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.

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