This blog post written by:
Presidential Appointee, U.S. Distance Learning Association Board
The University of Central Florida’s Center for Distributed Learning has become synonymous with award-winning innovation in online education. As recent evidence, in April 2017, the USDLA recognized Dr. Tom Cavanagh, UCF’s Vice Provost for Digital Learning, with the USDLA Outstanding Leadership Award. At the same awards ceremony, members of Tom’s team, Charles Dziuban, Patsy Moskal, Jeffrey Cassisi, and Alexis Fawcett, received the Quality Research Paper Award for their research paper entitled “Adaptive Learning in Psychology: Wayfinding in the Digital Age.” In October 2017, UCF received a WCET WOW award for UDOIT: Universal Design Online content Inspection Tool, their open-source accessibility checker which can be used by any institution that uses Canvas. In September 2017, U.S. News & World Report ranked UCF the 25th most innovative university in the country out of nearly 1,400 institutions. So what’s the secret to UCF’s leadership in online education?
According to Tom, the key is striking the right balance between establishing a vision you can stick with and executing the tactics to accomplish that vision. He says these challenges work different muscles, but are both important.
Tom’s overall impact at UCF was noted by University of North Texas President Dr. Neal Smatresk, who served on the most recent Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) on-site committee for UCF’s reaffirmation of accreditation. “Tom has been a remarkable agent of transformation at UCF, creating better services and access for their students, better use of educational technology across the campus and he has been a leader in developing ‘higher ed big data’ in the service of better learning outcomes,” said Smatresk.
If you spend any time talking to Tom, you already know he is quick to give credit to his exceptional team that has grown online learning over 80% since he joined the university. He casually cites favorite Peter Senge quotes like “Innovation is a team sport” and then demonstrates his commitment to this notion by hosting a Hack Day event once per semester to give technical and non-technical staff time to work on new ideas. Tom knows that if you do a good job answering the “why” question, it is a lot easier to accomplish the “how.”
Tom recognizes that valuable ideas deserve to be shared and not just for the good of your own institution. The UDOIT tool is just one such product-based example that has been implemented at institutions across the country. Tom also freely shares his insights with others whether he’s presenting at national conferences or co-hosting the monthly podcast Teaching Online Podcast (TOPcast) with Dr. Kelvin Thompson, Director of Online Design and Development Strategy at UCF’s Center for Distributed Learning. These podcasts are both fun and thought-provoking. As an example, check out this podcast episode where Tom and Kelvin discuss some leadership traits and strategies for effectiveness in online learning. The FIRRST heuristic covered in this episode is more formally explained in “Keeping FIRRST things First: The Delicate Dance of Leading Online innovation at Your Institution,” the opening chapter of the 2018 book Leading and Managing e-Learning: What the e-Learning Leader Needs to Know (Educational Communications and Technology: Issues and Innovations) available at Amazon. While Tom didn’t write the book on innovation in online education, he and Kelvin are certainly major contributors.
Tom shared one particular story that perhaps best illustrates why he was recognized for outstanding leadership by the USDLA. “The biggest things are also the smallest things. I participated in a signing ceremony recently with a new college partner and several UCF Online students spoke. I was nearly in tears listening to their stories about how they could only pursue education online because of work and family obligations, and how the education they were receiving was literally changing their lives. Being a part of that makes the work worthwhile,” Tom said.
Tom’s story is emblematic of what motivates the membership of the USDLA: to know that that we are spending our time and talent doing something that makes a difference in the world.
Learn more about the USDLA and how you too can be a member by visiting www.usdla.org/membership. The association supports all core markets including Enterprise, Government, Telemedicine, Education and others.
USDLA Membership – www.usdla.org/membership
Our Association is unique, not only for its historical commitment to distance learning, but also for engaging with a broad spectrum of distance learning professionals – K-12, higher education, corporate, government, military, telehealth, and home schooling. While more narrowly focused organizations have an important role, a powerful perspective emerges when bright minds serving diverse constituencies come together.
The USDLA was formed in 1987. At that time, companies like Yahoo and Google were still years away. “Power users” were boasting of their Intel 386 processors. In that context, distance learning was a concept well outside the educational mainstream. Granted, a few people knew something of the process, but hands-on distance learning experience was rare. The USDLA provided a means for these pioneers to find one another.
Today, with more than one-third of college students taking an online class, it’s a far different world. But USDLA remains a vital player. Our members continue to seek out other distance learning professionals. These practitioners still want to grow and want to offer students a strong education in a robust community of learning. Today’s the USDLA stands out as a remarkable resource for teachers and administrators who want to enhance the learning experience.