Ds Scholarship

3 Questions for Nina Huntemann, Chegg’s New Chief Academic Officer

Dr. Nina Huntemann and I first got to know each other through her leadership role at edX. A couple of years ago, Nina and I did a Q&A about her academic career path so far, and her decision to give up tenure to move to edX. It was big news, therefore, when Nina let me know that she has taken on a new high-profile leadership role, this time as the Chief Academic Officer at Chegg. Nina graciously agreed to answer my questions.

Q: Tell us about your new role at Chegg? What will you be doing, and why did you decide that now is the right time to make that move?

Thank you for inviting me back, Joshua. My new role at Chegg is also new for the organization, and I am excited to join at such an important moment for the company, for students, and for a higher ed. As Chief Academic Officer, I am responsible for defining and communicating the pedagogy of Chegg’s content and services, and ensuring that student and instructor engagement with our platform improves learning outcomes. My growing team of learning experience designers, researchers and instructor engagement staff work directly with the teams building and supporting Chegg’s portfolio of learning services. We are also deepening our relationships with external stakeholders, including faculty, university leadership and student services staff, to help improve what we offer and work collaboratively to give students the 24/7 learning support they need.

I have loved working with educators to transform their classroom teaching for online learning, as I did at edX for over six years with an incredible consortium of universities. Last fall when Chegg approached me, I saw an opportunity to join one of the largest educational platforms and apply my expertise in digital learning to directly impact students. The Chegg platform supports about 30 million unique learners a month, which is impressive. But even more compelling for me are the backgrounds of those learners. In a Hall & Partners survey in 2020 with self-reported Chegg users, 29% are first generation college students, 26% have family incomes under $25K, and 53% are the minority students. As the company grows in the US and globally, supporting learners from diverse backgrounds, many of whom are underserved by the existing education system, was a very strong pull for me. I was also excited by what the leadership team of Chegg has set out to do: modernize and personalize learning support. Joining that team and shaping and executing on that vision was the right next step for me.

Q: As you know, Chegg has something of a controversial brand within higher education. In April, I did a Q&A with Candace Sue, Chegg’s Head of Academic Relations, in which Candace spoke about Chegg’s response to the company’s critics. Did the criticism of Chegg give you any pause before you accepted your new role? And how are you thinking about addressing the critics of the company and the online tutoring sector in your role as Chief Academic Officer?

It seems the current discourse is driven by an impulse to maintain the status quo at a time when it is so clear that students are demanding change. Ten years ago, MOOC platforms were seen as threatening to faculty. Ten years before that, students were told not to cite Wikipedia. Those innovations evolved through productive engagement. I don’t know what we will be debating in ten more years. But right now, I welcome earnest discussion about how teaching and learning is changing, and what need to be successful in an students complex, digital world. I would hope that members of the higher ed community would be open to working with us to support today’s students and their changing needs.

I also seek change from within, and for me that means taking my expertise and experience as an educator to edtech. I think far more people with experience in education, particularly teachers, should work in edtech. This is especially important in product management, software development and in leadership positions; roles that directly influence the technology and services created for students, teachers, and educational institutions. Also, as you and Eddie Maloney often advocate for, companies claiming any gains in student learning should be willing and able to demonstrate the veracity of those claims. As I was getting to know Chegg and its leadership team, it was clear the company is focused on understanding its impact on students and how to improve learning outcomes.

I’m only about three months in and still getting to know our services, students, external partners, and initiatives, but I can say that the company is moving boldly forward and is truly focused on having a positive impact on students. And I am motivated every day by the exhilarating and important responsibility of defining our learning strategy and measuring our impact.

Q: I’ve always admired how fearless you are. To give up tenure to take a role at edX, and now to make this move to Chegg. Can you share any advice to the rest of us trying to navigate alternative academic (alt-ac) careers in this time of immense higher education change? What might you want to tell your grad student self if you could have that conversation?

I often speak to graduate students about the realities of the academic career path and happily impart advice when asked. However, I’d rather use this venue to suggest to your audience, who I suspect are more likely to be teaching and supervising graduate students than in a doctoral program themselves, to do more to prepare their graduate students for an alt-ac path.

The most heartbreaking moments of my conversations with postdocs who have been on the academic job market for years are when they say how much they feel like a failure for not landing that R1, tenure track job. This admission of failure usually comes after telling me how many articles in top-ranked journals they have published and how many grants and best-paper awards they have won. It is astonishing how successful — according to the standards set by academia and their disciplines – these faculty hopefuls can be, and yet how much shame and failure they carry for not the incredibly unfavorable odds of a job market with far more PhDs than open , full-time, tenure-track roles.

From what doctoral students are telling me, graduate programs could do a lot more to prepare their students, such as encouraging and celebrating alternative paths, supporting opportunities to network outside of higher ed, and incorporating experiences into graduate programs that build upon skills that transfer beyond academy. By the way, I am hiring, and am more than happy to show you how exciting and fulfilling an alternative path can be!

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