The Heller Report: Customer’s Perspective: The ‘big picture’ on technology and community colleges

Customer’s Perspective: The ‘big picture’ on technology and community colleges

Dr. Mark David Milliron is president and ceo of the League for Innovation in the Community College ( He recently spoke with ISEM about the future of technology and distance learning in community college education.

ISEM: Recently, you published Taking a Big Picture Look at Technology, Learning and the Community College. What did you find?

Dr. Milliron: We were encouraged about what came out of our look at technology and community colleges, because again and again, practitioners told us it was all about the student and it was about learning. Technologies in community colleges are focused in two areas. One, creating connections to the learners, and two, helping students create (their own) powerful connections to enable learning. Those seemed to be the themes that brought a center to all the different, disparate uses of technology.

What tech trends are you seeing on campus today?

What’s clear is that because of the economy and because of what’s happened with the dot-coin bust, the conversation has shifted from investment in technology to return on investment in technology. More and more decision makers and faculty are asking for metrics about whether the technology is actually expanding and improving learning. Raising the conversation up one level, they want to know whether this is a cost of entry into modern education. Do you have to have a certain level of technology to be relevant in education today? The focus on return is new.

That closely mirrors another conversation — should schools be focusing their efforts on ubiquity or specialization? There’s a strong push to balance the heavy resources being spent on online learning and developing e-colleges to the development of more broad technology support for all classes and student services. One president summed it up this way, which I loved. “I have to ask myself the question, is it right for me to spend 60 percent of my budget for technology targeting 10 percent of my students (the distance learners), who drop out at a 300 percent higher rate?” It doesn’t mean you have to leave pure play online learning behind, but you really have to ask the hard questions about balance. Unfortunately, the trickle down theory of technology doesn’t work. You can’t just focus technology on the high-end people and expect good technology will happen to the rest of the institution.

What about security?

Network security has come out as a major issue on every survey. I think we’re going to have to really wrestle with the issue of whether or not colleges are going to be about open systems or about security going forward. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle.

Community colleges also have other concerns. Most have dual enrollment programs with area high schools. They’re one of the best things that community colleges are doing. Community colleges often run allied health programs, as well. So these institutions have to comply with the new Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and Health Information (HIPPA) mandates.

Increasingly, institutions seem to be turning to outsiders for high tech solutions.

It’s a question of development versus adoption. Over the last five years, we have turned our faculty loose in developing web courses, materials and curriculum. The challenge is that it actually takes a long time to develop that stuff, and we’re using a lot of curriculum development time on it. The LMS folks are making that process simpler, and now, thankfully, the publishing folks have gotten into the game and are developing pretty high quality digital resources. Just as we adopted curriculum in the print model and adapted it for our instruction, I think faculty will be adopting digital curriculum and using LMS systems to pick and choose what they really like. I think you’re going to see a lot less web development by faculty and a lot more web adoption.

That’s happening in other education sectors as well. Student services is looking at companies like Smart for 24/7 support. Smaller community colleges are bringing in online colleges to offer courses that they don’t have the resources to offer. Community colleges have the courage to be brokers and bring outsiders in and wrap their services around these. We’re also seeing some schools completely outsource IT as schools feel the pinch with IT workers. So, we’ll go to school on IT outsourcing, as well.

How are these vendor-institution relationships working?

Community colleges are really dealing with the issue of vendors versus colleagues. When we built buildings, we could always call other institutions and talk about how they did it and what the specs were. We don’t have that depth of knowledge when it comes to tech infrastructures. We really are at a stage where we have to trust vendors. Vendors aren’t bad, but they’re motivated by something different, and institutions have to make sure they’re aware of that.

The other thing we have to remember is that higher education is the highest maintenance market for most of these vendors. The average commercial client takes six weeks to make a decision — we take 18 months! Vendors never quite know where the decision is being made when they engage with us, because it’s different at each institution. The longer we work together, the better we’ll do.

About what percentage of community colleges now offer some form of distance learning?

It’s generally about 10 to 15 percent, and that includes all the alternative types of distance learning. We’re seeing heavy growth in online education, but it’s coming from on campus cohorts who are mixing their schedules. We’re starting to see more ‘rational exuberance’ in distance learning offerings. In the beginning, people thought you could have one faculty member and 300 students online and make a lot of money. The truth is that online learning is actually more expensive. To do it well, the student faculty ratio has to be lower.

Kirkwood Community College recently did a survey and found that three out of four distance learning students were also taking on campus courses. That finding is replicated all over the country. Students are already mixing the model, and doing asynchronous learning. In fact, one survey I read recently said that 90 percent of students taking distance learning courses live within 30 miles of the campus. The myth of distance learning is that it’s about distance — it’s often about time shifting. And that plays right into what community colleges are all about — access. Online learning is just another way for folks to access education.

Is there any concern that students who might once have taken local community college courses will turn to more ‘prestigious’ schools online?

That was a big concern a few years ago. But students who take courses at community colleges are often looking for a low price point, and they want someone to help with financial aid and so on. Community colleges are also the major transfer step into higher education, especially for women and minorities. What’s exciting is that transferal is beginning to happen with community college distance learners as well. They’re being trained to be lifelong learners.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Nelson B. Heller & Associates

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group