Q&A with Sangeetha Gopalakrishnan: Where Online Programs Are Headed

by Ashley Lawrence  /   Feb 9, 2021

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Officially with the College of Education since May 2020, Sangeetha brings a wealth of experience and international perspective to her role as Director of Online Programs. Along with earning her master’s degree in Educational Technology from Purdue University and Ph.D. in Instructional Technology from Wayne State University, Sangeetha has worked within the online education space in higher ed for nearly two decades.

No stranger to the Midwest, Sangeetha looks forward to relocating from the Detroit area to Champaign-Urbana later this year. For now, along with colleagues and students enrolled in online courses, she works remotely to strengthen online teaching and learning—second nature, given her area of expertise.

Tell us about your journey—and connection—to the University of Illinois.

SG: My story is the typical “immigrant pursuing higher education and ending up in higher education” story, and it’s very special to me. I get very emotional when I think about my journey, and I’m incredibly thankful for the way it turned out.

I came to the U.S. from India as an international student on a student visa to work on my master’s degree at Purdue University. After completing that program, I got a job at Wayne State University (Michigan) on a work visa, began simultaneously pursuing my Ph.D. Eventually I applied for and was granted a green card and finally, my U.S. citizenship.

My connection with the University of Illinois began because of my sister, who has lived in southern Illinois for almost 30 years. I drive past the campus on I-57 each time I visit her. My two nieces are also students at Illinois—actually, one has recently graduated from the College of LAS and the other is a junior in Applied Health Sciences. I experienced the U of I campus even before I started working here; I accompanied one of my nieces on her official campus tour and have also been to a football game! When I visited campus, I never thought that one day I would end up working here, so it’s very cool how it has happened.

Starting a new job during a pandemic was something you never could have anticipated. Likewise, what are some unexpected realities that Online Programs has experienced due to the massive shift from in-person to online learning for all areas of instruction?

SG: If I had started in this role before COVID-19, there’d be a much smaller number of courses and faculty that I’d be working with, in terms of online instruction. Because of the massive shift to remote learning I’m working with many more people and programs, which is very exciting for me.

There is now a larger group of people who know that yes—you can make online teaching and learning work and make it work well. Not everyone is saying, “YES! Online everything!” But now these faculty have experienced it, and online learning has gained credibility. Online courses have suddenly been propelled as a viable form of delivering instruction—which didn’t happen before COVID. For most instructors and students, it was just a portion of their academic experience. There was a much larger divide, before.

I always say, “Of course you can have a bad online class, just like you can have a bad face-to-face class.” However, the reason is not the way it’s delivered; it’s how the course is designed. So now, I’m having this conversation with more people: when instruction is not effective, is it because it’s online or because you’re trying to replicate what you’re doing in person and it’s not going well? Was what you were doing face to face worth replicating? Was it good pedagogy to begin with? Now I can ask these questions freely, because everyone has had to go online.

For instance, some instructors are saying, “When I was teaching in person, I could see the ‘lightbulb moment’ on my students’ face. I can’t do that online.” But I’m asking, is there a way that you can use the affordances of the technology to see if your students are learning or not? Facial expressions are not the only way to evaluate learning.

How do you see this greater acceptance of remote teaching and learning affecting Online Programs in general?

SG: From an institutional point of view, I believe Online Programs in higher education is here to stay, obviously. In the College of Education and throughout academia, we are only going to be considering more programs that we can now also offer fully online.

What I also see happening now—and very clearly at the U. of I.—is that in addition to the traditional master’s and doctoral online programs, there’s more drive to offer these stackable, smaller units of learning. At this moment, we understand that certificates of specialization (COS, non-degree coursework), non-credit courses, and alternate, non-traditional program options are very desirable. During this time of uncertainty—what will happen post-pandemic in terms of the education job market, many who are unemployed or underemployed or without a reliable source of income—committing to a 30-credit hour degree program is simply unrealistic. For those not ready or able to enter a full degree program, a certificate or two or three courses that allows them to slowly pivot toward an advanced degree makes sense.

Even teachers—a lot of them do not want to enter a master’s program right now. But they want more knowledge in specific areas now, and online delivery allows this. They can commit to eight weeks in a certain subject area, for example. We must be more responsive to this.

Culturally, too, things are shifting. We all have a shopping cart approach to most things today. We can go to Amazon.com and buy exactly what we want. On Spotify, for instance, we customize our playlists and listen to just the music we want, not “suffering through” songs we don’t like. Technology itself is affording the ability to pick and choose. Higher education has long been the dinosaur that hasn’t been able to adjust quickly to answer market demands.

Plus, academia is rooted in tradition and there is some resistance from that point of view, too, the view that online degree programs are a downgrade in program rigor. I believe it’s wiser view these COSs and stackable courses as co-existing with traditional programs in the advanced degree space. Nobody’s doing away with traditional, existing master’s and doctoral programs, but we’re all starting to have a strong offering of alternate, non-traditional course work.

What are your foci and mission for the future of College’s Online Programs?

SG: Really, we want to grow where we can right now, where we have the capacity to welcome more students. Our Ed.D. program has been successful in attracting a large number of students, but the Ed.M. and COS programs have room for growth. I’d like to explore more non-traditional options, in addition to strengthening our Ed.D. and Ed.M. program offerings. We are looking to bundle more credit and non-credit courses in certificate packages.

While our Education Policy, Organization & Leadership and Curriculum & Instruction online program offerings remain strong, there is much potential for program additions within the departments of Educational Psychology and Special Education, which is exciting.

Quality is another major focus—continuing to ensure we’re offering high-engagement, high-quality, well-designed online courses. Our 2021 U.S. News & World Report rankings reflect our determination and commitment to providing the highest quality academic experience possible. We want to remain among the very best.

Finally, enhancing our Online Programs student experience and engagement, as well as our connectedness to alumni is a big future focus. We want to make the collegial experience a more intentional, available part of Online Programs. We want to bring together prospective and current students and alumni and facilitate career-related networking, mentoring, and community building.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, innovation in online program offerings, responsiveness to the shifts in the educational landscape, meeting the needs of our students and equipping them to enter the workforce—all these are paramount to our mission. As a world-renowned public research institution, we must have the most impactful educational offerings possible.

Learn more about College of Education Online Programs…