Relationships Built and Strengthened Because of Emergent Technologies
Technology has been incorporated into the framework of Brookdale Community College, transforming how lifelong learning is experienced and achieved. No longer are the mechanisms running the campus considered detached and removed, but rather the emergent technologies have evolved into the heart and soul of every facet of the community.
Brookdale believes technology is one of the reasons for the College’s successes and the backdrop for their ability to provide open access, high quality, and cost-effective educational programs. The importance of partnering with technology enables the Brookdale team to deliver course content and other services within traditional classroom settings and the school’s online environment.
“With this technology backdrop in mind, we not only have a commitment to teaching but a commitment to learning here as a community college” said Dr. David Stout, President of Brookdale Community College. “All of our initiatives start from the point of thinking students first and student success first. Everything done in technology is meant to support this mission of helping students to succeed.”
At Brookdale, the administration has created an open access institution where computing is available at all of their locations for students to use as well as any members of the community. Stout noted the College doesn’t ask students if they are there for community use or for educational purposes.
“We are a community college and we’re there to support the success of the community and we’ve gotten commitment through our Foundation to support these initiatives,” he said. “Technology’s role in higher education is to support the school’s mission, and we believe Brookdale has an innovative approach towards using all of those technology assets.”
Open access technology enables students to experience the school’s innovative technology in multiple facets, whether students are on or off campus. This concept is much different than years past when education could only be accomplished via physical attendance.
Brookdale’s open computer lab is available in the library during operating hours, providing access to 300 robust computers.
“Technology allows us to bridge distances and timeframes. Technology builds relationships,” said Brookdale’s Chief Information Officer George Sotirion. “We understand the importance of technology and how the majority of students may have access to a smart phone or mobile device, but not all students own a device, or they don’t have access to robust computing devices and applications. We need to be there for those students.”
The other reality Sotirion says can complicate learning is distance education students who aren’t able to have a physical presence on campus. These students also need access to technology at different timeframes, which is why Brookdale has committed to a virtual desktop environment.
The platform allows computer science, psychology, or writing students the ability to log into a robust platform and execute their coursework needed for classroom success.
“We don’t want lack of access to be a barrier to students realizing their potential,” Sotirion said. “At Brookdale, we’re constantly looking to find new ways for how technology can help bring educational opportunities to everybody.”
Transforming education with technology is a part of Brookdale’s mission and vision. Another unique facet of the campus is the school’s Teaching and Learning Center (TLC), which is a space where faculty can work with instructional designers to adapt any new technology available in the learning environment and incorporate the tools into their teaching, whether the environment is a traditional classroom, web-enhanced, hybrid class, or an online environment.
The faculty liaison between the two entities is Professor George Reklaitis, who works with the faculty to translate the different languages, brings together all of the components and then applies them to innovative pedagogy.
“Professor Reklaitis helps translate between technology speak and faculty speak and aids anyone tentative about the use of technology,” Sotirion said. “For example, say we need to have a practical application and achieve a specific learning outcome, George can bring these pieces together and help ensure quality matters. We’re reaching into different technology avenues to bring the innovation within.”
Brookdale uses a SharePoint site, which is a communication and collaboration tool that engages the campus community in assessment and outcomes. SharePoint is the point of contact between different divisions, especially the office that oversees the outcome assessment processes and the employees who are engaged in the outcomes assessment processes.
For example, video resources are shared through the SharePoint site so faculty can teach other faculty employment assessments in their own classrooms. The site also helps with professional development and stores manuals on the assessment process.
“A core part of our mission as an education institution is being able to engage the process of assessment and to get to the point where we’re continuously improving—technology plays heavily in the outcomes of the assessment process,” Stout said.
Brookdale is using the SharePoint technology to gather everyone’s input and provide a mechanism for faculty and staff to get involved and stay involved.
“Technology is a great way to engage people in a meaningful way,” Sotirion added. “Their involvement really drives students’ success, which I believe is very important.”
Staying Ahead of the Technology Enhancement Demand
The daily transformation of technology enhancement is always emerging and changing. New systems and devices are always on the horizon. Brookdale has staff constantly engaging the technology environment, scanning and looking for emergent technologies, within the educational world and throughout other industries. The technology department then has conversations about how the technology could impact learning.
“We don’t want to constantly have to react to emergent technology because then you’re never going to get ahead of new technologies,” Stout said. “Instead, we follow a plan where we lay out the technologies we want to invest in.”
Brookdale’s plan always makes sure the school is working towards core improvements. For instance in 2015, the College was heavily invested in an initiative to improve the institution’s core network. However, this step wasn’t the end goal. Rather, Brookdale wanted to increase the connectivity capabilities for students to meet other students.
The next steps included an investment in the network backbone and eventually improved Wi-Fi access.
This upgrade allowed Brookdale to triple the access points on campus for faculty, staff, and students, especially when parties were coming to campus with more and more devices. After the project was completed, the campus was able to support—on average—five devices per user.
“An important piece of the plan is seeing some of the items on the horizon and taking stock of what the Foundation is going to need to provide,” Sotirion said. “By making the core improvements, the changes set us up to respond to upcoming demands.”
Another way Brookdale stays ahead of emerging technology is through a student speak-out. Taking place once a semester, students have the ability to share exactly what they are looking for in technology and talk about their previous experiences.
If new technology is released, Stout said they find a focus group of students who can share expectations and test out the tools. For example, a group recently engaged in the process of looking at the school’s Learning Management System (LMS). Before making changes, students were involved in the process and spent time in focus groups which provided valuable information.
“We asked the students what were the features and functionalities needed to help you be successful or what components of your online learning or hybrid learning has resonated and helped you better understand the content,” Sotirion said.
Sotirion and his team took the feedback and ranked the information by importance and then shared the comments with faculty and staff. This data provided professors with a context while reviewing different LMS platforms.
“By involving the students, the focus groups became a great opportunity to merge the importance of both the teaching aspect but also the learning feature, allowing us to incorporate both of the users’ voices,” he said.
Faculty members also have opportunities to play with new and emerging technologies via the faculty sandbox connected to the TLC, before the school makes an investment.
“By taking this approach, we don’t invest in something faculty will never use,” Sotirion said. “We will buy a few of them and encourage faculty to play around with the tools. If they really like the tool, we will work the technology into our strategic planning and invest in that technology.”
Sotirion also shared how Brookdale’s strategic planning processes and investment in faculty professional development are vital towards staying out in front of technologies.
“We send our employees to as many professional development opportunities as possible so they become acquainted with emerging technologies and will consider bringing them back and adopting them in our classrooms,” he said.
Understanding the Role of Technology on Campus
Brookdale understands the relationship of technology in how the tools can impact an initiative, but at the same time can’t be the sole focus. The institution believes technology is also about the processes and the people, and when these three things work together, transformation on campus takes place.
The other issue for Brookdale and countless other institutions is the challenge of finance and affordability. The cost to run higher education combined with technology funding is a constant balancing act. Stout said the school is always looking for how to fund the purchase of technology necessary to support student success.
This conundrum is what drew Brookdale’s interest in a Title III grant in 2017 from the Department of Education, which was focused on strengthening institutions. Brookdale wanted to acquire CRM technology and a support system to help students leverage the technology for success.
“Let’s say we try to rely on human resources to be able to support each individual student; you’re driving up the cost of running the operation,” said Sotirion.
“This financial hurdle is why we went out and applied for and accepted the Title III grant, so we could acquire the technologies to substantially improve student persistence, retention and completion rates,” he added. “The monies help us to close the achievement gap among students.”
Another issue for higher education is finding the right tools to invest in, while also being willing to adjust if resources or needs change. Brookdale has a strategic plan as a guideline, as well as a governing IT structure.
The structure was the result of several experiences in 2017, when Brookdale was presenting a number of workshops centered on the College’s IT strategic planning process. The team found several common themes emerging—prioritization, adoption, and accountability. From this foundation, a formal IT governance structure was created with individuals who understood the decision-making process of the college community.
The team focuses on executive level priorities, but also operational level activities. Sotirion said the group’s goals are to provide an integrated flow of information, collaborations, and decisions.
“We need to engage all of the verticals at the College in this process and be able to have a multi-year planning and funding model in place,” he said. “The IT governing structure has given us the opportunity to make sure the strategies we’re taking and technologies we’re investing in are what Brookdale needs. We need to understand why we’re doing something.”
The model follows five components, with the steering committee at the highest level. Other segments are the administrative technology group, data standards, and information security, educational technology, and followed with web and digital communications.
The steering committee is at the forefront and provides expectations, while also providing communication and engagement with other peers in the other groups and around campus. This group also serves as a recommending body to the executive leadership team.
“We are giving a voice to everybody,” Sotirion said.
There are more than 40 members in these groups. They have helped faculty and staff understand the decision-making process.
“The members feel invested in the process and in the technology we’ve selected,” he said.
Technology Transforms the Higher Education Realm
In certain departments, there can be a struggle to always be focused on the numbers and analytics. These details are valuable and important, especially when the goal is to attract, recruit, educate, and support students within a specified budget and provide the necessary technology and tools for success.
Technology has played a significant role in providing this data for institutions and executive leadership teams. The evolution has focused on user experience, engagement, and communication, especially in both synchronous and asynchronous environments.
“With LMS technologies, this platform has given us the opportunity to provide education in different modalities, without concern to location or time,” Sotirion said. “Technology has allowed us to mirror a physical classroom and provide an online environment where students have opportunities to learn at their own pace and also be engaged with their peers—in a more meaningful, personal way.”
This emergent technology has been developing over past decades, allowing higher education to better serve their communities not only in the classroom, but also in regards to administrative tasks such as registration or bill payment.
“What we’re seeing as of late are the enhancements within the self- service experience, where technology is creating a much more intuitive environment and the opportunity for students to be more engaged and have more meaningful conversations with the representatives from student services,” Sotirion said. “By customizing the process and making the process much less overwhelming to a student, the changes make for a better college experience and help engage students in their academic plan.”
Watching progress unfold goes a long way in a student’s success, especially once students understand what they’re trying to achieve. In the past, a paper course catalog is where classes were decided. Now, the students can select their next courses from their designed academic plan and apply context to why the courses fit into their schedule and at the appropriate time.
“This advancement is intuitive and an engaging component of where technology is now at and shows how technology has come a long way,” Sotirion said.
Stout agrees and talked about the evolution of Web 1.0 to now Web 3.0. He said in the recent past technology was mainly used as a one directional communication tool. Over time, technology has transformed into engagement and ways to involve people in all of the processes.
“We ask how we engage students in the process of their own advising and the process of their learning,” he said. “We can use technology to engage as opposed to just communicate.”
Engaging the Student
The communication space produces so much noise, and at times, the clamor can become overwhelming. The din can specifically create issues for the college students who are already trying to find their place in the world.
“Technology can help us try to cut through that noise,” Sotirion said.
Brookdale launched an initiative last summer focusing on gaining a better understanding of what was impacting students and what could prevent them from re-enrolling. To gain data, poll functionality was placed within text messaging. The series of questions focused on ideas such as ‘what’s an obstacle in your way’ and ‘what can we help you with?’
“This initiative created a great way for an individual to respond and then for us to link the person with the appropriate resources,” Sotirion said. “We talked about the changing landscape of higher education and the funding sources, as we don’t always have the opportunity to provide additional human resources to help students. Technology is guiding us with these ongoing issues.”
Geo-targeting within a social media campaign has also been used to engage students, especially during advertising and recruitment processes.
“We have some really innovative, cutting-edge faculty members looking at the gamification of education and the development of a virtual lab experience,” Stout shared. “These are some of the spaces where technology is being used to engage at a higher level, almost even more so than the traditional classroom where students can possibly escape at the back of the room and not engage.”
Sharing the Brookdale Technology Framework
Brookdale has developed a technology framework and strategic plan that others in higher education have monitored. Brookdale’s vision has played a transformative role in the state. Students have also been positively impacted by Professor Michael Qaissaunee, department chair of the engineering and technology program, as well as other faculty members of the STEM Institute.
“Our instructors are preparing students to have a lasting impact in the field,” Sotirion said.
Recently, several Brookdale students competed in the U.S. Cyber Challenge Contest, which was a series of online challenges that tested their abilities in the information technology realm.
An all-female group also took place in a cyber challenge, with Brookdale hosting the awards ceremony for the 13 teams.
“The faculty is recognizing what is out there in the technology space and aligning students with those needs,” he said. “From that point forward, the process involves making sure students have the ability to practically apply these skills. I believe it is very important for the technology industry to be able to progress.”
Both Stout and Sotirion believe Brookdale’s success is also attributed to the College’s partnership with Edge.
“Edge not only provides access to cutting edge technologies but they really understand the business of higher education,” Stout said. “We share a common vision, common goals, and a common mission.”
He believes the collaboration taking place between higher education and Edge is truly exceptional.
“Edge provides opportunities for engagement, consortium pricing, and so much more,” Stout added. “These things open up access to technologies that would normally be unaffordable to us.”
One tool Brookdale has recently incorporated onto campus is the implementation of Zoom, in partnership with Edge.
“Implementing Zoom is really a direct result of Edge’s partnership with Zoom and then providing members with this technology at an affordable rate,” Sotirion said. “Edge helps foster community between other colleges and a community of technologists, who are willing to be collaborative in nature, while also providing avenues we need for technology in education and to help education transform lives.”
Partnering with Edge also provides Brookdale with valuable insight for their technology framework.
“There’s an opportunity for higher education professionals to see where technology is moving and how the tools can help improve some of our students’ experiences,” Stout said. “There is an opportunity to professionally develop with Edge, especially through the annual EdgeCon.”
Before the development of technology, the world was a much smaller place. As technology has grown and emerged, these once cold concepts have developed Brookdale Community College into a warm innovative educational community.
Stout is a testament of this transformation as he first started at Brookdale as a tutor in the school’s psychology department. He went onto graduate school with the goal of becoming a psychological counselor. Now, he’s the president. Through all of this time, the reason he’s stayed at Brookdale is the College’s culture, partly due to the institution’s enhanced technology and focus on using these tools to develop relationships and create student success.
“The people who are here and the very warm culture have created something very special about Brookdale,” he said. “I was bit by the Brookdale bug and I’m not going anywhere.”