Technology and the Community College
Ready ... or Not?
Community colleges pour resources into programs to bring students up to college and workforce readiness—with overall dismal rates of success. Is technology the silver bullet to remedial education? Or just another failed investment?
- By Dian Schaffhauser
Donna Foster has a tough job. As dean of arts and sciences and transitional studies at Piedmont Technical College, her responsibility is to see that the 6,000 students who enroll in the Greenwood, SC, community college actually complete their education there. But she faces considerable odds. Statewide, only six in 10 high school freshmen graduate within four years. Yet Piedmont's open door policy guarantees enrollment for all applicants, even those who do not have a high school or equivalent degree. Not surprisingly, 60 percent of new students at Piedmont place into developmental math, a sure sign of an uphill climb ahead.
What Foster has to contend with at her campus isn't atypical. Registration rates have grown dramatically at community colleges, most of which have some kind of open door policy. Piedmont saw its largest enrollment ever in fall 2009, with 16 percent growth over the previous year. Yet two-year institutions also are increasingly jammed with students who lack academic readiness--a command of those basic skills that will help them find employment in the workplace or continue on to four-year institutions.
That's where remedial--or developmental--classes come into the picture. At Piedmont these are considered "zero-level" courses. Students are directed into math, English, or reading developmental classes by virtue of their placement exam scores, but taking the classes isn't mandatory. Some students are disinclined to sign up because zero-level courses are not transferable to other institutions, nor do they count toward program completion.
But even if students do take developmental courses (and Foster reports that most who place into remedial math and English do enroll), there's no guarantee that the classes will bring students up to college or workforce readiness--a problem Piedmont shares with many other community colleges around the country.
In a recent speech on the topic of community college completion, Melinda Gates--she of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation--said that remediation in those institutions consumes $2 billion a year. And yet, she added, "It is the stage at which the most students drop out."
Nationally, according to the foundation, up to 60 percent of students enrolling in community colleges must take at least one remedial course to build their basic academic skills. But only about a quarter of the students who take these courses earn a degree within eight years of enrolling. That, Gates said, is "a pitiful return on investment."
A significant portion of money poured into developmental courses at schools has gone into technology innovations. The Gates Foundation itself recently pledged up to $110 million in investments--some already granted--to help scale initiatives that would boost graduation rates by replacing weak remedial programs with new technologies and fresh ideas.
But, as the lessons at Piedmont Tech demonstrate, the application of software may only take a college so far in its efforts to bring unprepared students into college or workforce readiness. The faculty in the classrooms also play a major role, and students need to know how to use their computers effectively in order to exploit technology initiatives.
Various Levels of Readiness
Piedmont Tech's main campus and six satellite campuses are located in the northwestern part of the state. The average student is 26 years old, female, and probably majoring in a health program.
According to Lisa Martin, department head for Developmental and Transitional Studies, many students are from rural or low-income backgrounds. A sizable number come from area factories that have closed. "Some of the students are coming from an industry where they've worked for years, and then all of a sudden are coming back and trying to be retrained," she explains. "They need some assistance with basic skills and brush-up work. So our students come here at various levels of readiness."
For a long time, classes were taught the old-fashioned way--with faculty and textbooks. But starting in the mid-2000s, technology began to play a larger role at the college. In 2007, Piedmont published a quality enhancement plan that laid out how the college would improve student learning as part of its reaffirmation process for continued accreditation. The overriding theme: "Enriching student learning through technology readiness."
Based on work done at four affiliate colleges around the state, Piedmont decided in fall 2006 to revamp its developmental courses to integrate technology into the instruction. The idea was to expose struggling students to computer usage, giving them appropriate skills for entering the workforce or a four-year college. A tech-based approach also would enable the college to individualize instruction--critical for a student population with a range of skill competencies.
The emphasis on teaching technology skills also made sense in the context of the growing numbers of students registering for distance learning courses. Between 1999 and 2006, the college saw 500 percent growth in that area. Those courses that integrated a technology component tended to have a higher success rate and better retention than lecture-only courses. Piedmont saw compelling reasons to "intercede on behalf of students mostly likely to struggle with technology enhancements," as the quality enhancement plan laid out.
The redesigned courses used WebCT, the college's online course management program at the time, and content-specific software to promote a self-directed, flexible format. After a lengthy software evaluation process in each subject, the college settled on three products to serve as the foundation of the new scheme: Pearson's MyMathLab; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's SkillsTutor and Pearson's MyReadingLab for reading; and SkillsTutor and Microsoft Office for English. These products were chosen specifically because they offered adult-oriented content to appeal to an older student.
Also, the classes would be open entry/open exit. "Students would enter the class, work through the skills they needed, and when they mastered those skills, exit to the next-level course," explains Martin.
The restructured developmental program included a staff change too. Developmental faculty members with master's degrees who had been teaching the courses were asked to teach associate degree-level classes. Then, since the new developmental courses were to be student self-directed, the college placed its "instructional specialists"--non-teaching positions, typically filled by public school retirees with master's degrees or people fresh out of college pursuing advanced degrees--into new roles, known as "course facilitators," for the developmental courses. As Foster describes it, students were to learn the course content on computers; facilitators were present in the lab to answer questions and manage the operational tasks of the computer usage. The revamped program was piloted on one campus, with the intention of rolling it out to all campuses by 2011.
But within semesters of the changes, the pass rates--the percentage of students who had at least an 80 percent average in the remedial course--plummeted. After implementing the new tech-focused approach, in the spring 2008 semester, math had a pass rate of 27 percent, English 49 percent, and reading 54 percent.
"We knew right away we had a problem," Foster recalls. A major part of that problem turned out to be the technology component. "Students were fearful of even touching the keyboard. They couldn't master the software-delivered course content because they were fearful they were going to damage the computers."
The idea that students are digital natives doesn't always apply, Foster contends. For one, a large number of students in developmental and transitional studies are returning adults, not recent high school graduates, often coming from jobs which required no technology knowledge or skills. For another, of those who are recent graduates, "there is no evidence," she says, to support the idea that they had "frequent use of educational software in their high school experience." Foster reports that many Piedmont students have only one required computer course in high school. And while many own cell phones, few have desktop PCs or personal laptops. "Those who do haven't used them for educational purposes," she adds.
What about the facilitators who were in the classrooms to help students with computer problems? Why didn't they successfully intercede with those who were struggling? "As adults, we don't like to admit that we can't master something like a piece of technology," Foster observes. "Students aren't going to tell you those things."
But a ship doesn't turn quickly. It took a year and a half and a change in the top administrator for the college to move away from its new format. "What we decided to do was not throw everything out," Foster notes. Those facilitators were reclassified as faculty, which gave them the freedom to teach. Before the change, course facilitators only assisted with the technology and maintained student progress reports, but as instructors, those individuals could "teach short lessons, define vocabulary, demonstrate processes, and arrange meaningful learning experiences--all the practices of good teaching," she says. "Instead of [the instructors] facilitating the technology, the technology facilitated the learning experiences they presented."
An additional change was introduced: One developmental instructor was put in charge of creating the curriculum for the remedial classes; this common curriculum was used by all faculty. Finally, the open entry/open exit approach gave way to full 15-week semester classes.
By the summer 2009 semester, the results had dramatically improved. The number of students who met the pass rate for math rose to 57 percent, for English 68 percent, and for reading 79 percent. That has since leveled out. In the latest semester, spring 2010, 46 percent of developmental students earned a passing grade in math, and 62.5 percent of students met the cut score in both English and reading. Foster conjectures that the softening of the 2009-2010 course success rates may be due to the increase in the number of returning adults enrolling in the courses.
Teaching Makes the Difference
Foster believes that reintroducing faculty-based instruction into the program turned it in the right direction. "The students have had previously unsuccessful attempts at mastering content. They need to know--number one--that the instructor cares and wants them to succeed. The way an instructor demonstrates a caring attitude is by providing short lectures or demonstrations of particular skills--'This is how you find a common denominator' or 'This is how you convert from fractions to decimals to percentages'--then working individually with students while they complete practice exercises that increase their confidence while building their content knowledge."
The remediation classes also added an hour lab on top of the two lecture sessions that include a quarter-hour or so of technology use. The college decided that in order for students to make the most effective use of the technology, they need more than the 15 or 20 minutes of exposure they receive in the classroom. "It's difficult in a three-hour non-degree-credit course to teach content and computer technology," Foster says. Students have the option of taking the one-hour lab on campus in the Teaching and Learning Center lab, or, for those who can, online from home.
At about the same time as the initial course changes, Piedmont's contract with WebCT came to a close, and after an evaluation process, the college began moving its course management to Desire2Learn in October 2008. The college also introduced the use of MyMathLab, MyReadingLab, and SkillsTutor into 100-level courses. That meant that those students who made the transition out of developmental courses would be familiar with the tools they'd use in the credit-bearing courses.
In addition, in 2008 Piedmont piloted an assessment tool from First Advantage (a company that provides screening solutions to employers) to assess technology readiness, with collegewide implementation in fall 2009. Foster explains that the placement test is used to assess a student's computer skills and his or her ability to succeed in an online environment based on the demonstrated skills. "The placement test scores provide a conversation starting point. Using the score as a reference, the adviser and the student can discuss a student's readiness for participating in an online course." The assessment isn't multiple-choice; the student must walk through the exercises on a computer to prove skills. Those who don't show technical competency are encouraged to enroll in a one-credit consumer applications class before they enroll in technology-dependent courses.
The next revisions for the program are technical in nature, according to Martin, such as introducing a single sign-on for all applications, and more ergonomic desks. But the emphasis on the individual instructors won't be forgotten in Piedmont's remedial course equation.
"I think that people who work with developmental students have to have a real desire to work with that level of student," Foster observes, adding, "It's important that faculty and staff working with developmental and transitional students are comfortable with technology themselves."
In her speech on remedial education in community colleges, Melinda Gates seemed to echo both sentiments: "I want to be clear that innovation doesn't always involve a new technology. Sometimes, it's just a smart idea that comes from looking at an old problem from a new angle. But no matter what form it takes, innovation can change the calculus of intractable problems--and make them tractable."