Paul LeBlanc: “Truly transformative learning only happens when students feel that you care”

When Paul LeBlanc took office as president of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) back in 2003, it had just 2,800 students. Today, 19 years later, it has around 180,000 students and has become the largest distance education university in the United States. But what has really positioned him as one of the most innovative and influential academics – Forbes magazine has distinguished him as one of its 15 “classroom revolutionaries” – is a vision of higher education that vindicates the importance of human relations in learning, avoids traditional exams and defends a competency-based teaching model capable of adapting to the changing needs of students. The Camilo José Cela University, which awarded him the Honoris Causa doctorate this Tuesday, highlights his professional career.

LeBlanc speaks, at the headquarters of the Madrid university in Villafranca del Castillo, about the more than 40 million Americans who started higher education but had to drop out and about those whose personal circumstances prevented them from even trying, and reflects on the need to modify a system that, in the United States, has saddled college graduates with €1.7 trillion in debt. A first-generation immigrant (of Canadian origin, he immigrated with his parents to the United States when he was just a child, and was the first in his family to go to university), LeBlanc is the author of the books Students First and Broken, where he claims a transformation that transcends the limits of education and that dignifies and humanizes people. “A great university gives the opportunity to have challenges.

Ask. What role should human relations have in higher education?

Response. Truly transformative learning does not happen if there is not a relationship with someone involved. I am not talking about an education based on the ability to read a book or listen to a talk, and then repeat it like a parrot to the teacher to get a good grade, but about a transformative education that really impacts people’s lives. Students cannot thrive until they feel that they matter, not necessarily to the entire educational institution, but to the teacher who really knows and advises them. When we think about the people who have most influenced us in life, beyond our parents, many of us remember that teacher who was interested in us and bothered to know who we are.

The other important aspect is raising their aspirations, helping students to dream of a better future for themselves. For that I have to be able to give someone that vision about what and who they are, and that is something that will not happen through technology, nor through a good curriculum, a lecture or a textbook. It happens when we talk to each other and I, as a student, feel not only that my teacher knows me, but that I also know him (or her). It is the emotional availability of that person that connects with you, celebrates your successes and supports you when you have a hard time moving forward. And the same thing happens in health care: research shows that patients do better when they feel that doctors really know them.

Q. Isn’t it paradoxical to defend the importance of human relations from a university specialized in distance education?

R. That’s because people mix being in the same space with developing an interpersonal relationship. It is not the same: I have a very close relationship with my daughter and she lives on the West Coast of the United States. For us, with 180,000 students, the key has been the work of the academic advisors, who are really more like instructors of life. They are people who stay with you throughout your academic life, who get to know you and find out when you are having a hard time moving forward. We use artificial intelligence to monitor the progress of the student, how they are doing in their classes and exams, how often they connect… All this data is incorporated into the system so that, when a counselor gets on the phone with you, they know more than what they would know otherwise and can be more efficient, Focusing on the things that really matter. “Hey, how’s that Statistics class going?” “Wow, it’s killing me.” “What’s going on?”. “Well, it’s not really the stats. My boss is an asshole, work is terrible, the kids are driving me crazy… I’m falling behind.” “Well, let’s take a minute and see how we can get you to re-enlist.” And at that point, you’re not really talking about learning.

Q. Why is a competency-based model better, and how important is it to change the way knowledge is assessed?

A. Competency education does not have to imply that you change your pedagogy, or that you should stop teaching master classes or change the objectives of your program. What you, as a teacher, consider really important can still be there. But there are two questions to be asked, and no teacher should ever be afraid of them: what do you think your students will be able to do with what they learn? And the second thing would be, how do you know that they will be able to do it?

If you’re using traditional tests, that’s in most cases a terrible way to assess, and the research leaves no doubt about that. When we talk about developing competencies, the evaluation has to be focused on performance. We see it clearly where life becomes more important, as for example in the case of nurses. We don’t tell them: “It’s good that you got all the tuition, now go and be a nurse.” No. They will have to do many hours of practice and show what they can do, under the supervision of an experienced nurse. And the same goes for pilots: it’s great that you went to flight school and know why a plane is able to fly. But before leaving you in charge you are going to spend a good time in a simulator; then you will sit in the seat on the right and an experienced pilot will evaluate your skills. That is, it is clear that we know how to evaluate when we really care. And we should care all the time, if we really care about integrity.

Q. How should higher education institutions adapt to the new demands for lifelong learning?

A. Traditionally, universities were based on the idea that you went there for a few years, accumulated a series of credentials, and then entered the job market for the rest of your life. But that is an outdated industrial model; today we know that the average life of the skills we acquire is three years, so people will be constantly learning and recycling. The workforce and the marketplace are changing at a ferocious speed, and that will force us in and out of the higher education ecosystem, without getting another degree. It might be for a two-day, two-week, or two-month apprenticeship, or it might be for a micro-credential. The problem is that most higher education is not designed to respond so quickly to those needs…

We’re seeing other education providers emerge, and that’s where the disruption is happening. With programming bootcamps, for example. We [SNHU] have incorporated these types of intensive courses, six and nine months, on UX design, software engineering, cybersecurity… We can make someone who earns $19,000 at their job go up to $65,000, and that changes lives. . But we can’t stop there: we are thinking about modular micro-credentials that can be accumulated to obtain degrees; we have to build universities that can think fluidly and flexibly.

Q. What are the biggest challenges that exist for this necessary transformation of higher education?

R. The first challenge is that of a change in regulation, because education is so regulated that innovating is especially difficult. We need to create safe and controlled spaces to experiment, and tell them: “You can try different things, models that are not approved today, as long as you stay within this space, let’s see what you do and there is transparency in the results.” There also needs to be a culture change within academic institutions and the people who make them up. And keep in mind that there are two types of innovation: do we want to try new things that improve what we already do, or are we experimenting to really change the way we do things?

To achieve a real change, all members of the educational community must be involved, and use as an example those who are more or less already doing something that I would like to try. This has also been done in the field of health: in developing countries, for example, where they tried to change parenting practices to improve the health of babies. At first, they didn’t even want to listen. But when they said, “Look, your neighbor here is doing what we tell you, and he looks at his babies, they’re healthy,” their reaction was very different. So when you’re trying to innovate to improve the experience for your students, you have to work with all stakeholders.

Q. What role can and should technology play in this transformation?

R. The technology has countless applications that go beyond artificial intelligence, which we mentioned before. For example, I am extremely fascinated by games and simulators; those immersive environments that hook you so much that time passes without you realizing it, right? Well, with our best learning, the same thing happens. When we are learning something that really catches our interest and suddenly you ask yourself: “But where has the time gone?”. What if we could make more learning happen like this? When you are so immersed that you want to keep trying and working hard, without giving up; when the learning environment gives you enough so that, without giving you the answer, it helps you find it for yourself. And when you do, it’s tremendously stimulating, a real serotonin rush.

Simulators help us to recreate virtual practice environments that would be very expensive to reproduce and that help students to be more productive, faster and more efficient when they reach real physical spaces. Our video game design students, for example, created a simulator for Boston’s Children Hospital, because new ER nurses sometimes got the doses of important medications wrong. That is something that may not be so crucial with adults, but it can be fatal in the body of a baby. In that simulation, the nurse had 15 seconds to insert the correct dose into a real syringe, connected to the computer, and administer it in the midst of a chaotic environment, with alarms ringing, people running, a baby crying on the stretcher.

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