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How Community Colleges Can Combine Digital Innovation and Human Connection

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Technology is often seen as the silver bullet that will help community colleges address the myriad of their often-competing priorities. But how can teachers best support learning in a digital environment? How can schools foster digital innovation that enhances teaching and the human connection, but doesn't replace it?

Questions like these are not new for community colleges, which must increasingly balance multiple goals and varied conditions. Should they serve as a proving ground to prepare students for an education at four-year institutions, or do they instead focus on preparing graduates to work in local economies? How can instructors best manage growing class sizes, decreasing budgets and an increasingly diverse base of learners—including first time college students and adults returning to school to learn new skills?

To shed light on these and other questions, Macmillan Learning CEO Ken Michaels talked with John Gardner and Betsy Barefoot, preeminent scholars and practitioners in the student success discipline. Gardner and Barefoot have deep knowledge about community colleges, where they have worked as both faculty members and administrators. They now consult with two-year schools as a part of their work with a non-profit, the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education.

Michaels: Today’s community colleges face complex challenges. They strive to help students transfer to four-year schools and also to train them with workforce ready skills. Can they do it all?

Gardner: To describe the challenges facing community colleges as complex is an understatement. These colleges face a downturn in enrollment linked to the recent economic upturn, new pressures from state and federal governments, and the call to add four-year degrees to meet local and regional workforce needs.

There is also enormous complexity in the potential roles and missions of these schools. Each college or college system has to decide the degree to which it will execute any number of possible priorities, including:

  • Provide the first two years of a four-year degree
  • Address local workforce needs
  • Offer highly selective degree programs in health sciences and technology
  • Collaborate with local high schools in dual-enrollment programs
  • Continue to serve the needs of remedial students
  • Provide adult basic education
  • Obtain major contracts to offer job training at the national, state, and local levels

Michaels: Retention, persistence, and graduation rates are crucial metrics in the higher education space. Yet, according to ACT’s 2010 report, What Works in Student Retention, there is significant room for improvement. Only 32% of two-year colleges have established specific goals to help retain students from the first to second year, and only 23% have done so to improve degree completion. How can institutions develop and execute programs that are effective?

Gardner: Major changes are needed to shift beyond access policies to success policies, in which students are required to participate in programs and activities that have a research-based link to success. In this way, community colleges can improve performance in developmental education courses where attrition is the greatest. They must also redesign matriculated students' gateway courses that have unacceptable failure rates.

Barefoot: In truth, there are real challenges to supporting retention, but the good news is that we know of many things that do work. There are numerous community colleges that have become true leaders in caring for students and helping them succeed and reach completion, such as Guttman Community College, LaGuardia Community College and Valencia College. These institutions and others like them have been changing the notion of what's possible through strong leadership, retention, and action.

Michaels: With the proliferation of digital-first solutions in higher education, many academics bristle at the thought of technology overtaking the human element of teaching. What are your thoughts on striking a balance between technology and human interaction?

Barefoot: Unfortunately, many colleges are adopting technology solutions primarily to reduce costs, not to improve the education of students. We argue that the focus should be on what is in the best interests of students. There is evidence that the integration of technology can actually improve student engagement and student learning. But the secret is balance—designing technology so that it complements rather than replaces human interactions—and perhaps also saves money.

Gardner: It is important to remember that documentation of who is likely to be at risk—according to analytic models—can only go so far. Personal interaction with students in an atmosphere of trust can reveal issues that analytic methods will likely miss!

Michaels: You wrote the proverbial book on college and student success. Can you tell us about trends in the two-year space and how community colleges are employing theory and research to move the needle in terms of retention, persistence and graduation rate?

Gardner: Many colleges are using solid research findings to rethink and revise both policies and practices and to mandate, rather than make optional, many proven interventions that correlate with student success. These include required orientation, college success classes, supplemental instruction, learning communities, and advising that provides defined course pathways rather than allowing students carte blanche in selecting courses.

In the digital realm, asynchronous class options work particularly well for students who cannot adhere to standard class schedules in face-to-face environments. Digital innovation can enable monitoring of homework and regular evaluations that students may perceive as less judgmental. Technology makes possible much more frequent and rapid feedback to students. And because the greatest influence on college students is other students, technology is especially useful in enabling multiple means for students to communicate with their peers.

Michaels: What does the future of two-year education look like? What should it look like?

Barefoot: The safest thing to say is: “It is here to stay!” The demand for open-access institutions that operate at lower costs will not diminish. But we also anticipate more mergers of two- and four-year institutions similar to those that are occurring now in Florida, Texas, and Georgia. The pressures for affordability are mounting, and the current cost structure of higher education is not sustainable longterm. There will have to be relief, and this will ensure the continuing importance of community colleges in American higher education.

This article was sponsored by Macmillan Learning and not written by the EdSurge editorial staff.
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