Rufus Glasper to Community College Leaders: ‘Online Is Not Evil’

Rufus Glasper to Community College Leaders: ‘Online Is Not Evil’
Rufus Glasper, seen here in a YouTube video from his previous job as chancellor of Maricopa Community College system.

Though some of the earliest adopters of online education were community colleges, these schools aren’t often the focal point of higher-ed innovation and change. Rufus Glasper, CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College, wants leaders to start thinking differently about that.

EdSurge sat down with Glasper earlier this month at the ASU+GSV Summit, as part of our Thought Leader Interview series to talk with him on the future of education, what challenges community colleges will face. “Online education is definitely one of the challenges, but it's also an opportunity,” says Glasper, who before taking his current job was a long-time chancellor of the Maricopa Community College system, one of the largest community college districts in the nation.

Below is an edited and condensed version of the conversation, or watch the complete interview.

EdSurge: Despite great interest in community colleges these days, there are also plenty of challenges, including falling enrollments and trying to keep up with technology change. What do you think is the toughest challenge facing community colleges these days?

Glasper: Many would say it's finances, but I would say that that's not the toughest. It's recognizing what we have achieved in the last eight years under this notion of the community college resurgence in terms of our value, in terms of the recognition that community college have moved from being junior colleges and technical colleges to community colleges. We have moved to an expanded mission in some ways. And we do have the quality, we do have the ability, we do have the technical competence to do more than we have done in the past. But the largest challenge is just recognizing that we can't stop here. We can't stop and rest on our laurels, and we need to think about what does it mean for us to go to the next level? What does it mean, with the change in administration and education secretaries in terms of philosophy, and what message do we have to send, and we need to send it collectively.

I think one of the benefits that has occurred in the last six to eight years has been the alignment of the community colleges with the university—with the establishment of pathway programs and demonstrating the value in those programs and the outcomes. When our enrollment was going up during recession, we were pretty happy. Now it's starting to go down, and we're kind of in a flux, trying to understand what do we do and how to we stop the ex-flux.

Community colleges were early in experimenting with online education to reach remote students, but it seems like these days community colleges aren't the leaders in teaching online. That may be for financial reasons, but what do you see is the state of online education in the community colleges right now?

I think online education is definitely one of the challenges, but it's also an opportunity. In the Maricopa system one of the major leaders in online education or distance education is Rio Salado [an online campus]. Rio Salado surged through many years as the largest, fastest growing institution within the Maricopa system, and when you look at cost per student, it was the lowest as well. So distance learning is there, but I think it's also about understanding what moving to the online space does for your students, and the ability to transcend that based upon traditional philosophy about education.

Quite frankly, many community colleges and higher-ed institutions are still stuck in this notion that it must be face to face, it must be traditional, it must be semester, it must be annual and based on this grand calendar that we've been dealing with. But those that move into the online space, you can see them surging rapidly, you can see them having course catalogues that have millions of options. Students can come at any time and they can map their courses. No one wants to be place-bound now. We need to bring more faculty to understand that balance and understand that role, and think about the fact that online is not evil.

Another thing that I don't hear about that much these days, but I know you have views on is the digital divide. Where do you see the digital divide today in terms of education?

The digital divide is still a problem, and it's a growing problem. It's not as recognizable because individuals are finding opportunities to have smartphones. When you have a smartphone, others make a leap to say, "oh they have access to technology." Because if they have a smartphone, then maybe they have a computer, maybe they have an iPad, maybe they have other access.

But many institutions are having to address the digital divide by increasing the number of spaces that are available not be necessarily on their campus, but maybe in a community-based agency. They're trying to build networks, ecosystems, throughout the community so students have access once they leave the community college campus. That's showing some benefit, but it has a cost to it.

What role can the League for Innovation in the Community College play?

I think the conversation needs to change. In reference to your opening statement regarding public education as a public good, I do not believe that moving forward you will see public education even resemble what it did in 1973 when the Carnegie commission was saying it should be 33 percent state, 33 percent local, and 33 percent tuition. You will not see that mix moving forward. You will see that imbalance and the theory of neo-liberalism basically is ferrying itself out and saying that the federal governments, the state governments and others are starting to disinvest. Subsidies are going away, and we need to think differently.

Part of the vernacular now is where is entrepreneurship, what is the role that it plays? Can it have a supplanting role enough to supplant what has been lost over time. I think it's a different conversation, but I think it's a good conversation to have. Hopefully technology will help us save resources, because right now, technology should be looked at as a way to achieve our outcomes in a different and hopefully a faster manner for students, but it should also be looked at as a way for us to reduce costs. Education is an expensive journey. If we can reallocate money, we can move the needle.

One other thing relative to that is developmental ed. Developmental ed costs millions of dollars in a community college. Let's say for instance you're spending close to a $100 million a year in developmental ed, and you have the ability to move that needle by 1 percent. The new technologies, the open education resources, the predictive analytics, all of these things help us to look at doing business differently. Spending resources in the K-12 system before they get to the community college allows you to spend a 10th of what you would spend once they pass that threshold.

If you start thinking differently in using resources in a sector that's not yours, then you can reallocate those dollars and what has been lost from the state or other places, you at least buy yourself five to seven years to figure out how you navigate in the waters.

I feel like you're putting a positive spin on a difficult situation as far as the changes, but do you worry that it may not add up?

Definitely. But let me give you some statistics. This is the real world for the community college space. The League for Innovation did a trend study in 1997. The modal time for a president in the seat of a community college was between 11 and 15 years. You fast forward to 2016, the modal time for a community college president in the seat is now between one and five years.

Technology needs time to mature, and to be assessed and evaluated. When you have leadership changing in an organization with a frequency of less than three years, then there's not an opportunity for the system, the faculty and others to understand the positive effects of technology. We don't have the number of individuals who want to step into these jobs as we did in the early 60s and 70s and 80s.

So my positive spin is that if you begin to think differently and act differently, you understand that movement from a public good to a more private good is happening whether you want it or not. You don't have to fully love it, but you need to embrace the fact that it will affect your institution and what you do within your institution to move it forward.

That's what I'm all about: finding the nexus. The University Innovation Alliance talks about sharing what happens within that particular institutional sector, and not having to recreate the wheel. I think we need to do more of that.

You moved to the League for Innovation only recently. What is your vision now, or how do you see the League's role in helping to address some of the challenges we've talked about today?

I think that the League's primary role is to prioritize some of the challenges. We have a moniker of League for Innovation in Community Colleges, what does that mean? How do we assess that?

I think part of the League's role now is to find out what did work and what didn't work, and what can be scaled as best practice. How can we get that information that's part of a depository of all of those positive things that happen, but remember it was limited funding. Looking at these institutions that did well in creating programs around manufacturing, energy and developing multiple pathways, what's happened to those institutions today? I think the League can be in a position to have access to some of that information and be a convener of other institutions that have great best practices and to share those in a way that's cost effective.

The last thing I will say is that ecosystems will be a major part of our future. We need to break down our silos, look at the ecosystem that serves each of our communities, and utilize the leadership, resources and talents because we're not going to have the “luxuries,” that we had previously.

GET THE LATEST HIGHER ED NEWS.
Be the first to know, with our weekly newsletter.