Ellen Wagner was a pioneer of interactive distance education back in the 1980s. When she taught at the University of Northern Colorado, in fact, one of her papers was cited by a U.S. congressional report as the definition of distance education. After making her mark in academia, she explored innovative educational strategies in a range of nonprofit and for-profit settings.

Ellen Wagner

Ellen Wagner: ‘No matter where I have worked, my driving interest has been in making the world a better place for distance teaching and learning.’

For a career’s worth of achievements in the field, Wagner will receive the 2018 Mildred B. and Charles A. Wedemeyer Award for Outstanding Practitioner in Distance Education. She’ll accept her award at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Distance Teaching & Learning Conference, Aug. 7-9.

“No matter where I have worked, my driving interest has been in making the world a better place for distance teaching and learning,” says Wagner, who’s currently a visiting professor at George Mason University. “I very much appreciate the validation of receiving the Wedemeyer Award after so many years of being told that this distance ed stuff would never work.”

Charles Wedemeyer (1911-1999) is considered the father of modern distance education. As director of UW-Madison’s Correspondence Study Program, he revolutionized education by advocating adult, distance, open, and independent learning. Wagner has extended this tradition into the era of cell phones and virtual reality.

“Ellen’s contributions to the distance teaching and learning arena are exactly what the Wedemeyers envisioned for recipients of the Outstanding Practitioner Award,” says Wedemeyer Award chair Louise Fowler. “She is a first-rate synthesizer of ideas and connector of people and information who generously shares her expertise with colleagues in higher education, research, the corporate world, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and nonprofits. She personifies the term ‘thought leader’ in our field, drawing on her deep background, broad experience, and ability to identify untapped potentials and forecast new opportunities and directions.”

Wagner will receive her award at the plenary lunch on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 12:30 p.m. She previews her acceptance speech in the following interview.

ellen wagner

Wagner was a pioneer of interactive distance education when she taught at the University of Northern Colorado in the 1980s.

What is one of the positive developments in distance education since you began your career?

The positive development is that we have so many technological tools at our disposal. But with great tools comes the responsibility to know how to use them to their best advantage. They are catalysts for change. Remember, transformation doesn’t talk about tool use, it talks about what happens after we have changed everything we’re doing, thanks to the affordances of these tools. Are we ready for where distance education is going to be headed in the next 10 years? Does “distance” continue to define our brand of education? What do people like us need to be able to do to continue to be relevant for tomorrow’s students? Sometimes I do wonder if we all get a little fixated on the tools and forget that we need to be able to weave any number of toolsets together to create meaningful, holistic learning experiences for digital-savvy consumers.

What is the value of distance education for today’s students? 

It’s great that technologies of various kinds have chipped away at barriers of time and distance so that more people have opportunities to learn new knowledge and skills that don’t require complete disruptions to home, work, and communities.

Historically, what is the role of the Distance Teaching & Learning Conference in the field of distance education?

Ellen Wagner Distance Teaching & Learning Conference

Wagner (fourth from left) with colleagues at the Distance Teaching & Learning Conference.

The conference has been one of the longest-standing dealing with the topic of distance education, and has always taken a teaching and learning perspective. One could make a case that this event has provided continuity in the field of distance education, literally introducing generations of distance education practitioners to the field. This is the place where we care less about the shiny brightness of the tech and more about what the tech lets us do in the service of student success. That is what speaks most loudly to me.

Besides receiving your award, what are you looking forward to about this year’s conference? 

It’s wonderful to visit Madison in August. I’m a sixth-generation Wisconsin native, and got two of my degrees at the UW, so this is a “home sweet home” opportunity for me. I appreciate having a chance to hear from and talk to so many different scholars and practitioners, all in one place. I love seeing my friends, making new friends. I expect there will be squeaky cheese curds in my future.

The 34th annual Distance Teaching & Learning Conference attracts more than 800 higher education faculty and staff, instructional designers, and workforce trainers in search of new ways to engage learners. It features experts from academia, industry, and government at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, overlooking Madison’s lovely Lake Monona. To learn more or to register for the Aug. 7-9 event, see the conference website. For additional information, contact Wendy Fritz, 608-265-2679, wendy.fritz@wisc.edu.