Improvement in post secondary education will require converting teaching from a “solo sport” to a community based research activity.
-Professor Herbert Simon, Carnegie Mellon, 1998
My professional role of the last 10 years has focused on teaching, guiding, and nurturing the institution’s most academically at-risk. At Chadron this is defined as a matriculating student with ACT scores below 19 in one or more core subject areas of reading, writing, and math. What isn’t measured is how these Millennial Masters of texting and Facebook don’t know the difference between a web browser, operating system, or file extension. In today’s digital age, many of these students fear learning online because they have yet to mature their academic digital literacy skills.
Through a serendipitous turn of events, I joined the Kaleidoscope Open Course Initiative project in May 2011. Upon reflection, the kick-off meeting in Cerritos, CA was a turning point in my career. When I entered the field of education, I aimed to change the world; but the reality of bureaucracy led to burnout, which in turn fed hopelessness. I wanted to improve and make a difference, but I didn’t know how – and my administration had neither the answers nor the resources. My ability to innovate and create was roasting in a budgetary pressure cooker. I felt alone and powerless.
Now, nearly two years later, I can say my former teacher-self resembles little of the teacher I am today. Quite simply, Kaleidoscope was and continues to be the most profound and life-changing professional experience of my career.
The heart of Kaleidoscope – collaborative improvement of course design to improve student success using open educational resources – resonated from within a knowingness that the Kaleidoscope pitch wasn’t like all the others I had heard at conferences and workshops purporting change and promising retention. I finally found a community that encouraged me to reignite my passion for learning, teaching, and, more importantly, yearning to change higher education.
At the start of the project, all I could really grasp was replacing the expensive textbook I was using with high quality, peer-reviewed, free materials called OER. It seemed obvious that OER was good because it saved students money. The true gift, however, was Kaleidoscope’s model in utilizing OER. It extended beyond the freedom from the textbook: it was in the opportunities to collaborate cross-institutionally, understand the value of sound course design, and use empirical data instead of a hunch to make meaningful change.
I teach in Nebraska – a state known for corn, the birthplace of Kool-Aid, and beef cattle that outnumber people four-to-one. At my institution, I was a lone wolf in developmental education. To be frank, before Kaleidoscope, the transitional studies program I was charged with creating and henceforth improving was only ever going to be as good as me…and I was exhausted. There just wasn’t a pool of passionate, qualified, and available people able to invest in improving. My colleagues had their own courses to tend to, and we all had countless meetings filling the holes of any extra-time that might have been used to rally together and improve the institution. Yet, the growing pressure to deliver student success was undeniable and my administration bore the same yoke we all did of proving that higher ed – especially little Chadron – was actively doing something to defend itself in both the wake of Academically Adrift and as an answer to the call in The Red Ballon Project.
What was remarkable about Kaleidoscope was that faculty developers, perhaps for the first time, shared in meaningful ways together: the load of course construction, the celebrations in successes, and the commiserations in weaknesses. We supported each other through learning from and teaching each other. It wasn’t easy, but it was fulfilling and, surprisingly, rejuvenating.
What was most fascinating about Kaleidoscope was as each semester of my participation passed, my intrinsic drive to improve grew. I had read about instructional design and learning analytics, but I had no idea how to implement these approaches in practice with success. My place in the project was more than a front row seat in witnessing the power and loop-closing exhibited in the model: I was a first-string player. The effect was an awareness beyond could I reform higher ed to I am reforming higher ed. I was no longer passive and alone and, like my students, became a success statistic myself: I changed how I thought about who I was. Now, in my own meaningful way impacting the students who need it most, I am an OER advocate, instructional designer, data analyst, improver and reformer of higher education…in sum: Kaleidoscope gave me the knowledge and tools to become a better teacher.
The greatest Kaleidoscope lesson was how using OER impacted the way I taught and how my students learned. When I utilize OER, my students have access to content on the first day of class, which means I begin teaching on the first day of class. I’m ashamed to admit how much time I wasted before my use of OER. The first week, encouraging: “Buy the textbook!” The second week, nagging: “Why aren’t you buying the textbook?” And by the third, berating: “If you don’t buy the textbook, how do you expect to succeed?” When a student’s ability to buy course materials hinges on waiting for funds – possibly weeks for financial aid awards or until September to sell a steer calf – it impacts the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom.
Last week, I received a text message from Danielle, whom I hadn’t talked to since midterm of Fall 2012. She was part of a 6-credit, 8-week “mashup” pilot I created that remixed Kaleidoscope’s developmental reading, developmental writing, and college success courses. I framed the content with tools for “surviving” in the online learning environment and called it “COLG 176 College Literacy.” Her text to me was:
Hi, It’s Danielle from last semester. I just wanted to let you know I’m halfway through Comp II and I have gotten all As on my papers. I just wanted to say thank you for helping me become a great writer. I hope your semester is going well.
Thirty years after A Nation At Risk, these same words and much of the original text still apply today:
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre
educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of
war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves (p. 9, par. 3).
Kaleidoscope meets the threats to education head on. Now, as a team member of Lumen Learning, I don’t fear what is to become of higher education, but instead look forward to embracing bright opportunities to improve it.