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Future of Higher Education

Guiding a College Through Digital Transformation

We talked to Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D., president of Spelman College, about the tools and practices that have helped her school go virtual, for the pandemic and beyond.

Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D.

President, Spelman College

This past year has challenged the traditional model of higher education in many ways. What excites you about the way higher education is evolving? 

The rapid onset of the pandemic forced students and faculty members into a virtual learning environment with no warning. By necessity, faculty members had to become experts at teaching online and students had to become adept at learning in a virtual environment. 

The timing of this transition could not have been more auspicious. Spelman had begun the process of building an online educational program targeted toward adult learners. The excitement of repurposing existing courses and developing new ones coincided with the college’s plan to establish online learning for working adults. Our plans for online gained momentum as faculty members engaged in the creative opportunity to develop courses, certificates, and stackable credentials for a brand new audience. 

In the years ahead, successful higher education institutions will become much more agile and versatile as they customize educational offerings along a broad lifetime spectrum. From young adults coming of age who cherish a residential experience, to mature working adults who are managing a family, work, and school, higher education will be more adaptable to the needs of more expansive audiences. 

How do you view the relationship between arts and sciences?

Art and science, practiced at their highest levels, have a great deal in common. My husband, George Campbell, Jr., Ph.D., was trained as a theoretical particle physicist and I was trained as an art historian. From our respective perspectives, art and science are efforts to make sense of the world. Both are creative endeavors that require imagination, invention, and risk-taking. 

What tools have been most helpful to Spelman in its digital transformation during the pandemic?

Spelman’s digital transformation began when the decision was made to migrate its primary administrative systems to the cloud. This move triggered a new approach to system implementation and instigated the transformation of our many essential processes and the way we store and access data. 

The pandemic provided an opportunity to accelerate this digital transformation through the introduction of new tools and the updating of existing ones. Leveraging the cloud as a means for providing flexible, on-demand, and secure access to digital resources will continue to be a critical component of our transformation going forward.  

Consistent access to high-quality broadband is another important tool and an area in which some faculty, staff and students struggle. Spelman provides hotspots, laptops, and technical support as needed, but this situation clearly demonstrates that broadband access is not as ubiquitous as previously thought. This is a barrier that needs to be addressed at the national level.  

The Learning Management System (LMS) was, and will continue to be, a critical component of our digital transformation. It provides the interface where synchronous, remote teaching and learning happens. Going forward, plans for a new LMS will enhance the college’s ability to realize its goal of making the Spelman academic experience available to digital learners anywhere in the world. 

In addition to high-quality broadband access and the LMS, a messaging and collaboration platform provides cloud-based communication tools, such as email and chat. This platform also provides on-demand meeting, collaboration, and cloud storage, and allows the community to engage with one another for a variety of activities, including counseling, collaboration, and socializing.

Another important set of tools would be platforms that provide the means for online events and large meetings. These tools facilitate two-way communication at scale and allow Spelman to maintain the sense of community that is so important to the well-being of our community. While none of  these technologies replaces face-to-face interaction, they do provide a stop-gap solution that allows the college to continue operating by engaging students and keeping them on track to graduate.

Most importantly, the success we have enjoyed with digital transformation to date has been driven, in large part, not only by technological innovation, but also by people who are willing to exploit a new circumstance while remaining committed to pursuing the highest standard of academic excellence. This innovative spirit and pursuit of excellence will propel our digital transformation well into the future. 

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