In Conversation with Cynthia Golden

March 28, 2022

Cynthia Golden served as Associate Provost and Executive Director of the University Center for Teaching and Learning (UCTL) from 2009-2022. On June 30, 2022, Golden stepped down as executive director of UCTL but will work part-time in the Office of the Provost on a short-term basis.

Cynthia Golden

Beyond the University of Pittsburgh, Golden is well known to the higher education technology world through her previous leadership positions, and continued involvement, in professional organizations. Before joining Pitt, Golden was Vice President at EDUCAUSE, and held leadership roles in IT at Duquesne University, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

Golden agreed to answer a few questions about the opportunities and obstacles for the future of online learning, how her leadership at UCTL helped Pitt navigate the pandemic, and her thoughts about careers in online learning.

What would you say are the two to three greatest challenges facing online education today?

There are many challenges, and I think many opportunities.

For online learning in general, access is still an issue. Often the people who could benefit the most from online learning, people who don't have the flexibility to be able to attend courses in person, people who are not in proximity to any university, people who are home-bound, etc., can also be people who don't have reliable access to robust networks or a computer, tablet, or smart phone necessary to access course materials. This was apparent in the early days of the pandemic, and institutions had to look for solutions for their students and faculty. So solving this problem will be important. Some of the broadband legislation on state and national agendas will help with part of that, as will attention to this issue in the design of courses and systems.

If we think about online degree programs and continuing education, I expect the demand for online experiences will continue to grow. For most universities who have not already established a strong online presence, there are challenges in deciding where and how to invest often limited resources. Developing good online learning experiences requires up-front investment, and education providers need to be strategic in determining what kinds of online offerings will make a difference for them and their students.

Are there any common misconceptions about online learning that act as obstacles to change?

I think one common misconception about online learning is that it can't possibly be as good as learning in an in-person environment, or that the quality is certain to be lower. We know that well designed online courses can result in excellent learning outcomes, and there is research to support this. But what faculty and students experienced in the pandemic was emergency remote teaching, and strategies used in in-person teaching were quickly moved to Zoom. Most courses did not go through the processes to create a high-quality online experience, one that considers instructional design, effective use of technologies, student and faculty engagement, and so on. So counteracting this perception may be a challenge going forward. On the other hand, coming out of pandemic experiences we have seen faculty show greater interest in using more hybrid and online strategies in their teaching, so that is a good thing.

There are also a host of misconceptions about online learning that many students have, too - that all online courses are self-paced, that there is no interaction with an instructor, that an online course is easier than a face-to-face course, that an online course takes less time than a face-to-face course, that because there is often flexibility, deadlines aren't as hard and fast, . . . I could go on. We need to provide students with as much information about the course and program as possible. We also need to make the technical requirements very clear. This is important for students to be able to make a realistic determination about whether taking a particular online course is the right for them.

In your short time at Pitt, you have accomplished so much. In March 2020 it seemed as if the UCTL pivoted overnight to online learning. Of course, a global pandemic helped, but was there something particular to the way you implemented changes or restructured delivery systems that facilitated these changes?

Honestly, I think it was a combination of planning, expertise and some serendipity that helped all of us to make the changes quickly. When it was looking like there might be a pandemic, we started having discussions about what kinds of actions and strategies would be needed to move the university online if necessary, so when it actually happened we had already begun preparations. It was also helpful to have an established online learning unit within the Center - we had the expertise of a lot of colleagues to draw on. And finally, in the midst of all of this we were moving from one learning management system, (Blackboard,) to another, (Canvas,) so instructors were already becoming engaged with technology that would help facilitate the pivot.

In general, the fact that our current Provost and our former Provost both put an emphasis on good teaching has helped to make the Teaching Center a more vital resource for the campus. Over the years we have built relationships with faculty and connections with the schools, regional campuses, and other centers that contributed to the ability to implement change. You know, a long time ago, Pitt made the decision to form a Center that would provide instructors with resources to support them in their face-to-face, hybrid, and online teaching, which included supporting the appropriate use of educational technologies. This strategy makes a lot of sense, and I think it is has enabled innovation.

What would you advise young people interested in a career in online learning to study? What are the kinds of skills they need to succeed in this field?

"Online learning" is such a broad field, with opportunities for a wide variety of work. There are all kinds of positions out there: instructional designers, educational technology specialists, videographers and video producers, market researchers, student support specialists, faculty developers, project managers, software developers, and many more. Someone interested in a career in online learning should get the training in their area of interest, but make sure they develop some understanding of online teaching and the student and faculty experience. Taking online courses in online pedagogy and instructional design is a great way to do that. Places like Coursera offer short courses that one can take to start exploring and see if this is an area of interest.

For Further Reading

"Three Questions for Cynthia Golden," Inside HigherEd, January 17, 2021.

Kirsch, Laurie J, and Cynthia Golden. (2021). "How Transforming a Teaching Center Prepares a University to Adapt to Change." Laurie J. Kirsch and Cynthia Golden, Excellence in University Leadership and Management Case Histories, 2021, pp. 209-226.