We recently interviewed Dr. Gregory Fowler, the Global Campus President of Southern New Hampshire University. Dr. Fowler oversees the academic experiences of students across all the various modalities at SNHU. Here is a transcript of the interview edited lightly for clarity.
Ryan: How has SNHU been adjusting due to Covid 19?
Dr. Fowler: When we think about the last several months of COVID and the things that are happening around the country, one of the things that we continue to say is that COVID didn’t necessarily turn the organization in a different direction. And I think that’s true as well for higher education in general. What I think it did was accelerate some of the things that you already saw happening throughout higher education, and that’s been particularly true here in the Northeast, where we’ve seen demographic changes and changes in higher education experiences causing a lot of campuses to think about how to move into the next generation of higher education experiences.
That includes, certainly, the work that we’re doing in online, but it also requires us to rethink a lot of the things you think about when it comes to learning experiences in general. The issues around a recession for a lot of our employees, a lot of our students will mean that a lot of people will be looking for new skills and new experiences as they go back into the workforce. As that begins to happen, one of the things we’re going to be spending a lot of time thinking about is how do we give students that new experience, that new skill set that they’re going to have, or that they’re going to need as they move forward?
And it’s not going to always be the traditional types of, “I’ve gotta get a full degree,” or “I’ve gotta get a full type of degree program, credential of some sort.” It’s really going to be, “How do I stack on to the credentials that I already have?” A lot of the work we’re doing is thinking about what are those new experiences going to be like and how do we create the platform and the systems around which those types of things can happen.
Ryan: You bring up a recession and how that could shift the way people are fundamentally thinking about degrees. Do you see people desiring something more usable and practical, and perhaps shorter than the traditional degree?
Dr. Fowler: Yeah, one of things we see a lot of is the debate around workforce relevance and the skill sets needed for students to move forward. One of the things we do a lot of at SNHU is tied very much to partnering with businesses and others asking, “What do you want your employees to know, to do, to be?” When we have these conversations, it always ends up on our ability to clearly identify these skill sets. Because of the recession, you’re also dealing with people who don’t have thousands and thousands of dollars of money to spend on a higher education degree, so how do we think differently about that as we move forward? How do we correlate the things you’re coming back to school to get to what you’re trying to do?
Ryan: How do you see Covid 19 affecting the cost of college?
Dr. Fowler: At SNHU, one of the things we have committed to is coming up with a degree that’s not going to cost our students more than $10,000 a year. We’re giving scholarships to our freshman class coming in this year to help us figure this out this fall. We will be back in session, but we won’t be physically on campus for the residential students. A lot of them will be participating in a different type of experience moving forward.
But driving down costs is a huge part of what we we’re trying to do, trying to make sure that the connection between the money that you’re spending and the skills that you’re acquiring is clear for those students. How do we? Again, partner with people who are thinking about helping us scale, helping us be sustainable as we’re moving forward, without necessarily creating huge amounts of new debt for our students as they move forward with this. So, one of the big questions is “What’s the new technology going to be?”
And also, at a time when you’re dealing with huge equity issues in the country, one of the things that’s been very clear from the COVID situation is that those inequity issues go not just to the education that students are getting, but to the society that they live in, to the communities that they’re operating in, as you began to see communities of color dealing with COVID in a much more dramatic way than you might see otherwise. The same thing is true for education: As we’re looking at technology, on one hand trying to create these new models allows us to do things and reach new students. But at the same time, we’re thinking about not putting in place these situations where the technology is so expensive that it basically puts the experience further out of reach for the very people who need it the most. So these issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion are huge parts of that conversation that we are thinking even more about as we’re try to move forward.
Ryan: How are you thinking about inclusion and diversity in online education?
Dr. Fowler: It is one of the big challenges. Education is one of the top transformative entities within the society. It is probably one of the most assured ways that you’re going to be able to change the trajectory of your destiny, the destiny of your family, the community that you live in. But at the same time, the more expensive education gets, the harder it’s going to be for those who need it the most to be successful. When we think about things like doing virtual simulations, when we think about all the things that really do help us provide a great online experience, we also have to think about how to make sure that we don’t put people further out of reach. That’s certainly becoming more and more true as we think about what the future of higher education is going to be.
Currently with the COVID situation, you’ve got a lot of colleges who had to go online in very short order. But I want to make sure people understand there is a difference between this remote mitigation strategy (that a lot of colleges are engaging in), and actual online learning, which is a very deliberate process. The example I use is “It is like trying to learn to swim in the middle of a hurricane.” Right now, you’re just trying to stay afloat. You’re just trying to make sure you can survive, but that’s a different thing than trying to say you’re going to be creating a learning experience that is designed for students in a way that allows you to track the data, to help them when they struggle, and that allows you to figure out the long-term and to iterate as you move forward.
These are very different types of things than just saying “we have to go remote because our students aren’t going to be back after spring break.” It requires you to think about how to work with the students who are going to struggle, and that requires you to know what causes students to struggle. Many times what causes students to struggle has nothing to do with the content; it has far more to do with outside life, or the way that the campus approaches the learning experience.
Ryan: What advice would you give staff and faculty of a university that is scrambling to go online?
Dr. Fowler: When people get into the online environment and when people ask us about how to move forward in this area, one of the things I say first to them is keep it simple. Do not try to become this huge entity that Southern Hampshire has managed to become over a period of time. This is not about who’s the biggest, nor is it about the brightest, shiniest object. It really is about do you have a clear sense of what you’re trying to accomplish and the shortest, most minimal viable product to get you there, and at the same time, maintain the trueness to your mission that you’re trying to hold on to? This isn’t about trying to find the biggest virtual simulation. It isn’t about trying to create an experience that you can’t sustain long-term. Try to start with that question of “What are we trying to solve and how do we go about approaching this in a way that helps our students to be successful?”
One of the things we solved, for example, up front when a lot of students didn’t come back from spring break, was those schools would reach out to us and say, “Well, I can’t take the students on the study abroad trip or the field trip they were gonna go on.” And we begin to point out to them there are entire organizations out there that can provide those types of experiences in a virtual environment. You can still get your students to go to Paris if you understand the tools that are out there, many of which are free. There’s a huge movement out there between the Creative Commons work, the open educational resource work tied to the type of learning objects that are in learning platforms that we’re trying to work on.
Knowing what your opportunities are is a huge part of trying to be successful in this but it’s not about trying to be the biggest, nor is it about trying to, again, create these tools that you can’t sustain for a long period of time. There are very, very good opportunities out there for people that are relatively low-cost and simple enough to actually be approachable for both your students and your faculty. One of the things that I think people don’t realize is that this isn’t just about the students, though of course they’re at the center of it, trying to get your faculty up to speed, if they have not been in this environment in short order, is not something that’s likely to help them to be successful. And if they’re struggling, then your students are going to be struggling, as well.
How do you create this thing that allows them to understand what they basically need to do? You can build on that, you can iterate on that as time moves forward, but the goal is to start with something that you can actually maintain, that you can learn from, and continue to move forward.
Ryan: What do you predict higher education will look like 5-10 years from now?
Dr. Fowler: When I think about where our higher education is going, the examples that I use tend to be ones that aren’t tied to education, but are tied to other industries where disruption, as people like to call it, has happened. And at the top of that list, of course, is the music industry. When I was young, you had to basically have a packaged experience when it came to listening to music. That was generally a compact disk where, even if you didn’t necessarily need, like, or want all 15 songs, the only way to get the music was to get all of the songs and then you listened to the two or three that you wanted while the other nine or 10 you might not have ever listened to again. And you pay the $15.99, which is about what it was back then for the CD, and you basically had the whole CD.
But over time, what we began to see was what we call the iTunes or Spotification of music. People listen to far more music now I suspect, than they did 30 years ago and in places where they couldn’t listen to music before. They’re listening to it in different ways and they’re able to plug-and-play to stack the types of things that they want to listen to in different ways. Now, I can create a list of music that I like for a party that I’m about to have, I can create a totally different list of music if I’m about to go on a bike ride or a run, or if I’m about to go on a long trip. I have this portfolio of tracks that I can plug-and-play as I choose to based upon what I want to do with that music.
I think that learning experiences are going to do something very similar to that, that they will be looking more and more for “I don’t necessarily need a degree, what I need is a skill set now. What’s the quickest possible way for me to get that?” We are still a long way away from those days and in the matrix where you can simply tell someone, “I wanna learn how to fly a helicopter,” but we are definitely further along than we might have otherwise been if we were looking at something along the lines of what we have been doing. If I were saying five years from now, I do think that you will still have these sort of coming-of-age experiences, absolutely so, but that’s dealing with a different demand signal than the acquisition of new skills that students or learners are going to be looking at.
Do I think you’ll do have the 18-year-old still trying to go to a campus? Yes, I think they will be more demanding of what they’ll be looking for at a the campus, but I think, as well, that you’ll see this increasing desire by new learners, or learners who are coming back to the experience, to get new skill sets as they’re moving forward. One of the things that you don’t hear a lot about is that when we talk about the non-traditional learner as opposed to the traditional learner, the bottom line is that you almost have as many adult students, non-traditional learners, participating in higher education now as you do the 18 to 22-year-old. I think that number will continue to increase because the skills that are going be required in the future will require us to up-skill ourselves again and again and again.
Technology is not slowing down. As Paul LeBlanc loves to say: “This is as slowest things will be for the rest of our lives.” If it’s going to keep moving at a higher rate of speed, you’ve gotta continue thinking about how do we get those skills and continue to move forward?