By Gordon Freedman, President, National Laboratory for Education Transformation
What is being experienced in everyday life outside of our community college campuses are fundamental, historical shifts that have transformed the organization and operation of American commerce, finance, and medicine through integrated cloud level smart-data enabled technology. Similar technology has also completely transformed consumer behavior, information access, and social interaction in the personally-tailored worlds of shopping, entertainment, and social media found in apps. The prevailing model outside of educational environment is what could be called integrated cloud services for large numbers of people and personal apps or accounts for every person. This is a critical juncture in history where shared cultural and personal identity have sailed into new waters — except where we really need that power.
Many Hats, Tall Order
If community colleges have an outsized role in the United States, why are they under resourced and behind the times?
Community college are expected to make up for inadequacies in our public schools, prepare students for bachelor’s level education, manage dual- enrolled students in high school or in bachelor’s level college and university courses, train displaced job seekers, enhance skills of the existing workforce, and provide occupational certifications to students who are not in the workforce, already have a bachelor’s degree, or are being retrained.
Each of these roles must be managed according to accreditors and regulators while the community college remains responsive to local and regional employment changes, meets the challenge of helping to build regional economies, interacts with regional high schools and universities, adjusts to state government cost-cutting and policy edicts, and finds and supports learners and job seekers in regions heavily impacted by poverty and racial and ethnic inequality of opportunity.
Each of these is a tall order. Collectively, they border on the unmanageable from the point of view of efficiency and effectiveness. This diversity of focus, in combination with ever-increasing public and governmental demands and expectations, are, and have been, a prescription for under-performance, over-expansion of staff, and inherent inefficiencies, all within growing state budget constraints. Furthermore, community colleges and their leaders must endure both near-constant criticism from many quarters and sporadic and welcomed praise from other quarters for their level of effort, occasional innovation, and support for their overall region.
No Time for Deeper Strategy
What leader or board of trustees has the time to rethink the community college at a fundamental social, technical and policy platform level?
The underpinning of getting an associate’s degree or acquiring a set of skills or occupational certification and moving on is no longer a simple undertaking. The noise on the Internet, declining performance in school, and confusion over whether education and training will lead to actual work complicates the picture. There is also the general inability of students, job seekers and families to know where to turn for reliable information about whether a particular community college will make a difference in their lives.
There are no simple websites or apps to guide students and adult learners as there are for commerce, travel, food, or music. There are no statistical or predictive models or ratings that say: go here, study this, and get that job. The more information multiplies on the Web, the more difficult it is to see where the payoffs are for attending community college among the many options at the college and outside the college.
These rapidly changing external dimensions and trends are not the usual issues that community college leadership spends time resolving. Instead, leaders steer their organizations but rarely have had to contend with so many variables outside their control. The variables are multiplying rapidly as are the diverse behaviors of young people in the new economy. The issues in the new economic and labor environment need to be solved for those who consume, or could consume and benefit from, multiple services from community colleges.
This is not a matter of better organization inside the college, but how to organize and connect with the world outside the college. Because of this dichotomy, an information mismatch of large proportions is building.
Learners, students, job seekers, and employers, who are already deep in the information, social, or gig worlds, have a difficult time comprehending the bureaucratic, organizational, and structural aspects of traditional community colleges. The experience can be overwhelming and is generally not aided by campus technology. The community college consumers are asked to adapt to a world from another era. One filled with buildings, offices, divisions, multiple software systems, and limited centralized websites or apps to help navigate the diversity of options, avoid potential obstacles, and place intelligent bets on education or training that will lead to productive work and careers.
This cultural mismatch raises the question of where effort and allegiances are placed by state funders, national foundations, and state and Federal policymakers. Should the focus be on the maintenance and incremental improvement of the existing community college organizational structure in order to stem losses, or should the focus be concentrated on beginning the search for better and more fitting models where community colleges truly become critical, real-time participants in the information economy and partners with their students and adult learners?
Reality, outside of education and training, is now mediated by cloud technology, smart data, predictive algorithms and personal recommendations for consumers. Community colleges, as the utility infielders of education and training, must either enter this world or lose their place in it. The college cannot stand by and hope that everyone in America across the diversity of activities and the range of education barriers will adapt to even the best organized physical or online community colleges, or the technologies that fortify their traditional organizational structures.
The Wrong Technology
Why is it you can buy anything on Amazon personalized across all shopping categories or get anywhere in the world by tapping of a few keys, but you can’t easily navigate education, training, or job options?
The answer is that the technology and data systems used education and training are a more rudimentary form of technology, designed for each function in a specific college but not designed, as commercial systems are, to service a range of needs at one or more institutions as well as interact with other options. The current campus technology is the technology that buyers in community colleges, universities, and school systems are comfortable buying or licensing. It is not the modern technology or data systems on par with commercial, consumer and financial systems.
This broad, data-science enabled class of software or cloud services does not yet exist for education and training. But there is no reason why it should not, especially in the community college sector. There should be a national mandate to more efficiently and effectively service the everyday lives of learners, job seekers, faculty, trainers, and administrators.
Current campus software is fractional, singularly serving multiple functions on a campus, but not, as the commercial services do, handling many problems in one system.
For many reasons, generally related to funding or administrative constraints, education buyers and their management tend not to purchase or license technology or data solutions that are fundamentally different from previous generations of those solutions. Education technology and education data systems have been on a long march from spreadsheets, ledgers, and books to software and content on floppies, which then migrated to servers on campus that are now migrating to servers in the “cloud.”
This is not technology progress in terms of solving fundamental problems facing the junction of institutions and today’s society. It is the migration of the same technology to new systems that are easier to use for administrators or faculty, more lucrative for vendors, and easier to update. It is simply technology fulfilling traditional functions more efficiently for administrators, not necessarily for “end-users,” who are students, job seekers, faculty and training staff.
There is confusion in how the term “cloud” is used. Each education solution hosted in the cloud is not a true cloud solution like those in the financial, commercial, and consumer sectors. There is a difference between where campus software is hosted and how that software interacts in meaningful ways with many other software systems also hosted in the cloud. This difference ultimately extends to how a cloud service interacts with the users it serves. It is not where the data and technology reside, but what data and technology can do where they reside.
True cloud activity, think Amazon and Expedia, would have their disparate systems lodged in the same cloud, or multiple cloud systems, “talking” to each other and exchanging data seamlessly through common standards — not just through integration APIs. Similarly, communicating with “end-users” and running calculations based on machine learning, natural language processing, and artificial intelligence to improve the entire operation and experience down to each student, could never happen in the world of diverse, disconnected technologies that characterize what is available to community college buyers.
While certain ed tech companies do license solutions to manage the student journey. These are not designed to work with every other system seamlessly or to deliver high-quality information to students who might be enrolled in more than one institution, or get training in one place and academic credit in another. As a rule, vendors of educational software are not in business to fundamentally improve or transform the learning experience and education processes, nor are they measured or incentivized by the efficacy of their products in relationship to other products.
They do not receive openly published, annual ratings from institutions using their software. While claims will be made that certain solutions can integrate many campus functions, the costs for these services is high and the ability to customize for specific needs of a college or system are low.
Where Does the Student Fit in Choosing Solutions?
The ed tech and admin systems sold to campuses are not made for students specifically, how can that rationally be the case?
Nor do the students pay for access to those systems directly. They only use the campus or online software as long as they are attending a college or training institution. They don’t own their accounts as they would with Facebook or LinkedIn. Unlike the consumer or commercial world, each campus, sometimes each department, may have its own solutions, which a student must log into, but does not control. Since these systems are not tied together by commonly shared data systems, the impact of the combination of systems on the learning experience is difficult, if not impossible, to measure. This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that most students receive their education and training from more than one institution.
There are also deeper questions. Can community college leaders be confident that vendors have perfected what colleges and students need in today’s complex and porous world, unmoored from the old ways? Why would choosing among competing vendors seem to be the only way to address the complexity of servicing life on or off campus and between campus and the rest of the world? Planning for technological innovation should be much more than making choices among the status quo options.
Higher education in general and school districts have been led down a dangerous path of buying single function niche solutions that grew up from single function operations that were once physical. It is a game of IT twister to make all these solutions, sign-on’s, apps. and websites work together. And, it is like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice scene in Disney’s Fantasia. There is an endless stream of solutions carrying water up an endless set of steps. Small start-ups, traditional vendors, foundation-funded solutions, and the large, non-educational commercial players are constantly knocking on the door. This cannot be the only way to re-define community college in the information age and the knowledge economy, especially since these systems are detached from the world of employment and the greater economy and from full student access.
Think Like a Vendor, Act Like a Mentor
Where is the awareness, or deserved outcry or protest from leaders, governance, and legislatures over the issue of limiting choices to what is presently available on the shelf to improve education, training, and job hunting?
There is no question that the larger education technology and data vendors, like the publishers before them, have made billions from higher education, and sunk back millions in marketing and persistent sales staff. Very little of their resources seems to go into research and development or alignment to policy goals. While there is nothing ethically or legally wrong with this product-and-sales-first mentality, it might be a good place to start asking questions: What constitutes a true campus-industry partnership?
The vendor field will get more, not less, crowded over time. Traditional education technology providers will continue to aggressively market their new data and student success solutions. The litmus test for this evolving marketplace should be the answer to this essential question: Will the array of vendors improve students’ ability to navigate on their own through smartly informed options, keep them motivated and engaged, and allow them to plan their education and training with increased assurance of success in work and career?
Let’s Aim for the Cloud
Could community colleges collectively build out a shared services cloud?
This could become an important project or experiment. It could be a network, like Unizin or the University Innovation Alliance, in the university space. A partnership cloud-based network could be incubated inside the League for Innovation in the Community College. Or a third-party nonprofit could build the working group of contributors from the pilot group of colleges, districts, and systems and funders.
Agreements could be made with key vendors that have technologies that could sit at the center of the combined effort. Similarly, Federal and state agencies that receive compliance data and provide data and services could ride on the cloud experimentally. Certain online programs that could be generally offered on the cloud, and through on-the-ground navigation to programs on campus, could be well-documented. High school students could more easily examine and sign up for dual enrollment courses or begin community college early. Community college students could do the same, dual enrolling in local or remote universities or in training programs not available in the community college.
The idea is that heavily organized institutions, by their very nature, divide rather than unite functions. Institutionalism means managing programs in silos, and with education technology supporting those silos, the silos are not only separate from other silos on campus, but from other organizations, employers, and institutions as well – and from students and adult learners.
The “college cloud” brings the possibility of managing individually the myriad aspects of college existence without limiting options or mashing-up different aspects of learning, education and training. Using the cloud enables different roles — student, family, job seeker, and faculty — to each encounter the institution to their benefit. And the institution, in turn, can duly record these use-data for a better understanding of patterns in their institution.
No Longer Rocket Science
Social-technical transformation isn’t rocket science. It’s a different perspective outside the normal, normative existence of community colleges as “reactors.” It requires a level of intrigue, care and bravery on the part of community college leadership to push further for the constituencies they are mandated to serve – students and job seekers – instead of constantly letting appeasing the regulators, accreditors, peers and critics rule the day.
The “college cloud” allows a new form of measurement and management that shifts the steering of a single complex organization with multiple programs, offices and relationships, into the building of an integrated regional entity that helps create the future, not react to it. It follows the well-accepted cloud services and app marketplace that is already mature, just as enterprise technology came to the higher education sector after becoming an established part of the corporate, government, and scientific worlds.
Ultimately, the community college cloud-based network will give legislatures, regulators and accreditors far better data for measuring and managing community colleges as our most valuable education players in elevating our society and economy.
About This Article
The notion of a community college cloud first arose over five years ago in meetings between the California-based National Laboratory for Education Transformation, www.NLET.org, a Seattle area community college, a trustee at several of the Washington State community colleges and representatives of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Since that time, the author has written about this concept and socialized it with vendors, cloud operators, community college learners, and the three major community college associations. The concepts written about here will be formed into a larger paper and effort. Please free to be in touch via LinkedIn.
Report: The Future of Undergraduate Education, 2017
11 Lessons From the History of Higher Ed, Steven Mintz, Inside Higher Education, May 2017
How Community Colleges Changed the Whole Idea of Education in America, Sean Trainor, TIME, October 2015
Comparative State Community College Return on Investment, Christopher Neary, Graduate Thesis, Iowa State University, 2015
Community Colleges in America: A Historical Perspective, Richard L. Drury, Inquiry, Volume 8, Number 1, Spring 2003
Community Colleges: The History of Community Colleges, The junior college and the research university, The Community College Mission, J. Board, 2003
Community Colleges, Gale Group, 2002