Q&A With Wendy Morgan, PhD

Date Published: 08/17/2020

Wendy MorganWendy Morgan, PhD, is the learning and development senior strategist at the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.

What do you do at FPG?

In my role, I help projects providing professional development (PD) and technical assistance (TA) develop the best strategy to achieve their goals. Very often, this is a blended learning strategy that improves the effectiveness and efficiency of project work by utilizing the best aspects of both asynchronous and synchronous approaches. I also lead a team that develops the PD and TA outlined in these strategies.

In support of instructional design strategy, I established FPG's innovative learning ecosystem so that projects could collect customized and meaningful learner activity data from learning objects on their own websites. Learner activity data informs project work by providing a line of sight into learners' strengths, weaknesses, and current tendencies or choices when provided with realistic, scenario-based options. Currently, we report this data from asynchronous, web-based PD and TA in order to tailor synchronous, follow-up work. But a recent upgrade to our learning record stores infrastructure will allow even more types of data collection to support our ever-evolving strategy development.

What was your path to FPG?

I went to a very nerdy magnet high school called Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology and majored in communication (yes, we had majors). Then, as an undergraduate at James Madison University, I double majored in journalism and visual communication, where I graduated magna cum laude and was the valedictorian at the School of Media Arts & Design. My post-baccalaureate work at the Newberry Library and Chicago-area graphic design firms included both graphic design and writing elements. But I wanted to feel that my work would make a difference to my community, so I went to graduate school, earning my master's degree at Northwestern University and my PhD at Purdue University. I focused on parent-child interaction and developed a new theory and measure to help identify the types of interactions that could be considered nonphysical abuse. Along the way, I spent a lot of time studying the social development of children. I earned many top student paper awards at communication conferences, co-authored book chapters, published the lead article in "Communication Yearbook" one year, and was awarded an internal university grant for my dissertation research. So, after all that, it seemed somewhat ironic when it became clear that my own special needs child required my time during the crucial early years of development. It is again ironic in hindsight that those years "away" actually established much of the foundation for all the work that has followed.

I surprised myself (and my friends and family!) when I took very naturally to scaffolding the development of a small child. Later, as a visiting lecturer for UNC's communication studies department, I found that I had become a much, much better instructor as a result of that time spent focused on scaffolding concepts. Teaching was no longer the means to the research-focused end—it was now a passion. Those scaffolding instincts extended themselves to the development of online coursework—including a very successful online interpersonal communication class. I got so good at developing digital coursework that I started my own business. My top clients were medical organizations focused on improving health communication.

After I had won my first global, instructional design industry award for custom content development, I caught the eye of FPG. Over time, it became clear that it was a great match. FPG had no means of collecting learner activity data, and the unique organizational environment (many projects, many websites, many different audiences) made any typical learning management system a poor fit. Furthermore, the quality of web-based instruction needed improvement. I had developed expertise in high-quality eLearning development and yearned for a professional home that would support deeper strategy development based on the kind of rich data collection that xAPI offered. And at FPG, my work would make a difference to my community. In fact, I make more of a difference to my community now than I ever could have if I had become a professor of communication!

How did your early communication training help mold your career?

Communication has been the driving force of my thinking since I was a teenager. How we relate to one another as humans drives our relationships and understanding of the world. It undergirds literally everything. My work at FPG uses every skill I have developed throughout my career: my writing skill helps me to translate complex concepts into accessible language and applicable narrative; even more immediate understanding is possible through visual translation, utilizing my artistic and graphic background; my research and child development background helps me mind-meld with project principal investigators as we develop strategy; and the technical know-how and skill I have developed helps me bring our strategies to life and also manage a team doing the same.

What are some of your goals and plans looking forward?

The development of online TA and PD is an ever-growing need, especially in response to COVID. I'm interested to see how FPG will respond to it! I'm also curious to see if we incorporate virtual reality as we move into more biobehavioral areas. I'm also very interested to see how other departments at UNC will make use of FPG's cutting-edge learning ecosystem to collect their own meaningful data in support of strategy development. I'm especially excited to keep building and growing more and more effective instructional design strategy through the iterative process of learning from the results of our implemented strategies.

How has your work at FPG supported your own goals and visions?

Everyone has their own "why?" or "so what?" question to answer when it comes to their work. My "so what?" will always be answered in terms of the value add to my community, and more specifically, to the children in my community. The PD and TA my team develops are aimed at adults, but those adults are tasked with supporting the healthy development of children. At the end of my day, it is about making the lives of children better. I'm not alone in that at FPG—everyone here is focused on that.