What Does the College Experience of the Future Look Like? President Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University Weighs In
The college experience usually includes rigorous academics, dedication to studies, and learning experiences in the real world for students. But what’s perhaps equally important, is that college provides young students with the opportunity to learn about what they are capable of; what they can achieve on their own.
This coming of age experience of going to college is something President Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University believes isn’t going to disappear in 20 or even 50 years.
To find out just what college will look like by then, EdTech Times sat down with LeBlanc to discuss his predictions for the future of education.
In the interview, Paul LeBlanc not only addressed future-forward trends of today’s classroom like virtual reality and competency-based education, but also the need to enhance STEM curricula and leveling the playing field between men and women in the workforce.
He also mentioned how higher ed can learn a thing or two about innovation from other industries, like European elevator companies who identify problems before visiting sites and save time, money and increase their accuracy when it comes to repairs, something he wants to mimic in the classroom environment.
Hannah Nyren: The college experience usually includes rigorous academics, dedication to studies, and learning experiences in the real world for students. But what’s perhaps equally important, is that college provides young students with the opportunity to learn about what they are capable of; what they can achieve on their own.
This coming of age experience of going to college is something President Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University believes isn’t going to disappear in 20 or 50 years.
To find out just what college will look like in 50 years, EdTech Times sat down with LeBlanc to discuss his predictions for the future of education.
He not only addressed future-forward trends of today’s classroom like virtual reality and competency-based education, but also the need to enhance STEM curricula and leveling the playing field between men and women in the workforce.
He also mentioned how higher ed can learn a thing or two about innovation from other industries, like European elevator companies who identify problems before visiting sites and save time, money and increase their accuracy when it comes to repairs, something he wants to mimic in the classroom environment. This is Hannah Nyren with Paul LeBlanc.
Hannah Nyren: Today I am speaking with Paul LeBlanc from Southern New Hampshire University. Hi Paul, how’s it going?
Paul LeBlanc: I’m doing well Hannah, how’s it going?
HN: With all of these technological advances, do you think that brick and mortar classrooms will even exist in 25 years, or even 50?
PL: Yes I do. Because i think there are two things that people pay for when they pay to send their 17 year old to a brick and mortar campus that technology can’t answer, will not address one of these. So one is the education, which we talked about and which I think will be transformed. But they also send them for the coming of age experience that traditional residential campuses offer. And that coming of age has much less to do with technology and much more to do with living in intentional learning communities. Those learning communities, it’s about playing in teams, it’s about leading organizations, and developing your leadership skills, it’s about travel abroad and widening your horizons, it’s about coming under the influence of talented mentors and faculty and having the conversation about the meaning of life right. It’s about falling in love, it’s about having sex, it’s about drinking beer, it’s about rooting for your team, it’s about all of that. I would put all of that sort of under the umbrella of coming of age, and I don’t think that technology has a whole lot to say about that.
HN: If my mom had known that, I don’t think she would have sent me to college.
PL: Well you’re picking and choosing from my list. But, I think she would want you to widen your horizons and develop your leadership skills. You know, playing on a team, study abroad, those things.
HN: Those things.
PL: Right, and 17 year olds want to be out from under their parents. And they want to live with other 17 year olds, and they want to have this sort of very cool thing that they’ve seen depicted on television and movies. And I think the enthusiasm, those who have it, for new technologies and for what’s possible, and how transformative it can be, I would put myself in that number. I think it’s also important to remember that, done well, technology will also make all kinds of amazing human experiences possible. And in fact, when I’m feeling most optimistic, it will actually mean that maybe now we will value more the human, than we will the technological. So let me give you just a simple example from another venue.
If technology can prove to us that it’s better at diagnosing illness than a physician, and there’s a fair bit of evidence that, for example, Watson does that better than your physician, if you sadly you get a diagnosis from Watson that you now have cancer stage two — I don’t want a machine holding my hand and telling me everything’s going to be okay and we’ll get through this together. I want a human being.
And if we think about what motivates little kids to learn in preschool, it’s as much about the approbation of an adult in that kind of side by side reading a book together. So I don’t care if that book is on a tablet. I don’t care if they’re on a holodeck together. But there are human dimensions to learning that have to do with confidence, and self worth, and aspiration.
And, we know — if you’ve read the Hillbilly Elegy, for example, a book for which I have a lot of criticisms — I think one of the powerful things in that book is the power of someone believing in you. Right? The power of a mentor. We know, for example, that probably the single most important factor in getting women into and through STEM programs, is a female mentor. I was talking to a woman who’s an incredibly accomplished woman engineer, who said that she had a series of women scientists who were her mentors and pulled her through… and sometimes male mentors, by the way. So, I think, you know, if you think about my example, we pay preschool teachers the least even though their impact is the greatest. We pay the hospital counselor or the nurse the least, even though the emotional experience of getting through cancer diagnosis is maybe the most important, profound thing. So maybe we start to rethink what we pay for and what we value. And then there’s always, and this is I think the great debate that’s going on right now, which is that with every paradigm shift in technology there’s always been a huge displacement of work.
So take, for example, truck drivers. There are three and a half million truck drivers in America. It is the number one middle class job among non-degreed white men — and those jobs are probably gone within ten years. So, you think this election was ugly? With millions of americans who feel left behind? Wait until, you know — I’m sure you know that Amazon now has grocery stores with no cashiers. You just put the stuff in the basket and go through. There are 800,000 cashiers in America. It’s not an uncommon job for somebody who only has a high school degree. So start adding up the job displacement, and you’re looking at — I just saw one stat some place that said something as many as 20 percent or more of jobs will get displaced by 2025.
And you can sort of go down that list, right? And, now the flip side with all of these things, is that they’re not inherently good and they’re not inherently bad. They’re complex. If we move to autonomous vehicles — self driving cars. Bad for taxi drivers, and limo drivers perhaps, and maybe parking garage owners and the auto insurance industry, if self-driving cars are really that much safer. Really good for old people. Really good, maybe, for disabled people. You start changing patterns, and there are benefits in this. So if we have an aging population, and we know one of the most wounding events in an older person’s life is when the car keys get taken away because they can’t drive anymore because they lose their independence, it means they’re much more likely to go from aging at home to aging in a facility. Because how do you get your groceries? Now what happens if you call up your self-driving car and it comes and picks you up and takes you to the grocery store, and takes you back home? And you’re in that car safely. So you have as much independence as you ever had. So I think, you know, we need to sort of think through these scenarios so we can understand how it changes our world. Because fundamentally, education is both a driver of that change, but also has to be responsive to those changes.
HN:So, you do a lot with innovation at SNHU, obviously this is just one example of the many things that you do. And you’re known for your online education programs. There are many different changes that are going to be made in the next twenty five years or so, what do you think the biggest changes in Higher Ed, and how are you preparing for them now?
PL: So I think that… I sit on the national academies of sciences committee on workforce and higher education. And I think that we are not even close to prepared for, or I don’t think we understand the full impact of AI on the workforce on the educational system. I think we are just at the dawn of a new age. And that’s hardly a revelation right, but it’s interesting to me, the degree to which it feels like it’s out-racing our ability to get our arms around it. And I’ve been pushing for, and I think there’s a lot of interest at the academies to do a major study on question: what is the impact of AI, on the future of work, and thus the future of Education as well. In fact they just, I’ll see if I can find it, Elon Musk just did a big investment in, what is the name of the company, this guy is really crazy right, so he’s doing one on human computer links. Yeah, it was on NPR today.
PL: It’s NeuroLink. So think about that right. So, if you take that as a kind of paradigm shift in society. Where we will see huge displacement of work, a new category of man machine work, and whole categories of only human work that will be more valuable because machines can’t do it, how does our education system map against that future reality. So I think every aspect of society has to be challenged to get this sorted out. So with that as context, I think what we’re going to see 25 years out, and crystal balls are notoriously flawed of course, but I think what we’ll see is an enormous enormous impact of AI on learning. So that will be from everything from powering personalized learning. So personalized learning supercharged. So systems that can cognitively map what you know and what you don’t know, and how you know. And then to really create environments that are super fine tuned to what you need when you need it. So probably the best early kind of rudimentary example of this is actually computer games that have intelligence built in. So that’s one. Two, virtual reality. I was just under a headset sort of looking at some things in a sort of VR environment here on campus, and I was just blown away. And how this fast this technology is racing on. So we’ll do a lot of augmented reality at first or alongside it. And then I think we’ll see more and more virtual reality. And now all of a sudden if you about an online learner, I’m not sort of sitting in isolation in my home at 10 o’clock at night. I’m in a VR reality with 19 other students who are logged into class around the globe, we’re seeing each other and interacting. And I think that we already, that there are really cool things that are being done right now in this space and this industry that aren’t even kind of on our radar screen. I could never say the name of the elevator company that I think is Scandinavian, but it starts with a PH, it’s like p-h-y-s-k-k-e-n-y.. You know the one I’m talking about have you ever seen their elevators?
PL: SO it’s an elevator company, an european elevator company. But their maintenance guys now, before they do a field call, you know they call that there’s a problem with an elevator in Building X, they’ll actually put on VR headsets, and they are pulling data and sensors from the elevator that’s troublesome in a virtual reality setting, they can actually hone in to identify the problem, see the parts — it’s almost like they’re rehearsing the repair before they get out there. So it’s saving them tons of time, it gives them tons of accuracy, the repair actually goes quicker. All of these really cool things.
HN: That reminds me of this story we did on Microsoft Hololens in Pearson, and they’re doing technology to prepare people for medicine.
PL: Yep. I remember, god this sounds like ancient history now right, but I was working, when I was doing my doctoral research I worked with Professor Beverly Wolf at UMass Amherst, who is an ITS expert intelligence tutoring system expert, so way back when they were training ER personnel, they were using these simulation dummies with a lot of intelligence built in, so what the system was able to do, they present, there’s the patient, here’s the dummy on the bed, on the gurney. So a whole of things are happening, blood pressure is dropping, you know heart is stopping periodically etc., so then you had to kind of figure out “What do you do?” if this was a real life situation. So depending what you did the system would alter what happens next. So not just “oh you did the right thing, blood pressure is going back up.” But it might say, yeah but you didn’t take into account this, or we’re going to kind of accentuate this, we’re going to dial this down, we’re going to throw you this curve ball. And they had amazing results as far as when those people got to work in real ERs with real patients, their performance was so much better. Because they had been through this simulated environment. So I think we’re going to see a transformation in the learning environment, and what’s possible then for people. So, just to give you an example. Sorry to be in articulate. But just as connectivity transformed what was possible and where it was possible in the 90s and still today so that a small rural school in upstate Maine can now have a direct feed to the hubble telescope, that was unimaginable 30 years ago. Such as the chronicle does not bother to list university libraries by number of volumes — who cares? That just means you’re a warehouse. That changed everything. Connectivity changed everything. I think Virtual Reality changes everything. If you take Virtual Reality as an environment, and you add AI as massive data analysis, and intelligence, and machine learning, i think everything looks different in 25 years in ways that we can’t even imagine. I think we’ll look back at today as a relatively primitive kind of period.
Hannah: How are you preparing your students for this future workforce?
Peter: I think we’re really trying to get focused on competency-based education. Rapid competencies. Understanding what are the right competencies and how to better assess them. So, I think the future of the workforce will require, increasingly, clarity about the ways we align, and about what students can and cannot do. I think that’s critical. We are migrating our curriculum to more STEM, more technology fields — there are so many in-demand areas here where we need workers and where there is a shortfall of them. I don’t just mean licensed engineers — that’s kind of where everyone’s mind first goes. The reality is that I know that there are lots and lots of jobs for people with two-year degrees and micro-credentials in aspects of technology. It might be quality assurance, it might be software testing. Just whole, huge areas. So we’re trying to certainly align our offerings, our programming, and the sorts of pathways into which we can put students with some sense of what that future looks like.
I think we are launching a new college of engineering technology and aeronautics. So we’re in the middle of building out that curriculum, and the real focus there is how to get more underrepresented populations into those fields. As you know, only about 14% percent of engineers are women. 50 percent of women engineers leave the field within — I think it’s within five years or something. How do we get more marginalized populations into those fields? Which again, not only will be in high demand — so it’s about placing people in jobs, but because we need their perspectives in those jobs that shape the future.
So when you look at things like implicit bias within algorithms. Like, I don’t know if you follow this but there’s really interesting work being done in this. So to the extent, for example, that you build HR resume screening systems. To the extent that you are programming your very human understanding of how that work should get done, you may very well be programming your biases into that system. There’s a woman who’s doing really interesting work in this area in the media lab. So it’s not just a question of getting in the door, but getting a diverse population of people to help shape the technology so it’s not just a white guy bro programming that shapes our future.
Hannah: Thank you so much for sharing all of your expertise with me, Paul.
Paul: Thank you, Hannah. It was really nice talking with you again.
Elizabeth hails from New Jersey and studies journalism at Emerson College, where she works for two publications: a lifestyle magazine and a music magazine. In addition to education, she also enjoys writing about health and fitness and pop culture.