School this year will be far different than any we’ve experienced before. Elementary and high schools are wrestling with hybrid teaching models. Universities are testing the waters of in-person teaching; some already have retreated to online-only classes. And at the technical colleges, they’re navigating an uncertain world where students can only learn the skills they need by being on campus, in person, their hands getting to know the technology they’ll soon be using on the job.
A few weeks ago, Enterprise Minnesota staff sat down with four officials from technical colleges around the state. And while they did show concern about enrollment numbers and teaching scenarios, they also revealed a level of preparedness and gumption that has us feeling bullish about the state of technical education in Minnesota.
Technical colleges, in some ways, are ahead of the curve in terms of teaching remotely. For example, instructors in Alexandria are using a tool called Owl to take virtual learning beyond the two-dimensional world of Zoom. And faculty, some of whom have been teaching in traditional modes for decades, are adapting to this new normal and educating themselves on new technologies. In some ways the coronavirus pandemic has been a blessing: It has pushed faculty, in some cases, beyond comfort zones, forcing them to adapt to new ways of learning in the virtual environment. The result, of course, is better-prepared students heading into the manufacturing community, where workforce issues remain.
There are, obviously, reasons for concern.
Enrollments are down everywhere, which was to be expected. With so much uncertainty, few would blame prospective students for postponing a college enrollment decision until things get less weird.
State funding for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities hasn’t been great, either. During the last session, MnSCU asked the Legislature for $246 million in new funding. The system only received $81 million.
Parents, according to some of our roundtable participants, could do a much better job of giving technical education the consideration it deserves. As one college president put it, too many parents have the attitude that a technical education is great, “Just not for my kid.”
Despite the above concerns, officials at technical colleges say they’re optimistic about the future. As the economy slowly returns to normal, manufacturers are doing the same. And as they work their way through the darkness, one crucial factor plays in their favor: Partnerships with manufacturers, our roundtable with college officials revealed, have never been stronger.
So even though technical college enrollments are down and funding isn’t where we’d like it to be, we’re confident these institutions are nimble and creative enough to continue training the manufacturing workforce of the future.
Featured story in the Fall 2020 issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine.