Synchronizing a Multi-Campus College: Meeting a Local Higher Education Challenge by Developing Institutional Digital Capacities
Trends in the community college context
Community colleges such as the one at which I teach are known for their responsiveness to community needs. But although nearly half of America’s undergraduates are enrolled at 2-year colleges (Bailey, Smith Jaggars, & Jenkins, 2015), community colleges also exist at the mercy of changing economic and educational environments. According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the proportion of students attending 2-year colleges has been dipping since 2013 at the expense of increased enrollment at public 4-year institutions.
One strategy community colleges are using to address low enrollment and completion rates is distance education, usually in online (asynchronous) formats but also in blended or synchronous classrooms involving cohorts from multiple locations who meet via video or web conferencing technologies for live classes. Inside Higher Ed (2016) reported that according to the AACC’s Instructional Technology Council (ITC), community colleges have exceeded four year institutions in additions of online courses and programs.
In the past decade a third trend has worked together with the decline of enrollment and rise of distance learning formats to shape community college responses to the many and sometimes conflicting needs of students, communities, and budgets. This is a surge in the popularity of dual (concurrent) enrollment courses taken by high school students seeking to earn legislatively funded college credits before graduation. In 2010-2011 the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) survey of national data on dual enrollment programs at 2-year and 4-year Title IV eligible postsecondary institutions indicated that at 46 percent of these institutions, students took courses within a dual enrollment program.
Issues of equity in synchronous formats
For years, RCC (Rural Community College; name withheld), a rural community college with several regional centers supported by a main campus and a service area of 11,500 square miles encompassing many rural high schools, has served the large proportion of its student body who are dual enrollment students (currently 49%), largely through high school teachers and limited offerings of blended courses combining face to face cohorts on the main campus with remote cohorts via live telepresence or web-based platforms. Increased regulatory agency expectations for faculty credentialing, including high school teachers serving as adjunct faculty for dual enrollment students, is a fourth factor that has precipitated RCC’s move to launch in 2018 a “Global Classroom” blended/synchronous format aimed at streamlining and standardizing its delivery of concurrent education.
Yet declining enrollment, the rise of distance learning technologies, the rise of the dual enrollment market, and increasing regulatory strictures do not represent the full range of shifts taking place within American higher education. Student populations are also increasingly diverse in age, linguistic and cultural background, cognitive ability, and preparation for college (Chapman, 2016). Articulated in Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success (2015), the “Guided Pathways” approach has resulted in the popularization of measures such as default courses of study, application-to-graduation “intrusive adivising,” and enrollment and progress-tracking analytics to try to ensure community college success for a wider student population.
Yet technology-enhanced learning has been found to privilege some students, and much research on the effectiveness of community college distance education, whether through asynchronous or synchronous formats, remains to be done. In 2014, the year prior to the publication of Restructuring America’s Community Colleges, one of the book’s authors noted in Democratization of Education for Whom? Online Learning and Educational Equity, an article published by the AACC on research in online learning, that community college student access and success in online coursework was not equitably distributed across student demographics: successful community college online learners tended to be older and to belong to more privileged groups. Similarly, Erik Gilbert’s November 2017 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education discussed the degree to which dual enrollment programs can lead to inequity. Thus the introduction of courses and programs in distance formats and for dual enrollment students calls for strategic planning, faculty development, and selection of technologies and curricular resources that include ongoing assessment of how the digital capacities of the institution and its stakeholders are being developed.
Learning from case studies
Students who were served well in a multi-campus, synchronous format assessed in 2017 and based on one such model found that successful distance learning depended “on four preconditions: 1) ease of use, 2) psychologically safe environment, 3) e-learning self-efficacy, and 4) competency.”
But effective implementation of distance formats involves more than considering and planning for equitable impact on students. In a 2017 study of a large, multi-campus community college’s move to online education, Regina L. Mitchell Garza traced how, because of the way technology-rich curricular innovations blur traditional boundaries between college faculty, administrators, student services, and technology services, it is important to understand how implementation of new distance learning formats can create surface-level and deeper cultural changes at institutions.
Although much research on synchronous learning programs at community colleges has yet to be developed, studies of a broader range of educational institutions that have used synchronous technologies to provide higher education to students across large geographic areas have found that technological barriers and difficulty attaining a sense of community remain important concerns that can be addressed through intentional engagement of all stakeholders and across the domains that technologies engage and change. In a study of the perceptions of students in synchronous course formats at Minnesota State University published through the higher education association Educause there was a small negative impact on the level of satisfaction with learning and with overall experiences that students reported regarding synchronous versus face to face classes and a large negative impact on the sense of community experienced in synchronous classes.
By contrast, in Australia, a cross case study of blended synchronous learning indicated that both faculty and students found that despite technological connectivity problems, synchronous courses could foster a sense of community; this meta-analysis resulted in a handbook that recommended use of a digital capabilities framework in addition to well considered technical support, learning space development, professional development, and faculty workload allowances for successful creation and implementation of blended synchronous learning higher education learning environments.
From responsive to ready
The study I produced for RCC began with a description of a planned “Global Classroom” format largely targeting dual enrollment students, and an exploration of the college’s larger technology vision, based on administrator interviews and a review of institutional goals. To suggest ways that students could be provided with equitable access not only to course formats but to the use and development of the technological capacities that would enable teaching and learning success, I gathered student perspectives on learning technology implementation; analyzed the distribution of course formats taken by dual enrollment, traditional, and nontraditional students; and noted potential areas of technology access, digital capacities, and metacognitive dispositions that might be considered in the design, implementation, and assessment of the Global Classroom for each of several types of students enrolled at RCC.
I framed these considerations in terms of the Digital Capabilities Framework developed by Jisc to create a conceptual context in which to offer recommendations from educational technology research for clarifying and managing the organizational changes brought on by a technology-based curricular initiative that can serve either as gateway or barrier to a thriving teaching and learning community. As an accelerating field of scholarship, educational technology holds great promise not only for supporting equitable student access to new ways of learning and for empowering faculty-instructional technology staff collaboration and innovation, but for understanding the nature of the world we and our students live in, and for the culture of collaboration in which a responsive learning community can thrive.
Bailey, T.R., Smith Jaggars, S. & Jenkins, D. (2015). Redesigning America’s community colleges: A clearer path to student success. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Chapman, R. (2016). Diversity and inclusion in the learning enterprise: Implications for learning technologies. In N.J. Rishby and D.W. Surry (Eds.), The Wiley handbook of learning technology (pp. 287-300). Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.