Dr. Poonam Kumar is no stranger to online education. The associate provost for academic affairs and digital learning at Lamar University has been at the forefront of virtual learning since its inception.
“I have been in the online space for a really long time — 23+ years, as a faculty member, researcher and administrator, and I have seen online education evolve,” said Dr. Kumar, who holds a doctorate in instruction and curriculum leadership from The University of Memphis.
“What has always appealed to me is how I could use technology to make a difference in a student’s life, whether it is in the classroom or outside.”
Dr. Kumar served as a proponent of digital learning in the University of Wisconsin system and founded the Center for Academic Innovation at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan before joining Lamar University. Her commitment to online education is grounded in her early experiences in higher education.
“When I started my career as a young professor in the University of Wisconsin System, in 1999, Blackboard had just come out,” Dr. Kumar said, highlighting a UW initiative to develop an online teacher training program for educators unable to attend on-site programs.
“The teacher training program made me realize the power of this technology. We were able to reach many of our students — working teachers who did not have the time to come to campus to re-skill, to re-train, get their certifications in the areas that would meet the needs of the state.”
Chalkboard to Blackboard
Educational technology has come a long way, and Dr. Kumar notes the great strides in the field, with a simple learning management system (LMS) being the first iteration.
“It was online education version 1.0,” she said. “The ability to connect with students asynchronously and deliver the content digitally was very exciting at that time.”
The early encounter with online education and its potential helped shape Dr. Kumar’s career goals. When she was looking for opportunities, Lamar University’s commitment to quality education, educational access and lifelong learning was a big draw. She was also attracted to the school’s pioneering efforts in online learning.
“Lamar University was one of the first adopters of online education at this scale and I wanted to contribute to that mission,” she said.
Her professional encounters with alumni cemented her opinion that LU was the right fit for her.
“I have met Lamar graduates at different conferences,” she said. “I’ve talked to them, and I’ve always been very impressed with where they are currently because of their degrees. They also spoke highly about their experiences at Lamar.”
The recent developments in ed tech have Dr. Kumar enthused about the future of online learning.
“It will continue to evolve with artificial intelligence, with all the different technologies,” she said.
She also sees the practical benefits of the online space for students.
“If they have to develop a skill, they can do it multiple times, go back, reteach themselves, and continue to improve,” she said. “Within a physical face-to-face classroom, sometimes those opportunities are limited.”
Dr. Kumar empathizes with and offers encouragement to instructors who may be hesitant to teach online because they fear losing connection with students.
“The best part of teaching is having interactions with my students,” she said. “Given the tools we have for synchronous teaching and asynchronous teaching, I hear from faculty that they feel more connected to their students [online].
“When people are working, they’re collaborating digitally, they’re communicating digitally. If we provide that experience within our classrooms, the students will be better prepared to work in a digital economy.”
Design Thinking at Work
Dr. Kumar offers insights into the ways online learning can enhance students’ education.
“When you design learning experiences, you’re always thinking about the learner,” she said. “When you take the design thinking approach, you want to make sure that you understand where your students are coming from, what they are trying to balance, in terms of life, career, different demands.
“You want to make sure that you are addressing the future needs of students. Where are they going to be working? What skills will they be using, and are we providing a good path for them?” she said.
For Dr. Kumar, it is essential to ask curriculum design questions from the perspectives of pedagogy and business. She believes Lamar University is prepared to meet the needs of today’s online students.
“Most of the universities are just adopting online, and Lamar has actually been doing it for a while,” she said. “We have best practices in place, and we have a very good operational model.
“Lamar’s online degree programs improve access to education for specific groups, like first-generation college students, working professionals and non-traditional students whose needs campus programs just may not be able to meet.”
Looking to the Future
Dr. Kumar’s immersive experiences in online education, both as an instructor and learner, have given her a good perspective on student needs and relevant program designs.
“The students are looking for flexibility,” she said. “They’re also looking for interaction and help from their faculty and from our support services. It’s only through doing surveys and talking to students that we understand what is working for them,” she said of the push to make the services and the curriculum more student-centered.
Dr. Kumar, who also holds an MBA, views experiences in the online classroom as offering advantages to graduates in the business world as well. As for the future, Dr. Kumar sees online education at Lamar University expanding into new programs and fields.
“Again, Lamar University is very well positioned because of all the academic expertise we have,” she said. “I’m excited about working collaboratively with the industry and with faculty along with listening to what students need.”
Learn more about Lamar University’s online programs.