SNHU's Online Work Featured in Providence Journal

Monday, November 21, 2011
SNHU Communications Office

Providence Journal
November 14, 2011

Future of higher ed might lie off-campus R.I. officials explore online learning as way for colleges to appeal to nontraditional students


There’s a vision of the future in which students at the Community College of Rhode Island would no longer be forced to choose whether to attend class or keep their jobs.

In this future, students at   CCRI, the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College could take online classes with audio and video feeds to enhance the experience.

Using increasingly sophisticated technology, advisers would track how students interact with their teachers and their performance one very class assignment and test. These same advisers would pick up the phone to welcome students at the start of a course and follow up with calls of encouragement or solve problems when students hit a snag down the line.

Such a vision is being pushed by a six-month study of Rhode Island’s public higher education system that Richard A. Licht, the state director of administration, recently gave the General Assembly and the Board of Governors for Higher Education. The report was inspired, in part, by a highly unusual day of dialogue between nationally-known innovators in education and a host of top state officials who are usually hard to gather in one place.

In one success story they heard, a seemingly undistinguished private, nonprofit college — Southern New Hampshire University — has built an online division that generated an $18-million surplus in fiscal 2011, subsidizing the cost of the bricks-and-mortar operation.

Licht and Lorne Adrain, chairman of the Board of Governors, agree that Rhode Island must figure out how to reorganize an increasingly expensive system of public higher education to give a broader segment of the population the skills they need at an affordable price and meet the demands of employers for a better-trained work force.

Adrain said, “We have to think of how to satisfy the needs of that student who, at 9 a.m., has to be at work and has to be in class.”

“If you keep doing things the way you always did them, then it gets more and more expensive,” he said, “and a technology comes along that makes it really inexpensive to acquire the same value. The old technology is going to get left in the dust.”

That scenario sums up the theory of “disruptive innovation,” a term coined by Harvard Business School Prof. Clayton M. Christensen in the 1990s to describe the way cheaper computers, discount retailers and other low-end innovations can topple established industry leaders.

One day in September, Adrain brought Christensen to Rhode Island. With Christensen came the president of Southern New Hampshire, who has shown how disruptive innovation can create an economic engine in higher education. Rhode Island leaders also heard from a management consultant who specializes in strategies for improving graduation rates and cost efficiencies on campus.

All three speakers volunteered their time, Adrain said.

Their audience included not only Licht, but Governor Chafee, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, an array of higher-education officials and two members of the General Assembly. Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University since 2003, has applied Christensen’s principles of disruptive innovation to turn a sleepy online division into the economic powerhouse that cleared $18 million in the most recent fiscal year.

LeBlanc said the quality of online courses has improved to the point where nonprofit schools like SNHU are a “disruptive force to the for-profits,” which have been set back by scandal. “There’s still a lot of skepticism about online learning, even with faculty,” LeBlanc said, but he said technological innovation has created tools for academic advisers they never had in a traditional classroom.

“We have built tools that monitor faculty interaction with students 24/7,” he said. “Our academic advisers get flagged when students drop out of that conversation. They know to call that student up and say, ‘Where are you?’

“We’ve been able to drive our persistence and retention rates up many points with those types of strategies,” he said, using data “in away that we had not in our traditional institutions. Now we have better monitoring of student progress online,” LeBlanc said.

“The 18-to-22-year-old is still going to want that experience, away from mom and dad, with conversations under the oak tree,” he said, “but the world that is being disrupted is a world that doesn’t look that great to the adult learner.”

“They’re rushing from work, getting in the fast-food lane, eating in the car to get to class, and rushing to get home before the kids go to bed,” LeBlanc said.

Christensen, meanwhile, suggested that advances in online education would lead to a hybrid model combining distance learning and face-to-face contact that would appeal to 18-to 22-year-olds and deliver a better-quality curriculum than the traditional classroom.

In comparison with SNHU, Rhode Island’s public colleges have only dipped their toes into online learning. RIC, for example, offers five courses totally online and many more with hybrid options that are partially online and partially on campus, said RIC President Nancy Carriuolo. “It’s a very good model,” she said. Adrain says he’s trying to keep the conversation going among policymakers and education officials to come up with a clearer picture of what distance learning might look like system-wide in Rhode Island and how to realize the vision.

Last week, for example, Adrain went on the road — with former URI president Robert Carothers at his side — to New Hampshire and Boston to gather more information.

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