Interview a Professional: Seth Gurell

This post is made in conjunction with Dr. Rick West’s Foundations of Instructional Design course at Brigham Young University.

For this assignment, we were given the task of interviewing a professional in the instructional design field who’s job we would like to have someday. Even though I haven’t quite decided what I want to do with my career yet, I’ve always been interested in higher education administration (having recently come from working in higher ed).  To learn a little bit more about instructional design administration in a university setting, I had the privilege of sitting down with Seth Gurell, who is currently serving in an interim capacity as Senior Director of Distance Education at Utah Valley University (UVU).  Previous to serving in this role Seth was the director of the Center for Innovation in Instruction and Technology at UVU as well as an instructional designer at UVU.  Seth is also a recent graduation of BYU’s Instructional Psychology and Technology PhD program.

During our interview, we bounced around to a few topics so I will do my best to make this report somewhat coherent.

Organization in an Evolving School

The first component of Seth’s job that we addressed is the areas of the University that he’s responsible for. Currently, there are 4 arms of the Distance Education department:  Instructional Design Services, Support Services, Technical Operations, and the Center for Innovation in Instruction and Technology.

The Instructional Design Services department is responsible for the fully online offerings of UVU.  The staff consists of several instructional designers as well as graphics/video staff and an editor.  Seth mentioned that there are currently only a few fully online programs at UVU, but that they have several programs that are right on the cusp of becoming fully online.

The Support Services department works with faculty in the management of their online, hybrid, and web enhanced courses.  They have 3 full-time course specialists who work directly with faculty to assist them in ensuring that the LMS is working to their specifications (UVU is currently using Canvas).  What I found to be one of the most interesting components of this department however was the use of video conferencing to deliver a select number of their highest enrolled classes to satellite campuses and high schools throughout Utah.  This model struck me as somewhat odd — I mentioned to Seth that it felt like distance education of the late 80s — surely such a model couldn’t be sustainable.  He commented, that while the margins weren’t as great as what is being achieved in their online programs, the infrastructure for this model has been there for a while, and as a result it wasn’t doing much harm.  It is less flexible than an online class, but as long as students are still signing up, the classes will go forward.

The Technical Operations staff deal with the back-end of supporting the LMS.  I asked Seth if the need for this has lessened now that UVU is using Canvas which is hosted in the cloud, and he said no, now they just had a different set of challenges, such as pushing Canvas feature requests for faculty at the school.

The Center for Innovation in Instruction & Technology is the last department in the Distance Education organization.  The function of the Center is to provide support for instructors in technology integration. As the title implies, it is also an advocate for innovation in instructional technology at the University. Center workshops focus on emerging forms of technological pedagogy — a glance at their website indicates that they have an upcoming class on MOOCs scheduled.

The Center for Innovation in Instruction & Technology was where Seth was stationed as director before he was tapped to become the interim Director of Distance Education, and out of the different department that he oversees, this was the most appealing to me.  I know that faculty adoption of technology can be a slow process, albeit a necessary one.  In my previous position as a faculty member, I was a constant advocate for more technology integration in the classroom, at whatever level the faculty member was comfortable with.  I think it is extremely valuable to have a place on campus that is trying to push things in that direction.

Directing Responsibilities

One of my concerns in going through a PhD program is that when I finish, someone will want to make me a director.  It’s not that I think that I’m not capable of something like that, but that I’m not so sure that I will be ready for such a responsibility directly following school.  Seth was in a similar boat to me having just left school, so I began to ask him what kind of responsibilities he faces as the now Interim Director of Distance Education at UVU.

Based on our conversation, it seems that the director’s job is to have a presence over all of the different areas that they oversee.  This may seem somewhat obvious, but it was still a good reinforcement to me.  The director is trying to strike a balance between providing autonomy for the organizations that they oversee, while at the same time contributing ideas to how those organizations should evolve.  While there are certain things that only a director can do — such as approving and setting budgets, their main responsibility should be that of a leader (once again, I know that this is self-evident). I asked Seth if his job ends up being an e-mail jockey, and while he said that there is much of that, those emails are a means to an end of managing leadership.

Reflections on Graduate Studies

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Seth to do some reflection on his own graduate work.  I knew that Seth had recently been in my own shoes, and so I felt that he could offer some wisdom that could guide me on my path.  I first asked him if there were any classes that he felt didn’t really help him in his career.  He replied no, saying that all of the BYU IPT offerings were pretty solid.  I then asked him if any class in particular has helped him in his job as director.  He mentioned that the evaluation class was really helpful for him in the process of managing his programs.  Evaluation skills help you make evidence-based decisions about your current offerings, and gives you a good base for looking into the future.  From my own experience in higher ed, I have seen how evaluation has come to bear itself in many ways, and even though I’m not exactly the most excited to take an Evaluation class, I know that it will be an important experience for me.

Takeaways For My Professional Development

While I’m not sure that I will have a job exactly like Seth’s when I leave school, I think that his job is a good jumping off point to see what types of skills I need to acquire while I am in school to take on such a responsibility.  Here are a few areas that I would like to refine my skills in:

  1. Evaluation: This has been said previously, but there really is so much evaluation that happens in higher education that gaining that skill set would undoubtedly pay dividends throughout a career.  I will most definitely take the evaluation class, and I will also hopefully have some opportunities to perform evaluation projects.
  2. Project Management:  I asked Seth if he had taken a project management class and he said no – but it was something that he wish he had done. But he also felt that he had gained a lot of informal project management experience.  I think that while taking a class in PM could be really valuable, probably the more important activity would be to manage projects, and manage them intentionally.  As I am engaged in PM make sure that I am developing systems that work effectively for me and my teams.  Get informal feedback in the process.
  3. Develop Leadership Skills:  I think that this will be the toughest.  I am a reluctant leader.  I feel that oftentimes I have the skills to lead a project, yet I lack the talent to do it effectively.  It is not something that comes easy to me, but if I want to take on a position like a director, its something that I need to become more comfortable/familiar with.

Overall, I want to thank Seth for carving out some time to discuss his job for me.  It was really an enlightening experience, and I was glad to have a chance to take a peek into his daily world.  I hope that as I progress through my graduate program, I will be able to gain the necessary skills to feel confident taking a position like he has.