Community college is designed to be one of society’s great equalizers, a shot at joining the middle class for those who didn’t get a chance to attend a four-year university. And technology has expanded the reach of these institutions and enhanced the quality of education for those it reaches. Recognizing the institutions that best use technology to enhance young American minds is the 2014-2015 Digital Community Colleges Survey, led by the Center for Digital Education.
This year’s survey identified 46 of the most forward-thinking and technology-driven community colleges in the nation. Applicants from three enrollment size categories submitted responses to a 30-question, 250-data-point survey. Winning applicants were recognized for their technology leadership in mobile computing, job placement programs, social media, data management and strategic planning.
This year’s first place winners from their respective categories were Northern Virginia Community College, Va., (10,000 enrolled or more); Lord Fairfax Community College, Va. (5,000 to 10,000 enrolled); and Carl Sandburg College, Ill. (fewer than 5,000 enrolled). The top community colleges exemplified the broader statistics uncovered by the survey.
Of those colleges surveyed, 43 percent have a mobile strategy and 59 percent offer instructors professional development education on how to integrate mobile devices into their coursework.
Job placement programs were identified as a high priority for many community colleges. Fifty-eight percent offer online resume-building tools, 82 percent offer access to job boards and career information, and 59 percent offer online job placement programs, including private-sector partnerships.
Social media use rose 19 percent over the past three years, with 47 percent of colleges surveyed having published social media policies.
In the face of emerging new technologies, IT infrastructure management is a growing concern for many institutions, with 43 percent of colleges reporting a complete server virtualization, 32 percent with a completed data center virtualization, and 58 percent maintaining an IT strategic plan.
Judges recognized Northern Virginia Community College as No. 1 in its enrollment category of 10,000 students or more for the college’s commitment to open education resources, virtual advising, distance learning, digital classroom standards and dedicated online services for a growing distance learning population.
Steven Sachs, vice president of instructional and information technology at the college, said the school’s distance learning program is probably its crowning achievement -- Northern Virginia Community College is a pioneer in distance learning, which has been available for 40 years as of 2015, Sachs said.
“The No. 1 thing is our commitment to online learning, to distance education,” Sachs said. “We serve 25,000 distance learning students in northern Virginia a year.”
As the hub of a statewide shared services network for other institutions interested in distance learning, the school also acts as an enabler for others.
“It delivers services to a lot of the smaller community colleges in Virginia that lets them offer courses that their students would never have access to if they had to do it on their own,” Sachs said. “For many of those individuals, they’re the first member of their family to go to college. And many students don’t even need to go to a four-year institution. They become very attractive to employers based on a certificate they might earn or a degree, or even just a with a year’s worth of community college.”
The school’s continued success and commitment to innovation is supported by a strong strategic plan. The school is always looking three to five years out, Sachs said.
“Everyone in education is under pressure to provide better services, to achieve better results at lower costs, and technology is a big piece of that," he said. "We’re building a groundswell so that right now, what we’re seeing is a tidal wave of people who are watching the early adopters. Well, we’re ready for them.”
Lord Fairfax Community College in Virginia scored first place in the medium-sized enrollment category of 5,000 to 10,000 for the third year in a row.
Judges noted successes in the school’s deployment of a wireless build out that pre-empted the mobile device boom, digital classroom resources designed for the tight budget, and an accessible IT infrastructure. The college is among the first in the nation to embrace entire programs that can be completed without students needing to buy a textbook.
“We are committed to providing top quality teaching and learning as the focus of our institution, and look at technology as a way to enhance the process,” Chief Information Officer Richie Crim told the Center for Digital Education via email, noting that in recent years, the school has seen notable growth.
“We have expanded our facilities, increased our lab capacities, and expanded our presence across the communities we serve,” he said. “All around the premise of providing ‘value’ to the educational experience students desire and deserve. Community college provides a value for learners looking for the ‘best bang for their buck’ with small class sizes and outstanding instruction from top quality educators.”
As the market shifted demand toward a greater need for education in the STEM and health fields, the school has kept pace, offering coursework in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and health. The college provides students with access to labs with 3-D printers, courses in game design, and opportunities to use cutting-edge technology like virtual reality headsets and drones.
“These are things we never envisioned in the classroom just a few years ago,” Crim said, adding that higher education is becoming more social through the advancement of technology. “Student collaboration in and out of the classroom is a major focus here at LFCC. From the ALT [Active Learning with Technology] Classroom to the 'Flipped Classroom,' student-to-student interaction appears to be the current ticket to engagement. Learners participating in groups to solve problems as the instructor facilitates has replaced much of the traditional lecture-based teacher-to-student instruction.”
Ultimately, Crim said, the school’s success derives from an understanding that they’re never innovating just for the sake of innovation, but that technology is enabling the school’s mission of educating its students.
In the small colleges category, with fewer than 5,000 students enrolled, Carl Sandburg College in Illinois was recognized as the best by judges for its bring your own device program, iPads provided for instructional use, and Chromebooks made available for student use.
For professional development of students, the school hosts periodic three-day technology training workshops and two-day technology training camps, holds employability seminars, and provides more than 30,000 tutorials and resources online.
An open education initiative launched in 2014 means students can collectively save tens of thousands of dollars on textbooks. The school provides access to 3-D printers, AppleTV devices equipped interactive apps, and teachers have access to software that assists in student retention.
Carl Sandburg College CIS Instructor Linda Lee told the Center for Digital Education via email that the recent surge of flipped and blended classrooms have provided instructors like herself new opportunities to connect with students.
“Technology is being used in the classrooms now more than ever!” she said. “We have created collaborative learning spaces, removing desks and replacing them with couches and chairs. … Web-based courses are replacing interactive TV and providing students at a distance the opportunity to participate real-time while also recording classroom activity and mini-lectures for later viewing. 3-D and 4-D apps are allowing biology classes to see the human anatomy in a whole new dimension over the printed diagram in a textbook.”
Sandburg noted that the advent of tablets and free educational apps have made accessing a vast repository of educational material affordable and easy.
“It really doesn't matter whether you are in a classroom, attending via webinar or taking a course online. The experience can be just as engaging regardless the delivery mode,” she said, adding that technology in education is evolving quickly. “I see more collaboration between K-12 and higher ed, and an overwhelming amount of free resources being shared via blogs, twitter and collaborative websites. It's an exciting time in education!”