Looking back through our lives, it’s easy to see how a map unfolds filled with experiences and connections. The dots interconnect from one location to another. For Dr. Merodie Hancock, her purposeful map has provided her with opportunities at higher education institutions such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, University of Maryland University College, Central Michigan University, State University of New York Empire State College, and now as president of Thomas Edison State University in Trenton, New Jersey.
“I’d love to say it’s all been a purposeful map, but it’s really about being in the right place at the right time that make big changes happen,” Dr. Hancock said. “I’ve had an interesting set of experiences working in both traditional and nontraditional institutions and private and public institutions, though my leadership roles have been in the public sector.”
Dr. Hancock has taught online classes and face-to-face in the classroom, as well as held numerous administrative roles, including being vice president at Central Michigan University and then president of State University of New York Empire State College and now Thomas Edison State University. These experiences have given Dr. Hancock great exposure to all different aspects of the educational world, and she is now bringing them together by providing valuable knowledge and expertise as president at Thomas Edison. Dr. Hancock has also been named one of the Executive Sponsors for NJEdge’s latest initiative – The Women Leaders in Technology Professional Network.
“One of my big interests at Thomas Edison is our commitment to be the best at what we do,” she said. “As an institution, Thomas Edison focuses exclusively on the nontraditional learner, so in a time when many institutions are trying to be all things to all people, we are exclusively focusing on the self-directed adult student.”
Thomas Edison State University’s mission is to provide distinctive undergraduate and graduate education for self-directed adults through flexible, high quality, collegiate learning and assessment opportunities. Dr. Hancock was attracted to this mission and how the university zeroes in on best practices for helping students find purpose in a changing job market.
“This clarity of mission was one of the big things that attracted me, and once I came, I was able to go back to my portfolio of experiences and look at what works best for these students and then build upon the long success Thomas Edison has already had in the field,” Dr. Hancock said. “I will say the transition to Thomas Edison has been very nice in that we already have a great team and that’s been helpful.”
Because of her hire, the university purposely extended their strategic plan and academic master plan, allowing Dr. Hancock to create her own plans and add to the plans already established. The team is spending a significant amount of time looking at their student demographic, as they don’t recruit students under 21 unless they have served in the military or have college-level learning from another direction.
The other facet Dr. Hancock and her team continually focus on is the state’s dynamics towards education and the job market. They work hard to understand how these varying aspects could impact the adult student’s career progression. Additionally, the University helps underemployed students take the next step for further education, while looking for ways to link the University to industry and finding out what skills are wanted and needed. The University also works closely with the State of New Jersey, since they are the state’s only adult focused nontraditional institution.
“I’ve been speaking with a number of employers and looking at the skills they want and what they see in their current workforce, or in people found in industry transitions,” Dr. Hancock said. “So, if we’re taking people out of one industry and into another industry, how do we provide the skills they need?”
The emphasis on placement in the relevant workforce channel means questions are asked about program significance. If a student accomplishes a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree, what is the most clear relevant way to complete it? Thomas Edison looks at tight linkages into corporations’ needs and community needs, especially as they attract a number of students active within the community.
“Our students don’t normally leave the community. They stay and are already imbedded in the New Jersey community,” she said. “We work with community organizations and corporations on building different projects into our curriculum that benefit everyone.
The University’s goal is to provide for students’ needs so they receive the most robust and relevant education possible. Another area Thomas Edison focuses on is helping service members throughout military branches find relevance once they separate from the military. The University wants to make sure these men and women have the right skills for the companies in New Jersey, especially those who want to hire more veterans.
“We want to make sure our service members have a way to gain the skills and training they need to be marketable and provide them with avenues for the companies that want to hire them,” Dr. Hancock said.
Technology and Digital Transformation
Technology is at the heart of Thomas Edison and the reason for much of the University’s success. The digital transformation has allowed the university to become an anchor institution, especially in New Jersey.
Dr. Hancock has been uniquely positioned to watch this technological advancement and its impact in education over the past decade. Her education and past experiences working at several different types of institutions have provided her with exposure to the digital transformation.
“Some of the real education technology started to take hold while I was in my doctorate, where we moved from videotapes or study guides being shipped out to people to more synchronous calling and two-way technology,” she said. “These old videotapes had poor imaging, transfer rates were slow, and learning was hampered.”
Another aspect of educational technology that has changed over time is how institutions were initially set on creating an online class that mimicked a face-to-face class. It didn’t take long for people to realize the two aren’t the same.
“We realized that they are different beasts with different opportunities,” Dr. Hancock said.
Institutions began assembling the pieces of a face-to-face classroom that should be leveraged into technology. Questions were being asked like how to connect different groups from around the world. The various institutions soon discovered how education could leverage synchronous and asynchronous, as well as face-to-face, online and different blended models.
Other areas colleges and universities found answers for bringing together different subject matter experts. They discovered how group projects could be completed together, despite not being in the same room.
“When this process was complete, things got really exciting for me,” Dr. Hancock said. “We realized that not one-size-fits-all and different institutions are going to leverage technology in different ways to meet their mission.”
This dynamic is one reason why Dr. Hancock appreciates entities such as NJEdge and how it has grown into an organization that helps higher education in New Jersey.
“There is a diversified inventory of institutions across the state and that diversity is one of the biggest things we have to keep in mind. For instance, the technology solutions for a private liberal arts college will not be the same technology solutions for Thomas Edison,” she said. “This is the beauty of where we’ve gone and where technology and the digital environment are leading us.”
The technological advancements are highly beneficial to Thomas Edison’s students. Students are busy and many have to take their studies to work with them the next day. The technology allows the university to make sure their studies are relevant and in real time. The programs help students study actual products and markets.
Working Together to Advance Technology
“If we all had to focus on advancing technology individually on our own and keep an eye on everything that’s out there, it would be incredibly expensive, timely, and eat up a lot of manpower,” she said. “Whether it’s vetting products and negotiating deals with vendors for our later use or hosting conferences and sessions that bring together educators in New Jersey and beyond in similar areas of interest, technology organizations create efficiency and a synergy that benefits all of us. This legwork being done on our behalf enables us to keep moving forward with the rapid pace of technology.”
The importance of being able to customize technology for a particular institution is vital to a school’s success. If the college or university serves traditional full-time students and is residency-based, they are going to likely want technology education based on information literacy. While a university like Thomas Edison is going to invest in learning technologies, rather than classroom technologies. It helps when the institution can partake in technologies that benefit them specifically.
“It’s great to know that we have organizations we can go to who have vetted programs and tools and know the pros and cons of different approaches or systems. We can lean on these groups to look at best practices and opportunities and subject matter experts,” Dr. Hancock said.
Dr. Hancock is also grateful when technology organizations don’t take a singular focus on higher education, rather being a technology savviness capacity builder for its members. For instance, when an organization’s focus is initially on higher education, but they begin looking for ways to help the K-12 community, as well as working closely with industry and the government, the expanded view helps the state of New Jersey as a whole.
“This ability to embrace a larger, more expansive vision assists the entire ecosystem and looks at broader pieces. The core focus is on New Jersey, empowering the institutions and our students to be technology-savvy, technology leaders and to leverage technology to expand their own capacities,” Dr. Hancock said. “It becomes a holistic approach to the entire ecosystem” Thomas Edison is thankful that Dr. Hancock’s map has her location currently pinpointed in Trenton, New Jersey. Her passion for education and desire to improve the world around her is a huge testament to her past locations and experiences.