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The Connected College: Digital Artifacts and Tools to Support Learning Outcomes

A conversation with Michael Vieira

Bristol Community College, an urban college in southeastern Massachusetts, has redesigned many of its courses around common learning outcomes. With the help of a Title III grant from the Department of Education, BCC has supported faculty by developing Course Design Toolkits and identifying an array of digital instructional artifacts relevant to course content and supportive of learning outcomes. Here, BCC's Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael Vieira (photo, right) talks with CT about the initiative's broader goals to both strengthen BCC's general education program and support "The Connected College."

Mary Grush: When did BCC first start looking at the idea of developing digital artifacts and toolkits that would support common learning outcomes?

Michael Vieira: It actually goes back to before 2008, when we started looking at the challenges the community college had, in terms of students not quite making it through gateway courses--for the most part, these were general education courses like English, developmental math, and some history courses… We decided to apply for, and we were awarded, a Title III-A Strengthening Institutions grant from the U.S. Department of Education. It allowed us to focus on improving advising, orientation, the first year experience, and ultimately on developing toolkits to support those gateway courses.

Grush: What was your approach to developing toolkits?

Vieira: For three years, we brought together teams of faculty to re-design eight courses a year. With departmental buy-in, the teams worked on identifying the common student learning outcomes that we wanted to achieve in each course, along with digital resources and artifacts that would support teaching and learning in the classrooms.

Grush: Were faculty receptive to the idea of the toolkits?

Vieira: One of the best comments I heard from a faculty member was, "I've always felt comfortable with the material, but not with the new technology and teaching tools to reach today's students." So I think we've helped recharge veteran faculty, while keeping a key question in mind: How can we design toolkits for these courses and still be sensitive to academic freedom, allowing faculty to make selections for their own particular teaching style?

Grush: What were some of the practical considerations you had, in achieving your objectives?

Vieira: It was little bit of a challenge in the beginning, working around schedules, looking at the vast amount of material out there, and coming up with a format that works. The exciting part, in a way, was that we knew right from the beginning that this was going to be an evolving process, and that as we developed subsequent tool kits, we'd be refining our processes.

Grush: What was the 'format that worked'?

Vieira: We actually had some binders, originally, that presented the materials; we had a SharePoint site that faculty could use; we went into our Angel-based LMS to create a digital repository; and finally we morphed all this into a Web page structure--that seems to be easiest for people to look at. The next iteration will consider how we can use master courses that can each provide a whole framework that a faculty member could adapt for their own course.

Grush: What are some examples of the success you’ve had in using the digital artifacts and common learning outcomes?

Vieira: I think we've had some really good successes with astronomy, which really embraced the ability to take the universe and put it onto an iPad or computer screen--allowing us to teach the course in places where we didn't have access to a planetarium or outside observation deck.

The biggest success, I think, has been in terms of developmental math, which I think the whole world is struggling with in terms of how long it takes to get students through remedial work. The team looked at not just redesigning the course; we redesigned the entire sequence. What's impressive is that now, students in a computer-assisted math course can just get into their material and you'll find them working on it before the instructor actually starts the class. And we're working on changing the delivery model further--in order to change how we track the competencies that students are mastering in mathematics, so we can get them through the developmental courses and into the regular college math courses as seamlessly as possible.

Grush: What are the implications for assessment? How does that change?

Vieira: I think we had the content piece together relatively early on, but we are also working on assessment tools. And that, by nature, will take a little longer.

Faculty have developed rubrics and links to helpful sites; we've done a little bit of work--not as much yet as I’d like--with digital portfolios. We're looking at critical thinking skills--and in the open access environment of the community college one has to consider those students who come to us not really college-ready. One thing we can do with the toolkit is to try to provide materials that would reach various, diverse learning styles. It takes time, but through digital artifacts that support common learning outcomes, combined with related and supportive assessment tools, we are changing the culture of learning and assessment.

Grush: Do you also develop tools that support students or student advising?

Vieira: Absolutely. We have a program called DegreeWorks that allows students to plan out their college career and helps advisors work with the students. Students can access it on their own, and there is a "what if" function that allows them to see what effects their choices might have. We have revamped orientation, which includes social software to connect the students ultimately to academic planning tools and to their advisors.

Grush: Connecting to the students seems to be an emphasis--as does connecting the various pieces of your learning outcomes initiative.

Vieira: The theme of the Title III grant is "The Connected College." The Title III funds have helped us move this initiative through the toolkit, through changing the culture of learning and assessment, through the refocusing of our general education requirements, through the revamped orientation… it's all about connecting the pieces of broader goals.

[Editor's note, Michael Vieira and BCC co-presenters Kevin Forgard and Maureen Melva Sowa will present "Developing and Implementing Digital Instructional Artifacts" at CT Forum, April 30-May 2.]

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