Richard F. Andersen doesn’t believe technology-laden campuses should be exclusive to the bigwigs of higher education.

For expansive universities with nine-digit budgets, lectures via webcast, state-of-the-art simulators, and wired classrooms have become the norm. But Andersen—vice president for information systems at Tidewater Community College in Virginia—has helped beef up his own campus’s technology infrastructure to give students a major university education on a community college campus.

"We’re aware that there probably aren’t a lot of community colleges that are getting into these things in a big way," said Andersen, a former naval officer and a Tidewater information systems official for 12 years.

Tidewater’s technology prowess earned a top-five ranking in the Center for Digital Education’s list of the most tech-savvy community colleges in the United States. The school, which has 40,000 students on four campuses across southeastern Virginia, finished fifth among the largest community colleges in the country, which have more than 7,500 students.

Among Tidewater’s tech accomplishments is an online library system that lets students conduct internet chats with librarians, who help students navigate the college’s vast book collection. Andersen said the system was ideal for adults returning to college who don’t have time to drive to campus and spend hours researching for class projects and papers.

"It’s just part of what students now expect," he said.

Tidewater also offers simulations for a host of professions. The college has a big rig simulator that puts students in the driver’s seat of an 18-wheel truck and allows them to practice negotiating tight turns and hilly terrains before they ever get on the road. It also has a nursing simulator that allows students to virtually participate in surgical procedures. These procedures are sometimes recorded for a webcast and shown to other nursing students as they prepare to use the simulator, Andersen said.

As college tuition has steadily risen over the last decade—and this year’s economic downturn has made it more difficult for students to secure private loans—Andersen said two-year institutions should strive to bolster technology on affordable campuses.

"[Students] are looking for an academically rigorous environment, and also one that’s as close to a four-year institution life as they can get," he said, adding that 38 percent of Tidewater students take at least one online course. "And we’re not your ho-hum community college from 20 years ago."

Michael Summers, vice president for academic and student affairs, said Tidewater’s computer capabilities have convinced students—especially recent high school graduates—to stay at the college more than just one semester or one year.

"I don’t think students come here based on how much technology we have," he said. "I think students stay here based on how much technology we have."

Links:

Center for Digital Education Survey

Tidewater Community College