The first item that jumps out in Jennifer Sparrow’s corner office in Crawford Hall is the bright blue desk chair; the second, a gargoyle book-end she got after she finished college. It has traveled with her from Boston to Florida to Virginia, and now, to Cleveland.
Sparrow, an Ohio native, was recently hired to fill the new position of director of online and innovative learning. In this role, she merges two of her previous jobs: online learning from Virginia Tech and innovative learning from Florida Gulf Coast University in what she calls “the best of both jobs.”
Innovation is an integral part of Sparrow’s work, one that she defines with quotes gathered from colleagues at a conference, scrawled on a worn piece of Sheraton Hotel notepaper:
“Risk, fail, fear, iterate.”
“Experimentation, unafraid of failure.”
“From two sticks—fire.”
“Change, fail, disrupt, succeed.”
Sparrow’s primary role in her new job is to coordinate developments in promising new technologies. For instance, she is tasked with managing the roll out of Case Western Reserve University’s new online masters programs. One program, with the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, is close to completion, while the five new programs through the Case School of Engineering are still under development.
Sparrow’s role in the project centers on communication—facilitating contracts, faculty, technology, and stakeholders.
“My typical day can be anything,” Sparrow said.
On this particular day, Sept. 9, Sparrow began by reading technology news and reviewing research and development advancements.
“The big news today was the Apple announcement,” she said. “The smartwatch, its price, network capabilities. Could it be used in classrooms, for instance, for student responses?”
She then moved on to working with her online learning teams, and talking to a professor about further developing blended learning in his class.
Next, she reviewed the Massive Open Online Courses in development and met with a professor to talk about fundraising and planning for his course.
“The question is how to translate brick and mortar services, counseling and so forth, to ensure that students not in Ohio or not even in North America have a positive experience [with the MOOC],” she said.
Although her days vary, Sparrow said that the one element that always stays constant is working to ensure the best experience for students.
It’s not an easy task to accomplish. Whenever she needs inspiration, Sparrow looks to her museum of old tech: a Polaroid camera, the first iPod, a Wi-Fi card, her collection of records and on old telephone from her Virginia Tech days.
Ultimately, Sparrow hopes that, in five years, through her work and the work of others, higher education will learn to be “ever cognizant of what good learning is.”