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3 Technology Questions for Mills College

May 18,2017 06:18

What ideas might those of us in the higher ed technology and digital learning world contribute to reaching the goal of fiscal sustainability at Mills, and schools like Mills? Does the academic technology community have a constructive place to play in ...

It is always worrying to read about the structural fiscal challenges of our amazing small liberal arts colleges. 
The news that Mills College will need to lay-off ~10 percent of their people (353 faculty and staff FTE’s) is particularly depressing.  Everyone in our IHE community should be giving a thought to all of our academic colleagues at Mills who will need to navigate a difficult postsecondary labor market, while also figuring out how to pay mortgages and tuitions and orthodonture bills. 
Everything that I can find about Mills makes it sound like an incredible place.  One with dedicated educators and a vibrant learning, situated on a gorgeous campus that is minutes from the urban amenities and excitement of the Bay Area.  It sounds as if Mills’ dedication to providing an affordable high quality liberal arts education for women and gender-nonbinary undergraduate students  has not wavered, (87% of Mills families earn less than $70,000 per year), even as the College searches for a sustainable financial model.
What ideas might those of us in the higher ed technology and digital learning world contribute to reaching the goal of fiscal sustainability at Mills, and schools like Mills?
Does the academic technology community have a constructive place to play in this discussion?
I’m not sure that I have any ideas related to technology that Mills has not already thought of and tried, and besides making any organizational changes (particularly technology-based changes) is infinitely harder in an environment of fiscal scarcity.
What I do have are some technology questions for Mills - and schools like Mills - that may help us have a more informed discussion:
Question 1 - Have Opportunities for Campus Technology Savings Been Fully Explored and Implemented?
Technology should be a revenue driver and strategy amplifier.  Cutting costs (even tech costs) is never a long-term solution for economic viability - as cost cutting does not lead to differentiation.
That said, as a tech person, I’d be looking for areas where the tech spend is not aligning with strategic goals.  The first thing that I would do is assure the tech people on campus that everything will be done to protect their jobs.  Nobody pushes innovation or engages in risk taking if they are only worried about keeping their jobs.  The goal should be to have all the tech people work on projects that can raise quality, increase revenues, and reduce costs.
Ask your tech people - they may already know how to cut budgets.  The only budget bloat in higher ed tech budgets that I’ve seen is when campus leadership can’t say to projects, or prioritize certain areas.  The job of a college leader is to carefully choose a few big projects, say no to everything else (or stop doing other things), and then find the resources and support for those projects to be done well.  
A financial crisis is a great time to change the campus IT culture.  Moving from a locked-down security/stability at all costs mindset to a new way of thinking that prizes agility and experimentation is sometimes only possible in a crisis.  I hope that Mills, and other schools in similar circumstances, can adopt a startup mindset to academic IT. Embrace the minimally viable product.  Have all costs be variable.  Boot strap all projects.  Rent rather than own.  Use data to make fast evidence-based decisions.  
Can Mills dump any high-priced enterprise tech contracts, and move services on to consumer platforms?  Can Mills find low-cost cloud based alternatives to key campus systems - trading off lots of features and customization for low-costs of use?  Are there opportunities to share technology services with other schools, or even other local non-profits and companies?  I hope that all these questions, and others, are on the table.
Question 2 - Have Options Around Blended Learning to Increase Student Flexibility and Classroom Utilization Been Explored?
Are the technology people at Mills also the local champions for blended learning?  Mills should have an opportunity to do something truly different with its core classes.  The institution can ask - what needs to happen in a physical classroom - and what can we move to a digital environment?  Moving every class to a blended format can retain the high-touch relationship based sort of education that is key to the brand of a small liberal arts school, while at the same time opening up space for flexibility and experimentation.
The important thing about a commitment to blended learning is that this is a commitment to course quality.  The interesting things about technology in residential education is not the technology, but the rethinking of residential education.  Going systematically through each course, and asking what can be changed or altered to improve the learning experience, is the only way that I know of to eliminate variation course quality.  I always recommend starting with courses as the unit of analysis, as courses add up to programs and degrees.   Moving an existing residential course to a blended format is a mechanism to rethink and redesign that course.
The other advantage of a commitment to blended learning is that this process will open up new possibilities for existing spaces.  The higher classroom utilization possible with a blended approach may allow existing instructional spaces to become something else.  Every campus is short on student collaboration and maker-spaces.  Every college needs more areas where students and faculty can collaborate on experiential learning opportunities.  Blended learning is a method to increase classroom utilization, and therefore open up old spaces for new uses.
Question 3 - What Has Been the Discussion About Graduate Level Low-Residency / Online Learning Programs?
Is Mills doing any online / low-residency learning for graduate students? I looked on Mills website , and could not find any online courses, but maybe I’m missing these?  
My point is not that online learning will be a financial savior.  No way.  Rather, I know that Mills has areas of differentiating strengths and excellent.  The opportunity is to build small, intimate, and high quality online / low-residency programs around these strengths.
There is a folklore around online learning that says online programs must be big, and that they are prohibitively expensive to start.  Neither is true.  It is possible to build a small online program around an institutions strengths using mostly existing platforms and people.  The technology to create and offer online courses has been commoditized.  Every school already has an learning management system (LMS).  What is necessary is to bring people on campus who are working on tasks that someone else can do (someone not employed by the school), and have them work with faculty on the online program(s).   
The advantages of creating small, high-quality online programs around institutional strengths are 3-fold:
Small online programs will force the institution to invest in areas of existing strengths, investments that will help in the core residential mission.
Small online programs will bring attention to those areas that already differentiate the school.
Small online programs can become economically sustainable relatively quickly.
The big challenge with small online / low-residency programs are not costs, or technology, or even student demand - but leadership focus and support.  Campus leadership most be fully behind these new programs, and do whatever is necessary to eliminate cultural and organizational barriers.  
Savings, blended, and online - these are the 3 areas that I think higher ed technology leaders can play a positive role at schools such as Mills.
What technology inspired questions would you have for the leadership of Mills?
How might higher ed people be constructive participants in the larger conversation about the financial challenges of our nation's excellent tuition-dependent liberal arts colleges?

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