Anticipating where technology will take us next is increasingly challenging. Yet, anticipate Augusta Julian must as she oversees an institution that trains the workforce for that evolving near-future job market.
Julian is president of Bluegrass Community and Technical College, and she talked with Tom Martin about the challenges and rewards of her work.
Tom Martin: How is technological advancement affecting education at your level?
Augusta Julian: It's impacting us dramatically. Just as in other industries, the industry of higher education is changing because of technology. Of course, the thing that a lot of people know about is the availability of online education. It's one of those things that we must embrace because our customer base is embracing it, particularly young people. But really students of all ages are very much online, they're savvy, they expect education to be delivered in the way and at the time that they want it. There are big consortia of educational institutions across the country who are now doing online education and they're providing it free. So what does that mean when the content that has typically been our product is now available not only online, on the internet, in Wikipedia and everywhere else, but also through these Harvards and Stanfords and UKs?
Martin: What's your assessment of online learning versus the classroom experience?
Julian: Well, I am old-school like many of us who have had the experience of onsite education. That's how I did it. That's how I thought it ought to be done for many years. But I am convinced that community can be created, content can be delivered in a way that is accessible and useful for students in online situations. And the younger students again are a bit more comfortable with it than some of us who are older but we all Google whatever we want to know so that process of going online to get information is more and more a part of our everyday experience. So good teachers can deliver and help and instruct. It can be done online and it can be done very well.
Martin: "Outcomes" is a buzzword among today's college admissions professionals, demonstrating a return on investing in a postsecondary education, which can be quite challenging for a lot of families. What are your thoughts about that kind of accountability in higher education?
Julian: The focus is more and more on outcomes. People want to know that their tax dollars or their tuition payments are worth something, that there is value to be gained for their student, or their child or themselves. We have to able to make the case that we provide value for the support that is provided no matter how it comes to us.
Martin: Does BCTC provide job placement services?
Julian: Yes. That's a very important part of our career and technical programs. We have a lot of connections to business through our advisory committees. About 89 to 95 percent of our students in current technical programs will work in Central Kentucky when they complete their program with us.
Martin: What are the hottest skill sets in demand today?
Julian: Computer skills are important but the other thing that we see consistently across industry sectors is what's called soft skills or workplace skills. These are things that every employer needs employees to have: dependability, communication skills, teamwork, supervision and employee relations. Not that technical skills aren't important, but to be a good employee they really have to have that other set of skills. We try to focus on both of those in our programs and to stay up-to-date with what employers are telling us is important.
Martin: You have found that some students do better with fewer choices and more directed curriculum. What's that all about?
Julian: There is some research that is coming out right now that suggests that we may be doing some segment of students a disservice when we continue to expand the options. There are good things about a lot of different opportunities, and a lot of different subjects, a lot of different courses. But some students need to be very focused with their education and particularly our students who might be older or come in with multiple barriers or maybe they don't have college educated people in their families to help them figure out what to do and what courses to take and what direction to go. So for them we need a comprehensive set of courses or particular specific subjects that have been defined as critical, have been developed into a curriculum and we need to help direct them more specifically. There is a group of students who need to get the instructions, get it done quickly, need to get out into the workforce, or have limited time because of families and other responsibilities, so it's an interesting kind of advising issue of how you deal with that.
Martin: The community college is more or less on the front line of the labor market, isn't it? And you have to be perhaps more sensitive and responsive to big changes that take place and sometimes on short notice. How do you handle that? How do you respond?
Julian: We involve career counselors, curriculum development specialists, workforce specialists. By putting together a team of people with various resources we can identify for a business that is changing its manufacturing procedures or adding a product that their employees need training for what is needed and what resources can we bring together. And we are partners with a lot of other agencies, and higher education institutions across Central Kentucky so we can bring other partners in if we can't provide that support. We can make referrals or add to the team in order to be able to respond.
Martin: In what ways have community college campus experiences changed?
Julian: Probably for community colleges it's more about flexible scheduling, using the technology to do things like hybrid courses or online courses. Hybrid is partly on campus and partly online. And at BCTC we've done a couple of things in that regard, pretty much all of our general education courses are hybrid. Something else that is happening is what's called flipped classroom where the actual content delivery is online and the onsite time is discussion. It's providing that rich context that can be had in face-to-face interaction. Those kinds of things are a reaction both to the technology available and to the facts of students' lives and expectations.