5 questions with… new Director of Online and Innovative Learning Jennifer Sparrow

sparrowJennifer Sparrow is the first person to hold Case Western Reserve University’s newly developed position of Director of Online and Innovative Learning. The university’s new position makes it possible to use technology to advance the core mission and visions of the institution. Since she arrived on campus June 1, she has been working to meet the expectations of students, faculty and staff of what technology should look like for our 21st-century digital learners.

“The shoes are much smaller to fill—or nonexistent—so I get to create my own shoes, which is kind of fun,” she said. “It’s challenging and interesting to work in new directions that hadn’t been explored before.”

Though Case Western Reserve has a range of technological resources at its disposal to complement research and education, Sparrow seeks to continue growing it. Without a predecessor, she has been charged with developing several fully online master’s programs and responding to the changing needs of faculty, staff and students.

Sparrow is constantly adapting to the changing field. She notes that with each class that arrives on campus, including the arrival of the Class of 2018 this week, they bring new skills and tools and, ultimately, they have growing expectations for learning and technology. In order to meet those expectations, Sparrow scours blogs and websites to stay current with new technologies. She avidly listens, talks with colleagues and reads to gain even more insight into the field.

Her daily tasks include building partnerships within the university to address the challenges of online and technology-enhanced learning, identifying stakeholders in online and innovative learning and listening to their needs and challenges, identifying solutions to meet those needs and challenges, and examining the opportunities presented by emerging technologies.

“Essentially, I get to find interesting solutions to the challenges and opportunities that we encounter in higher education,” she explained.

However, over the course of her career, including work at Florida Gulf Coast University, the Lee County School District in Fort Myers, Fla., and, most recently, at Virginia Tech, she realized that not every type of technology is appropriate for every learning environment. Building on ideas she discovers gives her the chance to be creative.

“Working in the academic sphere allows me to take risks I might not be able to do otherwise,” she said. “One of my colleagues defined innovation: Risk. Fail. Learn. Iterate. I think about that as what we do in education in general. We take a risk. We have some failures. We learn from it and we iterate that process to make it better. With technology, that’s built into the culture already.”

Sparrow said she zeroes in on one main question: “How does our learning best happen?”

She knows many students can find much of the information they need on their phones without a professor to tell them. So, she said, learning becomes a process of leveraging that information to inspire them think creatively and critically.

“Technology just allows us to do those things we wanted to do before, just in different ways now,” she said. “I hope that I can convince faculty to take a leap with me.”

Learn more about Sparrow with this week’s five questions.

1. Who do you consider your greatest role model?
My grandmother. She was married at 16 didn’t finish high school and had two of her six children without running water in the house. She’s an incredible, vibrant, bright, smart woman. All of her children and grandchildren have been successful. My grandmother valued education, honesty and hard work. She always loved us no matter what.

2. How do you keep up with the news?
I use this app called “Flipboard.” It’s an app that aggregates news from a variety of different sources—everything from NPR, CNN and BBC. You select the areas that are of interest to you, so it pulls those pieces in. If I’m having trouble sleeping, I’ll open it up and read through it at night.

3. What’s the most challenging class you’ve ever taken?
I took a graduate statistics course. It’s not that the content was particularly challenging, but the faculty member really asked us to think about every statistic we come across with a critical eye. What is this statistic telling you? What is it not telling you? I’ve never looked at any kind of stat the same way.

4. What do you think is the best invention of all time?
The World Wide Web—this idea that we have knowledge at our fingerprints that has been linked to other knowledge that allows you to answer your own questions and explore your curiosities. Whole industries have been developed around this technology that we couldn’t have even imagined 20 years ago.

5. What is your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
The people. They’re just passionate and friendly and committed to the learning of our students. It’s the people.