Who We Really Are

Urging higher ed to take off its rose-colored glasses and look at who it actually serves, Maricopa’s Ron Bleed speaks out—and changes the community college IT landscape.

On November 2, 2004, voters in the greater Ph'enix metropolitan area voted to raise more than $950 million for the 10 Maricopa Community Colleges. As Vice Chancellor for Information Technologies, Ron Bleed will have a seat at the table to help determine how these monies are invested. His priority: serving the district’s 250,000 students—“for their lives, the way they really are.”

Campus Technology: Are your students different now than they were 10 years ago? How d'es technology play a role in your planning for the kinds of students you have today?
Bleed: At the Maricopa Community Colleges, we have a full spectrum of student types, which is fast becoming the case at all higher education institutions in general. We no longer have exclusively 18- to 21-year-old residential students, captured and dedicated to the educational process—that’s the life experience of very few people in America today. We have both younger and older students now, and most importantly, they are non-traditional; they may have work, family commitments, or financial issues. Their lives keep getting busier: If they had one job 10 years ago, they have two jobs now. Consequently, we have to look at multiple ways of delivering our instruction and services to them—for their lives, the way they really are. Convenience and flexibility are just a part of that; their needs are quite varied. The real issue is that we have to break out of that box of traditional services, and only technology can do that.

What’s happening at the lower end of the spectrum? Are you addressing non-traditional high school seniors, too?
We have about 15,000 high school “dual enrollment” students. Nowadays, some students graduate from high school with 15 hours of college credit, and there are many good reasons for that. Because of the high cost of tuition, and the wasted 12th grade in high school, we’re creating a marketplace there, too.

Are your technology implementations responding to, or driving this new market for non-traditional education?
We are reacting, more than driving, right now. And too often, we respond to an opportunity a couple of years after it presents itself—we simply try to apply some technology solutions or services. There’s a need to become more strategic about technology. We need to get out in front of the curve.

In your strategic planning, which technologies are central?
Technologies that can deliver services to students 24/7 are primary. And that’s a mixture of many: course management systems, database services, library systems, online help desk, and more. After that, I see new media—digital video and all kinds of multimedia—as emerging on our campuses. Though we’re not dealing very well with this yet, I see a great future for it beyond the classroom, in use by students. That’s what students are good at, and what they want. It’s an important skill; a kind of digital literacy for this new century.

You’ve been very involved in hybrid, or blended, courses on your campus. Is this revolutionizing how courses are delivered at Maricopa?
It’s a quiet revolution, but for us, the future is in hybrid courses, where some of the fixed seat time is replaced by technology-delivered content. This d'esn’t mean simply adding a learning module to a traditional course; you try to affect seat time positively so that when students do come on campus, the time is spent more interactively in discussion, and more socially.
How long have you been working with hybrid courses? And how are the faculty and students responding?
We may have had elements of blended learning earlier, but we’ve been calling this type of instruction “hybrid” for about three years. With no fanfare or strong directives from administration, faculty have been migrating to it. And we are getting favorable reactions from students. It helps reduce the impact of interruptions—job changes, family commitments, illness, etc.—in the lives of our non-traditional students. Our research has shown that the biggest barrier to a student’s success is the 16-week, fixed-seat-time course. They are the courses with the lowest retention rates, specifically because life interruptions take their toll. Hybrid courses lessen the impact.

What about technology access issues? Maricopa was among the first institutions to provide very large open-access labs, the kind used by multiple departments. You are well-known for offering broad access to big labs, and for building out computer-commons areas in the libraries. Will this continue to be your approach?
The labs have been very important on campus, but as you know, people in general are expecting access from the home. Most of our students have home computers now, yet they are connected so often with very low bandwidth. As a result, we end up designing materials for the lowest common denominator, limiting progress in multimedia or new media offerings. I think the big on-campus labs have probably peaked, and now we have to work on getting better access—larger bandwidth—to the home.

Voters in your area recently approved a bond referendum for nearly $1 billion for the colleges. How much of this is for technology, and what are your priorities for the funds? Almost a quarter of a billion is available to build out technology infrastructure. First, the funding will put technology in new places—a necessary expansion to new locations and buildings. This is because the district, which now serves 250,000, is growing rapidly, with enrollment projections going to 400,000 in 10 years. Then, the next big priority is much better classroom technology. Even though we’ve built beautiful labs, some of our classrooms are way behind; I think that’s probably true of every institution, really. That means installing wireless, projection systems—all the technology to create so-called “smart classrooms.” The third important area—and this is related to hybrid courses—is offering spaces for socialization. Those spaces could be cyber libraries, cafés—student-friendly spaces for interaction, all around the campus. That kind of space is very limited now, and it will be needed more and more, especially because of our growth in hybrid courses.

Do you see technology as a key to building connections between people on campus?
Yes; one of the myths we have about the traditional, residential model of higher education is that it fosters connections among people. The truth is, it d'esn’t. We live with this myth of the past. Surprisingly, it’s technologies like e-mail—maligned as impersonal—that really do build connections. Suddenly, with more updated approaches to connectivity—e-mail, chat, discussion groups, and social spaces—students and faculty are communicating much better, making us realize that the old ways weren’t all they were thought to be, in terms of community.

Clearly, Maricopa has seen a lot of success and is a recognized leader in the arena of community colleges. How will you continue this?
We are very fortunate in our district to be in the path of progress. We are in a growing community which supports us. Our recent bond issue was passed by 76 percent of voters; a landslide for community colleges. Broad access to technology is still important, so we will keep that in our sights. But again, I believe that the key to doing that well lies in recognizing who we really are. In general, in higher education, we need to take off our rose-colored glasses—lenses that filter in the mythology of traditional higher education—and we need to look more at reality, turning our glasses to see those who we really serve.

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