Technology and the American Graduation Initiative: Opportunities and Caveats

 In this brief Q&A, Northern Virginia Community College's VP for Instructional and Information Technology Steve Sachs offers some advice for institutions as he comments on how technology can help achieve the goals of the American Graduation Initiative.

Campus Technology: I’d like to get your comments on the potential of the American Graduation Initiative, particularly on how technology or strategies involving technology can help institutions move forward with the broad goals of the initiative as they’ve been announced so far. First, what are some key considerations about instructional technologies, or important trends to consider that could have a direct impact on students?

Steven Sachs: In the context of the graduation initiative, using technology, making it easy to replicate, and making it very portable will have tremendous potential for a positive impact on graduation rates and retention, as we’ve seen at Northern Virginia Community College.

But speaking first in terms of technology-supported courses, there is one caveat: To achieve the initiative’s goals, any courses that will be built must be designed around the core that students need to graduate, not what people simply want to produce. I look back at the national telecourse model that grew up out of funds provided by Walter Annenberg, and a lot of the courses that were picked were based on agendas other than helping students reach graduation. So you had topics that were not in the core, taking the focus off the real mission of the funding. It’s also important to consider a plan to keep courses current over time. If they are just left for everyone to adapt, modify, fix, or update at will, the courses will probably become so outdated that we lose them altogether.

Another key technology piece to consider is simulations in the sciences. One of the difficulties we face on our campuses is that we just cannot open enough seats in traditional labs. And the high cost of good labs is not only space and equipment, but also providing for materials and safety. While there’s a component of laboratory sciences that requires students to touch real equipment, there’s a substantial amount of science learning that really doesn’t necessitate hands-on equipment per se, but does require experimentation or observation. If we could get a sufficient body of simulations based on good principles of instructional design, simulations that students could do any place, any time--not in a dedicated science lab--the students would probably learn more science and we could actually expand the number of students we work with while saving costs. And there are many experiments that can be done in simulation that just wouldn’t be practical or even possible in a traditional laboratory. So if we begin to use more simulations, we will have new opportunities to produce a level of science in our students that is difficult to attain with our current state of labs.

And an important trend to be especially aware of is portability. Students are going to want to use the technology they take with them to interact, check in, and to communicate with their peers on course matters using a portable technology platform. Whether it’s going to be smart phones, or maybe the next generation of smart phones, or laptops, or netbooks… we have to keep thinking about how we are going to connect the students’ portable technologies to whatever courseware we’re developing. The applications shouldn’t have to reside on a particular computer or within a campus facility.

CT: We’ve talked a bit about student and instructional technologies. What about updating campus facilities, which is included in the goals of the American Graduation Initiative?

Sachs: One of the things we’ve done within the Virginia Community College System that gets us consistently ranked near the top in national rankings relates interestingly to this issue. In the mid-nineties, we began following a model that worked and has continued to serve us very well. It is based on simple principles and points out that there are some things, if you just throw your money at buildings and construction, that you’re not going to get to. So our priority is to make sure that there is a build out of technology in the colleges, that there are enough computers for the students, and that there are computers and projectors in all the classrooms. Further, there are funds dedicated to refresh those technologies on a regular basis so they are not allowed to just age and become antiquated or even broken. If your funding for facilities is a one-time infusion of dollars and doesn’t require some kind of matching commitment on the part of the institution, then it’s likely to become one of those “one-shot” deals that probably isn’t going to help for very long. Similarly, I think you have to develop some standards that go with the technology you will implement. Ask, what is the minimum level of technology that we’re trying to achieve with those dollars, and how will we enhance that over time?

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