Northeast Wisconsin Technical College is leveraging technology in new and innovative ways to improve learning equity, organizational efficiency, and students' experiences.
Imagine a college or university class filled with students from diverse backgrounds. One of the students is a recent high school graduate—a go-getter with a 4.0 GPA and a lot to say. He is passionate about robotics but lacks hands-on skills. Another student, looking curiously at her extroverted classmate, is a single mom with ten years of experience in manufacturing. She dreams of advancing her career, so she's returned to college to pursue a degree. Then there is an Air National Guard member who works full time in a home-improvement store. She brings a great deal of practical experience to class but has little patience for anything that wastes her time.
Now imagine that all three students—and several others with different strengths, experiences, and personalities—are learning the course material at various paces in one classroom located in a three-room building over one hundred miles away from the main campus.
With digital transformation (Dx), such a scenario could one day become a reality for colleges and universities nationwide. According to Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC), the many benefits of Dx for higher education include increased equity and accessibility in learning—leading to more highly skilled graduates living purpose-filled lives and helping their companies thrive.
Already on a path to providing personalized learning, NWTC envisions a future where Dx enables the college to customize instruction specifically to meet each individual student's needs. H. Jeffrey Rafn, NWTC president, connects the concept with one of the college's core values—equity.
"This notion of equity is to start where the student is at, not where the college wants the student to be," Rafn said. "That takes a lot of effort, time, and customization. I think the digital environment will allow us to continue to move in a direction in which every student will have his or her own education plan and experience tailored to what they bring as strengths and weaknesses to the institution. Education becomes much less uniform and much more customized."
Increasing accessibility to education is another part of the appeal of Dx for NWTC. The college serves the Green Bay metro area, which has a population of more than 320,000, and many rural communities throughout its nine-county district (an area as large as Connecticut).
"For me, digital transformation is about creating more access and mobility in learning so that it becomes possible to deliver more hands-on experiences in the virtual setting," Rafn said. "It will also allow us to do virtual hands-on experiences off campus in our regional centers."
Of course, as with any innovation, there are challenges.
"In the business of higher ed, these digitally based systems (hardware and software) need to be able to integrate with each other and be secure," said Dan Mincheff, NWTC chief information officer. "The wide array of tools we implement need to work together without a ton of customizations, and they need to be reliable."
"Most importantly," Mincheff continued, "the tools need to meet the students where they are, so they are easy to use, intuitive, and require little overhead in terms of connection speeds or hardware requirements. Some of our students may have limited technical skills, limited broadband access, or only a mobile device, so our systems need to be flexible in how they are accessed and by whom. That is not a small ask of our partners. It is a challenging environment to create and within which to work."
Embracing Dx Learning Equipment and Tools
NWTC has used high-tech simulators for many years in its health sciences, trades, and public-safety programs. Now, the institution is exploring the benefits of extended reality in a wide range of programs—from architecture to nursing to prototype and design to manufacturing.
NWTC is a grant recipient of and participant in the HP/EDUCAUSE Campus of the Future, a multiyear research project exploring the benefits of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and 3D printing/scanning in higher education. Of the thirty research study members, NWTC is the only technical college involved in year four of the grant project. Major research institutions, including Yale University and Stanford University, are providing research and developing technology for the project. Following are some of the ways that NWTC is integrating the latest devices into technical training and education:
- With AR, students in architecture classes can "see" their designs at scale and "walk" through the buildings in their designs, which allows students to see issues and opportunities that are not usually identified until construction is in progress.
- IT students are gaining hands-on learning experiences in programming, setting up, and troubleshooting AR/VR technology.
- Students in three NWTC College of Business programs are piloting VR tools to practice public speaking. Students are learning to communicate more effectively and build skills in a variety of simulated situations—from job interviews to large presentations.
- NWTC is launching new Industry 4.0 programs, including a data analytics associate degree and an additive manufacturing certificate.Footnote1
- With new HP Jet Fusion 3D-printing technology, students in the engineering programs are learning to create prototypes more quickly and multiple variations within the same print run. NWTC is also looking at the possibility of 3D printing course materials for other programs, such as models for health sciences programs.
- Also in the health sciences programs, NWTC is expanding the use of virtual simulations which blend at-home learning with the college's high-end, on-campus simulators. The virtual labs are portable enough to be run at home with the proper equipment, such as NWTC's new HP G2 VR headsets.
"Some of the newer tools, like AR/VR, are not only going to allow us to create more immersive environments for our students but also to provide virtual hands-on experiences for students in remote settings," Rafn said. "That's going to be increasingly important as we move into an environment that will become more hybrid—in terms of not only learning but work itself. Having those tools, knowing how to use them, and using them in a way that enhances the education and increases access to education is going to be critical."
NWTC is currently developing experiential learning labs that will provide both students and businesses with hands-on learning opportunities in AR/VR technology. Many of the labs are coming online this fall.
In addition to embracing digital tools that are transforming education, NWTC is leveraging technology to improve its daily operations and student experience.
A large collection of software is used to run the college. All of the systems must be able to work together to provide a seamless, reliable, and invisible social and academic support system for the student.
- CRM software engages prospective students and maintains connections to alumni.
- Early alert systems allow the college to rapidly respond to the needs of students who are struggling academically or with life experiences.
- Student-success software tracks engagement in and out of class and provides automated access to student-support services.
- An ever-evolving student-facing portal improves the customer's experience when navigating the enrollment process.
- Digital signature software helps eliminate paperwork.
- Artificial-intelligence-based security helps keep the college running as efficiently as possible.
- Digital tools for learning management, career exploration and job placement, telecounseling, advising, and academic planning and scheduling help students reach their goals.
By moving many tools to the cloud, NWTC is changing the focus of the IT department's work to center on relationships and vendor management.
"It's not in our on-premises data center where we will affect future change for our students," Mincheff said. "We are looking to implement more cloud-based student-facing tools. We need to have strong partnerships and relationships with our vendors that will ensure the same reliability we expect from our own systems. We're holding our technology partners to a higher standard to deliver on this promise of digital transformation. We aren't just jumping at the new flashy item; we are being strategic in the investments we need to make with the funding we have available."
Pioneering Cultural Change
As NWTC takes steps toward Dx, faculty, staff, and learning leaders are playing pivotal roles in the change process. Both Mincheff and Rafn believe the college is becoming more open to digital change, with the pandemic helping to accelerate the cultural shift.
"Early adopters in the workplace become the drivers and the pioneers," said Rafn. "They influence other, more reticent faculty to incorporate and try new digital strategies."
"More faculty are asking for technology solutions to help them do what they need to do," Mincheff added. "Our faculty are willing to go out of their comfort zone to work with the tools and incorporate them into the curriculum. It's amazing how engaging a virtual environment is—much more than people expect it to be."
For learning leaders like Sue Zittlow, associate dean in the NWTC College of Business, digital tools are instrumental to student success. "We're using a ton of different data tools. We have business analysts and data analysts and now a financial analyst," said Zittlow. "We have people who are truly running the numbers to help us as learning leaders be better with what we are doing so we can help our faculty be better at what they are doing. So ultimately, our students can succeed."
Dx: The Human Factor and a Promising Future
Companies in all industries—from health care to manufacturing to higher education—are transforming the way they do business. For decision-making, more organizations are demanding evidential data rather than relying solely on "gut feel."
"With this revolution, you have all this digitization, all this data," said Jill Thiede, NWTC associate dean, Industry 4.0 academic programs. "We now are able to collect data with smart sensors in ways we never were able to before. We're able to send that data via Wi-Fi or 5G. And then to store data, we have cloud storage; we have local storage. Once you collect the data, the real challenge is to analyze the data. There are so many different tools to parse through the data and great opportunities to gain new insights with machine learning and artificial intelligence."
With the rise of big data and Dx, employer demand for individuals who can work with data and new technologies is also increasing. And NWTC is prepared to meet the demand.
"All that data is for naught unless you have people who can analyze the data, gain insights from the data, and take action," said Thiede. "That's why helping our students and helping the future workforce get prepared to take these actions based on the data is what reveals that promise of digital transformation."
Starting this fall, IT students at NWTC will work with trades and engineering students in scenarios they can expect to see in industry. For example, data collected in the electromechanical class will be used as model data in business analyst and data analytics classes. The cross-curricular collaboration will provide hands-on experiences, reinforce team building, and foster students' ability to work across diverse groups, improving their employability.
Students with AR/VR and 3D-printing skills will also become valuable assets to their employers.
"There are companies who are using AR today to repair their machines—putting information into holographic headsets, helping people do their daily tasks," Thiede said. "Getting our students comfortable with that is going to help business and industry keep pace with the technologies in order to be competitive in a global environment."
Both Thiede and Zittlow see their students becoming increasingly more comfortable using virtual training tools. The NWTC learning leaders are excited for a future shaped by Dx.
"Think about what you can learn and experience in a virtual environment. It is a game changer," Zittlow said. "You are immersed wherever you look. You are in that environment; you are experiencing that environment. You can explore and try without affecting others, noting your own perspective. Practicing and having success in a virtual experience gives you a lot of confidence to try it for real."
"It is about your ability to experience so many different things in one location," Thiede added. "You don't have to physically go to different sites to try those things out. And that is going to revolutionize how students figure out what careers they want and then how they actually learn it."
For higher education, Dx certainly promises exciting possibilities. Through Dx, learning can occur regardless of class location or student demographics. And that means a class of students with different strengths, experiences, and personalities will be able to learn course material at various paces—perhaps all in one classroom in a three-room building, over one hundred miles away from the college's main campus.
- For more information, visit the Industry 4.0 Education and Training web page. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
Ann Malvitz is the Communications Content Writer at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.
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