Month: October 2012

Exacerbating “at-risk”: Why lacking access to content and technology widens the achievement gap

Exacerbating “at-risk”: Why lacking access to content and technology widens the achievement gap

To better serve, higher education must understand its students.  As an open enrollment institution, Chadron State College’s mission to “…enrich the quality of life in the region…” includes those most at-risk.  The meaning of “at-risk” is as diverse as the institutions that define it; yet the consequence of not supporting this population for success affects post-secondary the same, which in turn places the institution at-risk as well.  At Chadron, the statistics are the definer: 67% of all students are first generation college attendees, 92% receive financial aid, and 40% are identified as deficient in core subject areas of reading, writing, and/or math.

As CSC’s first Director of Transitional Studies and primary researcher, developer, and instructor of transitional courses, I, like most, based my initial beliefs in how best to serve at-risk students on the traditional developmental education paradigm: “preparing the underprepared” in the subject areas they are most weak.  At Chadron, this is recognized by ACT (or concordant) subset scores below 19 in reading, English/Writing, and math.

I also believed the majority of entering freshmen, Millennial masters of texting and Facebook, were comfortable, adept, and resilient with learning online.  This belief persists since there is little in scope or breadth of assessing student competencies in computer technology-evident, for example, by a lack of a nationally accepted (and fee-based) digital literacy college admissions test-much like those for core subject areas in reading, writing, and math.

As my understanding evolves for the population I serve, I realize the beliefs and assumptions for serving those most at-risk are flawed.  The issue of supporting at-risk students actually hinges on access to content and technology-both of which are critical to higher education success and workplace readiness.

In my one hour, front-line role each week in the advising center, I am often asked a common question with an elusive answer: “When will I get my financial aid?”  This year the advising staff taught me the date of aid disbursement is largely dependant on the processing time associated with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  Typically, the student endures days or weeks of wait through each step of the FAFSA depending on how prepared the student is in their response. After filing the online application, signing the Master Promissory Note, and completing Entrance Counseling, the student hopes their FAFSA is not 1 out of 3 randomly selected for verification, which requires even more time in completing the Verification Worksheet and supplying the institution with copies of additional documentation.  Remarkably, the majority of students receive their financial aid around the time the semester begins, i.e., they likely have access to funds for purchasing textbooks for Day One of class.  For the rest, the wait lingers on into-and sometimes through-the second week of class or beyond.  The awareness of financial aid wait time is important because it offers an answer to a question I realize I had not asked myself in the last year: “Why aren’t my students buying the textbook?”  My assumption that all students had access to their financial aid and access to funds for purchasing the textbook by Day One was wrong.

In Fall 2011, I replaced the traditional textbooks I required my students to buy with open educational resources (OER), which are high-quality and peer-reviewed digital materials freely available and openly licensed.  The impact of utilizing OER was profound for two reasons: 1) because my students were prepared for class from Day One; and, for this reason, 2) I began teaching at Day One.  I am ashamed to admit that before using OER I purposely neglected content instruction because I knew most students would not have their textbook-and this was acceptable.  In a 16-week course, this teaching practice can be mitigated in the following weeks, but in a condensed 8-week course (where one week covers the equivalent of two weeks of content), it is unacceptable and a waste of time.

For first generation college attendees relying on financial aid, many of whom without an understanding of correctly filing the FAFSA or its imperative link to much-needed aid disbursement, waiting for aid affects their access to content.  Furthermore, for at-risk students already deficient in core subject areas, lacking the textbook on Day One might not impact whether or not they will succeed, but entering into week two, week three, or deciding, “I can get by without the text,” statistically decreases their chances of passing the course altogether.  What is worse is this “get by” behavior sets a pattern likely to be repeated in their other courses and into the semesters to come.  In this environment the student becomes even more academically at-risk.

Access is also the reason students have not had opportunities to develop the technological skills needed for success in college and the workplace.  The “K16 tech environment” of computer labs comprised of tethered desktop PCs loaded with Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Office, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, and tight administrative reins on what students can and cannot do-a form of “technology censorship” if you will-is creating a greater divide for at-risk students to cross and, ultimately, survive college.

Although most of my students are proficient in surfing the Web via the “big blue E,” creating a presentation in PowerPoint, and composing papers in Microsoft Word, they are also alarmingly deficient in essential digital literacy skills.  Most do not know or have experience with the range of today’s devices, operating systems, Web browsers, applications, and file extensions-elements most in higher education assume students know before they enter college.

About half of my students “BYOD” (Bring Your Own Device) to class, often the gift received after graduating from high school, but their K12 technology experience has prevented them from establishing a framework of fundamental computer knowledge needed to sustain their device.  IT administrators in K12 unknowingly have created an entire generation of dependents not only unable to exist in a non-Microsoft world, but also incapable of articulating their needs when troubleshooting.  The common response I hear from the at-risk student not experiencing success online is: “I’m just not good with computers.”

The proprietary software market and administrative IT stronghold (which makes perfect business sense from a purchasing and management perspective) prevents students from experiencing and thriving in the myriad of free software alternatives, but also in the unrecognized teachable moments-which is the essence and foundation needed for succeeding in learning online.  The effect is astounding: at-risk students do not feel capable, confident, or resilient with the computer technology they need for online learning.

As higher education budgets tighten and issues focusing on the quality, effectiveness, and sustainability of post-secondary programming surface, there is increasing pressure on faculty to deliver online content, reduce completion time, and improve completion rates.  Moreover, opportunities supporting high-quality and instructionally-sound online learning narrows as less resources are available to assist faculty in the transition from face-to-face to online.  High-impact teaching and learning in a face-to-face classroom is not easily replicated online when faculty do not have an awareness of or know how to apply best-practices in instructional design, online communication, and academic technology support for their students.  Likewise, creative and innovative online teaching is just as time-consuming to nurture as it is in face-to-face teaching.  Faculty work hard at being good but they must also have the support to succeed whether online or in the traditional classroom.

In essence, the achievement gap is widening for at-risk students’ in college not just because of deficiencies in subject area(s), but also due to accessing the tools they are most dependent upon for success: the textbook and the computer.

Re-defining and Teaching Today’s At-Risk Student: A Post-Secondary Perspective

In an effort to better serve, teachers must understand their student.  As Director of Transitional Studies and primary course researcher, developer, and instructor of my institution’s transitional studies, my definition of the at-risk post-secondary student has changed over the years.

Although my institution has yet to publish a definition of at-risk, I believe the statistics are the definer, which includes 67% of all students who are first generation college attendees, 92% who receive financial aid, and the 40% identified as deficient in core subject areas of reading, writing, and/or math (National Center for Education Statistics).

In my work with the Kaleidoscope Project, the definition of at-risk was Pell Grant eligibility, which is based on financial need.

The exhaustive work of Hunter Boylan, published largely by the National Association of Developmental Education, has defined the field supporting at-risk students as:

“Developmental education is the integration of academic courses and support services guided by the principles of adult learning and development.

Remediation is a sub-component of developmental education involving the provision of coursework addressing pre-college material.”

And the Founding Director of UCLA’s renowned Higher Education Research Institute, Alexander Astin (1998) stresses the importance of educating this population of student:

The education of the “remedial” student is the most important educational problem in America today, more important than educational funding, affirmative action, vouchers, merit pay, teacher education, financial aid, curriculum reform, and the rest. Providing effective “remedial” education would do more to alleviate our most social and economic problems than almost any other action we could take. 

Neither the terms of “developmental education” nor “remediation” (the latter’s stigma still stings) fit what I wanted to accomplish with my institution’s support programming, so I named the work I do as “transitional studies” in an attempt to reflect the nature of “preparing the underprepared,” a nod to what National Association of Developmental Education aims to do, but also to reflect the growing support seen at other institutions: Utah State University-College of Eastern UtahGeorgia Gwinnet College,  New Mexico Junior CollegeCity College of San Francisco, Lower Columbia College (WA), The Art Institute of Institute of California-SanDiego, Fort Lewis College (CO), Bay College (MI), and more.

Yet the definitions and many of the current programs I’ve seen feel antiquated and do not appear to address a critical need today’s at-risk post-secondary student must have to be successful in academia and beyond: digital literacy skills.

Real, Hinson, and Christian’s Digital Literacy, the Community College, and Student Success presentation from March 2012, states “…researchers assumed a uniform degree of digital skills and information literacy and were surprised to the degree at which it varied.”  This is the ever-present conundrum for the educator of post-secondary at-risk students: building, developing, and nurturing the student for improved core subject area success in the face-to-face classroom and now online.  Just as in reading, writing, and math literacies, the degree of individual preparation is far and wide in digital literacy as well.  The growing presence of technology in the classroom, at times “being” the classroom, is proving to be a great challenge for at-risk students.

Since the research is lacking and resources for experimenting at my institution are scarce, my instinct is today’s at-risk student needs at minimum an integrated, hands-on, and technologically blended learning environment to experience success and develop individual weaknesses.  My challenge as a teacher is the current paradigm of higher education riddled with assumptions and sporadic research.

Integrating what I know about the the traditional model of developmental education with what I experience in the classroom, I am now for the first-time beginning to think about the “at-risk post-secondary education model.”  If it is seeded in traditional developmental education, then where is the place for technology?  What would Cormier’s rhizomatic learning (thanks OpenEd12!) look like in the context of this at-risk post-secondary model of education?  How does this affect how we integrate technology and use Wiley’s 4Rs of OER?

As my philosophy of openness teaching hinges on Boylan, Astin, and Wiley, I’m embracing Cormier’s vision that successful learning is “something flexible that is already integrated with the other things a learner knows” (2011).  Before one can discuss the current education model for the at-risk, the definition of the at-risk needs developed.  I extend this notion of flexibility to my definition of at-risk and wonder: will I every fully know my student?

What I do know about the students I teach is most:

  • are deficient in reading and writing skills (based on ACT or concordant test scores)
  • believe they are “bad with computers” and expect failure in online learning
  • lack resiliency skills, ex. have difficulty “bouncing back” after earning a poor grade
  • do not seek instructor feedback
  • do not apply instructor assignment feedback to future assignments
  • will not seek Student Services assistance in tutoring or counseling
  • lack critical digital literacy skills, which impacts their ability to understand directives and ask for help
  • largely are only comfortable learning in a “K12 technology” environment defined as “PC, Microsoft Office, and Internet Explorer“
  • lack skills in downloading, updating, and trouble-shooting since K12 technology (and most college campuses) does not extend IT administrative permissions to perform these skills
  • have little experience with multiple devices, operating systems, applications, and browsers
  • have access to a cell phone and use texting as a means of primary communication but do not use email on a regular basis
  • will use cell phones as an educational mobile device
  • may not be able to afford to purchase the word processing applications they are familiar with, such as Microsoft Office, for their mobile device
  • are not aware of open technologies

Although the definition of at-risk is still elusive, the need for improving instructional models serving this population never fades.

Astin, A.W. (1998). “Remedial education and civic responsibility.” National Crosstalk, 6(3), 12-13. Retrieved from http://www.highereducation.org/crosstalk/pdf/ctsummer98.pdf.

Cormier, D. (2011). Rhizomatic Learning – Why we teach? » Dave’s Educational Blog. Retrieved October 21, 2012, from http://davecormier.com/edblog/2011/11/05/rhizomatic-learning-why-learn/.

 

Teaching From Day One: Improving Instruction for At-Risk Students with OER

Most of my 2011 summer was devoted to intensive development of a 6 credit course for at-risk students using open educational resources (OER): digital materials that are freely available and openly licensed using the 4Rs: reuse, redistribute, revise, and remix.[1] The OER content came from three courses born from the Kaleidoscope Project,[2] a Next Generation Learning Challenges Wave One grant project supporting OER and its sustainability in higher education. The result was COLG 176 College Literacy: a modular-based, 8-week course comprised of reading, writing, and college success with additional emphasis in digital literacy awareness and skills.

The URL for these CCBY course materials in Google Drive is: https://docs.google.com/folder/d/0B4AlxB9kDwTxVmtNc21QQk1LZkk/edit

At my institution, the statistical definition of at-risk includes the 67% of all students who are first generation college attendees and 40% identified as deficient in core subject areas of reading, writing, and/or math. For the Kaleidoscope Project, the definition of at-risk was Pell Grant eligibility.

My definition of at-risk has changed over the years with my initial beliefs based on the traditional developmental education model, i.e. low scores in reading indicate a need for reading courses; to addressing affective behaviors and foundational “college survival” skills; and now understanding the impact of online learning knowledge gaps and the importance of sound instructional design.   After each semester, I update my working definition of at-risk.  At this time at-risk includes students who:

  • are deficient in reading and writing skills (based on ACT or concordant test scores)
  • believe they are “bad with computers” and expect failure in online learning
  • lack resiliency skills, ex. have difficulty “bouncing back” after earning a poor grade
  • do not seek instructor feedback
  • do not apply instructor assignment feedback to future assignments
  • will not seek Student Services assistance in tutoring or counseling
  • lack critical digital literacy skills, which impacts their ability to understand directives and ask for help
  • largely only comfortable learning in a “K12 technology” environment defined as “PC, Microsoft Office, and Internet Explorer“
  • lack skills in downloading, updating, and trouble-shooting since K12 technology (and most college campuses) do not extend IT administrative permissions to perform these skills
  • have little experience with multiple devices, operating systems, applications, and browsers
  • texting is a means of primary communication
  • believe they are “bad with computers”

Thus, my instructional goals with the new course included not only preparing at-risk learners for success in general studies, but also for success in online courses.

At the end of the spring semester, one of the academic advisors in student services retired. While the vacancy search was in progress, I offered a few days of my time to step back from the all- consuming nature of course development work and filled the advisor’s chair. In this front-line role I was often asked a common question with an elusive answer: “When will I get my financial aid?” Looking back, I doubt most students understood my complicated response that began “Well, it depends…” until they were in the throes of financial aid wait.

The advising staff taught me the disbursement time answer hinges on FAFSA processing steps that extend far beyond the initial application. Each step’s related processing time may span a few days or even weeks depending on how prepared the student is in their response. After the online application, signing the Master Promissory Note, and completing Entrance Counseling,[3] the hope is the FAFSA is not 1 out of 3 randomly selected for verification.[4] If it is selected, then the processing time increases even more because a Verification Worksheet[5] must be completed and copies of additional documentation, such as a Social Security card, bank statement, or federal income tax forms, must be supplied to the institution.[6]

The advising staff assured me that the majority of students receive their financial aid around the time the semester begins, which means they have access to funds for buying their textbooks in time for the first day of class. For others, waiting for financial aid lingers on into-and sometimes through-the second week of class or beyond.  This awareness of “financial aid wait time” was profound to me because it offered a legitimate answer to an “old” question I had not asked myself since I started using OER: “why aren’t my students buying the textbook?”  My assumption that all students had access to their financial aid award on the first day of class was wrong.

Then I connected how teachers depend on these funds as well, so much I that I realized how much time and energy I wasted in the classroom before I used OER. This realization shamed me to admit I purposely neglected teaching the content beginning with Day One…and at the time it seemed it was an acceptable teaching practice.

Before my use of OER, Day One’s content revolved around introductions, the syllabus, specifying the edition of the required textbook, and then sending students on their way to complete Assignment One: Buy the Textbook.  I never planned content instruction for the first day because I knew most students wouldn’t have their textbook and this was acceptable.

The expectation for Day Two was everyone would have purchased the textbook. Day Two started with “checking” the assignment from Day One with a show of raised textbooks in the air and the results of my check would be the same semester-to-semester: half of my at-risk students would not have purchased the textbook for class. This experience would cause a lecture, not about the content of the course, but one admonishing those that didn’t buy the textbook, followed by a “preparedness leads to success” speech, which fed into the “this is college, not high school, and nobody’s going to just give you the book, you have to exercise responsibility, take action, and buy the textbook.” My rant ended when students would start packing up because class was over. This led to scrawling on the board Assignment Two: Buy the Textbook and Read Chapter One” and hollering out into the hall, “please buy the textbook before the next class!” I was frustrated and felt helpless that I couldn’t fix the problem of no access to the textbook, and I blamed everyone from the student to the POTUS when the true root of the problem was me and my content delivery choice.

Day Three would begin with a celebration. Two or three students would have received their financial aid and finally purchased the textbook. We all would clap. The students who had bought the textbook would high-five, look around, and suddenly become part of the “we bought the textbook” group. I’d ask out loud, “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had the textbook!?!” Then I would barter, “Hey, I’ll bring in donuts if we could get everyone to buy the book!” Cheers all around. I would plug in my thumb drive to the PC and fire up the FREE PowerPoint loaded with the textbook publisher’s slides that perfectly synced with the first chapter and were visually stunning and technologically advanced because there was a video embedded into it-simultaneously magical and technological! I had yet to understand how to embed source code, felt technologically inept, and fully believed my work and beliefs were less than worthy of developing let alone presenting to students. I felt empowered because I chose the textbook my students would buy, but never did I value my own voice or potential contribution of it in academia!

The students without textbooks would do their best to take notes from the projected slides. Two students might decide to buy a book together and share the cost…as soon as their financial aid check came in any day now. I would work my way through the content, but I would be disappointed in the chapter because during lunch I had read some compelling work just published in a journal that challenged the author’s claims. It was too late now to abandon the required textbook because I felt it was my responsibility to my students to commit to it too since I had required everyone to buy it. The success of everyone and everything was connected to the idol of the textbook.

I realize now how much time and energy I spent trying to encourage those students without the textbook to buy the textbook, but I never realized how much this lack of resource affected the success of the course. I will admit the first week of my 16 week course barely touched any course content at all and there certainly was no high impact teaching to be found. What a waste.

I am appalled at how little control I had over my course content (or anything else for that matter) back then when I depended on my students to purchase the textbook. But it is clear to me know how the “financial aid wait time” affected my ability to teach and my at-risk students ability to succeed. My courses today are no longer dependent on anything but a passion for learning and success for all. Not only am I free from the textbook when I use OER, I’m also empowered to teach content and my students are empowered to start learning at Day One.


[1] (2010). TEDxNYED – David Wiley – 03/06/10 – YouTube. Retrieved October 20, 2012, fromhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rb0syrgsH6M.

[2] (2011). Project – Project Kaleidoscope. Retrieved October 20, 2012, fromhttp://www.project-kaleidoscope.org/.

[3] (2010). FAQs – StudentLoans.gov. Retrieved October 20, 2012, fromhttps://studentloans.gov/myDirectLoan/faqs.action.

[4] (2009). FAFSA Verification – How Student Aid Works – StudentAid.com. Retrieved October 20, 2012, fromhttp://www.studentaid.com/paying/how-aid-works/fafsa-verify.

[5] (2011). IFAP – Verification Worksheets – IFAP – U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved October 20, 2012, fromhttp://www.ifap.ed.gov/vgworksheets/1112VerificationWkshts.html.

[6] (2009). FAFSA Verification – How Student Aid Works – StudentAid.com. Retrieved October 20, 2012, fromhttp://www.studentaid.com/paying/how-aid-works/fafsa-verify.