Special-Edition Foreword — “Commencement: The Beginning of a New Era in Higher Education”

Listen to the podcast on Inkandescent Radio Commencement debuted as Amazon’s #1 New Release in the higher-education administration category and remains atop several category bestseller lists

First, there was the podcast; then there was the book; now there is a revolution. Learn all about it in this month's interview on the Distance Learning Roundtable show with the authors of "Commencement."

By Pat Cassell, Executive Director
United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA.org)

Change is a constant — in our lives and in our work. And as we enter a new era in higher education, there is perhaps no better example of the ever-present power of change than within the virtual and physical walls of our colleges and universities in the United States. When managed accordingly, change in higher education can bring about truly positive outcomes. As more institutions of higher education embrace necessary change and notable innovation, we see a meaningful impact on campuses and in communities, with a greater number of qualified graduates to fill high-paying, in-demand jobs and with increased learning productivity leading to degrees in a shorter timeframe. In the 2020s, higher education is speeding up, leveling up, and standing up to new challenges and opportunities.

However, what might be most concerning to today’s educational leaders is the rate of change we are currently experiencing — across every segment of the industry, across every type of learner population, and across every intricate element of operation. If leaders are asleep at the wheel, they might quickly see their bread-and-butter enrollment vanish faster than a federal budget dollar.

Students demand flexibility, instructors want to be compensated for the additional work and exponential increase in faculty/student relationships that hybrid instruction can require, and classes need to reflect jobs that don’t yet exist. So … are you still interested in that open University President position? Because it’s tough at the top in an industry under fire — an industry where you serve changing populations with changing expectations through changing times. Kate Colbert and Dr. Joe Sallustio tell us in the opening pages of Commencement that “Higher education is no longer about ‘or.’ It’s about ‘and.’” They are right. Students, faculty, staff, administrators, employers, and partners of higher education don’t just want something different today — they want (and deserve) more.

Pat Cassella, CEO and executive director, United States Distance Learning Association, USDLA.org

When the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) was founded some 36 years ago, our focus was to provide video conferencing expertise and guidance to the global educational community. Colleges and universities around the world turned to our board of directors, comprising mostly institutional presidents and industry executives, to learn about design choices and best practices. In those early days, the data was primitive, and the video conference systems we spoke of were both expensive and unreliable.

But we are hard-wired for human connection — in our personal and professional lives, as well as during our educational experiences — and the education industry had an opportunity to become more inclusive, more accessible, more flexible, and more affordable. And technology was key to the opportunities that lay before us. So, for all the shortcomings of “distance learning innovations” several decades ago, we were on a path to somewhere important and USDLA stakeholders knew it. As such, industry professionals came to our conferences to hear about the good, the bad, and the ugly truths from the experts.

Having been in the educational technology field for some 20+ years, I’ve seen rapid rates of change and watched as the disruptive technologies that followed inevitably changed our lives forever. What was once massive and out of reach is now affordable and ubiquitous. Video conferencing capability that required six-figure budgets and involvement from your local telecommunications company to deploy now sits squarely in the palm of your hand. This same magnitude and rate of change is quickly altering the higher education landscape forever.

There is a striking similarity between those early USDLA days and the topics discussed in Commencement: The Beginning of a New Era in Higher Education. The book’s co-authors, Kate Colbert and Joe Sallustio, EdD, have effectively translated the challenges facing today’s presidents, deans, and other leaders — as well as staff, faculty, students, ed-tech companies, and workforce developers — into digestible, bite-sized nuggets
of information (complete with ambitious projections and actionable recommendations) that can be used to shape the educational landscape for years to come.

Today’s higher education customer (the learner, student, or corporate-education client) is better informed than that of past generations and seemingly far less patient; they want education to be from anywhere, at any time, as they navigate a lifestyle much different from their predecessors. Some of the customers clamoring to be served in new (and better) ways are traditional college students fresh out of high school, while others are either already established in their careers or climbing the corporate ladder. Regardless, they want (and need) the ultimate flexibility from an institution to make education work for them. Commencement is the industry’s must-read playbook on how to make education work for all its stakeholders; it is a diverse collection of inspiring ideas about how to “meet students where they are” during this unique moment in history.

Change is the end game here, and those who resist it will be gone in a few short years. Institutional adaptation and flexibility are the primary ingredients for success in this age of rapid change. For a good example of how the industry is evolving (and being revolutionized), look no further than the town/gown partnerships that are taking higher education from “an island,” to borrow the words of Colbert and Sallustio, to an integral part of the community and the workforce. Higher education’s partnerships with industry employers are no longer a “nice to have” — they are mandatory for a college or university’s survival as courses are tweaked (and entire programs are developed) for those high-earner jobs that today’s graduates are seeking. Throw in the added benefit of some co-op work programs to provide a graduate who is “employment-ready,” and you have the winning trifecta of a happy (employed!) graduate, a booming community full of thriving organizations, and a sustainable higher-education institution that’s meeting the demands of students and employers alike.

Our distance and digital learning association is not immune from change; as an example, our mission now focuses more on pedagogy and how to best leverage the hundreds of distance/digital learning tools versus how to construct the networks themselves. Partner engagement is also year-round rather than annually at a single conference, as we have grown to regularly provide free webinars to help keep you up to speed with the latest trends.

It’s our honor to provide value to you at every turn, and we’re thrilled to be gifting you with this special-edition copy of Commencement — a book that has become a guiding light for our association by providing insight on shaping our service offerings to best align with the member and industry partner stakeholders we serve. Whether it’s how to ensure flexibility and access for students, the way community service can help to drive ROI for students and community organizations alike, or the importance of embracing competency-based and skill-based education, this book has it all.

I predict it will become well-worn from multiple readings within my library and I believe it should be within immediate reach of anyone responsible for driving change in a fast-moving industry.

Pat Cassella, CEO & Executive Director, United States Distance Learning Association, USDLA.org