Community Colleges | Feature

An Instructional Design Toolkit and Strategies for the Community College

A Q & A with Rio Salado College's Michael Medlock

Community colleges have always served diverse student populations, which instructional designs have of course taken into account. Today, though, instructional designers have new opportunities to improve instruction and service to students as their toolkit has grown to include an amazing array of Web 2.0 tools and new media. Michael Medlock (photo, right), the director of Instructional Design and Technology at Rio Salado College and Rio colleagues including Media Developer Jarred Truschke have compiled a short list of what they view as the key technologies and technology-enabled tools changing the landscape of instruction at community colleges: video, personal cloud storage, social networking, blogs, audio, mobile, note taking, photography, and open education resources (OERs).

These are areas that Medlock and Truschke consider important for instructional designers and technology strategists to explore in depth and map to the academic challenges faced by community colleges today. We asked Medlock about some of the overall design principles that instructional designers and a team of faculty, subject matter experts, and media developers at Rio follow as they leverage technology and create exciting new learning designs--a strategy that incorporates an evolving technology tool set and advances instruction at Rio Salado College.

Mary Grush: How would you characterize the diversity of students at Rio Salado College--I know you serve nearly 80,000 online-only students--and what is your overall strategy to address the challenges of this diversity?

Michael Medlock: Indeed, we design courses for a wide population. Even for gen ed courses, we know that we have every kind of learner from current high school students to people who have retired from one career and are retooling for another. We do know that the vast majority of our students are adult learners, but there is a very wide spectrum of needs represented in that group. And though we recognize all that variability, we embrace it rather than think of it as a stumbling block. And because we realize that the one thing that our learners all have in common is that they are all different, we are kept away from designing for the "middle student." This is a critical concept to grasp today, and we leverage our technology and new media capabilities to personalize learning.

In some courses, we can plan for a narrower range of learner characteristics and can design narratives or a story line that helps transition students from one lesson to the next, providing context. For example, we are doing some grant work right now, designing courses for the adult, displaced worker. But still, we are focusing our learning designs on strategies, normally enabled by technology, that allow us to personalize the learning experience for our students. That's a very, very important aspect of the teaching and learning environment at community colleges today.

Grush: With that broader goal in mind, how do you guide your choices of media for instruction?

Medlock: The crucial thing here is alignment. Regardless of the specific content, learning objects, course materials, media, or technologies selected, it's the alignment between the objectives, the assessment, and the instruction that will guide these choices. Once you have this alignment, it becomes a filter for the choices that you make--otherwise, you may end up wasting your students' time. Technology or not, good learning design is good learning design.

Grush: That said, what would be an example of a design principle you'd use at Rio when integrating new media into instruction?

Medlock: Integrating new media in a way that is seamless for the student experience is an important design principle. Take as an example our flex scheduling--a student can start a course on any Monday throughout the year. That has implications for social media--things like discussion boards, an RSS feed, and group discussions are highly impacted by our flex starts because we will have students communicating who are at different points within the course. We have needed to broaden the nature of some of these discussion boards so that we can include people who are at different levels in an effective manner.

Grush: Is there a practical concern about students having access to differing levels or quality of technology?

Medlock: Part of this concern is answered by the use of cloud-based technologies. This has really brought together that diverse set of technology that's out there. It really doesn't matter if you have a computer that is brand new or five years old--you can still link to that Google document, or to your Dropbox account. Cloud-based technologies have really brought those students at the leading edge of technology and those who are behind the curve together.

Grush: Rio Salado has been not only using, but also creating OERs. What are some design principles to keep in mind as an OER designer?

Medlock: To make the best of the OER paradigm, people should design their own content with OERs in mind up front, and be consistent that the entire OER is actually built on open content and technology. For example, if I'm going to design a course to be open, and my intent in the end is to allow the course to live outside of our LMS, then if I use a textbook in the course that is not open content, I've really lessened the value of the OER I'm offering--and that doesn't really live up to the spirit of OERs. Using a Flat World Knowledge textbook would have been a better option in that scenario. There are many ways to make your course truly open: the way it's delivered, the materials, the textbook, and the content itself. There is a depth of planning for OERs that is really eye-opening for a lot of people.

The collection of vetted, academically usable OER material is really growing. The idea of being able to create your own, customized textbook out in the open is becoming very appealing. Many colleges are embracing OERs, and organizations like the Creative Commons, the Gates Foundation, and others are providing some impetus on a broader scale. While there may be financial motives for institutions to become involved with OERs--for example, as a strategy to drive enrollments--there is perhaps more predominently the sense of just helping the community.

Grush: Befitting a community college.

Medlock: Yes.

About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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