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Wise Words with Muriel Oaks

In 1985, mass use of e-mail and the Internet was 10 years away, and most people still rented, rather than owned, VCR machines to watch movies on.

Yet Samuel H. Smith, then president of Washington State University, envisioned using video technology to teach students in new branch campuses in Spokane, Tri-Cities and Vancouver, Wash.

Muriel Oaks helped make Smith’s 20th-century vision a 21st-century thriving concern.

Oaks, 67, retired TuesdayNov.30 as dean of WSU’s Center for Distance and Professional Learning.

During Oaks’ tenure, distance learning – the once-revolutionary idea that a professor in Pullman could teach students in other cities – matriculated into mainstream academic life.

The program now offers seven undergrad degree majors and four graduate degrees, and is called “WSU Online” to reflect its modern evolution.

What Oaks learned about innovation and change in the academic world can translate to any organization or business trying to change and innovate in this recession time, as she explained in a Wise Words interview with Rebecca Nappi, published in The Spokesman-Review Dec. 4. Here’s the complete transcript of that interview.

  • I grew up in Caldwell, Idaho. I was horse crazy. I had horses from the time I was 5. In those days, there was a lot of freedom. My mom used to pack me a lunch, wave good-bye and say be home before dark. It was a nice way to grow up. There are five kids in our family. I’m second oldest. And my grandmother, my dad’s mother, lived with us through my whole childhood. My grandmother and grandfather didn’t get along exactly, but (my grandfather) lived next door to us. He’d come over for dinner every night. My grandmother and my grandfather from my other side of the family also lived in town, so I had a lot of extended family there. Which is pretty special, in retrospect. My dad was an entrepreneur. He had a regional bus line, a moving and storage company for a long time. He sold that in his 40s. And then just did a whole lot of different things. He was still working part time when he died at age 88. He loved to work. He was sort of a natural salesman. My mom was mostly a homemaker. She worked later in her life, but was mostly a homemaker. Grandma did all the cooking. My mom was an excellent seamstress, and she made a lot of our clothes. She was very handy. I didn’t learn how to do any of that stuff.
  • I was always a good student. I liked school. My parents had both gone to college. My mom was a college graduate. I don’t think my dad ever graduated, but they met in college, at the College of Idaho. Because I was a good student and liked school, it was expected I would go to college and I always assumed I would. I was a medical technologist before I got into higher ed. It’s sort of an interesting way to get there. Most people in continuing distance education come from someplace else, as I did. I guess now there are career paths a little more direct but in those days there really wasn’t. I got a BS in medical technology from University of Idaho.
  • What did I get in my childhood I’ve always used? I was always pretty independent and my mom was very encouraging and supportive of that. I am so grateful, because it wasn’t typical then. She just had a lot of confidence in me to do whatever I wanted to do. I remember when I was in college and in medical technology you do a year of internship in a hospital. I really wanted to go to Southern California. When I got accepted in Pasadena at the hospital there, I was just so thrilled and my friends would say, “Aren’t your parents going to freak out when you go so far away from home?” My parents were thrilled for me. It was like “Wow, lucky you! This is going to be so great!” That was their kind of attitude. I guess with five kids, it’s fine to let the older ones go, you have plenty more, but they were supportive of all of us. I took it for granted as a kid, but now I recognize how special it was.
  • My first computer? It was when I worked here. I’ve been in this office since 1983. Our first computer system was a WANG computer system. It was the time when everyone was trying to figure out where the future was going to be. And will it be this system or that. I’ve never been really a techie. I use it because it’s a tool I can use. I didn’t get into this field I’m in now because of a particular interest. In 1985, we started a two-way video system. We started with the two-way video thing because Sam Smith came in 1985. The system was already built. It was funded in 1983. WSU had centers in Spokane and Vancouver, and we were involved in the campus at Tri-Cities then run by the University of Washington. It was Sam’s vision to create the branch campus system. He’d come from Penn State University where it was a common thing. He saw the potential when he came there. Because the microwave system was already in place to serve those first three sites. It was a natural first step for program delivery and really allowed those campuses to grow without having to fund a lot of faculty and infrastructure right away. You could bring it in through that and then gradually build it up on the campus.
  • Early worries? Quality is always the issue faculty have. It can’t be as good as what we do in the classroom. It’s different. So the issues of quality are there from the beginning. They are legitimate questions, but there are generally good answers for that. So our challenge was providing something of quality that was expected and then proving it. Then having the data to show how students were doing grade-wise, their satisfaction with it, the faculty satisfaction with it. Showing the growth of courses and programs at those sites and how WSU is serving a much broader area that hadn’t been served before. So there was a lot of data like that. There were concerns that the investment made in these sites were taking away from investments that could be made in Pullman. That wasn’t my argument to counter, but it was something Sam and administrators had to explain how it was also creating a support base that’s much broader than we had in Whitman County. When you get a faculty member willing to do it, you have to make it successful because faculty members are the best salespeople to other faculty members. What characterized the ones who said yes? They were the risk-takers, but they were also willing to say yes to new things. That’s not always the same thing. For some of them, it sounded like fun, like something different, something that might expand their teaching and give them new insights on teaching. Luckily, some of these faculty were senior faculty, well-respected faculty, who could carry the banner for us in explaining the value to others. We tried hard to make it a positive experience for them, so they weren’t bad-mouthing it as they went on. And then, when it came to 1992, and we were proposing this idea of a program where students would never come to campus and the faculty wouldn’t see them face-to-face, it was probably an easier step for our faculty who had already taken that first step on the two-way video and found out it worked perfectly fun. So you ask them to take the next step and it’s probably easier compared to a faculty who has only been teaching on campus that whole time.
  • Were the early video links primitive? Compared to today, yes, to some degree. But the microwave was pretty good quality video. It wasn’t like the kind of tiling you get with the digital stuff. The same microwave system was sending television programming between the studios in the Tri-City and the studios here, so it was high quality. Audio was frequently a problem. Setting up a classroom so students can be heard well, and there’s not a lot of echo, there were some issues that had to be resolved, but we had good engineers. WSU was in a good position to start this kind of thing, because we already had engineers who understood microwave systems, who understood the set up of classrooms. It was probably a more natural thing here than it might have been in other places.
  • How do you get people on board? Find out what’s important to them. For faculty, it’s generally they want to know it won’t take away faculty jobs. That was a concern. We were doing pre-produced video tapes. There was a concern: “Oh gosh, you’ve got me on videotape, you won’t need me anymore.” That was a very understandable concern, not just at WSU but at other places that were trying to do it. You have to find out what the concerns are and then explain the ongoing role of faculty. Then, you have to have something that acknowledges their concerns that “gosh, it’s taking a lot more time and energy and how will I get help and how will I get compensated for it?” So it’s talking to them. “Tell me what your concerns are. Tell me why you think it won’t work, and let’s see if we can find a solution that works for you.” And it’s not always the same answer for all faculty. Just being heard, having them know you listened to their concerns and you are trying to resolve it, boy that goes a long way. Not just pontificating, but really listening and responding. It’s a little easier now, because there is so much data out there, so many institutions doing it. You can say, “Look at what’s happening at Stanford, look what’s happening at Penn State.” We didn’t have that when we started. We were making it up as we went along, for the most part. So we could say, “You know, we don’t know exactly how it’s going to work. Work with us, and we will continue to modify as we need to. We’ll gather data. If this isn’t working, we’ll try something else.” We had enough faculty willing to do go out there and do that with us. We found lots of things that work and some things that didn’t so much.
  • We did find that you had to be careful how you scheduled these things. Doing a three hour class over video – even interactive video – was pretty tiring on the instructor and the students after they had been working all day. Doing it two or three times a week instead of just one night a week is certainly an advantage. Doing classes early in the morning, before the job starts, seemed like a good idea, especially down in the Tri-Cities where they were driving right by the campus as they went to Hanford. But we couldn’t get enough people to make those things go. So we learned some lessons that way. One of the benefits we found was the students in Pullman, and the student at the (distance learning) campuses were really different audiences. I would always sit in on the first class of every interactive class at the beginning of the semester to make sure everything worked. You’d hear the faculty have everyone introduce themselves. I remember in an MBA class. In Pullman, you’d find a lot of people who had just finished their business degree and stayed on to get their MBA. So they are 23 years old, very little work experience. Then in Vancouver and Tri-Cities you had hospital administrators and business people. But you found they each had something unique to bring to the class, because the students were up on the theories and knowing all the latest stuff out there – but all in theory. But man, those people in the Tri-Cities and Vancouver, they knew what worked and what didn’t. They had places to apply this stuff. It made a pretty rich audience for the faculty member, but also for the students who learned from another in that situation.
  • We talk more now about online learning (rather than call it distance learning) because increasingly those courses we developed completely online are equally valuable for campus-based students. So it’s not just distance-based students. We have students in Pullman, students at each of the campuses. So instead of distance degree programs, we refer to those as “WSU Online,” to recognize it’s all technology delivered. And now we’re moving into hybrid, or blended learning. Those terms are used interchangeably. A lot of times there will be a need for a face-to-face component to a course you’d otherwise think of as an online course, something where you need to have students interact with other people or with things. So when we’re talking with someone who wants to do a program, but they say we can’t do this all online because we need to get the students together for this reason or that, we talk to them about a hybrid program or blended program where the parts that can be online are online, but then we can concentrate the time (students) would have to show up at a certain place at a certain time or come to campus for a couple of weeks in the summer or on occasional weekends. It opens it up to more people. People who couldn’t commute three times a week for a class could probably come a few times a semester or a little time in the summer for those pieces. It’s become an important part of our portfolio of tools.
  • How will online learning help us out of the recession? It will be a part of the recovery, for sure. Increasingly, students can’t just leave where they live and show up on campus. I don’t even mean coming to Pullman. We started this program in the early ’90s thinking we were serving rural Washington, but most of our students are on the I-5 corridor, just like most of the people are on the I-5 corridor. They work during the day. They can’t go to a campus, or don’t want to once they come home from work. They don’t want to have to get back in the car and go back to campus and find a parking spot. It’s way better for them if they know they are getting a quality education to be able to do it with flexible time. The opportunity to serve students broadens when you can offer quality technology delivered programs. It will allow more people to get degrees and increase the number of educated, qualified people, not just with degrees but with specialized certificates and new skills. And the community colleges are seeing this, too. They are getting people with degrees who can’t get a job, and they might go back to the community college and get a specialized career degree and a lot of those are available online. It’s not unusual to have people with bachelor’s degrees in these programs getting new skills getting them a new job in a new area in a new career.
  • Do I anticipate a day where there are no more brick-and-mortar colleges? No, I really don’t. College is a social experience as well as an educational experience. For many young people out of high school, they love that opportunity to get out of home and become independent and that’s a great thing. Having these technology delivered options, even for the campus-based students. A lot of the students, even in Pullman, work part-time and having that flexibility serves students’ needs. I don’t see us getting rid of campuses.
  • We serve students who are 35 years old, have jobs and kids. We get this whole range of students, from traditional college age who are taking our classes to graduates in their 70s who always wanted to finish their degrees and now they have an opportunity to do this. They get involved with the technology. They attach files and download video and whatever they need to do to get these classes done. As a whole culture, we’re recognizing where things are going and people stepping up saying, “Well, I haven’t done this before, but I can learn this.”
  • When we started these programs in the early 1990s, we didn’t have any place to look to see where the best practices were because there wasn’t anyone doing it. My predecessor said then – and he was so right – that it was as important to have really strong support services for students as it was to have good quality programs. We focused on the students from the beginning and it was part of our early success. We have student government for our online students and special scholarships that the student government helped us raise and career and library services, you name it. Whatever the students get on campus, we provide online. It’s helped the whole institution start moving more toward flexible delivery of support services to students. If you can deliver it to students at a distance, why do they have to go to (the administration building) for everything? Why don’t you just put it online? We have strong collaborations with community colleges. Ones like Bellevue College and Edmonds Community College, they got into this early. They were doing AA degrees online early on. So we created these seamless pipelines. They got all the pre-reqs they needed for a BA in business, for example, and so when they came into WSU they were ready to move into the upper division courses and complete their degrees. Subsequently we’ve done that with other programs and other colleges. That’s been a benefit to the community colleges because they can say, “Start here, you can stay in Bellevue, and finish your degree from WSU.” For us, it’s this wonderful pipeline of well-qualified students with all the right pre-reqs coming into our program. It takes a little while to make sure the courses are compatible, but our faculty worked with theirs years ago and got these things going and it worked well all the way around.
  • I know change is hard for a lot of people, but we tell people when they come to work here that this is not the place for you if you can’t embrace change and be flexible, because we are changing all the time. We have to. If we aren’t making our faculty, the dean, the students happy, they will go someplace else. We’re in a field that changes all the time. How do you develop an openness to change? If you start from the top and make it clear this is the expectation. For instance, “OK, you like the office you’re in, but things have changed, now we have more people, and we’re going to have to change things around.” People are protective of their space. They don’t like moving. They like where they are. We just say, “Hey, gotta happen.” You know what, a month later, they forgot they liked that other office better. And after they (move) a few times, they realize it doesn’t make that much difference and they move. Eventually, people come around.
  • I’ve changed a lot of things in my life. To me, it’s fun. I liked the challenge of it. It’s what kept me enjoying coming to work everyday for 28 years in the same office. It’s the reason I didn’t retire at 66. Here I am at 67 finally pulling the plug, because I’ve really liked what I done. I still do, but my husband’s retired and time to move some new directions. How will I carry this change philosophy into retirement? I’ll be moving up to join my husband. We have a second home in Oldtown, Idaho up near Newport. That’s where my husband was originally from. We have a home and a bunch of acres and trees and all of that up there. There’s a program, something like “family forest stewardship,” and it’s a training program offered to families like us who have a forest but they don’t know too much about taking care of it. So one of the first things we’re going to do together is take this course. I’m really looking forward to doing things like that. I’m anxious to move in new directions and get involved with new things and new places. We love to travel. My husband has taught at a university in Thailand every winter for the last 10 years or so, and now I’m starting to do some of that with him. When the weather gets cold, we’ll plan to spend part of the winter someplace warm.
  • What role will retirees play in our culture? Think about nonprofits just hanging on a thread being able to use people who are willing to step up and volunteer their time. And learning to manage volunteers. You can’t just throw people into a job and expect them to do it well. Volunteers come and go, but there’s a need to manage them will. People with skills that help others, such as retired businesspeople who can mentor others, sharing expertise in free classes for people. I think we’ll see those. Most of us now when we retire are in good physical shape, good mental shape and we don’t want to just go and sit on a beach someplace.

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