I’m thrilled to announce Rebecca Griffiths’s return to the S+R team, which she’ll be joining as program director for online learning. Rebecca was a founding member of Ithaka, initially helping to create Aluka, and then leading the launch of the Strategic Services practice (now part of Ithaka S+R). In addition to supporting business planning efforts for clients, she co-authored several of Ithaka’s influential papers on the sustainability of digital projects, uses of open source software in higher education, and the role of publishing in universities.

Previously, Rebecca worked as a strategic consultant for Monitor Company, focusing on projects in media and telecommunications. She also served as a product manager at AOL, responsible for launching new online services, and in business development at a subsidiary of News Corporation. She holds a master of business administration from the MIT Sloan School of Management and a bachelor of arts in East Asian studies from Princeton University.

I asked Rebecca to elaborate on a few questions to further introduce herself, and to gather her thoughts on the recent reports that Ithaka S+R released:

What made you decide to come back to Ithaka?
Well, the simplest answer is that my family moved back to the United States! The more complete answer has two parts. First, it’s a truly special organization with fantastic people doing important, high quality work. The people here are smart, collegial, and dedicated to the values of scholarship and education. Second, I am so excited about the possibilities for Ithaka S+R to play a role in promoting uses of interactive learning technologies to improve learning outcomes and reduce costs in universities. One of my goals is to figure out how Ithaka S+R can really facilitate adoption of these technologies.

What do you think are the main takeaways of the reports Ithaka S+R recently released about online learning?
The OLPU Study is such a rigorous piece of work, and it was extremely difficult to do. So one lesson was just how hard it is to conduct a randomized study of learning outcomes in higher education! Perhaps this is why there haven’t been more efforts like this in the past to gauge the effectiveness of different pedagogical approaches. I’ve seen studies that commercial online learning providers have done of their own products, and – as any shareholder would expect – they find a way to produce a positive story on the outcomes. Then it takes an experienced social scientist to pick apart the methodology and figure out what the data really show! So this is why third party assessments are crucial.

Another finding was that online learning can produce comparable learning outcomes as traditional instructional methods with less faculty time, and that these findings hold true across diverse student demographics and backgrounds. This is a really important finding, especially because these online learning systems will only get better. The OLI Statistics course that was used does not employ any video or multi-media beyond the interactive cognitive tutor; it is primarily text-based. Students absorb materials in different ways, so it reasonable to believe that some subset of them would have performed even better with a system that provides alternative ways to absorb new concepts.

What about the “Barriers to Adoption” paper?
Ithaka S+R is fortunate to be able to call on people like Larry Bacow and Bill Bowen to lead these kinds of studies – there must be nearly half a century of university leadership experience between them! In addition, the paper was reviewed by a top notch group of really insightful administrators, and so it reflects a great deal of their experience and perspective, in addition to what the research revealed.

The main takeaway is that cost-effective proliferation of interactive learning technologies on campus is going to require many strands of effort on the part of administrators, faculty, mission-driven organizations like Ithaka S+R, foundations and public agencies. There are a number of challenges involved. The most basic is the natural attachment of faculty to their traditional modes of teaching. A second is that there will be a temptation within colleges and universities to develop customized online instructional materials. Some amount of customization is vital to preserve the unique character of individual institutions and faculty. At the same time, cost savings will not materialize without some degree of standardization, and finding that balance is going to be critical.

A third challenge for institutions is going to be using those cost reductions to lower tuition, rather than to fund all the other functions in universities that demand more resources. That is a whole other conversation, about how universities make difficult choices about what not to do.

What is next for Ithaka S+R in online learning?
Well, right now we are having a lot of conversations with actors in this space, ranging from newly launched MOOCs to longstanding programs like the Math Emporium at Virginia Tech to commercial software and service providers. We need to understand how this landscape is evolving to see what kinds of services Ithaka S+R should provide – for example, where we see that institutions have a need, but that the interests of institutions and commercial providers are not well-aligned. This agenda will shape up over the next few months.