Penn State Continuing and Distance Education Says Good-bye to Longtime Leader
It was with mixed emotions (happy for him, but sad for us) that Penn State Continuing Education and World Campus team members heard the news that Gary Miller, associate vice president for Outreach and executive director of Continuing and Distance Education, would be retiring on June 30, 2007. During his thirty years at Penn State, Gary provided the guiding vision for the University's international leadership role in distance education. Commented Penn State President Graham Spanier, "Gary has had a distinguished career of leadership and accomplishment in distance and continuing education. His path-breaking work in online learning has been remarkable and has set a standard for academe. Gary is a national hero in fostering innovations that will forever change the field of education."
We recently talked with Gary about his illustrious career in distance education and where he sees the field headed in the future.
How did you come to work in distance education?
I began my career in public broadcasting at Penn State at a time when the public television station defined its mission very broadly as educational. We saw the public information role as bringing informed viewers to our programs. Beyond that, we organized community groups to meet and discuss programs, offered a full schedule of instructional TV series for use in area schools, and offered both formal and informal courses for adults—from "how-to" series on everything from banjo playing to wood carving to formal "University of the Air" credit courses offered over both public TV and PENNARAMA, a statewide educational cable TV network (now called PCN). As a result of a University restructuring in 1981, I became director of instructional media, with responsibilities for developing and supporting the delivery of instructional media for resident instruction as well as for both K–12 and adult audiences. It was a joint appointment with Public Broadcasting and what was then called Independent Learning. After that, my path was clear: I was a distance educator!
What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?
My biggest accomplishment—and it really is not mine, but our whole organization's—was to contribute to the creation of the World Campus, which fundamentally repositioned Penn State's long-standing leadership role in distance education. Until the World Campus, our distance education program had been geared to the needs of an industrial society. With the World Campus we created a new kind of learning environment that stressed the student as a member of a learning community and an active participant in the total learning process. As a result, we were able to offer baccalaureate and graduate degree programs for the first time. More important, we were able to give students a total learning experience that helps prepare them for life in an information society.
What do you see in the future for distance education at Penn State?
It is safe to say that we've just begun to understand what online learning might become in the years ahead. The creation of Penn State Online reflects the fact that online learning is having a transformative impact on higher education; the effect on resident instruction will be as dramatic as its impact on distance education. Looking ahead, we can anticipate more opportunities for international collaboration and a truly student-centered learning environment, in which students immerse themselves in simulations, virtual problem-solving scenarios, and collaborative, cross-cultural research projects—learning in the same kind of environment in which they will work as professionals. As this unfolds, I expect to see more of a focus on undergraduate degree-completion programs and professional master's degrees. However, I also anticipate that we will again become a resource for Pennsylvania's public schools as we share content with K–12 teachers and encourage high school seniors to get an early start on a university education.
What plans do you have for your retirement?
I have several writing projects that I am eager to start, and I hope to do a bit of consulting. Beyond that, I am way behind in my reading and want to travel and enjoy life with my family. There is a lot to do in this world!