Earlier this year, Matthew Rascoff was named associate vice provost for digital education and innovation. The Chronicle sat down with Rascoff to discuss the outlook for online learning and digital education initiatives at the University. This interview has been edited for clarity.

The Chronicle: In your time at Duke thus far, what have you noticed were some of the University’s strengths in terms of digital education initiatives and where did you see a need for improvement?

Matthew Rascoff: I think the culture is really innovative here. I think there’s a reputation that we got where we are now by being more willing to change and more forward looking in our outlook relative to our peer institutions. There’s a certain nimbleness and creativity and willingness to experiment in the culture here that is distinctive. In the digital sphere, you saw this in the iPad in the classroom project. You also saw it in the digital humanities, which Duke is a leader in, and obviously in our online success—we’re one of the top institutions in online learning today. We have 4.7 million learners and that is a huge credit to Duke and its leadership.  

I think the challenges for us now are about making that work more strategic for the institution and bringing it more into the core of what we do. The way I think about that is in terms of different audiences that are important for us from serving prospective students more effectively and giving them opportunities to understand what we offer here as well as to start learning with us before they arrive. Other upcoming challenges I see include enabling more co-curricular learning, giving students the flexibility for more learning inside and outside of class and serving our alumni's needs for re-skilling and reconnecting with learning communities. 

TC: How does Duke's work on the digital education front compare to that of its peer universities?

MR: One thing that really strikes me as distinctive is that 83 percent of Duke students add to their major a second major, minor or certificate. So there’s kind of an interdisciplinary education hacking culture here. Students take ownership of the opportunities that are presented here. For me, this is a wonderfully fertile ground on which to work because it means that students are eager for more learning opportunities as well as to personalize their learning opportunities. I think we can support this very well through digital in a way that enhances the learning opportunities we offer and supports the heart of the liberal arts and residential experience that undergraduates expect. This is what really stands out. No other peer institution of Duke has double majoring or major-minoring percentages at a level anything close to what Duke has.  

TC: How has the University differed from your expectations?

MR: I knew the University pretty well. One thing that was a pleasant surprise is that there’s an emerging undergraduate community that’s really interested in education and innovation. I am very drawn to them, and I think they’re drawn to us because they’re excited by the challenges of the next generation of learning experiences. Some of them have become interns on my team now, and many of them have educational interests in both computer science and education. A lot of new ideas are coming out of technology, not that they’re about technology, but they’re coming out of technology. These students are looking to integrate their skills into the context of a curriculum. I was surprised we haven’t had interns on the team in seven years. 

TC: The Chronicle has written recently about the growth in enrollment in the computer science department. Some students have spoken about wanting to see changes in how those classes are structured and taught. What will your work with that department look like in order to address some of these concerns?

MR: Here’s the thing: I think there is some new thinking that’s coming to computer science. It’s exciting. It’s actively underway. There’s also an enormous ecosytem of co-curricular learning opportunities at Duke. It’s in Roots courses at the [Innovation] Co-Lab, it’s in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, it’s in Data+. There’s dozens of co-curricular learning opportunities to get tech skills outside the tech curriculum. That’s where I think there’s a ton of opportunity.

It’s now become quite a mature ecosystem. We have the challenges of maturity. We don’t necessarily need to add a lot more programs we need to provide more of a pipeline among the programs to say here’s a good path you might consider going from The Foundry to Co-Lab to Innovation and Entrepreneurship to commercializing a product. These are the challenges we have now—building more of a pattern students can recognize in those programs from students who came before them but to do that in a way that doesn’t squelch what’s so interesting and desirable in the student-driven innovative aspect of co-curricular learning.  That’s a very delicate balance to strike. I think that’s where some of the opportunities arise, building in some of the model pathways, building in some of the reflective exercises that allow you to reflect.  

TC: What do you think it takes to build in some of those model pathways and reflective structures?

MR: There’s a team that’s trying to figure that out now [task force convened by Tracy Futhey, vice president and chief information officer of the Office of Information Technology]. I don’t know the answer to that. One hypothesis I have is that there’s too much friction in moving from one experience to another, and we could reduce the transaction costs of moving across those co-curricular learning opportunities.

What if we had just one standardized application—and you checked off all of the things you were interested in, you pre-applied? Not every program has to have its own recommendation and CV, we just add a lot of steps.  What if there was just one admissions process, and it was sort of like the Common [Application] for all of the co-curricular learning opportunities that you do at Duke? When you do something like that you could imagine a cohort that moves through some of these programs together. So they’re still self-paced, and they’re still student-driven.  

TC: President Vincent Price is a big proponent of online learning. That’s been met with some pushback from students. What do you say to that opposition?

MR:  I think the heart of the residential liberal arts experience at Duke is essential and strong. We’re not going do anything to dilute that residential nature of what you get as an undergraduate here. However, I do think there are a lot of opportunities to enhance it and to support it and to grant more flexibility to learners. 

To give just one example, half of Duke undergraduates go abroad but only a quarter of Pratt undergraduates do. Why? Because they typically cannot get the courses that they need at the study abroad sites we offer in order to stay on track to the engineering degrees which are very demanding—many of the engineering majors require sixteen courses. We can’t offer the courses that they need to go abroad.

We could give more global and cosmopolitan learning experiences for all of our undergraduates who want it and not reserve it for people who are in the majors that offer courses at our study abroad sites which is kind of arbitrary. I see that as a clear enhancement. I would never mandate that you go abroad, I would never mandate that you take online courses if you go abroad, in many cases those courses might be best delivered in a blended format and not a hybrid format. So you have a local discussion section with other students who are in those courses, but there’s a faculty member back in Durham who’s guiding. That’s one example I can think of for how we can strengthen the Duke experience through more flexibility. Serving prospective students online is a great way to address the challenges of socioeconomic diversity at Duke. We can reach learners wherever they are in the country which would allow us to create a more diverse applicant pool.