Staying Online: An Interview with Bob Ubell on the Affordances of Teaching Online


Jessica L. Knott, Ph.D., AVP of Community Strategy, Experience and Management, Online Learning Consortium.

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I had the incredible opportunity to sit down with OLC Fellow Robert (Bob) Ubell and have a chat about his forthcoming book Staying Online: How to Navigate Digital Higher Education which will be released September 7 by Routledge.

Having followed his writing in EdSurge and Inside Higher Education, it was delightful to get to chat with a scholar and thought leader, but also a human who truly values the affordances and nuance of digital human-to-human interaction.

Are you interested in reading along with me? Reach out via Twitter or email to let me know! I’ll assemble the book club Avengers (we’re like the superhero Avengers but way cooler.)



(Transcript has been edited for clarity.)

Knott: Well good afternoon and thank you for joining us. I am joined today by Robert Ubell and did I pronounce that right? Well, that’s perfect. All right, excellent.

And sometimes you go by Bob, Robert but your CV is wildly, wildly impressive and we’re here today to talk to you about your forthcoming book.

Now, as the former Vice Dean of Online Learning at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, and now a senior advisor at Stevens Institute of Technology, you’re not new to authorship in any way. You also serve on the board of the Online Learning journal for Online Learning Consortium.

So why don’t you just introduce yourself a little bit, tell us what you’ve been up to recently, and then we’ll talk about your forthcoming book coming out on September 7.

Ubell: Wonderful to be here and I am delighted to have this opportunity to talk to you and to get back to my online learning roots. I’ve been involved with the Online Learning Consortium from its earliest days at the Sloan Consortium. And I served on the Online Learning Consortium board and those were some of my most fabulous years in online learning.

I’ve met some of the most creative people in the field, learned from them, and actually without the consortium I would be pretty poor in the online learning world. I learned everything that is critical from the OLC and am happy to be back here.

Knott: And it’s not a one-way thing either Bob because you have served for a long time as an OLC fellow, you are one of our many OLC fellows who contribute to the field and knowledge for our community.

And I mean you also, in 1989 you joined Stevens Institute of Technology and you launched the web campus there. I mean you’re kind of, like, in on the ground floor of the earliest online initiatives so it’s just wonderful to have you here.

You have published previous books, you are the editor of Virtual Teamwork Mastering the Art and Practice of Online Learning and Corporate Collaboration, which was published in 2010.

And you’re also the author of the relatively recently published Going Online Perspectives on Digital Learning from 2017, but we’re here today to talk about what you have coming out on September 7. I’m kind of hoping to not only read myself (I’ve had a little preview and I’m very excited) but also to hopefully get some of our community reading with me so why don’t you tell us about your forthcoming book.

Ubell: It’s Staying Online, a companion to Going Online.

When I was thinking about the title I was completely flummoxed about how to title a book that covers a wide variety of things online learning.

It was my grandson, who I met for coffee in lower Manhattan some months ago, and I told him my dilemma about not knowing what to call my second book. And he said to me, he was in college at the time, he said, “what did you call your first book?”

So I said, “Going Online” and not a second passed by and he said, “Staying Online.”

And actually, it turned out to be quite prescient because as it happened this was before the pandemic and the title Staying Online now resonates with everyone.

There was a time when “staying online” only meant those who had a previous experience online: students and faculty, administrators, and others at universities. But today nearly everyone who’s in higher education has an online experience, so it’s perfectly apt.

Knott: I agree that the very core of what we do is online. There’s a digital aspect to almost everything we do, as humans, these days. We have to be intentional about going “off the grid” anymore. During the pandemic, we learned a lot about the digital divide and the differences in access and you know the haves and the have nots and things like that. So, I really love this staying online may have started as one thing but you’re correct it is certainly prescient.

What are you discussing with us in the book? Give us just a little elevator pitch of what kind of sent you down the path of talking about staying online. This is again pre-pandemic you decided to write this book. And then, and then came COVID-19 so the timing, you know, was really interesting there.

Ubell: So, it’s a combination of various things because the book consists of many articles that I published in various publications like EdSurge, Inside Higher Education, and elsewhere, about how to teach online, how students receive online learning as an experience, the problems of online delivery, the problems that institutions face when adopting online learning.

Many institutions have old-fashioned notions about education where the faculty member stands in the front of the room and delivers lectures and the students sit there, studiously and with their hands folded and sometimes participate in interaction with the faculty member.

But since the early days of online learning, student-centered learning became the primary objective of most of the people who founded online learning in the United States and elsewhere, England, and other places.

Face-to-face education is often faculty-centered, with the students participating at the behest of the faculty from time to time when they involve themselves in discussion groups. But that is often a rare occurrence. Most students are in large assembly halls where a great many face-to-face students sit for months at a time, without participating in actual education. They’re receptors, rather than participants.

So, a great deal of the book is involved in transforming the minds of people who think about education, not just online education but education in general, as not merely a way of receiving information, but a way of participating in building your knowledge. You, yourself as a student, have a role in building knowledge, rather than a passive receptor.

So a good deal of the book is engaged in that kind of discussion.

Knott: You recently wrote an article that really resonated with me in EdSurge. You wrote this back in early June and I love a spicy headline Bob, I love it.

You wrote, “Lacking Online Programs, Many Colleges are Rushing to Partner with OPMss and Should They?” It sounds like some of those threads also run through this book that you’re discussing.

I really liked that in the article in EdSurge you held that you know colleges have been doing this on their own for a long time, like, you know, what are the affordances of OPMs and things like that?

But, you mentioned, and you closed the article with “OPMs have been good at relieving academic pain provisionally what is needed now as a durable self-care remedy.”

So if we were to think about staying online and think about the book, give me one tip that you might offer to anyone, reading your forthcoming work that could be seen as a self-care remedy.

Ubell: Great question.

I love that you quote that last line because it fits with what many faculty and students are engaged in. Not turning over their life, their medicine, their wellbeing to professionals to medical professionals, but actually participating in their own self-care.

So, institutions have to look at that, too. When institutions turn over their online learning experience, their online learning infrastructure, their online learning recruitment to commercial organizations like OPMs, they are retreating from their own participation in their own education as institutions.

It’s time for many institutions–and I think this is happening–for them to wake up and recognize that online learning is part of the educational future of America, the world.

And in order to be part of that, they have to understand that they play a role as leaders, educational leaders in making this happen. So rather than turning to commercial vendors to do the work that’s necessary, it’s important that they look at their own capabilities. Expand their own capabilities from putting faculty in front of students in classrooms to putting faculty in front of students online.

How to do that is not simple. There are many opportunities for institutions to think about it seriously. They have to engage their faculty, number one, in determining what programs are appropriate online, what online programs might be their best bet to get large populations of students to enroll. So, faculty participation in determining what’s best determining what degrees, what programs are useful for the student population. That’s a key.

One of the key elements, it seems to me, is not making decisions about online learning at the top of institutions but at the meat of what institutions are composed of. The faculty has to play a serious role in everything, not just in decisions about which programs are put online, but how to deliver those courses and be ready to deliver them asynchronously or deliver them face-to-face, and maybe best of all a combination of both.

So I think there are many opportunities for institutions to learn how to do this. Many do of course now but they only constitute about a third of the institutions in America.
So two-thirds of American institutions who went online during the pandemic, now are tasked with transforming their opportunity of online learning from what we’re doing now in Zoom but making it a fully participatory activity for students and faculty.

Knott: It’s been a really interesting time to see people entering online for the first time, and experiencing it via Zoom and being like, “Oh, I teach online now.” It’s like well, but what is that?

This reminds me of another article you wrote recently, this one back in May, “Will a Rise in Online Learning Open Remote Teaching Opportunities for Faculty?” This is not the last line of the article but in that one, you did say, “Bound by four walls the campus classroom is not only a physically enclosed space but one confined by time limiting interaction to a defined period. Rather than using student learning as the measure of academic attainment, the credit hour arbitrarily makes time the basement basis for judging achievement.”

So, if we were to take, Staying Online and issue a provocation to our community. Say, read this book and think about this one thing while you read this book, what would that be according to you?

Ubell: Another fascinating question, thank you.

It took some thought to think about that and without just kicking the question, across the room, across the screen, I have to think deeply about it.

I think one of the questions actually in that respect, is that online learning is not a simple thing. It does take deep thought.

It’s not just turning on your computer and clicking on Zoom and taking your existing curriculum and existing way of teaching, as you did in the classroom and shifting it, migrating it entirely onto the screen.

The screen is great. Zoom is a brilliant gadget. It made it possible during the pandemic for the entire online learning, for the entire University here in the United States and elsewhere where it was possible to shift from a classroom experience to the virtual experience, and that was amazing.

My hat’s off to the Zoom-ites, who went from the classroom, on to Zoom and did their best. They struggled. Most had never actually turned on a Zoom or done anything. And so, I commend and congratulate the higher education, the academic community for doing an amazing job in transferring what was entirely on the ground to entirely online.

However, When I was talking about before… That is the brilliance of online giving the faculty and students the capability of interacting.

The Zoom situation is not comfortable entirely with interactive modes. Although there are opportunities for interaction and there are ways of using Zoom breakout rooms and other things, having conversations live. But the online learning experience has another aspect that most people don’t know about. It’s a hidden opportunity within online learning and that is the opportunity for faculty and students to participate offline.

The offline experience is as powerful as the online experience. And if you can, in your curriculum, move from online to making opportunities for students to interact with each other offline. And for faculty and students to participate with each other in continuous dialogue offline as well as online, then I think, you have the richest capability that’s possible in higher education, and in all kinds of educational experiences too. The opportunity for students to talk with each other through threaded discussions and through other virtual opportunities.

So I think the fact that we now have a very rich possibility of doing what we’re doing now on Zoom in real-time and also, faculty, offering students the opportunity to interact with each other offline.

I’ll go back to that question that you raised in the beginning, it gives students and faculty the opportunity to have continuous dialogue, where that was not altogether possible before the advent of digital education.

Knott: Love that. That really resonates with me as a first-generation college student, who was so first-generation college student I didn’t even know what that was. I didn’t even realize I was struggling in school. You know, I graduated my undergrad, with a 2.90. Oh, it’s ok, not everyone is meant for college, right? That was the line. But then I discovered online learning, and I graduated with my Ph.D. with a 3.9.

And it was because of that dialogue. So, as we go forward and re-read about staying online, I think that’s a great provocation, “What are the affordances of technology? What does online give us more than it takes away?”

So Bob, thank you for joining us today. Is there anything you’d like to leave us with before we head off to the bookstore, to read?

Ubell: Well, I’m not very good at offering advice. I’m not very good at giving people their way of living and way of working. But I think your experience of moving from conventional education to digital education, proved to you that online learning is for people who
don’t have the history of higher education as a presence in their life. They can look at higher online learning now as a way of experiencing their peers and their faculty in an altogether new and exciting way.

Most people come into face to face, education, and they sit in the classroom. And they listen to this often wonderful faculty member or professor speaking about incredibly interesting and often exciting things. And then they walk out of that room and they no longer have the intimacy that you should have with your faculty member. Online learning provides a way of continuing that dialogue with your faculty member and your peers in your classroom once you close that door and leave the classroom.

That’s my last word. That online learning even though it says, in most critiques, that it’s an alienating experience. In fact, done right and with persistence, that alienation can disappear and intimacy can take over.

Knott: It certainly was that way for me, I found myself, I found my community, and found OLC. And y’all heard it here from an OLC Fellow, Dr. Bob Ubell. Thank you for joining us and looking forward to September 7 for Staying Online. Stay tuned with OLC for more coverage of this breaking news event. I did just fall back into my previous journalism life.

Again thank you Bob for joining us today and we look forward to reading together.

Ubell: Thank you so much. It was a very engaging interview, filled with very good questions and I was delighted to be here, especially since this is my old home, OLC. It’s where I got my start. I learned most things from OLC Peers and I’m delighted to have had this opportunity.

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