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Emboldening Student Driven Learning in the Online Environment

By SmartBrief Editors

This post is produced in partnership with UPCEA.


The world of professional, continuing and online education is in constant flux. Former associate dean of academic affairs at Syracuse University and current University of North Carolina at Greensboro division of online learning dean, Dr. Karen Bull provides her perspective in this online learning Q&A.


Question: Tell us about your journey into and in the professional, continuing and online education field. 

Answer: As a young child, I saw the dedication and commitment it takes to be an adult student firsthand. My mom returned to college to pursue her nursing degree when I was 3. She worked the night shift so that she could attend classes during the day, all while caring for her five children. When you grow up seeing your mom juggle these very real responsibilities, empathy for adult students comes naturally. 

Today’s students have so much on their plates — some have family commitments and full-time jobs with long commutes. Some manage their households or volunteer in their communities. Many tackle all of these responsibilities. The commitment and dedication of these students, including my mom, set me on a lifelong path to serving the adult student. 


Q: What is your process for determining which existing courses should be converted into online courses? 

A: We select courses and programs that have the greatest impact for students. First, we look at courses that are highly enrolled or over subscribed to see how additional online offerings would help students. We also look at general education courses that are in demand across disciplines. For new programs (or those new to online), we develop a business plan to evaluate the employment opportunities for graduates, the demand from students, and what other schools are offering [locally] and beyond.


Q: How does your background in instructional technology inform your leadership?

A: Simply put, my background makes me a better leader because I know the ins and outs of instructional design. That involves a certain amount of technical expertise, of course, which is helpful when evaluating a new program or technology. But beyond that, I’ve learned to communicate and collaborate with a range of campus stakeholders, and that’s critical when you’re leading a division and need to get buy-in on initiatives and move forward.


Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges for leaders in our field today? 

A: Working in this changing environment is both a challenge and an opportunity. There are always new learning tools on the horizon, and our job is to determine what’s best for our students and faculty. Sometimes new technology raises new issues for us.

Changing demographics are a hot topic in higher education these days, and that presents an opportunity for online programs. We want students to think through what’s best for them so we can find the best way to support their path to graduation.


Q: What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

A: Never say “no” when an opportunity presents itself. I can trace this advice to my career today. When various projects, service roles, involvement in professional organizations, and other unique daily work opportunities surfaced, I seized them. It’s not always easy to try something new, especially when it’s outside your comfort zone. It wasn’t easy for my mom to attend college while working and raising five kids. But when opportunity knocks, it is so important to answer the door.




Photo of Dr. Karen Bull

Dr. Karen Bull
Division of Online Learning

Before arriving at UNCG, Bull served as associate dean of academic affairs at Syracuse University. She also served as interim associate dean of academic affairs and online programs and manager of online programs and services at Syracuse University.

Her research has focused on undergraduate student characteristics that predict student persistence and performance in both online and face-to-face courses. She has presented at conferences on topics such as academic quality, assessment, and accreditation; distance education state authorization; and infusing learner-centered teaching into the online environment.

Active in professional and community organizations, Bull serves on the advisory board for the National Council for Online Education and as past chair of the mid-Atlantic region of the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. 

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