At-risk

Il-Lumen-nating Kaleidoscope: Gateway to OER and Higher Ed Reformation

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.

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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.