Exclusive Interview with Dr. Jim Julius, Faculty Director, Online Education MiraCosta College Community College District, CA

April 1, 2012

Dr. Jim Julius

Dr. Jim Julius, Faculty Director, Online Education MiraCosta College Community College District, CA

Dr. Saba: Dr. Julius What attracted you to educational technology?

Dr. Julius: Educational technology brings together my education and life experiences as nothing else could. As a kid, I enjoyed computers, writing my first programs at an Apple II camp as an 8th grader in 1980. I went on to study computer science at Willamette University and worked as a software engineer for five years after graduating, helping build a mobile digital network for United Parcel Service.

Although I enjoyed the work, I sought a deeper vocation. My wife was getting started as an elementary educator, and I loved hearing her stories about the classroom. I ended up returning to Willamette for a master’s degree in teaching, completing my master’s project (in 1996) on the use of the Internet in elementary education. I then taught a blended 4th/5th grade class in a progressive suburban school district outside of Portland. In the midst of my fifth year of teaching, I thought about focusing my energy and developing as a leader in the area of education that I considered my greatest strength: the use of technology to support teaching and learning.

With that resolve, I was accepted into the San Diego State University – University of San Diego joint doctoral program in education, in the educational technology concentration. Through my time in that program, working closely with faculty and teaching courses at both institutions, my interest shifted from the K-12 realm to higher education. Opportunities for innovation in the use of technology in the service of learning abound in higher education.

A key notion I internalized while working on my master’s degree is that “every technology contains dual impulses toward liberation and domination.” I question the determinists who believe technologies are leading us inexorably toward an end, whether utopian or dystopian. I also question the instrumentalists who say that “technology is just a tool.” Being a leader in educational technology means more than simply being good with technology and knowledgeable about education. I love the challenges of systems thinking and change management – having a big picture vision while being sensitive to the various concerns and assumptions people hold across pedagogical, technological, and organizational spectra.

Dr. Saba: As the first Faculty Director of Online Education at MiraCosta College, what are your primary responsibilities; how do you spend your day at work to manage them and reach your goals?

Dr. Julius: My job description lists 23 different duties, with 14 marked as essential. But these can be condensed into a handful of primary responsibilities:

  •  Provide leadership for online education within the shared governance framework and in accordance with the Online Education Plan
  •  Conduct needs analyses related to online education
  • Develop resources supporting online education
  • Provide reports and other information for internal and external online ed stakeholders
  • Lead budgeting and planning related to online education
  • Maintain currency and professional connections in online education

I am fortunate that MiraCosta has given me plenty of time to establish collaborative relationships, listen to various perspectives, prioritize needs and opportunities, and formulate my own approach to moving forward with the institutional Online Education Plan developed last year. The Plan is broadly inclusive, but not highly elaborated, which leaves a lot of room for me to involve its contributors in determining more detailed goals, milestones, metrics, baselines, timelines, and budgets.

All this means that there is no such thing as a typical day at work at this point. I have lots of meetings with various leaders and committees, but I also have time to research tools, practices, and regulations in order to be better able to help MiraCosta address issues and possibilities related to online education.

There is a clear need to establish a set of resources (an “online education handbook,” perhaps) that will provide guidance to faculty and academic leaders on:

  • the unique laws, regulations, and guidelines with which institutions providing online education must comply;
  • college curricular processes associated with online course proposals;
  • quality standards and effective practices in developing and offering online courses, especially using the college’s centrally-supported technologies;
  • institutional resources and effective practices for supporting student success in online classes;
  • evaluation of faculty fit for teaching online prior to assigning an online class to an instructor; and
  • evaluation of faculty effectiveness in online teaching.

Each of these points requires research and communication, and in some cases shared decision making, with various college stakeholders. This will comprise the majority of my work for the foreseeable future.

Dr. Saba: As someone who has been involved in four-year institutions as well, how are your responsibilities similar (or different) from what you have experienced in other institutions?

Dr. Julius: My MiraCosta job description is much more focused on online education than my previous work at San Diego State University and the University of San Diego, where I had broader responsibilities for various instructional technologies and faculty development initiatives. Also different is that I am a (non-classroom) tenure-track faculty member here, which is in most ways a tremendous asset in working within the shared governance system.

At MiraCosta I work in a department that is responsible for the library and all academic and administrative technologies for the college. This comprehensive structure has some advantages with all technologists “under one roof.” On the other hand, rightly or wrongly, “IT people” are sometimes painted with a broad brush as not being service-oriented, which can create divisions between faculty and staff and make it more difficult to gain trust.

I realize that at many institutions, online education may be the responsibility of a distinct organizational entity, with varying degrees of integration with the rest of the institutional departments and services. What I’ve appreciated very much at MiraCosta is the ease of access to leaders from across the college. If there are “silos” here, they don’t seem to me particularly tall. This means that there are fewer barriers, potentially, to collaborative efforts; but it also makes it harder to “fly under the radar.”

One sort of meta-question about online education that I’ve developed over the last few months as I’ve attended conferences and made connections with colleagues is this: What are the institutional characteristics that affect how online education is adopted, developed, administered, and grown within an institution? My hypothesis is that the variables in this answer have less to do with whether a college is a 2-year or 4-year institution, and more to do with the institutional culture around innovation, collaboration, quality, and focus on student learning/success.

This spring I am looking forward to making site visits to a number of other community colleges to learn about the different approaches they have taken to developing technical, political, and educational systems in support of online learning. My hypothesis is that while each institution will be trying to address similar concerns, their approaches will vary significantly depending on their institutional culture, and may require significant adaptation to work at MiraCosta – or may not even be relevant.

Dr. Saba: Higher education institutions are experiencing unprecedented challenges at all levels. What are some of these challenges for you and how are you meeting them?

Dr. Julius: Of course, budget is a major concern for most institutions of higher education. MiraCosta is fortunate that it receives sufficient funding from its local property tax district, and thus is more insulated from the vagaries of the state budget than most community colleges. But with falling property valuations, MiraCosta is dealing with some budget reductions, which can make it more challenging to support innovation through acquisition of new technologies. On the other hand, there is value in helping faculty to look at other opportunities to enhance online education, by improving course designs and taking better advantage of existing tools, and by looking to free, open, or low cost educational resources.

Most IHEs, and especially community colleges, are increasingly focused on learning outcomes, student success and retention rates, and college completion. MiraCosta is in the midst of an accreditation process bringing these topics to the forefront of discussion and action. For online education, it is important to determine which metrics are meaningful at course, department, and institutional levels, and gather data to establish baselines. Discussion with many parties is important to share this data and to create plans for improvement (where needed) or sharing of effective practices in areas where we are already achieving at high levels.

Finally, online education seems to receive more than its share of challenges related to regulatory and compliance issues. Online education advocates (rightly, in my opinion) ask the question, “Why do we seem to assume that classroom-based education is just fine and online classes must be held to a different standard?” But the reality is we do have numerous state, federal, and accrediting agency issues to address: student authentication, “regular & effective contact” between instructor and students, accessibility of online educational systems and resources, documenting “last day of attendance” and concerns over financial aid fraud, authorization for online programs enrolling students in other states, substantive change approvals, copyright/fair use, and FERPA (student privacy) come quickly to mind. Here at MiraCosta, a centralized “DE police” effort would not be well received. It’s thus key to provide resources and expertise to departments, department chairs, and deans so that these issues are understood and handled appropriately by instructors and those directly responsible for designing curriculum, scheduling classes, and assigning instructors.

Dr. Saba: How do you see the role of online education evolve in the next three to five years at MiraCosta College?

Dr. Julius: Every institution has a different story as to how online education has emerged and grown. Here, it has largely been at the initiative of individual faculty and departments over the last fifteen years. A grassroots faculty initiative, the Program for Online Teaching, has supported faculty development and preparation for online teaching to the point that it offers its own certification program (see http://pedagogyfirst.org/wppf/?page_id=10086). As more online classes were offered and administrators perceived that they were highly valued by students, many departments encouraged further development of online curriculum.

The first step may be to revisit and articulate the overarching rationale and goals for online education at MiraCosta. Thus far, increasing student access to MiraCosta courses seems to be the underlying motivation, and the driver for which courses should be online has primarily been instructor interest. The rationale for offering courses might go beyond “access” to other student learning goals such as success, retention, and completion. The rationale might also include enrollment management – helping the college to better hit targets for levels of service to its population given the available capital, fiscal, and human resources. Either way, moving beyond purely instructor-driven online offerings speaks to a more systematic approach to developing and administering online classes and programs.

At this point, while the headcount of online class enrollment is over a third of the total college headcount, MiraCosta still does not offer complete programs online. So it is important to identify programs that are already comprised of classes which may be taken mostly or entirely online, as well as programs where demand for a fully online option is likely. Enabling potential and enrolled students to receive services online is also critical if the college is to offer full programs (certificates or degrees) online. A final key is better integration of online education within the planning, budgeting, and review processes of the College.

As online education (not just online classes and programs) is more systematically offered at MiraCosta, it will be woven into the fabric of all students’ educational experiences. Improved online systems and services potentially benefit every student, even those who continue to take a full load of classroom-based courses. Instructors who are more aware of the ways to blend place-based courses with online learning opportunities will enhance learning for all. And in my opinion, an educational organization that thinks carefully about the opportunities and challenges of online education is likely to be more innovative, efficient, and competent in fulfilling its mission.

Dr. Saba: Thank you for sharing your valuable experience and insights with us.

In August, 2011, Jim moved from San Diego State to MiraCosta College, where he is the first Faculty Director of Online Education. His primary focus is collaboration with faculty, administrators, student services professionals, technologists, and students to help MiraCosta strengthen online learning opportunities and support services, with a near-term goal of beginning to offer fully online programs.

Jim was the Associate Director of Instructional Technology Services at SDSU from 2005-2011. In addition to helping manage the activities of the 25-person department, Jim collaborated closely with other faculty support and development units on campus, managed evaluation and adoption processes of emerging technologies such as web conferencing and clickers, and worked with faculty and departments interested in course redesign for increased online learning.

Jim is a 2007 graduate of the SDSU-USD joint doctoral program in education, focusing on educational technology. His dissertation was entitled “A Concerns-Based Adoption Model Study of University Instructors Engaged in Faculty Development for Enhancing Learning with Technology.”

Prior to entering the doctoral program, Jim lived in Oregon and worked first as a software engineer for five years and then, after obtaining a master’s degree in teaching, as a 4th/5th grade teacher for five years. He has taught numerous educational technology courses at SDSU and USD as well as serving as a technology consultant for USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences and coordinator for USD’s Center for Learning and Teaching.

Jim has presented at regional and national conferences and has led many workshops on topics related to enhancing learning through course redesign and thoughtful uses of instructional technology.