Caleb Simmons, Executive Director of Online Education at the University of Arizona and Oversees Arizona Online

Caleb Simmons, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Online Education at the University of Arizona and oversees Arizona Online. He also serves as Professor of Religious Studies and Faculty Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program. His current research focuses on online and digital learning, student learning outcomes, and cost-benefit in Higher Education. He was named a Center for University Education Scholarship (CUES) Distinguished Fellow for his research on online pedagogy. In his role as a faculty member, his research focuses on South Asian religious history, and he is the author of the following academic monographs: Devotional Sovereignty: Kingship and Religion in India (Oxford University Press, 2020) and Singing the Goddess into Place (SUNY Press 2022) and over 20 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters.

​In a recent interview with Higher Education Digest, Caleb Simmons discussed his experience as an Online Education Leader. He shared his insights into how online education transformed the landscape of higher education, key challenges and opportunities in higher education, emerging trends and innovations in online education, and more.

As a higher education professional and advocate for online education, what are your thoughts on the future of traditional brick-and-mortar universities?

Higher Education is changing more rapidly now than ever, but change is at its core. While it may be tempting to view Higher Education as a bastion of tradition, like much of society, it is ever -evolving, tending toward greater inclusivity. Since the foundations of the Western university in the eleventh century (and the Islamic centers of learning that predated them) sought to expand education beyond ecclesiastical subjects, Higher Education transformed—with all attendant growing pains—to broaden its range of disciplines and the learners who can attend. Much of this change has taken place in the last century with greater inclusive of learner diversity. Today’s institutions of Higher Learning would be unrecognizable, both in scope and in student population to those early universities.

Traditional brick-and-mortar universities have survived, not by being static, but by being dynamic adaptable organizations that evolve as they shape and reflect society at large. Online Education is the future of education creating a surge in access to Higher Education that is on par with other major moments in the history of US Higher Education, like the Morrill Act of 1862 and Brown v. Board of Education. Unlike these examples that were sparked by legal intervention, the Online Education movement has developed more organically with colleges and universities realizing its potential for broadening access and revenue generation. Online Education is here to stay; it is now the responsibility of traditional institutions to figure out how their institutions evolve to support all their learners as multi-modal centers of learning built for the future.

How has online education transformed the landscape of higher education, and what benefits does it offer to both students and institutions?

Online Education has transformed the landscape of Higher Education by allowing institutions greater mobility in serving their mission. Institutions of Higher Learning have historically been confined by their physical locations and learners’ ability to access those spaces. As someone born and raised on a cotton and peanut farm in the rural Southern United States, George Washington Carver has always been a great hero of mine for the impact that he had on generations of small farming communities in the region. His impact was only possible because he understood that proximity to a physical location was inherently limiting the spread of knowledge to those without the means or resources to uproot and move to take part in a residential educational experience. Whereas he packed up a horse-drawn wagon to take his classes into these communities and meet learners where they are, technological advances now allow us even greater reach if we are willing to harness them. The ability to extend our reach allows us to truly fulfill our mission of producing and sharing knowledge.

The expanded scope that is afforded by online education has meaningful effects on our institutions and our learners. In addition to helping us fulfill our mission, for the institution, online education helps us to solve a variety of practical challenges as well. These solutions can range from decreased need for physical expansion, reduction of commute times for employees, cost-savings related to utilities, and allowing international recruitment of the best faculty and staff.  For students, however, the benefits align with the shifting landscape of work and the economic reality of most students. Similar to online learning, most careers now incorporate some aspect of remote work that requires workers to be self-motivated, using digital and virtual tools to achieve goals from home. I would argue that online learners are uniquely prepared for the future of work because they have invaluable experience working in this type of environment. Perhaps more importantly, as expenses have increased disproportionately to earnings, the “traditional” student who is residential and has no work or care obligations is now a minority demographic even in traditional brick-and-mortar residential institutions. Online Education provides flexible solutions that allow students to align and balance their educational aspirations with their need for employment and care duties.

What are the key challenges and opportunities that higher education professionals face in promoting and implementing online education initiatives?

I think the key opportunities are manifold for Higher Education professionals both from a mission and values standpoint and from a business perspective. For all the reasons enumerated above, online education helps open Higher Education to be more accessible and inclusive by removing barriers, such as geographic proximity, schedule, and care obligations, that keep learners from achieving their educational goals. From the business side, the wider market that is allowed by online education and the ability to leverage technological solutions for scalability creates new avenues for revenue generation and jobs for faculty and staff. Additionally, instructors can harness powerful digital tools that make learning engaging and allow students to apply their knowledge in ways that are not possible in traditional face-to-face settings.

These opportunities, however, do not come without obstacles. The transition from in-person modalities can be challenging for faculty, requiring adaptation and the development of different professional skills and knowledge of new pedagogies. The problems also extend to the systems and organizations themselves. Traditional campuses must rethink everything from academic policies to communications plans to ensure that they take into account the various new scenarios that might occur in the new environment. Culture, however, is the largest challenge for most institutions. Online Education requires a shift in university and college culture to incorporate a student population that is primarily working adults whose needs vary greatly from the notional “traditional student.” This will take time.

How can online education enhance accessibility and inclusivity in higher education, particularly for underrepresented groups or non-traditional learners?

As mentioned previously, for me, accessibility and inclusivity are two of the greatest benefits of online education. Online education is a rupture in the Higher Education paradigm that is creating a paradigm shift towards a new reality of Higher Education. Along with this rupture, the systemic inequities that are perpetuated by the previous paradigm are also being unsettled by opening access to Higher Education and the generational socio-economic benefits that result from higher levels of education. At Arizona Online and our partner organization University of Arizona Global Campus, our student populations greatly increase the diversity of the overall institution in every sense of the word from underrepresented students and post-traditional learners. As the Online Initiatives of the University of Arizona, we are critical in reshaping the institution to be more equitable, accessible, and just.

In what ways can online education provide a personalized learning experience tailored to individual student needs and preferences?

Creating personalized learning experiences that suit a variety of student needs is a complex issue within online education. In some ways, digital tools and asynchronous learning allow students with a variety of outside needs and learning differences to interact with the course material in ways that allows each student to personalize their experience. This, however, can also be a strategic challenge for an institution that is balancing quality, student success, and scalability. Thankfully, new technology is developing that can help in this arena. Arizona Online is currently partnering with Juji, Inc. to develop a Cognitive AI tutor that is embedded within our learning management software. This tool collects psychographic data from students by asking a series of questions, and then the AI tutor can personalize its interactions with the students and its explanations of the course material to align with their broader interests and career goals.

How can traditional universities effectively integrate online education into their curriculum to offer a blended learning experience?

This is certainly a possibility and something that most universities and colleges are tending toward even if they are not doing it intentionally. From the ubiquitous use of digital LMSs to flipped classroom instruction, elements of online teaching are becoming standard practice even in in-person contexts. This is all part of the larger Higher Education paradigm shift discussed previously. Even in traditional residential brick-and-mortar institutions, students desire to take online courses as part of their academic experience, and the Higher Education institution of the future will necessarily need to be multimodal to meet the demand for the modality and the flexibility that it provides. Institutions that are being intentional and strategic in their approach to building a blended learning experience with the end goal of being fully multimodal universities are going to be the educational leaders of tomorrow.

What role does technology play in improving student engagement and fostering a sense of community in online education?

In the digital and virtual world of online education, technology is at the core of engagement. The digital environment lends itself to the application of knowledge through simulations, and virtual reality and gamification of learning help students interact with the content in ways unimaginable only a few years ago. As technology rapidly increases and the market becomes flooded with new platforms and learning technologies, instructors and administrators face the difficulty of deciding which technologies provide a return on the investment through increased learning outcomes. Technologies can also serve to help facilitate a sense of community, but technology can only take it so far. People—staff, faculty, and students—are absolutely the core for creating community and a sense of belonging. To connect our people, we’ve partnered with Mentor Collective to help connect our students through an SMS texting platform. It has been a wonderful success, especially in increasing retention among our underrepresented student populations.

How can higher education institutions ensure the quality and rigor of online education programs, and what measures are in place to maintain accreditation standards?

Online education is no different than traditional in-person education regarding a commitment to quality and rigor. If a program is well designed, and based on a solid and relevant pedagogical foundation, online education can meet or exceed the quality and rigor of traditional in-person education. All the technology in the world is no replacement for the hard work of developing an excellent course that methodically helps students move toward the achievement of learning outcomes. Technology, however, can help maintain rigor at scale from randomizing exam questions to plagiarism software. Artificial Intelligence is also critical in this arena as it can be leveraged to proctor exams, to rework exams, and to ensure that students are staying on track in the course. Of course, AI can also introduce challenges that affect rigor; however, I am a firm believer that a thoughtful, intentional instructor can create assignments that require students to apply their knowledge in ways that current AI is incapable of producing.

What are the emerging trends and innovations in online education, and how can professionals in the field stay updated and adapt to these changes?

Online education—and Higher Education in general—is rapidly changing, and every day new technologies, policies, and teaching strategies are being developed. There is no way to keep up with them all. So, it is important to have a community of like-minded people in which to immerse yourself. Whether it is professional organizations, like UPCEA or OLC, or networks of colleagues and friends working in online education, fostering a community helps spread out the labor of keeping up and gives a platform for the sharing of best practices and lessons learned. Most important, however, is that we practice what we preach and embody the values of lifetime learning. Seek out new skill sets. Be adaptable. Embrace change. Build knowledge. Like it or not, online education is only going to continue to grow and evolve; so, we, as individuals, organizations, and institutions, must grow and evolve with it.


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