By Published: Dec. 15, 2014

Graphic novel cover

English prof known for massive open online course on comic books and graphic novels tapped to help university navigate uncertain waters.

With rising tuition costs and disruptions from the digital age, higher education faces scary times. But William Kuskin hopes to help lead the University of Colorado Boulder through them. Kuskin, well-known for his innovative massive open online course (MOOC) on comic books and graphic novels, was named the associate vice provost of education innovation in October.

William Kuskin, associate vice provost of education innovation

William Kuskin, associate vice provost of education innovation

First on the agenda: streamlining the advising and orientation experience for students at CU-Boulder.

“I think advising gets a little bogged down in getting through the degree,” says Kuskin. “I think a lot of students need mentoring, they need coaching, and they need direction. And what they get is a more technical process of figuring out their degree requirements.”

Kuskin is working closely with Shelly Bacon, head of advising for the College of Arts and Sciences, and Jim Davis Rosenthal, head of orientation, to create a system in which students can figure out everything with their degree-plan online, meaning that time in the adviser’s office can be used for pure mentorship and guidance.

“If you have 45 minutes or half an hour to talk to an adviser, that should be spent on your hopes and dreams and fears and weakness, not necessarily, ‘Well, to get through your degree requirements, you’re going to have to do this and that and the next thing.’”

These initial changes will just be a taste of some of the bigger stuff that Kuskin has in store to keep up with a rapidly changing environment.

His plan includes embracing some technology that is feared by many in higher education, with an overall goal of educational transformation that improves the well-being of students.

But Kuskin emphasizes that “smarter people than me” have been working to improve advising and orientation. Vice Provost Michael Grant has long been pushing to create a more student-centered advising experience. Kuskin also credits Office of Information Technology leaders Larry Levine and Nalini Kaplan with helping develop the necessary technology.

Kuskin says that his new title suggests that all innovation will be coming from him, when in fact ideas are “percolating up from everybody.” His job is more or less to bring together the necessary services and infrastructure to turn the most important ideas into reality.

“As a change agent, the best thing I could do is let people speak change, let people come to what it is they need to change and help them realize that.”

But as the job title suggests (a job popping up at universities nationwide, likely in response to the onset of the digital age), having an innovative frame of mind will be necessary.

Kuskin has a long history of innovation: first studying it with his research on medieval manuscripts and then later practicing it when he created a MOOC to be offered by CU.

Location of MOOC course participants worldwide.

Location of MOOC course participants worldwide.

Almost always among the top-rated humanities courses on Coursera—one of the big three open-course providers—Kuskin’s comic book and graphic novel MOOC is taken by tens of thousands of people across the world each time it is offered.

And as before, Kuskin is careful to point out that his MOOC is not the product of his mind alone. Through bumping into Marin Stanek, he was able to find crack team in CU’s Office of Information Technology to help him construct his course. “Team Zero,” as Kuskin calls it, included Viktoriya Oliynyk, Cory Pavicich, Tim Riggs and Kate Allison.

In fact, building and teaching the MOOC has been a learning experience for Kuskin on many levels.

The outpouring of support that he received from all across the world has shown him the paradoxical intimacy and distance involved in teaching an online course. And his experience with Team Zero and the “atomized” technology services made clear the challenges involved with using technology in teaching here at CU.

Many critics view the popularity of massive online courses as a sign of the end for institutions of higher education. A New York Times article written during the MOOC-crazed year of 2012 calls the trend “a revolution that has higher education gasping” because of its “disruptive” nature.

Kuskin is not so pessimistic.

“Ninety percent of education is about personal transformation…The MOOCs can’t provide that because they don’t provide a community of support,” says Kuskin. “What we need to do is to figure out great online technology that will allow students to have a better campus experience.”

As a change agent, the best thing I could do is let people speak change, let people come to what it is they need to change and help them realize that.”

Online course technology can be used to augment traditional studies, allowing for a more efficient use of classroom time, and can even teach classroom teachers how to more effectively do their jobs, he argues.

The MOOC can also work as a “bold” public relations tool that helps bring attention to the university.

Kuskin actually explores the ironic position of technology like MOOCs—as both savior and destroyer—in one of his MOOCs. The course uses a comic to explore a world where all the symbols of higher education are destroyed by a MOOC that crash lands in a rocket ship.

Ultimately, the future of higher education, for Kuskin, seems to be a continued combination of traditional and hybrid classes with some online features sprinkled in. MOOCs will be there too, but will continue to be a sort of luxury item that is peripheral to the core campus courses.

“Our main business will be traditional supported by hybrid, and we need a campus group for that,” Kuskin says. His mission will be to bring this group together.

In addition to experience with MOOCs, a deep historical and theoretical understanding of the relationship between technology and innovation also informs Kuskin’s thinking, thanks to his studies of the 15th century transition from manuscript to print—a paradigm shift similar to one we are experiencing now in the way that it unsettled many longstanding institutions.

The time between “1450 to 1500 was a really transformative period, and it had to do with the relationship between writing, communication, literature, and technology,” he observes. “Often during those points of change, you can’t see the other end of it, but it’s fruitless to resist.”

Prior to accepting his position as associate vice provost, Kuskin chaired the English Department and is a full professor of English. His experience there will likely assist him in moving the lagging liberal arts forward, which may be reluctant to take advantage of digital technology due to its very effective mode of classroom-based, discussion-oriented teaching.

For Kuskin, the university system as a whole is solid and will be around for a long time. The key will be to figure out how to tap into the transformative power of technology and harness it to improve well-being.

“A healthy system will use technology to enable bold and healthy students,” Kuskin concludes. “I think as we grow, as we reconsider our pedagogy, we will use technology to transform people with well-being.”

Robert Stein is a CU-Boulder senior majoring in English and an intern for Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine.