The Role of Technology-Enhanced Learning in the Collaboration of Colleges and Universities with Businesses in Economic Development – A speech by Dr. Susan Aldridge

The Role of Technology-Enhanced Learning in the Collaboration of Colleges and Universities with Businesses in Economic Development - A speech by Dr. Susan Aldridge

Here is the full text of the speech presented by Dr. Susan Aldridge at the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education Board Meeting. Akron, Ohio, on March this year.

Good morning to all of you.  My sincere thanks to Rob Brigs and to Shawn Brown for that very warm introduction and the invitation to speak with you today.  I am delighted to be here today with such a distinguished group of academic colleagues and regional business leaders.

NOCHE is a perfect example of what’s possible when you bring higher education and industry together as partners in economic development – because there is an inextricable connection between educational attainment and economic prosperity.   In fact, colleges and universities play a critical role in meeting both the existing and the emerging needs of the workforce when it comes to developing the human talent that powers economic prosperity – locally, regionally, and nationally.   Or as James Votruba, the former president of Northern Kentucky University, once put it:  “The number-one contribution that the academic community can make to economic development is graduating well-prepared students in areas with skill sets that are necessary for the region’s progress.”

 There is no doubt that today’s college graduates must be ready to hit the ground running in an innovation economy unlike any we have experienced in the past.  In fact, jobs in the innovation sector are growing disproportionately faster than in any other sector.  And to fill these jobs, employers are looking for workers with postsecondary academic credentials that run the gamut from quality certificates to advanced degrees.

But in addition to credentials, today’s workers must also come prepared with a set of complex competencies – grounded in the ability to think on their feet and out of the box to turn knowledge into action and action into innovation, as creative, adaptive, and tech-savvy problem-solvers and decision-makers.  What’s more, to keep pace with the rapid evolution of knowledge across all fields of endeavor, today’s workers must be agile, independent, and continuous learners.    That’s why it has become increasingly incumbent upon college and university presidents to serve as evangelists for educational attainment, as well as educational quality – exercising what Votruba refers to as a new level of stewardship on behalf of America’s future.”

Of course, as we all know that future begins with the local and regional economies we serve.  So as evangelists, we must take the lead in building a sustainable pipeline for access to high-quality, market-responsive, and continuous education – as the gateway to economic development and prosperity in our own backyards.  For starters, we should advocate for institutional diversity in meeting both the academic and economic needs of our communities.  And that means working through regional councils such as this one to promote a vibrant higher education community that includes institutions of all sizes and types – public and private, two-year and four-year, research and teaching, traditional and adult-focused.   There is no question that a diversified system of colleges and universities improves access for all qualified students – by offering multiple and clearly defined points of entry to and opportunities for transfer through the educational attainment pipeline.


At the same time, it gives students far more options for achieving both their personal and their professional aspirations, while enjoying a college experience that is both life-changing and life-rewarding.  Equally important, a healthy blend of institutions creates a larger and sturdier academic gene pool with which to meet both current and projected workforce development needs in our local and regional economies. And to identify those needs, will need to forge meaningful and collaborative relationships with local and regional employers – public, private, and not-for-profit.


In my experience, strong, working partnerships between industry and academia yield big benefits for both, especially when it comes to developing regional economic clusters – or geographic concentrations of interconnected companies, suppliers, service providers, and associated institutions in a specific, economic growth industry.


Let me give you a good example of how one college joined forces with both industry and government to grow enrollments, while also filling an emerging workforce need.


A while back, Becker College – a small, private, liberal arts school in Massachusetts – began looking for ways to increase its enrollments.   So after months of research, it made a strategic decision to create a signature undergraduate program in videogame design and development.  As proposed, this program would not only attract a larger and more diverse pool of talented students, it would also help meet the state’s economic development strategy around innovation clusters, which would, in turn, create a ready job market for Becker graduates.


Long story, short, the college worked with regional business partners to leverage its academic strengths and available resources in design and communications, as a way to build a competitive advantage over other programs that were more IT-focused.  On top of that, this collaboration helped Becker identify the requisite expert knowledge and complex skills to prepare its program graduates for successful employment.   And now, eight years later, this exceptional degree program has not only brought in thousands of applications for only a few hundred spots each year, it consistently enjoys top-15 national program rankings from The Princeton Review. 


Becker also worked with the state’s former governor, Duval Patrick, and an impressive roster of industry and institutional partners to create the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute—or MassDiGi.  This institute works to inspire academic cooperation, entrepreneurship, and economic development across the digital and video games “ecosystem” in Massachusetts, while also providing opportunities for students to work with some of the best minds in the gaming industry.   Consequently, this initiative has enabled Becker to differentiate its brand, while also collaborating with its institutional peers to collectively strengthen the talent pipeline between higher education and the game industry.


Of course, while all of these strategies are essential for increasing educational attainment in support of economic development, technology-enhanced teaching and learning is fast becoming a critical success factor.   To begin with, online technology offers tremendous economies of scale, while also enabling us to transcend time and place.  That being said, it paves the way for ever-increasing access to affordable, quality academic options at every level of schooling, in any geographically diverse region where budget cuts and teaching shortages, inadequate facilities and income inequality threaten educational attainment over time.


And because self-directed, lifelong learning beyond degree completion will always be essential to career success, forward-thinking colleges and universities are working overtime to turn themselves into readily accessible cyber-portals of education, thus making it easier for students to move in and out of the learning environment – at different times, in different places, and for different reasons.   At the same time, digital technology is fast becoming as fundamental to our students’ learning process as pencil and paper once were for most of us.


In fact, a recent study revealed that today’s college students – both traditional and non-traditional – spend on average around fourteen hours a day connecting and collaborating in cyberspace, with a considerable portion of this time devoted to learning.    Seventy percent of them use their digital devices for research and coursework, and forty-seven percent for taking notes in class at least some of the time. Ninety-eight percent of those who own an e-reader occasionally download textbooks, and sixty-five percent employ a wide variety of digital tools for creating class presentations, complete with multimedia enhancements.

And after polling three thousand undergraduates from nearly twelve hundred colleges and universities, the Educause Center for Applied Research found that the majority of them not only favor, but also may actually learn more in technology-enhanced classes.


So in addition to its transactional value as a flexible medium for academic access and delivery, digital technology has proven to be a transformative tool for teaching and learning.     Having worked in this space for more than 20 years now, I can assure you that we’ve come a long way since the early days when course modules were little more than a series of hand-outs published and delivered online.  Back then, virtual study was, for the most part, a lonely experience, predicated solely on a student’s ability to passively absorb information.  Still, for many, it was an acceptable tradeoff for the privilege of learning from anywhere, at any time.


Yet given the amazing array of interactive technologies now at our disposal, we have an extraordinary opportunity to cultivate the expert knowledge and complex skills our graduates must have to succeed at work and in life.   What’s more, after years of research and practice, we know that the best way to achieve that outcome is through active, authentic, and customized learning experiences that integrate problem-based with knowledge-based instruction.  And by optimizing digital technologies and techniques to create vibrant learning environments and activities, we are far better equipped to provide those experiences.


Take videoconferencing technology, for example.  From simple applications like Skype and Facetime…to cloud-based services such as Google+ Hangouts…these digital tools pave the way for supporting real-time, face-to-face interaction from a distance, with anyone, from anywhere, via any number of devices.

Here’s a good case in point.  Three high schools in Alaska that are all miles and miles apart are using sophisticated videoconferencing to connect world history students in real time with each other, as well as with their peers in countries like Israel, Afghanistan, and the Czech Republic.  Not surprisingly, these students are also putting this technology to work to host their own special learning events, including an extraordinary video exchange with a Holocaust survivor in Arizona.


And workforce education expert, Elliot Masie, makes a good case for providing students with videoconferencing access to real world experts interested in contributing to course discussions or facilitating group projects.    For instance, a chemistry professor might use this technology to take his students on a 20-minute video tour of a nearby biotechnology lab, which includes a quick chat with a chemist who is conducting research in the field of virus resistant crops.  These sessions can also be recorded as vodcasts for future classroom viewing.


In the same vein, the social media we use every day to connect and communicate with co-workers and customers, friends and family members, can become social pedagogies in the classroom, whether online, on-the-ground, or a combination of both.   Wikis and blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages initiated in class can provide learners with a permanent virtual meeting place for creating new content; exchanging relevant resources; and forging lifelong professional networks.  As an added bonus, they also encourage good writing and virtual teamwork skills…both of which are must-haves for any professional these days.


Virtual reality in the form of simulations and games are yet another technology enhancement that provides a risk-free, but challenging environment for engaging students in authentic and collaborative problem-based activities and role-playing exercises, aimed at developing the skills they need to become successful leaders and practitioners.   To be sure, the goal of any good game is to develop some sort of proficiency through repetitive and thought-provoking practice, riddled with wrong turns, major hurdles, and dead-ends.   So when designed with education in mind, these high-tech digital tools empower students to apply new knowledge and make mission-critical decisions, while identifying obstacles, considering multiple perspectives, and rehearsing various responses.   And by integrating rich digital content with sophisticated data-collection, we can also create a virtual experience that automatically adapts to individual learning needs and styles.


Of course, when it comes to envisioning some of these transformative teaching and learning tools, I know that a picture is worth a 1,000 words.  So I have brought along a few illustrative video clips of some of the interactive technologies we are using at Drexel University.


With YouTube now reaching more American adults eighteen to thirty-four than any of the cable television networks, it’s easy to see how self-produced videos can also become transformative learning tools – just as enterprising faculty members like Karl Okomoto at Drexel University’s School of Law, are proving every day.  Here’s how it all began.  For years now, budding trial lawyers have had the experiential learning advantage of moot courts and mock trials for mastering litigation skills.  On the other hand, their transactional counterparts have been expected to learn the art of negotiation by reading textbooks and listening to lectures.


Until Karl came up with LawMeets – an online “moot court” experience for emerging transactional attorneys, who want to practice and perfect their deal-making skills.  Working with a team of fellow designers, he created an interactive website that law students across the country are now using to post videos of themselves counseling “clients” which are peer-reviewed through a digital voting device.   Top-rated performances are then evaluated by a cadre of seasoned practicing attorneys, who furnish a demonstration video of their own, as well.  And given that the user reviews and faculty feedback have been outstanding thus far, Karl is making plans to deploy his role-playing platform for building similar skills in other disciplines on the Drexel campus.


Avatars are yet another way we are making effective use of interactive technologies to teach more effectively at Drexel.  Our College of Nursing and Health Professions faculty is well-acquainted with the value of patient proxies for teaching essential clinical skills, having built a high-tech simulation laboratory on campus, complete with life-size mannequins and state-of-the-art medical equipment.   But this arrangement is anything but convenient for Drexel’s many online nursing students.  So to sharpen their clinical practice skills from a distance, the college has moved its lab onto the laptop, with the help of an avatar named Tina Jones.


Developed by Shadow Health, this 29-year-old virtual patient is nothing short of amazing in her ability to respond like any real-life patient with a complicated medical history and a distinct personality.


Consequently, Tina offers our online RN-BSN students a unique chance to test-drive their diagnostic and interpersonal skills, by performing high-stakes clinical assessments – over and over, if necessary.  What’s more, by observing the interaction, instructors can also supply immediate feedback around targeted areas for improvement.   Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professionals also offers an online certificate program in forensic trends and issues in contemporary healthcare, designed to provide healthcare professionals with the requisite expert knowledge and practical skills to conduct comprehensive, sensitive, and legally sufficient clinical assessments in the aftermath of violent crime.


And to ensure that students have plenty of opportunities to authentically apply their newfound knowledge and skills, we have incorporated sophisticated simulations that produce different outcomes – leading to success or failure – depending on the course of action taken.


For example, a three-dimensional virtual crime scene…complete with multiple “clues” and continuous feedback…empowers students to conduct a vulnerability risk assessment.  There are also realistic simulations that reinforce effective strategies for interviewing victims and offenders to elicit details of the crime…along with a playback feature for reviewing and improving performance.    There is no doubt that these digital learning tools and teaching techniques are rapidly changing the education landscape – from a few technology enhancements in face-to-face classrooms; to a more broad-based blended learning approach; to whole degree and certificate programs offered entirely online.   And all of these strategies can pave the way for fulfilling this council’s mission to build a foundation for regional economic development through quality higher education here in Northeast Ohio.


Yet with new tech providers and service companies entering the market weekly and flashy new technologies appearing almost daily, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to decide where to invest, where to divest, and where to partner.   Best practices suggest adopting a decision-making framework that is grounded in three simple components – mission (what are we here for?); market (what do our stakeholders want?); and margin (how do we bring these two elements together to generate added value for everyone concerned?).


In my experience, this framework sets the stage for choosing and optimizing technologies that not only expand academic access, but also improve teaching and learning outcomes.  And this selection and optimization process should be grounded in solid data around the issues, policies, and practices that will not only affect the present, but will also drive the future.   It’s always a good idea to begin with a clear picture of who your students are today and who they are likely to be in the years ahead.


You should also take an honest assessment of the value your institutions furnish—to students, communities and employers—that differentiates them from others in your region.   What’s more, do your academic programs and instructional methodologies align with the needs of a changing workforce on every level—local, regional, national, and even global?


The next step in the process is to evaluate how the learning technologies you are using now or plan to use down the road will promote active, authentic, and customized learning, while also accommodating for age, ability, cultural, and learning diversity, on any digital device?    Equally important, what will you need to have in place – strategically, tactically, and operationally – to ensure that students and faculty alike are able to use these technologies effectively?  And are there relevant standards and embedded mechanisms for accurately and continuously measuring and refining this effectiveness?


Finally, what opportunities do you have to collaborate with industry partners, qualified vendors, and like-minded institutions to build your resources, while also identifying potential synergies and providing valuable input?    In truth, moving aggressively into the technology-enhanced environment is an expensive proposition at the front end.  And in my experience, councils such as this one provide a unique opportunity for identifying and implementing creative solutions for pooling precious resources and expanding access.

These partnerships also pave the way for developing market-responsive academic programs; test-driving expensive new technologies; and exchanging valuable information and analytics for driving student success, by improving the technology-enhanced learning experience at every stage of the lifelong learning process.


You will all have a big hand in transforming America’s future by realigning the attitudes and principles; norms and practices that have traditionally driven the academic enterprise.  And by forging robust coalitions to build longer and stronger pipelines, I have no doubt that you will pave the way for high-quality educational opportunities that truly meet the workforce needs of your regional economy.   Because when our students succeed, everyone succeeds.

Once again, thank you for having me here today.  And if we have time, I’d love to hear your questions and comments.

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Susan C. Aldridge, Ph.D. is President of Drexel University Online and Senior Vice President for Online Learning at Drexel University in Philadelphia.  In fall, 2014, AASCU published a book co-authored by Dr. Aldridge, Wired for Success.  Dr. Aldridge served six years as President of the University of Maryland University College, and after 10 years left Troy University as its Vice Chancellor for the Global Campus and eCampus.  For additional information, contact  Additional speeches and publications by Dr. Aldridge can be found at