11:45): It feels natural. Yeah.
Asim Ali (11:46): So, you know, and, and what it is right now is going to be drastically different than what it looks like. You know, there's gonna be, there's so many improvements and advances happening. So I do, I do think that we do need to just take particular time and effort at Auburn. What we've done is developed a course called teaching with AI at Auburn. Okay. And it's a curated content about, you know, eight, it's a really good idea, eight or so modules. And we, we've actually we're we're talking with making licensing it to other institutions as well. Yeah. But essentially the idea was, okay, well first of all, it lets us serve our faculty and, and professionals on our campus Yeah. Who are directly affected by this trend. So let's curate the kinds of question content that we have and the, in the resources that'll help 'em an answer these questions that we've got around not just integrity, but how can I partner with my students to use this Yeah.
(12:38): Or to not use it in some cases. How, how do I, you know, redesign my courses to be ready for this type of approach that recognizes that the world is going to have this as a, as a, have this technology as part of it. So so that's worked out really well. The second aspect of it is, you know what? It, it's being built by the same Auburn online team that we've tooled together. It's incredibly talented. I've got Right. Incredible people in the, in, in the unit that work with us. And so now we're actually able to serve a course to our own folks, and they're seeing the, the best of that work in, in the, in, in context, right. They're seeing, oh, this is an interestingly well designed course, right? Yeah. And so how do I do this with my classes? And that, that's another exciting, really create some experiences.
(13:21): Yeah. That's, yeah. So let's look at the other side then. What, what's a flash in the pan? What do we need to watch out for? Yeah. You know, again, I mean, we gotta be a little cautious because it's, it's, it could be a flash in the pan as we know it today. Yeah, yeah. And maybe there's some, it's just waiting on some advancement. It could need its moment. Yeah. Yeah. So, but I'll, I'll share with you a little nuance here. Now, we sometimes we lose nuance when we talk about these things. So I, I, I'll beg for your interest in terms of ma maintaining the nuance here, <laugh>. So if we I also co-lead the the immersive learning experiences project at Auburn. So we've got, you know, augmented reality and virtual reality projects and, and what's worked really well are projects where we are taking important concepts in classes or learning experiences and replicating those and redesigning and, and building those concepts in an immersive environment that's had a really good staying power, right?
(14:14): So like in terms of stereochemistry, there's concepts of how, you know, mo molecules or connect and things like that and transformations of those in, you know, in culinary sciences, for example, surf safe training, right? We've built out as a completely a virtual immersive environment. I think that is, I think that's got potential. But now the flash and the pan part right? Is if we look, are we do I think that there's going to be like this idea that we live in a meta world, right? I think that's the flash. Now, here's the interesting thing to me, right? Is if we think about who the investors are there, who's the biggest player? The biggest player is Meta or Facebook, right? Yeah. And what the business of Facebook has been is how to get us addicted to the novel, right? Yes. Essentially, their entire model for how they have users in all of the platforms mm-hmm.
(15:01): You know, Instagram or whatever it may be, is here's the novel surf to you on an endless cycle, which we know has questions in terms of psychological, you know, just ethics, I guess, around that. And Yeah. You know, and those questions have come up in terms of recent whistleblower stuff and things like that. So I think ai, as we currently think about it being like, this meta world is not staying power, I think it is flash in the pan type of a thing, certainly in the education field, you know, the idea that we're gonna meet in the meta world instead of meeting in person <laugh>. Sure. My work and field novel, a couple of class meetings, but by the fourth or fifth class meeting, it's just gonna be like, oh, I gotta go to class again. In the meta world, I feel like
Amrit Ahluwalia (15:40): We've tried, like we tried Second Life, we tried Sure. There are so many attempts
Asim Ali (15:44): Of doing this. Yeah. And I think, I think the caution that I would have for us is, well, if there's this much money from meta at stake, and they've shown themselves to be ethically questionable in terms of the psychological question, yeah. We know that it is possible to build a meta world that people wanna be in, because if it serves us that continuous novelty, then people will wanna be in it. So I hope we don't have a meta world that makes those same kinds of ethical, questionable decisions in order, because there's such a desperation to build something that has that staying power. That's fascinating. So that's my concern is that if, if you, if we meet five years from now and say, oh, well it looks like I was wrong, and we do have an AI world with a lot of staying power, then my concern is that we would've sacrificed a lot in terms of what we want in, in society to get to that point.
Amrit Ahluwalia (16:32): I mean, there's layers that we could probably dive into on that. Sure. And I, I have
Asim Ali (16:37): To respect Point End.
Amrit Ahluwalia (16:39): You know, we have to respect the back. You've got a session to moderate 15 minutes. I mean, just yeah. Determining who, who sets the judgment for what, what those boundaries need to be. How do you enforce We're not, we're not gonna get into that though. Sure.
Asim Ali (16:54): But maybe next time.
Amrit Ahluwalia (16:55): It’s a really interesting point. So let me ask a much, I guess, a closer Okay. On a much lighter note. Sure. If someone's going to dinner in your hometown.
Asim Ali (17:05): Oh man. Good to go. Man. I don't know if you know this, but Southern Living did a special on the city of Auburn and just the incredible food scene that exists. I encourage folks to Google that up because or chat to you PT it up, I guess <laugh>, if that's what's the thing right now, too. But but I gotta tell you, man, we've got some incredible restaurants. We've got two that I wanna mention, if it's okay. Yeah. So one is if you're looking for just a, a, you know, a classy Dinner out loosies, it's run by my friend Lisa Vander riding. She does a great job with it. Just a vision there of like, you know, what that feels like is awesome. And the second one is, I wanna give a shout out to my friend Whitley. He's got this bow place. Oh, it's called Irritable Bow <laugh>. And they do, and then right now they're doing a March Madness collab rations with other restaurants. And I mean, I'll just, he's Oh, that's massive market marketer. He's so good. And the food is amazing. And he is got a, you know, he has a beautiful family and he is just so good. So just, we get that small town feel and we've got some incredible restaurants in the area, so you could come by for like five days and have amazing meals all five days.
(18:08): I'll give you a tour of campus add on. I'm genuinely on board. <Laugh>. Yeah. Come on by. We've got some beautiful new buildings. We've really reimagined how we build and invest in academic learning spaces. I've got massage chairs in our unit. I don't know if that helps. Hell yes. <Laugh>, are you allowed to say hell on a podcast? Well, I guess we'll find out. <Laugh>. Awesome, man. It's been a pleasure. Hey, man, Absolut so much for your time. Thanks so much for having me. All right, man. This is great.
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