Q&A: MCCC’s Celeste Schwartz on the Power of IT to Improve Education
Finding out what students actually want from technology can benefit the entire community in the long run.
EdTech speaks with Celeste Schwartz, the vice president for IT and college services at Montgomery County Community College, a 2016 winner of the Center for Digital Education’s Digital Community Colleges Survey Awards. Schwartz talks about how MCCC leverages IT to help students succeed.
EDTECH: What are the biggest IT issues facing community colleges today?
SCHWARTZ: I’d say challenges around budget. There isn’t more money for equipment or staff. At the same time, there’s a tremendous difference in expectations of students today versus 10 years ago. The students come with a mindset that things will be available, that no matter where they go on the campus, they’re going to be able to get wireless. They also expect ease of use — seamless interfaces that are logical — and at times, that’s not easy to deliver. It really depends on the size of your IT shop, whether you can even do that, because so many of us are not custom developing our own enterprise resource planning systems or learning management systems.
Celeste Schwartz, VP for IT and College Services, Montogomery County Community College.
EDTECH: What role does IT play in student success and retention?
SCHWARTZ: At Montgomery County Community College, the expectation is that IT is at the table and is helping to solve problems. I would say that’s likely not the case at all colleges and universities. As far as student success, we’ve been at this work for a long time. From an IT standpoint, not only have we been helping to identify tools, but we have been working directly with our end users and students around expectations and what they’d like to see. We’re using an early alert system that allows faculty to raise flags, and those flags then trigger automated messages to students or alerts to a student’s adviser. In the first two to three years, we saw a 3 to 4 percent uptick in retention. And we are doing some really promising work right now with a career-planning tool. Students take assessments, and those guide them toward career categories where they are highly likely to be successful. That information is used to start a conversation between the adviser and the student.
EDTECH: MCCC has embraced a mobile-first strategy. What drove MCCC in the direction of a mobile-first strategy?
SCHWARTZ: What drives our mobile-first strategy are the expectations of students. They want to be able to do everything from their phones. Am I going to say that’s true of all of our students? No. But there is certainly a large population of our students that expect that everything is doable from their mobile devices. When we buy software now, we ensure that it’s mobile-ready. We’re in the process right now of a major redesign of the college website, and it’s a very important initiative for us to have a mobile-first design. We’re also working on the student portal and that, once again, is a mobile-first strategy.
EDTECH: Online learning is now decades old, but some people argue that it still hasn’t caught up with in-person instruction. How can community colleges make online classes as meaningful as possible for students?
SCHWARTZ: All of our online faculty go through an extensive training program with instructional designers who are part of my team. We also provide an analytics tool for our learning management system, which is available for both student and faculty use, and we have good adoption of that tool. All of our face-to-face and online classes have a presence on the learning management system, and all course syllabi are located there.
EDTECH: What’s coming next for IT departments at community colleges?
SCHWARTZ: The Internet of Things is an interesting topic. Our IDs allow students to gain access to specialized rooms — for example, a sound recording studio or an engineering lab — and we can track that they’re in those rooms. We’ve talked about tracking attendance in a similar way and collecting data on students’ use of the library, tutoring center, game room and cafeteria. But there’s a balance with student privacy. We need to be concerned about the appropriate use and security of this information. I would expect that by 2020, the IoT will evolve further, connecting students, college-owned devices and student-owned devices to the institution’s private network, significantly increasing the data that is gathered and stored.