Community Colleges | Feature

IT as a Change Agent in the Community College

A Q&A with South Arkansas Community College CIO Tim Kirk

Tim Kirk

As South Arkansas Community College CIO Tim Kirk considers strategies that will serve his institution well into the future, he naturally scans the horizon for trends in IT. Here, Kirk shares some thoughts about IT trends that will be particularly important for community colleges and explores opportunities for positive change.

Mary Grush: What are some of the key trends in technology that are important for community colleges in particular?

Tim Kirk: Technology becoming relatively less expensive, the availability of digital content, and the fact that we are living in an increasingly interconnected world are probably the three most critical trends to watch--these are the broad areas in which we will see IT having a big impact and enabling positive change at community colleges.

Grush: Let's examine the first area: more affordable technologies. Obviously that's desirable, but what specific impacts do you see for community colleges?

Kirk: As you look at community colleges in general, you find that we have a higher percentage of poverty-level students than other types of institutions. When we talk about technology trends, we are usually focused on the latest and the best, but in truth the newest, horizon technologies do not reach into all areas of the country, particularly in community colleges in rural or in some inner city settings. As a matter of fact, for many community colleges in areas where poverty is prevalent, even technologies that have been mainstream for some time may not be a "given" for the majority of students. This is the economic resource divide, which feeds the digital divide. So when a mainstream technology hits a price point that's going to make it widespread and truly affordable for virtually all students, that's a real enabler and a change agent in itself. At this point in time, cell phones are probably the best example of a technology that is at least on its way towards becoming affordable to the greatest number of people.

Grush: And what about the availability of digital content?

Kirk: That's another important area, and it's really connected with and related to that first area of affordable technology. The trend in technology toward digital content is going to be giving us digital books and eTextbooks delivered on devices other than $2,500 laptops (such as cell phones), and putting these resources into the hands of students who previously were resource 'have-nots'. Those students will finally begin to see the benefits that other students have had for quite a while.

Grush: And the third area--an increasingly interconnected world?

Kirk: This is of course a broad area but may be best exemplified by the ability to interconnect and share resources among institutions. For example, here in Arkansas we have an expanded research network that is knitting together all of the state's two- and four-year colleges. We don't need to recreate and duplicate every resource at every institution when we can create a shared resource in cooperation with each other. This makes it easier for each institution to offer a wider range of courses and educational resources and opportunities to students.

Grush: What's an example of the ways community colleges will need to adjust, as these technology areas evolve?

Kirk: One important and current example is how we as community colleges perceive our roles among the wider range of higher education institutions in the state--this particularly includes rethinking who our customers are. Increasingly, we are acting as a gateway to the Internet and to technology resources for students who don't have their own technology resources at home to use in their online courses. Students, particularly here in rural Arkansas, often still need to get their technology by traveling to a local institution and using the library and technology resources there for courses they are taking at another institution. So, we may have students who are taking classes at other state institutions, but they are sitting in our bricks and mortar. We're not a 4-year institution, but people are getting 4-year degrees using our resources. We don't receive any tuition dollars from that, now, and we don't get recognition from the state for the service we're providing these students. So one of the things that's going to have to happen is a change of mindset--thinking less about ourselves as individual institutions, and more of ourselves together with other state institutions, as in, "We are the state system." Of course, that will eventually have implications for the funding model.

Grush: What's needed to promote some of the positive changes you've mentioned here--within the three broad areas you've outlined as important for community colleges to watch?

Kirk: At the institutional level, IT leaders do need to be very proactive and deliberately working toward change. If we do not keep pushing technology out, we will find ourselves behind the curve. So we have to try to move on new technology implementations. But on another level, people recognize the benefits technology has for students and for improving instruction. One of the best things you can do is to ask faculty, "How would you like to teach? How would you like to teach differently?" And then IT's challenge is to find the technology that will allow the faculty do that.

On a broader level, providing citizens with basic technology services should be a national agenda. We're not there yet. We haven't had the same type of government sponsorship and programs that we had for electrification and basic telephone services decades ago. As the technology 'leapfrogs' ahead, we may see more issues like universal access to broadband services become a national priority, as they have in other countries around the world.

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