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First Chief Online Officer Joins AU in Midst of Pandemic

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Head shot of Joseph Riquelme, new vice provost and chief online officer

On March 2, as the coronavirus spread in the United States and began to upend normal, daily life for Americans, Joseph Riquelme started a new position as vice provost and chief online officer at American University. As a key member of the university’s academic leadership team, he jumped right into the planning for, and then execution, of the transition to online learning.

To say that Riquelme has been busy would be an understatement. In addition to starting a new job in online education in the midst of a global pandemic, he welcomed the birth of his fourth child on March 13.

“Talk about everything happening at the same time,” he laughs.

Transitioning courses online for the remainder of the semester was an unprecedented, but necessary, decision. Riquelme, who is the university’s first chief online officer, will manage the strategic direction and coordination of all aspects of online and digital education offerings while also working with colleagues across AU on the new reality of online learning brought on by coronavirus.  

By his second week on the job, the university announced that classes would move online for three weeks. But as the situation of the pandemic evolved and new information came to light, two days after that announcement, AU announced that spring classes would move online for the remainder of the semester. Upcoming summer courses will also be online.

Riquelme went from ensuring infrastructure readiness to working with colleagues including Center for Teaching, Research and Learning executive director Kiho Kim and Michael Piller, senior director of academic technology in the University Library, on issues of faculty professional development, instructional continuity, and making available the online support and tools faculty would need for the transition. He described the process as highly collaborative, praised his colleagues’ work in putting together a plan for continuity of learning, and highlighted faculty members’ role.

“The human nature of people is to rise to the occasion,” Riquelme said. “We’ve seen that with the faculty at AU. They’ve risen to the occasion and are figuring it out.”

Blackboard is a primary way that professors engage students in online learning in normal times. Riquelme realized there was a dearth of knowledge about the types of Blackboard tools faculty use for teaching. He worked with a cross-functional team to build an analytics dashboard that would provide data on tools currently used. With the information, the team was able to pinpoint which resources would be needed to better support faculty. Individual requests from faculty to use collaboration tools, such as Zoom for web video conferencing, were pouring in. The university obtained a campus-wide license to allow faculty and others at AU to use Zoom.

“The speed at which we did that really speaks to the willingness of everyone at the university to put in the resources needed to support our students and faculty,” he said. “Everyone rolled up their sleeves and focused on making it happen.”

Riquelme believes many lessons will be learned about online learning in the wake of the pandemic, including a greater appreciation for what it takes to do online education and the role of educational technology at a university.

“There will be lessons learned about readiness, and opportunities for improvements and professional development. Those lessons will strengthen the learning experience for our students,” he said.

Clearly, the pandemic has altered the landscape for online learning, but evolving the university’s digital strategy has been a key part of AU’s strategic plan, Changemakers for a Changing World. The university offers close to two-dozen online graduate degrees and, as of the 2018-19 academic year, it offered more than 575 online courses. Riquelme is tasked with helping to ensure that the university meets learners where they are: on campus, online, and through evolving hybrid-learning methods.

Riquelme comes to AU from Florida International University (FIU) in Miami, where he served as assistant vice president of online education. He completed both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at FIU. A son of Cuban immigrants, he was born in New York City but has lived in Miami since the age of 6.

“I am looking forward to building upon the strengths that AU has to offer and expanding access through online education. I am passionate about online education because of the access and opportunities it provides students who often are not able to pursue a traditional on-campus university education,” Riquelme said. “I am a first-generation college graduate who understands the value and opportunity online education provides.”