Dreaming the Future
Moving classes entirely online during the pandemic may be just the latest adaptation of technology at Walsh. But a group of Walsh innovators have been brainstorming ways to identify even more creative uses of new and emerging technology to make the college experience more productive and rewarding.
Known by the acronym DREAM (for Dream + Research + Explore + Achieve = Magic), a team led by interim Chief Information Officer Tom Petz is thinking strategically about what technology can do at all levels of the Walsh experience — from recruitment of students to academic performance to keeping alumni connected. The DREAM team began working in earnest at the end of 2020 and continues its process this year.
The DREAM initiative was born after a growing realization that the traditional model of higher education could be greatly improved by using technology in new and creative ways. As Petz notes, when many of today’s faculty and staff went to school, there was no online learning, no ability to mine data to spot trends, no ability to rewatch a lecture to catch something you had missed. Now the technology exists to do all that and more.
COVID – And Beyond
Before the pandemic, Walsh already offered 60 percent of its courses online and 95 percent were available in a hybrid combination of in-person and remote learning. Being prepared with synchronous e-learning, which offers real-time instruction via Zoom, made for an easy pivot when in-person classes had to be stopped.
“Learning should be excellent no matter how it’s delivered,” says Dr. Michael Levens, Walsh president and CEO. “We’ve been working toward this for decades — no matter the technology — so we were able to pivot pretty quickly. What we’re doing short-term is what we’ll be doing long-term.”
The DREAM team knows that long-term technological advances extend far beyond online classes.
“It’s about being even better in the remote learning experience,” Levens says. “There’s a focus on innovation. If you take a look into the future, many institutions still have to figure out how to operate remotely, but we’re pushing forward.”
Opportunities emerge whenever challenges arise, notes Walsh Provost Dr. Suzy Siegle. As education adapts, it could even better prepare students for a post-pandemic world.
“In a post-COVID world, we’re going to see even more technology, big data, AI (artificial intelligence) and remote learning and work opportunities,” says Siegle. “There will be new kinds of business leaders and entrepreneurs emerging, and Walsh is uniquely positioned to serve them well in this new world.”
The DREAM team is exploring how to create a more immersive experience for students using augmented and virtual reality. But that’s one of many possibilities, which is the point of the group’s work.
“What can you do with data mining to proactively support students before they become academically troubled?” Petz says. “What can you do to create automated learning paths to help students comprehend concepts they’re struggling with and get them additional remediation?”
The goal, Petz says, is to integrate innovations at all levels of the Walsh experience, from recruitment and advising to following up with students after graduation.
Any such initiatives will be judged by their results, Petz says.
“You don’t want to do something that doesn’t work,” he explains. “Whether judged by retention, academic performance — whatever it is — it’s got to be measurable, otherwise what are we doing here?”
“We have to look at this strategically. If we’re going to deliver something, let’s demonstrate value across the board.”
Reimagining the Model
If nothing else, the rising cost of higher education today demands such a rethinking of the traditional model. Across the academic world, there is concern that students burden themselves with monumental loads of debt to pay for a traditional four-year degree program that may or may not equip them for the job market they’ll enter.
Textbooks alone have become a sore point, says Dr. Jennifer O’Meara, associate professor of business communications and a member of the DREAM team. The price of new editions of standard texts can run into hundreds of dollars, and often the changes from the previous edition are mostly superficial.
“That aggravated me more than anything,” O’Meara says. “That’s when I really said, ‘What can we do differently?’ ”
One key innovation underway at Walsh involves open educational resources, or OERs. As explained by Caryn Noel, director of library services, OERs include material that was typically found only in pricey textbooks or research papers in the past, but that is now available free or at low cost often in the form of individual chapters or PDFs from university presses. With the price of textbooks rising to astronomical levels in recent years, OERs represent huge cost savings to students. They also offer faculty a way to pick and choose individual articles or chapters as needed instead of requiring students to buy a full textbook.
Walsh recently received a $25,000 grant from the Library of Michigan, made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, to help faculty adapt more OERs in their instruction.
Noel has been working with Walsh’s instructional design team to get more OER material into coursework. She hopes it won’t be long before Walsh faculty members start writing their own OER material so that the volume of low-cost texts and papers available to students expands rapidly. There will be some training for faculty about OER, including Creative Commons licensing, which allows the high-quality works to remain low cost — unlike traditional copyright. Faculty, Noel says, will be quick to see the advantages of OERs and adapt their coursework to use the resources.
“We have some of the best minds in business at Walsh,” Noel says. “I honestly think that once they understand how happy this makes the students, this will just become part of their process.”
Petz notes that the students themselves already understand the need for innovation through technology. Fully virtual classes offered at Walsh often fill up faster than traditional on campus sessions.
“People want flexibility in their lives,” he says. “People are demanding that out of their classroom experiences. Many of our students are adults with busy lives and careers. They want to put their kids to bed; they don’t want to be stuck in class 6 to 10 p.m.
“Having the ability to replay academic lectures is very valuable. I feel it’s something that should have been done a long time ago.”
The goal now, Petz says, is to use technology to make the Walsh experience even better.
“We know we have really good content,” he says. “We know we have really good faculty. We are very mindful and intentional about how we built our online classes.
“We didn’t just go to a publisher and say, ‘What have you got?’ We have real-world experiences from businesses all over the metro area and beyond. We’re trying to pack as much of that practical experience into our classrooms as possible, and there’s not a lot of places that do it on the scale that we do it.”