I Love Community Colleges (and Tech Should Too)
opinion

I Love Community Colleges (and Tech Should Too)

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This piece originally appeared in EdSurge Independent, our student-run, student-driven Medium publication.

My time in community college was, without argument, the most socially diverse period in my life. I met people from all walks: there was the Air Force veteran in my electromagnetism class; the single mother-of-four in computer programming; the Afghan refugee in statistics.

This contrasted starkly with my previous school, U.C. San Diego, where I could almost invariably rely on every student I came across to be 17-to-22 years old, have little-to-no job experience, and have recently graduated high school.

Indeed, the portrait of the typical community college student is far from monolithic. Community colleges, with their open-enrollment policies and relatively low tuition fees, cater to an exceptionally varied group of students, many of whom are older, working and/or care for dependents.

And yet, administrations at most community colleges insist on using traditional schooling models to teach a very nontraditional group of students.

What community college students need is access to more flexible, personalized, individually-paced and low-cost programs to succeed — the perfect job for education technology.

Cleveland State Community College’s redesigned math program is an excellent example of using technology to help community college students in need of remedial coursework. Before redesign, CSCC had three levels of remedial math courses, with an average drop-failure-withdraw rate as high as 70 percent.

Noting the low success rates, CSCC split the remedial math program into weekly competency-based modules and implemented the Emporium model, which replaces lectures with computer lab sessions featuring interactive software. Without the traditional reliance on lectures, students are free to go through these modules at their own pace, skimming quickly through easier concepts and spending adequate time on tougher ones.

CSCC found that students in the redesigned program were significantly more successful than in the traditional program, with the completion rate for Elementary Algebra increasing from 50 percent to 68 percent.

Where Tech Fits In

Technology’s potential to facilitate the education of community college students doesn’t just stop at remediation. With 41 percent of community college students working full-time, online courses with several year-round enrollment dates could benefit students with erratic work schedules. With roughly one-third of community college students caring for at least one dependent, computer labs with flexible hours featuring individually-paced learning software could prevent a student from falling behind if childcare falls through.

With over one-fourth of community college students living below the national poverty level, open educational resources (e.g., free online textbooks) could ease the financial burden. And with community colleges struggling with tight budgets (and consequently, understaffed counseling offices), course-planning software could ensure that students are on track to transfer or reach other career development goals.

But while community college students stand the most to benefit from developments in education technology, they are all too often overlooked by corporations, philanthropies and the U.S. Department of Education that consider which schools to invest in. In last year’s round of First in the World awards, for instance, only five of 18 grants went to community colleges.

Community colleges play a critical role in educating the American workforce, and deserve to be funded appropriately. In California, community colleges educate 70 percent of the state’s nurses and 80 percent of firefighters, law enforcement personnel and emergency medical technicians. Not only that, but community colleges contribute significant economic value, both personally — students who earn a degree or certificate from a community college nearly double their earnings within three years — and nationally — the net total impact of community colleges on the U.S. economy was $809 billion in added income.

Clearly, community colleges are integral to the advancement of this country, and need to be prioritized accordingly when it comes to edtech research and development.

This way, we can make them a place where all students — the veteran, the single mother, the refugee and everyone in between — can succeed.

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