After Transforming a College With Online Offerings, a President Steps...

EdSurge Podcast

After Transforming a College With Online Offerings, a President Steps Down to Tackle AI

By Jeffrey R. Young     Dec 19, 2023

After Transforming a College With Online Offerings, a President Steps Down to Tackle AI
Paul LeBlanc, who has led Southern New Hampshire University for more than 20 years, plans to step down to focus on an effort to use AI to transform college.

This article is part of the guide: The EdSurge Podcast.

When Paul LeBlanc began as president of Southern New Hampshire University more than 20 years ago, the institution taught about 2,500 students on its residential campus — and its future looked uncertain. But LeBlanc, who was enthusiastic about technology and had worked in edtech, made a bet that was unusual at the time: He decided to grow the university’s online offerings.

That growth ended up exploding as the acceptance of online learning grew, then got an unexpected boost from the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, the university boasts one of the largest student populations in the country, thanks to online programs that have grown to more than 200,000 students.

This month LeBlanc announced that he would step down from the presidency after this academic year. But he’s not done trying to bring big changes to higher education. He plans to focus on a new effort at Southern New Hampshire to explore how to reshape college teaching through the use of new generative AI tools like ChatGPT.

EdSurge connected with LeBlanc to talk about how the university made its unusually big move to online education; how he responds to critics who worry that the university has borrowed too much from for-profit universities; and about how big an impact he thinks AI will have on higher education.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript, edited for clarity, below.

EdSurge: When you arrived at Southern New Hampshire back in 2003, there were some online courses but just a few. What led you to grow those back when few nonprofit colleges were doing that?

Paul LeBlanc: In a way we got dragged into online against our will. SNHU had these satellite sites on Navy bases. We were a preferred provider for the U.S. Navy, and you would have adjunct faculty who would drive to the base and they get their pass and they go in and they teach classes.

And the Navy said, rightly, every time we put a ship out to sea, all of those sailors are suddenly college dropouts. They don't go to class the next day. But there's this new distance education thing, and if you want to keep your preferred provider status, you have to start offering that. They dragged us into online, thank God, in 1995.

So I get here in 2003, and there were about 18 people [teaching] and a few hundred students [online]. I could see the writing on the wall. We could see the for-profits were growing like crazy online. And when you could offer fully virtual degrees, most of not-for-profit high ed looked down their nose at it, saying, ‘This isn't as good.’ But nature abhors a vacuum. The University of Phoenix and the Corinthians, they all went in. And at their height, these for-profits educated 12 percent of all American college students.

But I thought [online learning] is a card we can play. And what were my other cards? We were relatively unknown, very local. I don't know the right way to rank a school, but a lot of people said we were a third-tier, if there are four tiers.

There were two things that I was really fortunate about. The first was there was something to work with. We still had a program. People were working really hard and there were some really talented people in the early online operation. That early team. The second is that this place had always been built on serving nontraditional students. Its actual DNA was for nontraditional students when it was founded.

We started with nontraditional students in a storefront second floor on Hanover Street in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1932. And it was only in 1968 that we got a campus. It was only in the ’70s that we started recruiting traditional-aged students onto a campus. So it was always in our DNA.

And we were lucky we didn't have a lot of money and we didn't have a lot of status.

You were lucky you didn’t have money?

Because the two biggest impediments to innovation are a lot of money and a lot of status. Larry Bacow was a good friend, and he was the president of Harvard University. And I was like, Larry, it's so hard for you guys to innovate. How do you change Harvard? There's not a lot of urgency. And if you have all that kind of wealth, why change?

The first thing we did is we took that online division, and we moved it away. We put it down in the mill yards of Manchester two miles away.

And I said, look, I'm giving you permission to play by different rules. We had a lot of work to do, and it's not sexy. It was under the hood. It was changing our business rules. It was changing our technology. It was changing the way we were doing courses. It was a lot of work to do. We had to negotiate with our traditional faculty who really controlled what we could do and not do — to get a little bit of breathing space to do what we wanted to do. But at some point, the challenge I put on the team was, How do we compete against Phoenix? We don't want to be like them. We want to learn about the good things they do. And people forget early University of Phoenix did some things really well that incumbent higher ed didn’t do.

Like what? What’s an example of something that for-profits at the time were doing well?

They said, ‘Hey, you know what? You shouldn't have to put adult learners through a million administrative hoops to become a college student … like getting a transcript from a registrar’s office that closed at 5 o’clock.’ They had a thought about customer service. You don't have to treat your students crappy just because they're students. You could do things better for them.

I remember early days, so we just said, go on the website and click on this box. You're just giving us permission to get your transcript. We will trace down your transcript and we'll pay the $10 fee. And we had a guy who's still with us who used to go down and he would go to the post office and get stacks of postal orders for $10. And we would mail these to schools with the application printed off, in this terribly manual process. It's all digitized now. But yeah, those are the things that made a real difference.

So you plan to step down from the presidency in June, and your next project involves AI. Can you say more about that?

The plan involves a little team that’s small and mighty, including George Siemens, who is probably among the world's five foremost experts on AI and education. So I persuaded him to leave his post and join us as chief scientist in this little team that we put together, and we have a group working on wellness and well-being led by clinical psychologist Tanya Gamby. And so we've assembled I think it's six people now.

And what we're looking at is this question: What would a top-to-bottom redesign of education look like if we weren't trying to fit it into the existing models? And what we're really working on is what would a human-centered, a relationally centered version of education look like if it could be empowered by and supported by AI?

So our idea is what does human-centered AI look like when we talk about learning, what are the human relationships that we want to preserve in a world where human beings are no longer the most powerful entities when it comes to declarative knowledge? AI hallucinations aside, we're losing that race pretty quickly.

We were very much influenced by the book “Power and Prediction: The Disruptive Economics of Artificial Intelligence.” It's written by three economists out of the University of Toronto.

What kind of output do you think you'll have? Will you release a white paper, or tools?

We think we'll have research and tools. We hope by the time the ASU+GSV summit comes along in April, we'll be able to unveil what we're building.

We're working on a learning platform. We have a really interesting and important project that’s separate from this. That was not what we were asked to do. But George and I recognize that higher ed is terrible at owning its own data. Even within institutions, we're terrible at data. And if we — as an industry, as a sector — don't get a better handle on our data, we will be reacting to other people's AI apps and approaches to us. So we are setting up to build a global data consortium, and we've got some support from foundations.

The American Council on Education has agreed to be the kind of neutral referee host of it. And we've got a number of major-scale players. So we're working on the architecture and the governance, and we're going to have to have enormous safeguards around student privacy data, and we don't want to minimize those. But our hope is that we can build a massive data consortium so that higher education, its researchers, its policy makers and the people who want to build learning applications will have much richer data that really combats algorithmic bias, that really understands learning better. We should own this as an industry. So we're hoping to launch this data consortium in April and to be able to announce it.

Listen to the complete interview on the EdSurge Podcast.

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