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Technology at the Technical College

Despite dwindling resources, technical schools can use partnerships and innovative technologies to graduate workers with more knowledge and higher-level skills.
University Business, Feb 2007

Just a few years ago, two-year public colleges had the option of becoming entrepreneurial institutions. No longer. Eroding state support combined with increasing enrollments and demand for greater accountability have forced these schools to seek alternative funding sources and use innovative technologies to reduce costs and improve efficiencies, all while providing greater value to their students and other constituents. My institution, Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical, is no different.

When I first came to the Winona campus 25 years ago, it was a much different institution. It was known then as Winona Technical Institute, and its mission was to provide local students with the workforce skills to fill local jobs. Over the years, my role within the college has changed, just as the institution has evolved. Along the way, we consolidated with Red Wing Technical College in 1992.

I assumed the presidency of the college in 1995, when we were just entering into Minnesota's "mega merger," in which all public two-year community colleges, technical colleges, and universities were merged into one system of governance. This system is called Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

Technical colleges have discarded their old
"vo-tech" image.

The 1995 merger has made for an interesting transformation. I think what the merger has done for technical colleges in Minnesota is raise our perceived stature. It's helped us discard the old "vo-tech" image and emerge as an equal to our community college peers.

Yes, our mission is still workforce education. In today's world, workforce education has a broader meaning than in 1980. We're likely to be teaching students the basics of pre-med or pre-engineering, offering transfer education, as well as preparing students for careers as auto mechanics, as accountants, or in computer technologies.

Technical and community colleges in Minnesota are open-entry institutions-first come, first served-which means a portion of our entering students need some form of remedial education. Entrance testing indicates that approximately 26 percent of our students need one or more remedial courses; thus many of them take longer than the typical two years to complete their requirements. Our marketing slogan here at Southeast Technical is: "Get in. Get out. Get on with it."

We understand and empathize with students' desire to complete degree requirements as soon as possible. In the last seven years, our tuition has averaged double digit increases, from $78 up to $133 per credit hour. Increasing the amount of time it takes to earn a degree or certification obviously puts an added financial burden on our students.

Our funding history is similar to what other colleges across the nation face. Six or seven years ago, two-thirds of our annual operating budget was funded by state allocation and most of the remainder provided by tuition. At this writing, 47 percent of my college's budget is funded by the state and I suspect that someday that amount will decline to under 40 percent.

Currently, the shift of high tuition and low state assistance is my college's biggest challenge, as this shift is occurring at the same time our enrollment has grown nine out of the last 10 years. From 1998 to 2005, our enrollment increased by 43 percent, making us one of the fastest growing two-year colleges in the Minnesota system.

In order to balance the conundrum of increasing enrollment, dwindling state support, and the need to seek alternative funding streams, we're constantly looking for partnerships-within both the education and business/technology communities-that will enable us to leverage existing dollars and provide greater opportunities for our students to engage in learning.

One way we do this is by taking advantage of the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership, which provides competitive grants for colleges to align with local businesses to help with their training needs. These grants, which match dollar for dollar with private investment, can provide up to $400,000 in funding and not only help our industries with needed equipment, competitiveness, and training resources, but also help our college add capacity through curriculum development and equipment acquisition. We're now involved with local businesses in seven of these grants at various stages of a three-year cycle.

Meeting the challenges of higher education today, of course, is not just about balancing the books. It's also about performance. The flip side of recruiting is retention, and students who become frustrated by the learning process drop out of the system. We're proud that 95 percent of our graduates are placed in jobs in their chosen area. But our completion rate, which is above the national average, is around 45 percent.

To combat the challenge of increasing our graduation rates, we are continually looking for innovative tools and technology systems that enhance classroom experiences, provide value, and are not cumbersome in deployment.

Last year, for example, we initiated a three-year pilot of a web-based student learning system provided by Tegrity. We felt the system would help engage students and enable them to retain more course content. An instructor clicks on a button on his laptop to record a class lecture, which is later uploaded to a server. During the lecture, students take notes using a special time-coded pen and paper. Later, students can replay entire class recordings-or skip to specific portions of recordings-on their computers, on their iPods/MP3 players, or by clicking on words in their digital notes. This flexibility is important to our working students who are balancing education with busy home lives and careers.

Our marketing slogan is: "Get in. Get out.
Get on with it."

Like most colleges today, we are under increasing scrutiny by everyone from our legislators to accrediting agencies to demonstrate the quantity and quality of learning taking place in our classrooms and the value of the technologies in which we invest.

The Tegrity software was initially tested in some of our nursing classes. The reaction and adoption of this system by the faculty was probably the critical point. They liked it because of its ease of use. Our IT people liked it because it's fairly easy to implement and support. And the students loved it, because it allowed them to access their classes whenever and however they chose.

We are using Tegrity in all of our nursing classes now, ahead of schedule and at a time when we are just completing a $4 million renovation of our Winona campus. Nursing is our largest program; of our 1,600 full-time students, we graduate about 200 nurses each year. We're planning to eventually introduce Tegrity learning systems into many other programs at Southeast Technical.

The learning management system provided by Desire2Learn (which is the standard instructional management system adopted by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system) is another technology that's working well for us. In fact, as I write this, I just got an e-mail from our IT person who says more faculty and students are using the system to organize their course content, including Tegrity recordings, and to communicate with students.

We're finding that having a standard LMS like Desire2Learn is helping students better organize the process of learning. And if students are more engaged, then the faculty will be more engaged. The downside is that students send their teachers e-mails at 2 a.m. and grow impatient if they don't get answers to their questions by 7 a.m. Such is the price of progress and student engagement.

Even amidst tightened budgets and increasing tuition, we've experienced impressive growth over the past few years in two key areas within our college. One is in general education and the other in distance learning. We've experienced a growth of more than 400 percent in full-time students taking one or more online courses over the last three years. Online students have grown from 3 percent of our student base to 10 percent during that same time frame.

Instructional management systems have certainly aided in that growing process. We're currently experimenting with mobile technology that we believe will enable us to even better serve our students and increase their chances of leaving us with a degree in hand.

Am I optimistic about the future of higher education? Yes, and I say that as a technical college president. There's a lot of talk about jobs shifting overseas, yet I see a continuing need for qualified health care workers, building trades workers, mechanics in all fields, and technicians from air conditioning to industrial maintenance, to name a few.

And through the use of innovative technologies, we are turning out into the workforce more knowledgeable, higher-skilled workers than ever before, even as the resources to support our educational enterprises are becoming more diverse and more challenging to secure.

James Johnson is president of Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical, which has three campuses.

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