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Campus Technology Insider Podcast October 2021

Listen: Embracing Innovation, Technology and Culture Change for the Sake of Access

Rhea Kelly: Hello and welcome to the Campus Technology Insider podcast! I'm Rhea Kelly, editor in chief of Campus Technology, and your host.

The pandemic accelerated digital transformation and the adoption of new learning models at many colleges and universities — but higher ed culture has some catching up to do. While institutions traditionally measure change in decades, we're now in a time when flexibility, innovation and risk-taking are key to student access and opportunity as well as institutional survival. In this episode of the podcast, I spoke with Dr. Mark Lombardi, president of Maryville University, about why the business model of higher ed is broken, the importance of lifelong learning and technology's role in moving universities toward a better future. Here's our chat.
Dr. Lombardi, welcome to the podcast.

Mark Lombardi: It's great to be here. Thank you.

Kelly: So you know, throughout the pandemic, we've seen such an acceleration in digital transformation, you know, embracing new learning models, providing more services online. Do you see this as the university of the future maybe becoming a reality?

Lombardi: Oh, absolutely, I think, you know I tell people that the calendar may say late September 2021, but it's really September 2025 — the pandemic accelerated us into the future. And we're seeing that future reality coming to bear: that is, you know, leveraging technology, students operating on multiple platforms online and in person and on ground, and utilizing those digital platforms in a really effective way for teaching and for learning and for experiential learning as well. So yeah, we are here. It is fascinating, sometimes for people a little disquieting, but it's also exciting, because these multiple platforms in the online space operating together, are going to open up huge avenues of access and opportunity for millions who've been closed out before.

Kelly: Yeah, it's like we've been through a time warp and hopefully for the better. And you mentioned multiple platforms, technology platforms, like what are those? Or what do those look like?

Lombardi: Well, you've got, you know, you traditionally, people think of on ground and online. And that's true, but it's really much more than that. The there's, there's immersive online educational experiences similar to the ones we provide here at Maryville University. There's also increasingly virtual and augmented reality platforms within an online space. And obviously the evolution and development of the metaverse, which is coming, it's already here in many ways, but it hasn't really fleshed itself out yet, is also going to be a space where, where students can enter into a fully three dimensional, this metaverse space. And we can do amazing education and learning in that space. Not yet. But we will be able to do that.

Kelly: Is higher education culture changing to move toward this future? Or does it kind of still need to catch up?

Lombardi: Is that a trick question? Because …. No, higher ed culture is way behind this. It's really, higher ed culture, which worked to some extent in the 19th and 20th century, has not changed fundamentally. So you think of the higher ed culture today is mid 20th century. And here we are, and it's 2025, according to my pandemic, post pandemic clock. So, yeah, the culture needs to shift dramatically, in all the ways. That's something by the way at Maryville we've been very effective at doing, is shifting the culture into a much more innovative, startup, risk taking kind of culture, and it's, it's really thanks to a lot of young, innovative faculty and the staff, who have really embraced, you know, the kind of fast moving, mobile, flexible kind of approach in the culture that lends itself to taking advantage of these amazing digital tools and platforms for one singular goal, right? And that's the education and great student outcomes so that students can go on and graduate and have successful careers. So you know, always keeping the eye on the prize, but realizing that the culture in higher ed has to dramatically shift. When I'm asked to speak around the country virtually or in person about higher ed, invariably the conversation turns to how to shift and change the culture.

Kelly: Yeah, I mean, when you're using words like the metaverse, I mean, I would think a lot of faculty would want to instantly put on the brakes, and at least think, you know, put a lot of thought into how that's going to work and, you know, do extra training. And I mean, that all seems like it is like a slow down, take, let's take our time kind of thing.

Lombardi: Well, and that's, that's the culture shift and the pivoting culture that has to happen. Look, universities measure change in decades, right? We know that. You know, there isn't a committee that's been formed in the history of the, of the university that hasn't decided at one point or another that it needs, it takes at least three or four years to get whatever it's supposed to get done. And that has, that's a big part of the culture that has to change. You, you, faculty are essential, and they're wonderful, and they do great things. But they also have to understand, right? That we're in a culture and in a time, where fast moving, flexible, innovation, risk taking, and change management is absolutely essential for any commodity or product that is being produced. And make no mistake, education is a commodity, it is a product, we charge money for it, and people can choose to come to us or someone else. That's the definition of a business. So we've got to shift that culture and we have done at Maryville, thankfully. And faculty have largely embraced that shift, where they move quickly, we decisively take action, we try things, we experiment, we do all those things. And we, we have worn, really have, have gotten rid of a lot of the risk aversion that used to exist. Now there are many universities around the country, large state institutions, research one institutions, Ivy League, they're still immersed in what is essentially a risk averse approach to education. And unfortunately, it's going to hurt many of them.

Kelly: How do you, you know, when you're doing so much experimentation, you must need to take a little bit of time to make sure you're figuring out what actually works, or you know, what needs to be revised or whatever. Is there, you know, a step in the process that involves that kind of assessment?

Lombardi: Yeah, and then there is, there's a great, and the assessment has to be always, always, always student focused, right? So whatever you're doing, if it isn't laser focused on the student education and student outcomes, then it's not worth doing. Okay? It just isn't. It might be interesting to do as a sidelight, but it's not worth focusing energy and resources and personnel. So the assessment has to be, Is this making a difference in the student educational journey and in the student outcomes? And if it is, continue to do it and make it better. And if it's not, don't do it anymore. And I think that, that, that part of the culture shift has been profoundly important here at Maryville. And, and I think it's led to a lot of our huge successful growth and the fact that we're seen as one of the innovative leaders in higher education. You know, higher education has been dominated for 150 years around exclusivity, elitism, expensive, difficult to traverse, not service oriented at all. And what the university of the future, and I would argue we're building that right now at Maryville, has to be not about elitism and exclusivity, but about access and opportunity, not about expensive, but about cost effective, and essentially reducing the cost over time for all. And it also has to be, everything outside the classroom should be easy. Everything inside the classroom should challenge the student intellectually to do their best. But everything else should be a service, and it should be easy. We like to say, we should be able to out-Amazon Amazon when it comes to service.

Kelly: The student is the customer that you're serving, right?

Lombardi: Absolutely.

Kelly: What would you say, I mean, I heard you saying, you know, committees and the cultural change, what are some other big inhibitors to innovation in higher ed?

Lombardi: Well, like I said before, the way the higher ed is set up, its business model is profoundly broken, right? The idea that you, you've got to pay $30,000, $40,000, $50,000, $60,000, $70,000, $80,000, $90,000, $100,000 a year to get an education, and that that education is delivered around the accreditation and credited hour system. What online education and on ground and the blending of those does it allows you to break down curriculum into really modularized component parts. And that's why I think in the future, the future of education is really about, yeah, there are degrees but there are also different pockets or modules of the learning process that students can access in a variety of different formats and ways. So, so the container of education is an impediment, the business model of education is an impediment. The elitism, frankly, of education is an impediment. The idea that the greatest schools in this country are the ones that let in the least amount of people or, put in the parlance, the most highly selective, that's, that's anti democratic, it has nothing to do really with quality, it has really everything to do with closing people out of a system of education, that should in fact, be the opposite. It should be inviting people in and in particular, people from underrepresented groups and people of color who have been closed out of it.

Kelly: When you're tackling culture change, as an institution, are there concrete steps that you can, that you can take to sort of foster more innovation and creative thinking, or reward it?

Lombardi: Absolutely, I'm glad, I'm glad you asked. There's first of all, every institution has a group of innovative faculty and staff. You may not know who they are yet, but they're out there. You have to first identify them. Second, you have to bring them together, let them know that there are other people around who are doing neat stuff, right? Make not that they're isolated out there, but they are interconnected with a group, you have to, and as a president, you have to protect those people, right? You have to support them and, and, and resource them appropriately. And then, and this is the real exciting part, and then you let them, right, engage with, in all the wonderful ways that faculty and staff do, with their peers. Because I'm going to tell you, nothing can help someone innovate, and, and really think differently and ideate and take risks and chances, than the, their friend next to them who's doing it and they're watching their friend. There's no administrator, you know, banging some hammer, it's, it's them, and they're watching them do it and they look, they're going, Oh, man, I'd like to try something like that. That's cool. That's kind of what we did at Maryville over the last 15 years, is we identified this great group of faculty and staff, and we unleashed them. And then we piloted things, we said, Look, let's do this. And we'll pilot and let's do that. And then when everyone saw how successful many of these ideas were, and, and they wanted to join, join the bandwagon, they wanted to come on board. And so innovation is not something that you, you know, slam down people's throats from the top down. It's something that you seed and nurture, and support. And I'm going to tell you, it grows fast. And it really in many, in many, many ways, it quickly changes the culture, whether it's in departments, schools, or across the university.

Kelly: Yeah, so you need that faculty champion, or group of champions.

Lombardi: Absolutely, you have to have them. And that's what we did with, when we went to the one to one initiative with the iPad in 2015, it was led by a group of faculty out of our Center for Teaching and Learning and they were magnificent. And they really got everybody on board. We ended up with, you know, 95%, 96% of our faculty trained in it. You know, one of the reasons when the pandemic hit in 2020, we were able to move into an online space seamlessly is the vast majority of our faculty were trained in online, 87% of our students had already had at least one online course. And with a team of amazing learning designers who come up with robust content for faculty, and tools for faculty to utilize, we were able to transition into that environment pretty seamlessly and effectively.

Kelly: I know that you're a big proponent of lifelong learning, you know, forming a continual relationship with students when they come back to the university for upskilling or reskilling throughout their careers. Why is that important?

Lombardi: Well, there's one big reason and a few small ones. The big reason is that all of us are going to have to learn and adapt to new career challenges. The average 21 year old is going to have at least 10 career changes in their lifetime, which means we're going to be in a constant state of learning, right, skilling up, retraining, learning in large and small ways. You know, cybersecurity professionals who are educated today are going to have to learn new methods every three, four or five years, and so on and so on, right? Just like medical professionals, you know, have to learn to use new tools and new, new methods all the time. And what that means is, students, say the average 18 year old coming to Maryville or 25 year old or what have you, university should provide a vast array of these types of programs throughout their lifetime. So a student can access them whenever they need them, whenever the demand happens in their career or in their job or what have you. So it shouldn't be what I call catch and release, right? You recruit a student, they're here for four years, they leave, and then four or five years later, you try to go find them again and 10 years later. It should be a continuous relationship in which they can access content through your different platforms, you know, whether it's certificates, badges, degrees, or a complete career change from one thing to another. So that lifelong learning concept is here. It has to be, I think, a fundamental precept of every university's approach. It's the approach certainly we've, we've taken at Maryville for several years. And I think it's going to be the future of higher ed in many ways.

Kelly: As an example, I saw that Maryville recently announced the digital development project, an effort to provide training in digital skills for small business owners of color. Do you see that as an example of how universities can make a real societal impact by investing in lifelong learning?

Lombardi: Absolutely. I think that the way universities can have a profound impact in the communities in which they operate and beyond, is to, is to first of all, not tell community members, businesses and individuals, what do you need, but ask the question, not telling them what they need, but asking them the question, What do you need? And what do you see? And then once that happens, you can design, custom design, really, and that's what we do at Maryville, we don't have a bunch of cookie cutter things, we custom design programs for businesses around what those needs are. In the case that you mentioned about, about digital skills for, for minority owned businesses, which is a, they've told us is a really important element that they need. So you custom design things, and you can deliver them and you can have a really big impact, and you can do it at a very cost effective level. So you're not talking about charging businesses tuition, or you're not talking about that model. You're really talking about what essentially is where education is headed, it seems to me, and I think we're gonna lead that, which is a subscription model for education.

Kelly: That's interesting. And I'm just curious, you know, like, what are the logistics of this, do you have someone whose job it is to go out and sort of talk to industry or partner with community organizations? You know, like, where do these ideas come from?

Lombardi: Well, we've got really one person who's that's their whole job, but then a team of us and I say us, I'm involved in this as well as other members of community. Yeah, we go out, and we talk to CEOs and HR professionals, and, and we really sit down and listen, what do you need? And then if we are able to custom design things for them, we do, and then can deliver them and the beauty of it in an online format, is it's scalable, right? So we can do it for 30 business professionals, or we could do it for 3,000 or 300,000. I mean, the sky's the limit on the scalability of this and, and, and so yeah, there are several of us that, that, that are involved in, in this what I call, you know, this custom listening tour, where we talk to businesses and say, what do you need, you know. And they're very forthright, you know, CEO of a particular company might say, you know, I got three, I got 300 openings for data scientists, I need data scientists, or I need my existing data scientists to be skilled up to this or what have you, and then, and then you, you, you custom design it with the business and deliver it. And by the way, these are not, these are not, these workforce development programs are not for grades or for credit. The outcome of the, of the work is a project that the business decides it wants done, and then the employees, those in the work on, and deliver that project and hopefully to their company's satisfaction.

Kelly: So I want to hear more about the subscription model. You know, how, how do you see that work? Can you break it down?

Lombardi: Well, let's start with the premise that the business model of higher ed is broken. You can't continually, increasingly charge tuition to the point where people can't afford it. You know, at Maryville, we froze tuition four out of the last five years. And we began last year, what we're planning on which is a 20% reduction in tuition in the traditional program, so we've been lowering it, we lowered it 5% we're gonna lower it some more over the next several years. But eventually, you know, people are not going to continually consume education at $40,000, $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 a year, that's a that's a tall order for a lot of people to afford. It creates a lot, you know, student debt and loan issues and so forth. I believe, and I'm not saying this is going to happen tomorrow, but I believe in this decade, Maryville will pioneer what essentially is a subscription model. Think of it this way. You've got Netflix on your phone, you've got Amazon Prime, you pay a monthly fee to access everything on that platform, right? So think about Maryville University as a platform of education, both on ground and online. Think of it as you might pay a monthly fee to access that, and by the way, access it for life, you know, so let, and I have no idea what the fee would be. So let's just say let's just say it's $100 a month, and you can access our educational platform your entire life. That's a much more cost effective model for the consumer, for the student, than it would be to charge tuition at the rates that it's being charged in some institutions, not Maryville, but you know, when you're talking about $80,000, $90,000, $100,000 a year, it's, it's unbelievable.

Kelly: Is there still room for a traditional four year degree, you know, with this model, or with all these alternative credential pathways?

Lombardi: Yeah, sure. I mean, think of it this way. For 150 years, it was one size fit all, right? You, you went to college, you sat in a classroom, some of them big, some of them small, they taught you over four years, you graduated. That's one size fits all. What I'm talking about is there's going to be colleges and universities with football teams, and all this other kind of stuff, great stuff. And there're, there're going to be students living in dorms, and they're going to be going to school for four years. They're going to be taking courses, mixture, hybrid, online, on ground, they're going to mix it up over time to fit their lifestyle and their, their, their responsibilities. And then, and then there's going to be people getting their education online. And there's going to be people getting their education in an online metaverse. And there's going to be people that are going to move back and forth between those platforms seamlessly. So the beauty of the future is it's not going to be one size fits all, it's going to be multiple pathways. So think of it this way. You're a student today, you're here on campus at Maryville, you're enjoying the experience, you're playing soccer, you're going to classes, or what have you. You graduate, you're working for four or five years, and then you decide you want to get some more training, but you've got a child at home, you're, you're, you're, you've got responsibilities, you're married. So it doesn't, you can't go back to school, right, and, and get and go into the dorm and all the rest of it. So the online platforms that we and others will provide or do provide are going to give you the opportunity to get that education around your life, and, and in the convenience of your life and your responsibilities.

Kelly: When you're offering students all these different pathways and flexible ways of, you know, getting their education, are there administrative challenges to overcome? Because I can imagine kind of chaos in the registrar's office or with accreditation, like how does that work?

Lombardi: Oh, absolutely there are administrative obstacles. And the reason there're administrative obstacles is we're revolutionizing higher education right now. And so much of higher education is still rooted in the 20th century. So you get these disconnects. And fortunately, in our, in our shop, we've moved, and I want to be clear, we've eliminated many, not all unfortunately, but many of those administrative obstacles. But yeah, in other universities, I mean, we don't have a registrar's office, we have a division of operational excellence, in which we handle all the business aspects of a student, financial aid, we handle all the other scheduling and all the other elements of that experience. And it's a one, one stop shop, and largely digital in the sense that students can interact with us on those levels. And also, we are deploying now in that environment and many others artificial intelligence that can be with a student 24/7/365 and can provide that kind of service whenever they want it. We've got digital humans deployed, Mya, Emma and, and I believe Maria, who are available night and day to answer student questions, and to, you know, to provide that kind of, that kind of service and support.

Kelly: That makes me think that, you know, technology really has a big role to play in, in moving universities toward a better future. You know, besides artificial intelligence, are there other, other technologies you think are the most exciting or had the most potential for higher ed?

Lombardi: Oh, I think blockchain for sure, We are, we are considered the, the number one blockchain university in the country and we use blockchain for our transcripts, our digital diplomas, our smart contracts and a host of other things we've deployed on the blockchain to streamline. Things we're using, as I said, we're partnering with Soul Machines on AI and digital humans, computerized, that interact with and can operate with students. We're upgrading those constantly. I think that we're going to be looking at a significant adoption of a network approach to education, similar to what I was mentioning before when I talked a little bit about the metaverse. All of these technologies and others that maybe haven't even been invented yet, are going to be essential for education, not add ons, not, not bright, shiny objects, they're going to be absolutely essential to deliver a top quality education.

Kelly: Do you have any final advice for institutions who are kind of facing the need to innovate?

Lombardi: Wow, you know, I, my first instinct to that is to say, do it and do it fast, because the clock is really ticking. Unfortunately, there'll be a lot of universities gone by the end of this decade, if they don't innovate and if they don't do these things. The longer answer to the question is this: There are wonderful, amazing partners out there. And when I say partners, I mean businesses and organizations and startups and innovative groups, and you've got to connect with them. And as you, when you connect with them, they, they start helping you see the possibilities that you may not see yourself, whether you're a faculty member, or president, or what have you. There, this is not Star Trek future, this is right now. For example, everyone listening to this has already interacted with artificial intelligence, probably 100 times today, you just didn't know it, but you were interacting with AI. So it's here right now, we've got to embrace it, number one, we've got to have people in our organization and partnering with people who know how to implement it, and third, and probably most importantly, you have to have the courage to do it, and you can't be scared of it. I am not some tech guru expert at all. I mean, I, most of what I know I've just said today, I mean, I'm kind of tech dangerous, if you will. But, but uh, but I know, I know, and by the way that many learned people smarter than me have written about this, I know it's the way to go. It is the way of today and it's the way of the future and that we have to do it. And by the way, there's only one reason to innovate and invest in technology, that's to provide the very best experience for the most students that you can reach. Maryville, we're about access and opportunity, we're about blasting open those doors of elitism and creating an environment where literally tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of students can learn a whole host of things and in the process, change their lives. And that's what technology can do. Technology can reach so many, many more people.

Kelly: It's hard to argue with changing students' lives.

Lombardi: That's right.

Kelly: Well, thanks so much for coming on.

Lombardi: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. I've enjoyed it. The time has really flown.

Kelly: Thank you for joining us. I'm Rhea Kelly, and this was the Campus Technology Insider podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify and Stitcher, or visit us online at Let us know what you think of this episode and what you'd like to hear in the future. Until next time.

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