When the Women’s Tech Council recently named its finalists for the 2020 Women Tech Awards, Dr. Elke Leeds, the Dean and Academic Vice President of the College of Information Technology at Western Governors University (WGU), was an easy choice.
Dr. Leeds, who joined WGU in May of 2018 after a 20-plus year career in higher education at one of Georgia’s largest public universities, demonstrates “leadership, direction, and focus to inspire innovative programs that achieve student outcomes and meet workforce needs,” according to the Council. “Her accomplished career includes leading a cybersecurity workforce development team, launching over 70 online degree programs, and improving academic outcomes through the design and implementation of a student focused educational system.”
Furthermore, she “set the strategic vision for 10 undergraduate and graduate degree programs, which currently enroll more than 20,000 students” as well as “coordinates academic and industry partnerships, ensures program quality and relevancy, and expands student professional opportunities.”
Given her achievements, we sought out Dr. Leeds for an interview, which follows below.
Question: Who has been the most influential person in your career as a technology professional?
Answer: I owe thanks to my college professor Dr. Eduardo Venta from Loyola University who introduced me to systems thinking. Though he may not have known it at the time, he intrigued me with a “What if?” question that asked me to solve an operational problem. Through a question-and-answer session and a lot of back and forth, he led me down a path of interconnectedness of systems. I began to look at problems as more complex and the potential solutions as more expansive. I thought through processes, which I took for granted, and began to see possible solutions very differently. Reflecting on it today, it helped my see technology as both an enabler and a disruptor. It also helped me view technology careers as incredibly strategic, anchored in every industry sector, and surprisingly creative.
Q: What are the biggest challenges for higher ed from a technology standpoint?
A: The biggest challenge is a combination of rapid obsolescence and near–constant change. If you recognize that the half-life of learned skills today is only five years, and technical skills closer to half that, you have to basically reinvent programs and curriculum every two years. In that rapidly changing environment, your subject matter experts are discovering, testing, deploying, and operationalizing at the same time you are trying to prepare students for the workplace with skills and abilities only recently recognized. It implores higher ed institutions to connect workforce demands with highly relevant curriculum.
Q: Is higher ed doing enough to prepare tomorrow’s leaders in the technology field? And if not, what more should be done?
A: The ties to industry need to be strengthened. And the model of higher education needs to be re-examined. Technology professionals can enter the field at almost any time, whether they are in their twenties, or later in their careers. The rapid pace of change, and the need to upskill and reskill across a professional lifetime, means that learners of any age and from any background can begin a tech career and they won’t miss out on career advancement or acceleration. The model needs to recognize learning from different sources, accommodate skills reinvention, and stackable credentials — a model where learners can work toward a degree by earning a short-term credential and come back for another when they are ready to progress further. As a competency-based university, at Western Governors University we look at the skills acquired, and competencies demonstrated from partners across educational and industry spectrums. We recognize that for some learners, a technology certification may be the sum total of the educational opportunities available. And that’s ok. A certification can help someone begin a career, and it can be built upon. We include certifications in our courses and degree programs to enhance our student’s employability and to articulate existing certification into transfer credit – to help learners advance and keep higher education more affordable.
Q: Given your knowledge in cybersecurity, how would you assess the threat to the business community and to higher ed?
A: Small, medium, and large businesses are under constant attack and surveillance by bad actors, at both the individual and state-sponsored levels. Higher ed faces those same threats and has a responsibility to safeguard the Personally Identifiable Information of the students we enroll. Our responsibility is to provide our students a safe environment to learn, develop, and test their skill set. In our last cybersecurity program update, we very purposefully incorporated PenTest+ and CySA+, two new, high-demand certifications representing both offensive and defensive network protection. We have to prepare our Cybersecurity students to protect themselves and their organizations to the best of our abilities.
Q: What is the best part about being a technology professional and working in higher ed?
A: Bringing industry acquired tech skills to higher education is one of the most satisfying extensions of a career. I’ve learned as much from our students and faculty as I’ve likely given to them. The conversations and the ability to get students energized about technology skills and careers is contagious. It reminds me of why I chose this career path and I find myself thinking about new ways to serve those students very day. They are driving change and bringing their professional experiences into our virtual classrooms. At WGU in particular, where the median age of our student is 36 years, you get near immediate feedback about the relevancy and applicability of the programs we offer, which I value greatly. My greatest privilege is getting to see the impact of a tech degree on the lives of our students and their families. Think about the availability of jobs today, in Cloud Computing, Data Science, Software Engineering, and Cybersecurity, and the career opportunities that those degrees provide. It brings home to me that education is the single greatest catalyst for change, and I get to see the impact of that change happen in real time.