Kaleidoscope

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.

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.

Reflections of an OER first-year pilot in transitional studies

I’ve been an educator with public and government entities for the last 15 years honing my skills in research, technology, and high-impact learning. When I was first hired to serve the most at-risk students attending a four-year, open-enrollment institution, I spent two years developing, improving, and teaching what was once called developmental education and is now referenced as Transitional Studies. Through a serendipitous turn of events, I joined a small group of educators and administrators from eight institutions to participate in a Next Generation Learning Challenges Wave I funded grant titled the Kaleidoscope Project. A month before the Kaleidoscope kickoff meeting (and suffering the results of a futile adjunct search), I recommended to administration an aggressive move to purchase so-called “canned content” from a textbook publishing company promising student success in exchange for an expensive price tag.

Thankfully (and especially in hindsight!) administration offered me Kaleidoscope instead.

Quite simply, the impact of the Kaleidoscope Project:

  • reinvigorated the Transitional Studies program (now 85% dependent on OER with 100% slated for AY 2013-14 and beyond);
  • saved the institution and its at-risk students thousands of dollars; and
  • provided an opportunity to understand how best to meet the academic services needs for this unique population and faculty at-large.

Never have I had such a profound experience in my professional life as I have had with Kaleidoscope.

What the project helped me learn most was:

  1. higher ed developmental education had little OER and even less state-of-the-art instructional innovation; and
  2. at-risk students’ digital literacy skills are as deficient as their core subject area skills (placement tests, like ACT and SAT, fail to assess this keystone for college success; further, open-enrollment institutions need to integrate these skills more in general studies curricula).

When I first started mining developmental ed OER a year ago, I found there wasn’t much of anything, especially in reading and writing. Now, through the collaborative efforts of Kaleidoscope’s founders, there is significant growth in not only developmental ed OER, but also within the culture and community of the studies. My institution made a concerted effort to directly align the student learning outcomes of their transitional studies reading and writing courses with the general studies freshman composition, which enables the loop-closing accrediting bodies seek. For proof, visit rSmart’s Academic platform and type the words “reading” or “writing” into the search engine. Here you’ll find courses, (including my in-progress “true college literacy” mashup course of reading, writing, college success, and digital literacy), content and syllabi with a CCBY, as well as a network of passionate individuals diligently working to fill that previous void of developmental OER for higher education.

In Fall 2011, I realized my assumption (one also shared by many colleagues) was wrong that Millennial students, including those considered at-risk, were naturally gifted in technology and felt comfortable learning online. Although this population demonstrates mastery level skills with texting and Facebook-ing, my number-crunching from the beginning of this semester reveals less than 4% of my students know the differences between an operating system, web browser, and file extension; and none understand the not-so-subtle differences in how applications are supported in multiple browsers and systems. For example, some web-based programs, such as ACT’s eCompass placement assessments, use only Internet Explorer. I can only imagine how my entering freshmen students feel when, for example, the barrier to their LMS success is needing to install a browser update. Since most of my students are not part of the BYOD (bring your own device) club, they have never had the opportunity to update said browser because the administrative permissions set by their high schools and libraries have never offered this as a “teachable moment”-a great loss in developing a simple but important digital literacy skill.

Inasmuch as my students are underprepared academically for college success, I too was underprepared in understanding the importance of instructional design to student success in online environments. Daryl O’Hare, a Kaleidoscope colleague and now friend, authored a Kaleidoscope freshman composition course with Dr. Susan Hines, who served as instructional designer. The end result was a stunning 2012 Teaching With Sakai Innovation Award winner. More than not, my conversations with Daryl during the course’s development process last summer lead to how critical instructional design was to student and instructor success. My ignorance in instructional design is likely why the Fall 2011 midterm survey reported students’ number one complaint was the LMS (Sakai CLE). Each day students would enter the classroom complaining of “feeling confused” with the online part of the course, which I realized was their inability to successfully navigate Sakai. To develop my skills, I completed Quality Matters training last spring, designed all of my courses this fall using the Quality Matters Rubric Standards 2011-2013 edition, and began Indiana University-Bloomington’s Instructional Systems and Technology program last week, the latter thanks to an encounter with an instructional designer during a Kaleidoscope luncheon with Kentucky constituents.

The difference in student success between Kaleidoscope’s pilot and now is in progress, but here are a few statistics worth mentioning:

  • Of Fall 2011’s Sakai CLE blended courses with the face-to-face delivered in a lecture classroom, 50% of students reported they would likely register for an online class in the future. After Spring 2012’s rSmart Academic blended courses with the face-to-face delivered in a computer lab, 94% reported they would likely register for an online class in the future (this is likely influenced in part because of rSmart Academic’s brilliant social networking likeness, as well as increased engagement experiences when students have permission to edit pages and utilize widgets within the LMS…a blog topic on this coming soon!).
  • In Fall 2011 and Spring 2012, 100% of students felt the OER materials were as good or better than non-OER materials in other courses.
  • For both Fall 2011 and Spring 2012, nearly 90% reported they felt more comfortable with online learning.

Thank you, Kaleidoscope Project (and break-a-leg on the next round). This is and continues to be my Joy of OER.