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CT 2015 Coverage

How IT Will Elevate Educational Access and Quality

Education stands at a crossroads today, currently unable to produce enough skilled graduates to satisfy the workforce, but with the tools to fundamentally change the way in which knowledge is delivered, to a huge new audience, and with greater quality of learning.

That is the vision of Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, who spoke at the Campus Technology conference in Boston Tuesday about the 'Climate change crisis' facing today's colleges and universities.

LeBlanc said he sees technology as central to the next evolutionary step in higher education, and he challenged colleges and universities to embrace and expand efforts around distance learning. The goal is not just to add enrollment numbers but to be able to offer classes, programs and degrees to those who have never had such opportunities before.

The Problems of Access, Completion and Quality
Distance learning has certainly taken off at plenty of colleges and universities, but LeBlanc said higher education needs to take the next step with it to see the full payoff.

"The problem that policy makers asked us to solve 15 years ago was access," LeBlanc explained. "Over the last five years the focus has been on completion. Going forward, it needs to be on quality."

A new focus on quality with distance learning is critical for two reasons, LeBlanc said.

First, employers complain that today's graduates are – for the most part – sadly lacking in the skills they need to be productive and successful in the workplace. He cited recent statistics that said administrators at 75 percent of colleges in the United States believe they are doing a good job of preparing tomorrow's workers, while only 11 percent of employers agree.

"This is a huge problem for us in the U.S.," LeBlanc stressed. "This stuff is really critical."

The second reason is more social in nature – helping to lift up hundreds of thousands of Americans who need access to education but lack the resources or opportunities to attend traditional college. He said he would like to see the lowest 10 percent of the population be the targets of expanded distance learning initiatives.

"We need to design new ways to serve people that aren't being served very well," LeBlanc challenged.

The Potential of Distance Learning
LeBlanc certainly knows the potential of distance learning. Southern New Hampshire University, located in Manchester, is the largest online education provider in New England and one of the five largest in the United States. That fact might surprise many, considering the relatively small size of the school.

But more than a decade ago the school decided that the best way to expand its reach was with remote students, and it created a separate distance learning program that would not compete with its traditional campus experience. The overall student population has grown by 500 percent in the last five years alone, and the university is now the third largest employer in the state.

While some skeptics have in the past questioned the quality of distance learning versus traditional classroom instruction, LeBlanc is quick to insist that distance learning is absolutely of higher quality.

"We monitor every class, every day, 24-7," LeBlanc explained. University staff use data analytics to slice and dice every aspect of every class in terms of faculty input, student involvement, test scores, content mastery, etc. The university can make changes to curriculum on a dime. In the traditional classroom setting, measures on how well a professor might be doing, or how well students are grasping the material, might take weeks to reveal themselves.

LeBlanc also understands the power that distance learning can have to truly change lives. He discussed his own family background at length, recounting his childhood in rural Nova Scotia where there were few economic or educational opportunities to be had. His family took the same path that many Maritime Province families have done – seeking a better life in the United States, specifically in New England.

While his parents could afford no better than 8th grade educations, LeBlanc was able to attend Framingham State College, Boston College and the University of Massachusetts, earning his B.A., M.S. and Ph.D. respectively.

IT's Potential to Change the Crushing Debt of Education
LeBlanc said it is now time for education and the corporate sector to find new ways to educate more people and to do so in more affordable ways. He cited the growing tuition debt that is crushing financial opportunities for many of today's graduates.

Information technology has the potential to change that picture; enabling colleges and universities everywhere to provide access to subjects they never could before. If a college lacks a specific program, it can simply insource one from another school.

Most importantly, distance learning has the ability to extend the American Dream to hundreds of thousands of individuals that would otherwise be shut out. LeBlanc rattled off a number of other countries that do a better job of providing the 'American Dream' – including Denmark, Norway, Canada, Germany, France and Sweden.

"If you are born to poverty in one of those countries, you have a much better change of rising out of poverty," LeBlanc noted.

Finally, LeBlanc stressed that the United States will not be building a lot of new colleges and universities anytime soon.

"We can't build enough campuses or are no longer willing to build more campuses," LeBlanc said. That means "the problem will only loom larger."

"We see the changes happening already," LeBlanc cautioned. "We see the workforce needs coming. We're not producing enough grads, and we're not producing the grads that employers want."

The good news is that technology can quite literally change an entire industry, LeBlanc insisted. He cited examples where that has been to the short-term detriment of the industry. But in the long run, technology has the ability to drive innovation and productivity, reduce cost, and improve quality.

Information technology, and specifically distance learning has helped higher education "keep doing what we do but do it better." Then it enabled colleges and universities to help "drive out cost."

Now comes the next chapter, in which "we change the rules of the game," LeBlanc concluded.

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