After decades of working in academia and distance learning programming in colleges and universities around the world, Ken Udas is taking his skills to the University of Idaho as its new vice provost for digital learning initiatives.
In the newly created position, Udas will lead the UI’s expansion and development of academically centered distance learning programming that is integrated into the same governance structure as its core campus.
“It is a new position, which is great — it provides you with a lot of latitude to take that step back and look,” Udas said. “I will certainly be starting by learning a lot not only about the university, but about where the commitments come from to make an investment like this in online learning.”
Originally from the East Coast, Udas said he had his first encounter with distance learning programming when he was living in Vienna and teaching for the University of Maryland’s European Division in the mid-1990s. He said he was primarily working with service members, their families and military contractors doing in-person classes. However, he said when the U.S. became involved with the former Yugoslavia, troops were being sent to staging areas and were suddenly unavailable for face-to-face instruction — and so his employer called and asked him to try offering classes online.
Udas said this was still the early days of the internet, when it was more of a curiosity than a browsable virtual environment. He said the program was a little ungainly and mostly email-based, but after 12 weeks of successful instruction, the advantages of such programming were readily apparent.
“When I saw the flexibility that was coming out of this even very basic, email-based course, I was thinking that, ‘Yeah, this is going to be a big deal,’” he said.
After his time in Vienna, Udas said he continued to teach as time allowed, but he also began taking on more administrative responsibilities. He said he’s worked with a large publishing company that was seeking to launch the first online university in Massachusetts, before moving on to help a software company design web-based workforce training resources.
By the early 2000s, Udas was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, visiting around 80 countries throughout Central Asia from Kazakhstan to Tajikistan, eventually developing something called the “Distance Learning Network.” He said through the network, a handful of universities from each country could come together to collaborate and share resources, curriculum and professional development opportunities.
Following his work with USAID, Udas was offered a position at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand — a traditional, correspondence-based distance education provider with around 70,000 remote students who received instructional materials through the mail. After working with them to convert their format to an online program, Udas came back to the U.S. to run Penn State’s online World Campus before returning to points south of the equator to work for the University of Southern Queensland in Australia.
In his time directly prior to his selection as the UI’s first vice provost for digital learning initiatives, Udas moved back to the U.S. and worked as an independent consultant specializing in online learning. On Sunday, he will start with the UI working part time and remotely, and will transition to full-time, in-person work starting Aug. 23.
He said a central part of his role at the UI will be advocating for online and nontraditional students to make sure that decisions being made at the administrative level takes their needs into consideration. He said the goal is to centralize distance learning within the UI so that nontraditional students are able to be an essential part of the Vandal community.
He will also be tasked with helping to create long-term strategic plans surrounding distance learning. Udas said he feels fortunate to join a university where the leadership is interested in taking a thoughtful approach to creating online opportunities for students rather than just solving problems as they arise.
He said virtually everyone he’s spoken with at the UI believes online learning is an important part of the growing and evolving mission of land-grant universities — particularly when it comes to access.
“It’s almost entirely about, how do we create educational opportunities that may not have existed previously, to as many folks from Idaho as possible,” Udas said. “Anyone, whether you’re a professional who’s highly mobile, whether you’re a single mom or dad that’s not leaving the house, whether you just happen to live in a rural area — you should have access to the quality programming at your flagship state university.”
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