As GW’s online learning chief steps down from his spot in January, University leaders say the loss won’t impact GW’s online offerings.
In recent months, officials have turned to online course offerings and degrees to increase revenue while addressing enrollment declines and budget cuts. But without a permanent leader in place to oversee an expansion in a relatively recent endeavor, experts say GW will need to implement a strong transition plan to keep the programs afloat.
Paul Schiff Berman, the vice provost for online education and academic innovation, will leave the provost’s office in January to become a full-time faculty member at the GW Law School, where he has maintained a faculty position since abruptly leaving the dean position in 2011, just 18 months into his time there.
But Berman’s time at the law school has not always been smooth. Months after Berman’s transition into the provost role, faculty members said roughly half of the school’s faculty had signed a petition in favor of removing him from the dean post and had made plans for a vote of no confidence.
Berman will be the third official to leave the provost’s office this semester. Provost Steven Lerman announced in August that he will step down at the end of the semester, and former Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Harris Reed left the University in September to accept a position at Spelman College.
Berman said in an email that he had committed to a three-year-long term in the provost’s office, and as Lerman also leaves at the end of the semester, “it seems like the right time to return to being a full-time professor.”
He said before leaving the position he hopes to finalize plans for several online graduate programs and move them into a production phase, as well as start production for a few massive open online courses. He will take a leave of absence next semester before coming back to the law school to teach three courses.
“We are still discussing his transition and have no updates to provide at this time,” Lerman said. “We will continue to offer online programs and support our faculty teaching these innovative classes.”
Several law school faculty members welcomed Berman back with open arms, saying the school is lucky to have him back full time. Several faculty members have retired from the school in recent months, leaving gaps that Berman could help fill, Robert Tuttle, a research professor at the school, said.
“He’s been doing excellent work for the University,” Tuttle said. “He’s a very talented scholar and researcher, and his energy and presence will make the faculty stronger.”
James Humphreys, an alumnus of GW Law School and a member of the Board of Trustees who has made major donations to the law school, called Berman’s contributions to the University as vice provost “tremendous” and said the law school can only benefit from Berman’s return.
“It’s like taking a championship team and adding one more all-star to it,” Humphreys said.
The future of online learning
Online courses are generally less expensive to facilitate than in-person classes and allow the University to increase the size and breadth of its student body without having to bring full-time students to campus, a number that is restricted by an agreement with city officials.
But GW has only turned to online programs in recent years. Before Berman arrived in the vice provost job, GW offered few online options compared to other institutions at the time. Now, GW offers more than 100 degree and certificate programs online.
The School of Nursing has generally received high rankings for its online offerings, and both the Graduate School of Education and Human Development and the School of Business saw increases for their online program rankings in the U.S. News & World Report rankings this year.
Charles Garris, the chair of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee, said he believed online learning would continue to be a growing priority for the University and that there were several staff members in Berman’s office who might be able to take on the position.
He referenced the hiring of Pamela Jeffries, the dean of the School of Nursing, as an example of the University’s investment in online education. She served as vice provost of digital initiatives at Johns Hopkins University before coming to GW in April.
Zach Pardos, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who researches learning analytics and education data mining, said when officials look to fill positions to lead an institution’s online efforts, it can sometimes be difficult to find a candidate because the field is so new.
“When you lose somebody that helped you get started with that, there’s not a huge pool of people to replace him, not at the moment,” Pardos said.
Kelvin Bentley, the vice president of academic affairs for the TCC Connect Campus, an online campus for the Tarrant County College in Texas who has also worked for online learning companies like Blackboard, said online learning is not only encouraged by administrators, but needs the support of “faculty champions” who are willing to step up and use the new technology.
He said, as a faculty member, Berman could turn into one of those “champions,” encouraging faculty both in and outside of the law school to implement online education into their coursework and curriculum.
“Hopefully during the transition he’ll make himself available to the new person and provide some lessons learned to the new person, and help him or her get acclimated to your University and your culture,” Bentley said.
Berman also oversaw the creation and implementation of an in-house design shop, where faculty could help to improve online courses with the help of graphic artists and video technicians.
Camille Funk, the director of the eDesign Shop, said in an email that Berman changed GW’s approach to implementing new online courses and programs, and was a “hands-on leader” committed to finding the best ways to create the programs.
“He was instrumental in organizing the eDesign Shop, and we hope to continue his vision as we look to the future,” she said.