In-depth with higher education innovator and pioneer Peter Smith on the emerging revolution in college, career, and digital learning.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Peter Smith, Ed.D., whose distinguished career in higher education includes serving as founding president of both California State University Monterey Bay and the Community College of Vermont, was appointed a five-year term as the Orkand Endowed Chair and Professor of Innovative Practices in Higher Education at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) in April 2016.

In his role as founding president of California State University Monterey Bay, where he served from 1995 to 2005, Smith was responsible for building the university, literally, from the ground up. He guided the institution through all stages of accreditation and raised nearly $100 million from external sources for the development of academic buildings and programs. CSUMB is widely recognized for several core characteristics, including an outcomes-based curriculum, a strong science and technology program, the first wireless computer network on a public university campus in America, a focus on first generation college students, and a commitment to service learning as a core component of the curriculum.

Just two years after earning his Bachelor of Arts from Princeton University in 1968, Smith led the effort to design and establish the Community College of Vermont. As the college’s first president, Smith accepted an additional assignment from the Chancellor of the Vermont State College System to create the Office of External Programs, which included developing the External Baccalaureate Degree program for non-traditional students and a portfolio assessment program for evaluating students’ experiential learning accrued outside of college.

After leaving Cal State Monterey Bay in 2005, Smith was responsible for the supervision and management of more than 700 staff located in more than 30 countries as Assistant Director General for Education for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in Paris, France.

In 2007, Smith joined Kaplan University as a senior vice president for academic strategies and development and more recently served as founding president of Open College at Kaplan University. In that role, Smith used no-cost Open Educational Resources to support learners who work toward a competency-based degree in Professional Studies. Also at Kaplan, Smith was responsible for development and implementation of initiatives to improve academic quality, including a set of policies that are considered the gold standard for online and blended learning.

Smith’s work as dean of the George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development from 1991 to 1994 ultimately led to the school being recognized as one of the leading professional schools in the Mid-Atlantic region and among the top 50 in America.

Smith also served his home state of Vermont as a state senator (1980-82) and as Lt. Governor (1982-86), while earning his Doctor of Education in Administration Planning and Social Policy from Harvard University in 1984.

He ran successfully for the U.S. House of Representatives as Congressman-at-Large from Vermont and served from 1989-1990. While in Congress, Smith was a member of the Education and Labor and Government Operations committees and served on the post-secondary education subcommittee.

Smith has also been a senior fellow at the American Council on Education and vice president for development at Norwich University.

His most recent book is “Free Range Learning in the Digital Age: The Emerging Revolution in College, Career, and Education” (Select Books, 2018). With the emergence of the digital revolution, traditional educational assumptions and programs are being significantly disrupted.

Historically, educational practices that attempted to bridge the gap between adults’ lives, college, and work were marginalized because our society was information-poor and they defied the dominant academic traditions.

Now, the tables are turned.

In our information-rich, digitized society, new technologies and data analytics are defining learning opportunities that were previously unimaginable.

His book defines this new learning space and give the reader the awareness, knowledge, and tools to use it.

And in this deep dive of an interview into the author’s life and mindset—themes from the book and his thoughts about education, technology and the future of learning rise to the surface and are on full display.

Let’s start at the beginning. Not the very beginning, but as a 24-year-old starting at community college in 1970. What were you thinking? What was on your mind back then, and maybe there are parts of that still on your mind now.

Peter:  The answer is yes, and absolutely.

First of all, I won’t go into the circumstances, but they were completely unpredicted, unpredictable, and, in some regards, bizarre that I would end up at age 24 with a master’s degree teaching social studies, which I had never by the way taught for more than one semester in a high school, being the executive director of this commission that was going start a college.

But what took me there were, in fact, experiences I had in Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School in my post-high school and before I graduated from college. I was going to be an outdoor experiential educator because I had really fallen in love with the notion of how much you learn when you’re actually doing things.

That, for many reasons, didn’t pan out as those kinds of dreams don’t, but I retained the experience. And then when I did my student teaching, I was put off by the way the high school was structured, I didn’t like myself as a schoolteacher.

I didn’t like what I was doing with and to kids, and I found the whole thing, for me personally, very stifling. That’s not to say it’s stifling for everybody, or any of the rest of it. So I came back to Vermont and I had to have an internship, and I did an internship with then Commissioner of Education Harvey Scribner, and at his request, I created something called DUO, Do Unto Others.

It was a high school experiential learning program in which kids could get a semester off, sophomores or juniors, to do work in the community and then return to school. We researched it with colleges, and got a lot of good green lights to go ahead and do it. There was no money attached. We ended up, for something like 12 or 15 high schools, doing it.

After I finished my internship, I started a street academy, what we called them, in Montpelier for dropouts—there was no faculty. It was a storefront school. The Montpelier School District found 12 to 15 students who were either dropped out or on the verge of dropping out, and I put together a program that used the courts and businesses and the resources of the community to begin to engage these men and women at a drug crisis center in the school.

It was really living and learning.

I did that for about four months.

The school itself lasted, I’m going say eight or ten years, the facility—but along came the community college opportunity, the commission, and I signed up for that.

I signed up for post-secondary education because it was less regulated, frankly; much less regulated at the time than K-12.

I wanted to be able to invent, but the whole point was to come up with an approach to curriculum that was activity-based, outcomes-based because we were going to use the volunteer teachers at the beginning, now they’re paid a little bit not much, and there was no tuition.

In the beginning, we were going to use the resources of the community. In other words, we weren’t going to have the usual inputs that tell you (or told you theoretically) that there was quality in a college—we had to have outcomes, results, consequences—that would prove that somebody knew what we said they knew.

What happened is, I started to research this kind of a college—this was in October of ’70—and found out very quickly there wasn’t another college like it in the country, but there may have been one or two sort of hybrid approaches, but there was no research and no model.

We decided to start. In other words, “there was no research, so let’s go get some students and find out!”

In January of ’71, we recruited some Head Start mothers up in the Northeast Kingdom, I think from the Barton Parent Child Center. We opened an office in Newport, an office in St. Johnsbury, we had an office in Montpelier or East Montpelier at U-32. Then very quickly we added an office in Springfield, Brattleboro, and then the following year in St. Albans and another town.

We just decided to do it. That’s how it happened. It was a very unlikely story, the whole thing. The first 10 years of the college we had several near-death experiences, but the fundamentals were that we were missing talent in the community that needed and deserved an education and couldn’t get it because of their life circumstances.

“The fundamentals were that we were missing talent in the community that needed and deserved an education and couldn’t get it because of their life circumstances.”

I believe that the resources existed in the community to support qualitative and quality learning, certainly at the associate degree level, I would argue today beyond that. Also, we needed to have learning outcomes because that was the proof of quality, what someone knew and was able to do. And, we were going to try to build the learning we gave people on top of what it was they already knew. That’s now called the Assessment of Prior Learning.

From day one we had some people who had worked at Goddard that had had some experience with this, but it was very new at the time, and we started trying to give these adult learners advance standing for things that we could document that they already knew in the degree program that they were already in.

Those were the kinds of principles and it was all about learning.

The learner came first.

Wrapping the resources of the institution or the organization around the needs of the learner, not asking the learner to change their stripes to do what it was we had determined beforehand what they needed to do.

That’s the start, the long and the short of it.

So you’re the original “student-centric” advocate, really.

Peter:  I don’t know if I’m the original one, but from the moment that I started the Montpelier education facility, it was clear to me that if we didn’t pay attention to the learner and respect the learner and why they were in the circumstances they were in, whatever that was—how they got there and what they needed to get where they wanted to go—that this is personal, we could always insert other kinds of objectives— but we had to start with the needs of the learner.

I would not want to suggest that John Dewey wasn’t learner-centric and he certainly preceded me by decades.

And of course, the old Goddard College, back when they were really pioneers in adult lifelong learning—unfortunately and sadly, not the case any longer—but back in the ’60s and early ’70s there were other people doing forms of it.

But it has governed my life from day one as a professional educator.

Well, you pretty much answered a lot of the second question I had for you which was about—you’ve been designing learning programs for nearly half a century and I was going ask about—the common elements that make for success as we head into a digital, or technological age. 

Peter:  I think that I’ve got a couple of things. I think learner-centric is the key to it, and then the other things do devolve from that. We were right about a bunch of stuff at CCV, but we were right, I’m going to say, inadvertently. In other words, we just thought that was the right way to do things and it turned out it was, if not exactly the right way, close.

But the other thing was a high support environment for the learner, and a high support environment for the adults that are the teachers, the faculty, who are working with the learners because in that case they were not professionals. They were practitioners. Some of them were teachers but most of them, or many of them, were professional you know, a businessman or woman, or a lawyer, or whatever it might be. Or somebody teaching a hobby, and they needed support.

So the thing I would add to those other characteristics is high support environment and linked to the practical application of the certificate or the degree.

In other words, don’t be afraid to talk about helping somebody get a better job or make more money.

You can still get the impact of the liberal arts.

It’s not a binary deal, it’s all a vocational profession or it’s all liberal arts.

You can put the two together.

Don’t be afraid to say that there’s going to be an economic consequence to this because that’s incredibly important, obviously, to a lot of people.

Some leaders choose to focus on say, early childhood education, you touched upon it with the idea about regulation, but was there a specific reason you chose to make your mark felt, and your impact with post-secondary and adult learning as an area of focus—as opposed to some other area?

Peter:  I think the thing that happened was, in plainest and most practical terms, the opportunity presented itself. I had been involved in programs in college. We ran a program where we brought kids onto the campus on Saturday mornings to work with the graduate students in the yards and all sorts of things, so I had already begun a sort of hands-on experiential thing, which continued with DUO and continued with the Montpelier educational facility. It was that philosophy, and then came, frankly, the opportunity to organize or design a college.

Now the only reason I was the best candidate—and that’s the hilarious thing about it is (I really was probably the best candidate, which is ridiculous, but) the only reason was:

Nobody thought it would work.

Nobody was paying any attention to it, and so we flew undercover of darkness and got re-funded by OEO eight or nine months later. We then got funded by the Carnegie Corporation, and then got funded by another source, and by the third year we had more than a million dollars in funding and our annual budget was probably half a million, and we had joined the Vermont State Colleges system almost before anybody knew it.

I had figured out that if the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees would admit us, they had the legal authority to do that, and then in the way we set it up was they said yes, then we went to the legislature and asked for an appropriation. If they gave us an appropriation, we were in. If they did not, we were out. It was a conditional acceptance and they voted us in, and then the legislature gave us, I think, 50,000 bucks. A token amount, but then we had three or four near-death calls in the next four or five years, frankly. Zero funded once in the House Appropriations Committee, but got the money back in the Senate.

By the time I left, there was an enormous amount, more work to do to build the institution, but politically it was, if not all the way safe, 90% safe, and headed for the kind of stability they needed to be able to finish the educational work—which was pretty crazy, in the beginning.

We were doing these things, but we were doing them in many cases for the first time, and making mistakes, and then correcting them.

There’s a real big story about the second 10 years as a community college after I had left and what the presidents and people like Myrna Miller, Tim Donovan, and many other people did that really turned it from an experiment into an institution.

The short answer to your question is, the opportunity presented itself there. That was the pull.

And the push was I realized the Montpelier facility, as much as I loved it, was really solving a problem for the school system but it wasn’t changing high school. What I wanted to do was create a new model, and so in the Montpelier setting the job I had, the model I was creating was simply relieving pressure on the more traditional high school model and that was frustrating to me.

That was the push.

The pull was this opportunity to start with a blank slate.

Was it a matter of having all your ducks in a row, or was it really a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat experience to find out whether or not you were in or out that time, when you were looking for that funding and you got $50,000?

Peter:  There were two times I honestly thought- well, one time I thought the jig was up and it was, I’ll never forget. I never had a moment like that in my life. I literally had to sit down. I was almost incoherent. But happily I was with a couple of my associates, and they said you know, “Just relax. We’re gonna fix this.”

We didn’t fix it, but we found another pot of money—and that was federal money.

The funds were approved in post-secondary education. The source of the money was The Fund for Improvement of Post-Secondary Education. They gave us $750,000, which is the largest grant they ever gave in their lifetime. It was the first year and we were damn lucky. The other time was in the legislature in the Senate. It was the second appropriation and we were asking for $150,000 I think.

They knew they had the Lieutenant Governor’s vote, who’s Brian Burns, and Governor Salmon’s assistant Norman James came to me, I was in the cloakroom, and he says, “You know, if you take it down to 125, we know we have 16 votes. If you leave it at 150, we’re not sure.”

And I looked at him and I said, as I remember it anyways, “Screw it, Norm. It’s time for people to decide. We’ve been doing this for four years, five years. It’s $25,000. It’s all symbol. Let’s go. I want to go for the 150.” He said, “Okay.”

And we got 16 votes.

That was a nail-biter, but in that case I can’t claim anything other than in the moment us saying at some point people need to decide about this college and this form. We can’t keep going half a loaf, half a loaf, half a loaf, which we had done in several ways over the first two or three years politically, financially.

We won and there was one other close call, as I said, two or three years later, but it was great.

They had a hearing, well in the House, it was just after I had left and I came and sat upstairs where no one could see me. There were about 500 people there from all over the state saying we want our college. It was really cool and that was that. The legislators were all sitting there going, “Holy crap. This is something people want.”

There were some close calls, but those are the two I really remember.

We’re talking a lot about education and this is all well and good. But we’re moving into a new age just in the last 5-10 or maybe the last three years—something your book certainly addresses. Before we get too deep into it and perhaps from more of a 30,000-foot altitude, what is technology’s role in education? 

Peter:  It’s to enhance it. Technology doesn’t educate people. Information does, people do, support services do. But what technology can do is to enhance the opportunities, to present much better content, and using artificial intelligence and database analytics, to create scalable opportunities and much better information that’ll allow people to create academic pathways that are career pathways, and allow entirely different participation patterns.

So technology changes everything—but it doesn’t change the fact that learning is a social activity. That’s why MOOCs all by themselves have success completion rates of 5% or 4% or 8%.

The MOOC is not an educational program, it’s a bunch of content.

So what I think of technological enhancements—and that runs from artificial intelligence, database analytics, all the way through to the advanced, we haven’t even seen them yet, virtual realty classrooms. We have online labs, we have all sorts of things—but the trick still is: to put it together in a coherent way that is supportive of the learner and learning, and responsive and respectful to the needs of the learner.

“Technology changes everything—but it doesn’t change the fact that learning is a social activity.”

Even more broadly, what do you believe to be the state of education these days?

Peter:  It all depends on where you stand when you’re looking at it, but I would argue that one, we’re coming to a time when the top 100 colleges are going to, given the model, given the costs, et cetera, are going to be increasingly seen as very good for what they do, but not relevant as a model to solving the manpower needs, lifelong manpower needs of the country and its economy. I think we’re going to see turmoil in the economics and the structures of, I think, the vast majority of the remaining colleges.

I’m thinking of recently accredited colleges. You’re going to see adaptations. You’re seeing them already with new colleges, new divisions being spawned that have all part-time faculty, maybe outcomes-based. You’re seeing colleges begin to assess prior learning much more aggressively because it saves time and money, and they’ve figured out that having a student for two years and giving them a four year degree is better than not having them at all, so they’re changing their so-called residency requirements.

It is a time of disruption, and I am a student of and a believer in Christensen’s Theory of Disruption.

What I write about in the third part of the book is a GPS for learning and work.

We are seeing new services and businesses, non-profit and for profit, some operating entirely separate from institutions of higher education, others operating with them or without them depending on what’s possible to connect people to learning and work, or to learning goals and objectives.

So you’re seeing where the free-range part comes in. It’s not because learners are wandering around by themselves in libraries or online getting, eating their own information; it’s that anything is possible today. Anytime, any place, anything learning is possible—and that is what has changed.

Even 20 years ago, campuses were largely oases of information in an information-poor desert of the community around them. You had these information-rich oases, libraries, laboratories, faculty, et cetera. It was the only game in town. And community colleges, God love ’em and I do, were an extension and a democratization but of that same model.

Now what you have is the desert, if you will, that information-poor community surrounding colleges has gone green. There’s information richness everywhere and the sources of learning and organized learning, and consequences for that, is higher at our, independent higher- are not controlled by colleges any longer.

Those sources, the drivers as new technological enhancements are springing up from the community all across the country and across the world, so colleges don’t control the levers of change any longer.

And that’s the part some of them still don’t understand.

They cannot avoid what’s coming.

They can adapt to it, they can change—but if they ignore it—it’s going to hurt a whole lot of them very badly.

With your years of experience you really have an excellent way of putting your fingers on the pulse  of what’s coming down the line. There’s a fairly new research group headed by Patrick Brothers and Maria Spies: HolonIQ. They’re putting out a lot of interesting content and I was just perusing their work. They say, ‘Welcome to the prove it economy where codified skills, not Ivy League degrees—are the new currency.’ What is your reaction to that—are they right on?

Peter:  I don’t know much about them, but they’re absolutely conceptually correct that other than degrees that are so well branded that people will continue to say if you have that university degree that I’m going to trust that you can do the work.

I don’t think that’s going to change for a while, but I also think even those institutions will ultimately come to an evidence-based claim.

In the meantime, what companies like Credly and Portfolium are doing is exactly that. The whole boot camp, if you will, structural phenomena. They’re saying when you’re done, you are going to be able to do the following things, and increasing number of employers are saying if you can prove it to me, I’m going to be interested in those people.

And then if they want to go back and get more education, they can do that, too.

I think the workplace is going to increasingly be, what I call, one of the major if not the major learning places of the future. Whether it’s just workplaces or other community settings, but the fact of the matter is the technology we have and the ability to actually validate and assess learning in a detailed and a granular way using project-based strategies.

Learning is going to be happening all over the place, not just, to put it mildly, not just on campuses.

“Learning is going to be happening all over the place…not just on campuses.”

One of the things I was really tickled with is I had been in this edtech space quite some time now, almost two decades it seems, and I’m not even that old.

But it’s been a long time and so when I pick up your book, I smiled because I’m familiar with quite a few of your examples and the people that you’ve called upon to help to contribute their voice to this discussion-that-is-more-of-a-movement, and you have Burck Smith, these are people—Mark Milliron, even Paul LeBlanc— these people have been doing some heavy lifting in education for quite some time.

Do you see them as disrupters, are they taking risks where others aren’t? And are there people that are definitely very unfriendly—as opposed to your chapter about adult-friendly—college Presidents?

Peter:  The people you mentioned are absolutely, in the beginning were risk takers, and in the case of Civitas and Straighterline, they guessed right. They put their money where their mouth was, they got additional investors. I’ve known Paul LeBlanc for 25 years, and watched him. He’s been at SNHU now almost 15 years, I think, maybe a little longer, and just bit by bit has created this amazingly new kind of an institution.

I see them as exemplars of the variety, the same with Credly, the same with the things edX is doing now, they’re moving way beyond being providers of content to looking for stack degrees and credentials. These are all new examples of the wide variety of ways that education—learning—can be offered to be useful to the particular situation that the learner finds him or herself in. I think they are absolute innovators and risk takers.

Their models are disruptive, but the real disruption is the availability of information—is the technology that allows you to do things. Like the Vermont Community College today has 12 learning centers. I think they have a learning center within 25 miles of 95% of the state’s population. There is no home campus. All those centers are connected by technology. Courses are offered locally and statewide, and they cooperate with the Vermont State Colleges and the University. None of that would be possible without the technology that has evolved in the last four to ten years. It’s the technology and the data analytics.

The disruptors are the new technology, the new capacity that we have to do things with that leads to models which are going to be more successful in doing what they do than more traditional models might be in responding to the emerging needs of learners.

I see them as innovators, and I may be slicing this a little too thin, and as such their models are disruptors as was the Community College of Vermont. It’s the technology enhancements and the data analytics that’s the disruptive force. It allows things, permits, encourages ways of approaching learning, teaching, and validating learning and teaching that were unimaginable 20 years ago.

I’m really enjoying the book, by the way. I haven’t read it linearly very well, I go in and do a dive bomb and then get in there. It’s been a lot of fun so far. I’ve read good chunks of it already. You just sent it to me a few days ago.

Peter:  Don’t worry about it. I’m glad you got it.

On the back inside cover you have Deborah Quazzo from ASU GSV fame. As she describes it, all people are inherently lifetime learners, and that’s something you recognized in this book.

So you’ve really held many roles, a rich and varied career from CCV, which we talked quite a bit about, to state and national politics. Even the CSU Monterey Bay is a whole other thing, and then UNESCO, Kaplan, and now UMUC.

What internally drives you to defend and advocate for the adult learner, the inherently lifetime learner, as she put it?

Peter:  There’s this great T.S. Eliot quote, in his Four Quartets and he’s talking about the whole idea that you go away and you learn, and you come back and you see the place for the first time.

The point that Eliot is making and that I have taken to heart has to do with lifelong learning and the fact that—

“We shall not cease from exploration—“

Peter:  Exactly.

“And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

To me, that’s poetry.

I mean, that’s T.S. Eliot.

That is also lifelong learning.

We are continually taking these little side trips, or big side trips from our linear lives and coming back with more learning and more knowledge, and we are changed as a result.

I used to see it, philosophically then only as a practical matter—and it was good education.

After this last book and the interviews I did, I see it increasingly also as having a social justice component. If we are not respectful in a diverse society of the experiences and lives that people are living and bring with them, that’s not fair or right. I also think that wasting someone’s capacity or the talent that they’ve already developed, the learning they’ve done on their own—if we ignore it, it’s terrible for them—but it’s bad for us, it’s bad for the economy—and it’s bad for the community.

If you’re talking about training a brain surgeon, we may be able to do it better.

But no, I don’t want somebody to learn brain surgery online.

And this is not casting a stone or whatever negative on all colleges. It’s simply saying that the academic structure of our colleges historically is a European and largely male structure, and that may work for some people—but I honestly think, the longer I’ve lived with this and now aided and abetted by the technological revolution and enhancements—that we are able to create something that is every bit as qualitative, fairer, more respectful, and really allows people to learn for value throughout their lives. We’ve always learned throughout life. You know: older, but wiser.

Think about the American mythologies.

School of hard knocks.

Live and learn.

I write about that in the book.

This sort of social mythology has always been there, but the reality has been despite the great progressive movement followed by community colleges and a lot of state and private colleges, that there is still what I call “knowledge discrimination” going on.

That where you learn something is more valuable than how well you know it.

And to me, that’s what’s changing.

If you can prove it, you can use it. And I think get value for it. 

That’s a huge change. A huge change.

You know, with mainline private independent colleges costing $40,000 to $50,000 a year—oh my God! And student debt being what it is, the economics of higher education against the payoff are going to become more and more tortured.

This has definitely been a really fascinating conversation and I’ve had great pleasure in talking with you, it’s a real throwback because when I was growing up, you were a part of the lives of the people around me, and a great influence in our state of Vermont—and of course now well beyond there. So thank you!

Peter:  Oh, that’s so nice, my gosh! Thank you very much and great to connect with you.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com