June 21, 2015
All of us will have advice for Sweet Briar.
Our IHE community is not stingy in sharing our wisdom. We have an unshakeable belief in the excellence of our own ideas.
I’m no different. Worse, actually.
So it is probably a good idea to stipulate that:
a. We (the IHE community) are most likely no smarter than the folks who will be on the ground at Sweet Briar, trying to turn things around.
b. Ideas are easy. Execution is hard.
With those 2 stipulations, I’ll try to offer some advice to Sweet Briar on the edtech front.
1. Technology Is Not Important:
Saying that “technology is not important” may be stating the case too strongly. It would be more accurate to say that technology is only a means to an end. Technology is tactical, not strategic.
Once Sweet Briar can figure out its strengths, and figure out a plan to differentiate around those strengths, it may be that technology can help. But technology should be the last, not the first, place that anyone in higher ed looks to drive educational excellence or fiscal sustainability. Be very cautious of anybody trying to sell you technology-centric solutions.
The first place that Sweet Briar should look is inward. What are the very strongest departments, programs and degrees? What areas of excellence differentiate Sweet Briar from the competition? Find those strong areas and invest heavily in them. Be willing to let go of the things that are not already excellent, and that do not already differentiate the school. We are terrible in higher ed at making hard investment choices. Sweet Briar no longer has that luxury. Build on strengths, don’t try to correct weaknesses.
2. Rip Out Existing Technologies:
I have no idea what Sweet Briar’s current technology spend looks like. I’d be curious to know. Does Sweet Briar have a phone system? Why? Have everyone use their own cell phones. Sweet Briar should be hosting none of its own applications. Everyone should be on consumer e-mail and productivity applications.
Negotiate for killer deals on cloud based SIS (student information systems) and LMS (learning management system) platforms. If Sweet Briar has a server room, close it. If Sweet Briar has any computer labs, shut them down. Use consumer tools. Move technology costs from fixed to variable.
3. Develop a Blended / Low-Residency / Online Educational Strategy:
I have no idea if Sweet Briar is doing any sort of online learning. My guess, which I tried to confirm by searching around sbc.edu, is no. Fine. Sweet Briar, like many small liberal arts schools, prides itself on small classes and intensive faculty/student interaction. Why develop an online strategy if the key differentiator is the campus-based experience?
The reason to develop a blended / low-residency / online strategy is that such a strategy is the only way to ensure long-term economic sustainability. Providing other learning options beyond only face-to-face will both benefit existing students, make enrolling in Sweet Briar more attractive, and open the door to new programs and new students. Having options for online or low-residency classes frees up time, allowing enrolled students opportunities to work or do internships while still progressing towards a degree. Existing students would benefit from opportunities to work with Sweet Briar faculty during semesters when they are not on campus. Building small, high quality, online or low-residency degree programs around Sweet Briar’s strongest departments and faculty will enable the recruitment of high quality students who do not fit the traditional Sweet Briar profile.
The trick is creating low-residency / online courses and programs that align with Sweet Briar’s educational philosophy. The good news is that we know how to create very high quality online courses. Courses built on intense interaction and collaboration. Both our learning technology platforms and our pedagogical understanding have progressed to a point where online courses need not be a poor substitute for small face-to-face seminars. Sweet Briar can leverage blended / low-residency / online learning to maintain its core values and cherished practices, while also discovering new opportunities to extend its best classes and best professors beyond the campus.
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