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How Digital Textbooks, Tech-Friendly Furniture, and Better Data Are Boosting Engagement at Community Colleges

How Digital Textbooks, Tech-Friendly Furniture, and Better Data Are Boosting Engagement at Community Colleges

When Jenny Billings piloted a digital textbook class and saw an immediate increase in engagement and retention after just one semester, she thought it must be a fluke. That is, until she ran the pilot again and received the same results.

In many cases, the use of digital tools, platforms, and applications has helped to boost student engagement, grow pass rates, and increase retention. Technology solutions can provide the personalized learning, lower costs, and encouragement needed at community colleges where increased fees and lack of structured-support can have a negative effect on the nontraditional student population. What's more, as students increasingly use devices such as smartphones, laptops, and tablets in the classroom, schools have had to adapt to find the best way to integrate that technology into the curriculum.

Here are three colleges that have found a way to use technology to create a more cost-effective, customized, and engaging learning experience.

Taking Textbooks Online: Rowan Cabarrus Community College

Jenny Billings, Chair of Curriculum English, Developmental Reading, and English and Study skills at Rowan Cabarrus Community College (RCCC) in Salisbury, NC, jumped at the chance to spearhead an e-textbook initiative when the college’s Vice Principal approached her with the idea in 2012. And it’s a good thing she did. RCCC’s e-Text initiative has saved students up to 50 percent on the cost of their course materials, and has increased classroom engagement and retention.

Faced with administrative concerns that the need for Internet access and Internet-enabled devices would limit student access to digital textbooks, Billings began the daunting project by testing an introductory English course to obtain student feedback. “I didn’t want my faculty doing anything I hadn’t thoroughly tested,” she says.

Over the course of two pilots, students were given the choice between a class using a print textbook and one using a digital textbook. Billings gathered data from classes over the course of two semesters and saw immediate, positive results. More than 75 percent of students who completed the e-Text classes said they would take an e-Text course again, and the majority said they did not have reservations about more courses using digital textbooks.

Encouraged by the data, Billings advocated for and expanded the program. Her only moment of hesitation was introducing e-textbooks to the Developmental Reading and English course—a class where students tend to need extra help when it comes to both technology and reading.

“I was warned not to do it,” Billings admits, “but I did it, and it has honestly been our greatest success. That’s when I knew we had truly succeeded.”

The proof is in the numbers. In two years, the retention rate for the Developmental Reading and English course has increased by nearly 18 percent, and the pass rate has increased from 68.8 percent to 76.6 percent. Now, over 30 e-Text-based courses are delivered to more than 4,000 RCCC students.

The digital textbooks are available at a discounted price through Blackboard Learn, the college’s Learning Management System, and digital content is provided through a partnership with Cengage.

An unanticipated benefit Billings also noticed is an increase in technology competence. “Students who are exposed to tech in a developmental English course are now reporting higher confidence with technology as they move through higher-level courses,” she says.

The RCCC e-Text initiative won the 2016  Digital Learning Innovation Award for advancing undergraduate student success through the adoption of digital courseware.

“This is just the tipping off point,” Billings reflects on the success of her digital textbook initiative. “We can’t get enough of technology.”

Embracing Innovative Digital Tools: Johnson County Community College

Successfully weaving digital tools into academic programming or the classroom environment—without complicating it—is one of the main challenges of implementing technology in schools.

In the Learning Studio classrooms at Johnson County Community College (JCCC) in Overland Park, KS, technology and learning go hand-in-hand. With movable tables and chairs, interactive whiteboards lining the walls, and a mobile lectern where instructors can access a variety of media devices, it’s no surprise that JCCC is receiving a growing number of requests from faculty for more Learning Studio classrooms.

JCCC Learning Studio classroom

“Faculty report that students are much more engaged in this type of environment,” says Vince Miller, Dean of Academic Support. After reading about the results of learning studios on other campuses, JCCC partnered with classroom furniture company Herman Miller to create their first learning studio. Herman Miller has conducted extensive research on best practices for active learning classroom designs, which include four key elements:

  1. basic human needs—the furniture should be physically comfortable
  2. teaching—the classroom should accommodate a variety of teaching styles
  3. learning—the classroom should prioritize discussion and demonstration over lecturing
  4. engagement—the space should increase student-faculty and student-student interactions

Learning Studios are designed to provide a flexible learning and teaching environment beyond the traditional classroom, Dean Miller explains. Tables and chairs can be easily assembled for a group activity, or separated for a lecture-style class. Electronic whiteboards allow for on-screen annotation and remote Internet access. Wireless clickers let students to participate in live polling to increase engagement during lectures.

Dean Miller says the college plans to convert many more classrooms to the active-learning format over the next few years. Technology additions will include large screen monitors on separate walls, increased wireless infrastructure, more power outlets for students to charge their devices, wireless device projection, and large screen touch interface monitors.

Personalizing the Learning Experience Through Data Infrastructure: Northern Essex Community College

While technology is proving useful in the classroom, data is increasingly being used at an administrative level to  measure student performance and bring greater visibility to the effectiveness of programming and teaching. This enables faculty to bring a better level of individualization to their teaching based on where students need the most assistance.

When Northern Essex Community College (NECC) in Haverhill, MA, received a $200,000 Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (iPASS) grant, they decided to use the funds to acquire much-needed course catalog software and a data and analytics warehouse.

“The software will allow us to look at everything from the most granular level of student attributes and course history, to aggregated data about different cohorts of students like age range, demographics, or chosen academic program,” explains Dawna Perez, NECC's Dean of Student Success.

NECC’s on-campus data team can import key data into the software to maximize the college’s ability to design predictive models to figure out where, when, and why they are losing students. The college plans to align their services to proactively intervene, Perez says.

The long-term goal is for students to be able to use resources such as advising and degree planning, academic and non-academic support services, and career exploration and development to create an academic program that aligns with their personal and professional goals. On the other end, faculty and staff will have access to predictive, real-time information to identify and help struggling students as early as possible.

“Technology is the infrastructure and the communication vehicle that undergirds this whole process,” Perez says.

In higher education, technology is here to stay; when integrated correctly it can help to increase class engagement and retention, adjust learning trajectories to align with students’ long-term goals, and offer innovative ways to deliver learning.

Plus: Three Tools to Keep Your Eye On

Action-Based Learning: Michael Sotiriou, a Suffolk County Community College (NY) student, designed a $200 connected device to remotely measure water quality through a Mindsumo challenge. Mindsumo brings Fortune 500 companies and college students together to work on real business problems. 

Improving the Student Experience: Danville Community College (VA) partnered with EAB to streamline student on-boarding. With a new portal system, students create a personalized learning path unique to their constraints, such as having a full-time job or children, along with education-based goals such as graduation or employment. Enrollment has increased by nearly 5 percent, and the school has earned an extra $70K in revenue.

Virtual Tutors: A Santa Monica College (CA) student struggling in Chemistry switched from taking notes manually to using a tablet after working with Air Tutors, a one-on-one virtual tutoring service. Using her tablet, she was able to access tutoring notes during class, and easily search for topics. 

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