Susan Aldridge

President of Drexel University Online and Co-Founder of Virtually Inspired, Dr. Susan Aldridge, shares her perspective on the current state and future of online learning with particular attention to the next generation ecosystem that supports it.

Recognized worldwide as a highly accomplished higher education leader and strategist, Susan has spent the last 21 years serving in executive leadership positions in some of the largest universities in the United States. Before joining Drexel University, she served as President of the University of Maryland University College. She was also a Senior Fellow at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) where she co-authored a book, Wired for Success: Real-World Solutions for Transforming Higher Education.

Susan is a frequent keynote speaker at national and international conferences and consultant to university presidents, government officials, and business leaders, in the areas of quality technology-enhanced learning, student success, sustainable campus growth, and global academic partnerships.  She has received multiple national awards in recognition of her achievements and has served on numerous higher education boards and task forces.


This is such an interesting time in higher education. We’re seeing challenges we’ve never seen before. We’re seeing enormous opportunities.

What are these ‘tectonic plate shifts’ in higher education?

In the next few years, there will be a steep decline in the high school graduates in the northeastern part of the United States as well as the Midwest. We’re already seeing the fallout of that in some colleges in the northeast already and in some of the changes in the way in which colleges offer their programs in the in the Midwest. After the financial decline in 2008 there was a steep decline in birth rates. They haven’t recovered since that time. So what we’re really seeing is the ramification of the 2008 financial decline and the birth rate decline that’s having an impact on us now. The northeast has a sufficient number of higher education institutions. Students have choices here but that also means we’re competing for the same best students to come to our campuses. This year we’ve seen four different small universities give notice that they’re not going to be enrolling new students. We expect that they’ll be continued decline and closures of some small campuses in the Northeast and potentially some in the Midwest as well but in the south the high school graduates are expected to grow. So the question is whether institutions can attract students from across the United States or whether we’re so regionally branded that we’re going to have a difficult time recruiting students from other geographic areas. Student expectations are changing. The students are sophisticated. They want to self-serve. They make most of their judgments about a university based upon the website. We have to be more proactive in the terms of the way we differentiate ourselves as an institution. We have to be more proactive in the way that we tell students what the return on investment or the value for the investment is going to be given the price of our tuition.

Students are also looking for unique programming. They’re looking for opportunities to leverage multiple programs to ensure that they’ll have job opportunities in the future. So they want to be able to combine a liberal arts degree with some computer programming. They want to be able to leverage their biology degree with some management courses or business courses so the students are demanding different types of packaging of traditional academic programs and our institutions continue for the most part to still be very stove piped in terms of the academic programming. We’re also looking at shifts in terms of how students expect their education to be delivered. So today we have traditional face to face courses hybrid courses a combination of face to face and online and traditional online programs. Working professionals and students who live at a distance come to us looking for particular programs to enhance their careers. Older adults are coming back to school wanting to fulfill their requirements in their profession. They know the academic program they’re looking for. So institutions that think that they can just advertise regionally for traditional programs are really going to miss the market of the National Students who want to come back to school because the knowledge has changed in such a rapid fashion that when they finish their bachelor’s degree they didn’t know what they were going to need to fulfill their career goals. So now they’re going to have to come back to school for advanced degrees as higher education institutions we want to be able to serve those students but it means we’re going to have to shift the way in which we think about education and the way in which we deliver education.

What role does technology play in ensuring an institution’s administrative success?

From an administrative perspective the use of technology has really enhanced our ability to be efficient and simultaneously meet student expectations or utilizing artificial intelligence to help us determine how long students spend on a Web site. What types of information they’re looking for. What types of inquiries they have so that we then can build better websites so students can self-serve; answer the questions themselves. It makes our staff more efficient. It gives the students the information they need to make their own decisions about pursuing their education. We can scale the staff scheduling based upon peak hours. We can have efficient routing of students that are most likely to be successful at Drexel University. So all of this is done through artificial intelligence where we’re constantly learning and we’re adapting the way in which we serve these students based upon their likelihood to succeed here. At Drexel University online, we are also using technology in some interesting ways in terms of serving students based upon their preference. So I’m proud to say that our team has created a cloud based system that allows us to communicate with students in a way they want to be communicated with their preferred communication method. So we’re able to chat, to have video conferencing, to email them, to talk on the phone, and the students can choose their mode of communication with us and our staff have all of these tools available for them to be able to communicate based upon student preference. These are the small ways that we meet the students’ needs and delight them, but it’s also how we become much more efficient as an institution the more we study what our students need, the better we’re going to be in the more efficient we’re going to be about the systems we design to support them from the time their prospective student all the way through their academic career with us and as they become an alumni we want to be able to support them with career services and opportunities to come back to regain their knowledge.

How does technology fit into the online classroom at Drexel?

Some people have a misconception about online. They think online learning is all about self-paced, read only, chat only, talking head videos. We are beyond that. It’s not to say that there aren’t some of those courses out there but we’re way beyond that in our thought process about how we can use this technology revolutionize the way in which students experience the application of their knowledge in real world scenarios. We use avatars in our nursing courses so that students can ask a question verbally and an avatar answers verbally responses to questions about a patient assessment. These smart avatars are have thousands of different responses so the students are able to practice, practice, practice in that type of an environment so that when they come out of a course they really know how to conduct a patient assessment. We use drones to teach our construction management students how drones are being used in construction sites, how they’re being used in wetlands management, how to survey construction sites, how to look at progress and improvement that is made on projects. So if we take these opportunities to make the investments in our courses what we’re really investing in is the learning outcomes for the students that would be much better than even in a face to face course if they didn’t have this technology.

How might we use technology in creating a ‘digital ecosystem’ for students?

One is that given the rate of change the pace of change. We used to think that knowledge doubled to every twenty five years. Now the pace of knowledge creation and knowledge change is about every thirteen months and with the internet of things that’s going to decrease over time. So how as professionals, when we finish a degree go out into the workforce, how as professionals do we continue to be at the top of our knowledge in our profession or how do we change professions and acquire the new knowledge that we need. We used to talk about lifelong learners. We have to be lifelong learners now. So our universities hopefully are pitching ourselves to our prospective students. As your academic provider of choice for your lifetime. When the students first come to us we want them to be able to experience what an online course is like. So we built a free test drive for the students. It gives the students the confidence that they can succeed in an online environment and it gives them access to current students, alumni, faculty who teach in the program, enrollment counselors to just explore the possibilities give them the self-confidence that they can be successful in an online environment. We’ve built a number of small infographics and videos to help students learn how to manage their time to support them in terms of some of the pain points that they might have and simultaneously give us an opportunity to really upgrade the entire experience that they have in this digital environment. So I find that this is one of the most exciting times to be in higher education. If we really explore what’s innovative and think carefully through the ways in which we can create new active and engaging experiences for our students.