July 31, 2012

PCCC Awarded New Title V Grant

Representative Bill Pascrell and Dr. Rose at Passaic County Community College
Representative Bill Pascrell (left) and Dr. Rose at Passaic County Community College

Last month, U.S. Represetative Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ-08) announced that Passaic County Community College (PCCC) has been awarded a new grant through the Department of Education’s Developing Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI) Program.

The first year of the grant awards $541,813 to the College and the department anticipates a similar grant being given to the college annually for the next five years.

The Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program provides grants to assist HSIs to expand educational opportunities for, and improve the attainment of, Hispanic students. The HSI Program grants also enable HSIs to expand and enhance their academic offerings, program quality, and institutional stability.

The current Writing Initiative that began in 2007 and ends September 30, 2012 is part of the same DOE Title V program.

“PCCC put together a fantastic proposal and I am pleased that the federal government is seeing fit to support our community college here in Paterson ,” stated Pascrell, a former educator who led a grassroots movement to make sure the college was founded in Paterson . “Building strong skills in math, reading and writing are central to our students’ pursuit of educational excellence and advancement. I applaud PCCC for its focus on our student’s classroom performance, and working to secure resources that will improve academic achievement right here in Passaic County.” Pascrell served on the Board of Trustees at PCCC and gave the commencement address at the college this Spring.

PCCC will invest the grant into a comprehensive five year reform effort that seeks to increase achievement of Hispanic and other low-income students by improving course pass rates and persistence rates of college-level students enrolled in several barrier or “gatekeeper” courses.

“Our highest priority at Passaic County Community College is to ensure that our students meet their goals,” said Dr. Steven Rose, the President of Passaic County Community College. “These resources will allow us to implement innovative programs and services to better support our students. Again, we thank Congressman Pascrell for his ongoing four-decade commitment to the College.”

July 30, 2012

Formal and Informal and Lifelong Learning

We always include in our workshops for faculty on writing a discussion on informal and formal writing assignments. Reading a post by Jared Stein recently, I started thinking about adding the element of lifelong learning.

I agree with Stein that lifelong and continual learning is critical to success. He also feels that we are "moving from an era of 'universal schooling' to an era of 'lifelong learning.'"

That means that learning not only happens continually, but it occurs anywhere, not just in classrooms or in online spaces controlled by schools.

It is also important to lifelong learning that the learning is self-selected for the learner's needs, not because of the needs or limitations of the school's offerings.

That's why the Internet -without any help or interference from schools and educators - became such an important learning resource.

Classrooms are chock full of formal writing, and informal writing often doesn't carry much "weight" with teachers - and therefore not much weight with students. So, not surprisingly, formal educational  experiences like the typical course taken for credit and paid for by tax dollars or tuition are valued over informal learning experiences. That has always been true, still is true, but may not be true in the next decade or two.

When we discuss in/formal writing, we start with the easy modes. Everyone in the group agrees that the research paper is formal. Most teachers agree that student notes are informal. Someone always brings up text messages, twitter, Facebook and social media as informal. They probably also blame all that informality for the poor quality of the formal writing (and possibly for the decline of civilization).

But it's not a black and white topic.  That email to a friend asking if we are still on for a Friday movie seems clearly informal. But the cover email that has your reume attached for the job you really want at the company that only accepts electronic applications is definitely formal.

Perhaps, my students' lecture notes are informal in structure, not required and ungraded, but the lab notes for anatomy lab are very structured, required and a significant part of the course grade.

Our discussions always lead us to a series of similar conclusions, including observations like:
  • formal isn't formal just because of a grade or weight (though formal tends to be graded)
  • informal writing is often the best way to move towards formal writing
  • informal writing is often more "real world" and is more often done outside the classroom for personal reasons
  • informal writing often has a structure
  • the higher stakes nature of formal assignments allows less room for experimentation and risk-taking by students
  • teacher comments and intervention is important in the writing process and far less important (to students) when a formal graded paper is returned
How many of those conclusions are also true of lifelong learning experiences?

How might we compare the research a student does before buying a big-screen TV to the research they do on an author? Do they even consider the TV consumer research to be"research" in the same sense as the author assignment?  That's one reason why we prefer the term information literacy for assignments rather than research, which still makes students think about something that leads to a "research paper" rather than a well reasoned conclusion.

Are lifelong learners more likely to take risks with informal learning - such as when taking a free online course from a university or any provider? I would say that is an absolute "Yes."

Since I see the future of learning as being less formalized and less likely to be provided by traditional educational institutions, thinking about these distinctions is increasingly important. That may be especially true for formal institutions of learning who have the most to lose in this paradigm shift.

July 18, 2012

Assessing Critical Thinking in Writing

Our Writing Initiative rubric for evaluating critical thinking in student writing is very simple. It has three competencies that we feel should be made evident in the assignment, and that should be evidenced in the resulting papers. There are many aspects of critical thinking that might have been used as measures, but we chose three that we felt were common to almost all good writing assignments.

The three competencies are:
1) Find appropriate evidence and accurately interpret it
2) Identify pertinent arguments pro and con and rebut those arguments that counter to your thesis
3) Draw a thoroughly justified conclusion(s)

We ask instructors to have students indicate when they submit assignments to their portfolios which assignments best address critical thinking competencies. Part of that request is because we want students (and faculty!) to be very conscious of critical thinking elements in the assignment.

At the start of the Initiative in 2008, we realized early on that instructors too quickly said that "all my assignments use critical thinking" but were then unable to actually point out where that critical thinking occurred.

The assessment of this area in writing samples has shown improvement the past five years. Students are most capable in achieving competency in evidence gathering and interpretation and in drawing conclusions. This can partially be explained because these skills are addressed through research in not only WI classes but in other courses as well. The competencies we stress in our information literacy component also reinforce these two areas. The development of argument and drawing conclusions are a focus in Composition I & II essays, and are stressed in the College Writing Exam essays.

The weakness that is evident in our analysis is one that keeps many papers in the “competent” part of our rubric rather than receiving a rating of “accomplished.” We observed in earlier years and have addressed in subsequent Faculty Institutes, that many instructors create assignments that require a single argument rather than the more “accomplished” criteria of addressing multiple and counter arguments.

That also affects the third competency, since a writer addressing only one point of view will most naturally arrive at only one conclusion.

In some writing situations, such as in the sciences and on the College Writing Exam, multiple arguments are actually seen as “going off topic.” We have made very conscious efforts this past year in our training and when working with faculty on assignment creation to have them create assignments which allow and encourage multiple perspectives on an argument.

In our analysis of portfolio samples from the fifth year, we again found improvement in all three competencies but competency 2 (argument) both showed the greatest improvement and still remains the weakest area. 

Our conclusion is that this is an area that needs to be addressed by more courses using writing across the curriculum. The problem may be more in the assignments that are given, than in students' ability to accomplish the task.

All of our rubrics, including the critical thining rubric, are available online.

July 16, 2012

Non-Traditional Students

Nontraditional students - adults who attend college part-time - are a large and growing segment of American higher education. They figure into the “completion agenda” (or lack of completion) that has gotten more national attention the past year.

According to some news reports, it seems that many colleges do not really track the graduation or retention rates of these adult students. Why? Currently no one requires it.

According to a survey conducted jointly by InsideTrack, a student coaching service, and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association Center for Research and Consulting.
77 percent of institutions do not know the graduation rate for their adult students.

But that may change. Why? Because someone may require it. It might end up being the federal government that wants that information. But, for now, it might start with accreditors.

The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) is in the process of requiring institutions to report detailed information about those two key measures of student success, for all student populations, including the nontraditional ones.

Another finding from the survey looks pretty bad for the colleges. Adult students “tend to be viewed as cash cows” by colleges and 43 percent of colleges said their central administration values the money that adult programs bring in, but that the administration provides little support to those programs. So, colleges keep enrolling adult students, even if those adult students aren’t earning degrees.

This group is also rather difficult to track. They often “stop out” multiple times, and move from community college to 4-year institutions several times. It may take this adult student eight years or more to earn a bachelor’s degree, and that's a number the degree-presenting institution doesn't really want to tout.

cross-posted from Serendipity35 

July 11, 2012

Redefining Community Colleges (Whether They Want It Or Not)

I'm seeing a lot of articles this summer about the changing mission of the community college or redefining that mission. Some articles portray this as a natural process that is occurring. Others see it as something the colleges need to do deliberately.

On Chronicle.com, Richard Kahlenberg titled a post "Defining Community Colleges Down." He notes that even the media that rarely gives attention to two-year colleges seems to be picking up on these stories.

For example, the Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews wrote a post telling why he avoids community college pieces: "page view totals and e-mail traffic indicate readers move on quickly … whenever they see the words ‘community college.’”

The New York Times column, “Filling the Skills Gap,” is on the side of community colleges being places to prepare students for “middle-skill jobs.” The author associates the earlier mission to prepare students for a university degree as what they did in the days when they were known as “junior colleges.”

What is the community college mission? Skills, certificates, AA degrees that improve employment prospects, or preparation for the 4-year college...

Federal education data shows 81.4% of students entering community college for the first time say they eventually want to transfer and earn at least a bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, only 11.6% community-college students get that baccalaureate degree within six years.

On the other end are colleges like Miami Dade College and some other community colleges "upgrading" by promoting “high skills” as well as “middle skills and offering baccalaureate degrees.

The Century Foundation Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal is one group that rejects "downgrading" two-year institutions - although that downgrade might just be a return to its original mission.

July 10, 2012

Writing Across Disciplines Workshops

This past year, The Writing Initiative team has been presenting full day events for faculty in all academic disciplines who are not teaching writing-intensive courses.

Our next WAD Day is this Friday and another event will be held on August 10. These sessions have filled very quickly (a generous stipend of $250 for the day provided by our grant certainly helps).

The objective of this full day Writing Across Disciplines workshop is to have more instructors, particularly adjuncts, incorporate writing into their courses. Preference is given to instructors teaching courses that already encourage writing in formal and informal ways.

Based on the best practices that have emerged during the four years of the PCCC Writing Initiative, we discuss how to use, assign and evaluate writing that occurs in different disciplines.

The workshop includes an overview of the goals of the Initiative and our writing intensive courses. In a roundtable, seminar-style, we address:
  • What do you do with writing in your classes now?
  • Using formal and informal writing
  • Creating effective writing assignments
  • Incorporating information literacy and critical thinking
  • Responding to and grading student writing - for content and for writing
  • Writing Resources available to you and your students at PCCC

July 5, 2012

Is Wikipedia Too Complex for You (or your students)?

I was doing a Web search on some science terms this week for a post on another blog. I happened to be using Bing and was surprised that the top result was not Wikipedia (as I expected), but it was the Simple English Wikipedia at simple.wikipedia.org. I didn't even know that another Wikipedia existed.

Even though people often bad mouth Wikipedia as a poor place to do research (I disagree), apparently the information there is too complex for some users.

I was searching the term aphelion, but the standard Wikipedia link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphelion  redirects for "Aphelion" and "Perihelion" to "Apsis" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apsis which has a much more complicated article. Yes, a definition of aphelion is in there, but it was simpler to read the Simple Wikipedia entry on the term.

So why is there a simpler Wikipedia?

Before you start hearing arguments about the erosion of education and the world of knowledge in general, take a look at what Wikipedia has to say about this alternate version.
The Simple English Wikipedia is a Wikipedia encyclopedia, written in basic English.

Articles in the Simple English Wikipedia use fewer words and easier grammar than the English Wikipedia.

The Simple English Wikipedia is also for people with different needs. Some examples of people who use Simple English Wikipedia: Students, children, adults who might find it hard to learn or read and people who are learning English.

Other people use the Simple English Wikipedia because the simple language helps them understand difficult ideas or topics they do not know about.

When the Simple English Wikipedia began in 2003, the ordinary English Wikipedia already had 150,000 articles, and seven other Wikipedias in other languages had over 15,000 articles. Since the other Wikipedias already have so many articles, most Simple English articles take articles from other Wikipedias and make them simple; they are usually not new articles. Right now, the Simple English Wikipedia has 84,531 articles.

This makes Simple English articles a good way to understand difficult articles from the ordinary English Wikipedia. If someone cannot understand an idea in complex English, they can read the Simple English article.

Many articles are shorter than the same articles in the English Wikipedia. Technical subjects use some terms which are not simple. Every effort is made to explain these terms in simple language.
It makes good sense to me, especially the idea that it is for "for people with different needs" such as adults who might find it hard to learn or read and people who are learning English.

I am always amused and bemused when I hear teachers at all levels say that "I don't allow my students to use Wikipedia," as if they follow their students home and to the library when they are doing research. Your students use it. They just don't cite it.

Yes, Wikipedia is one of the top sources for plagiarism. All the more reason to teach how to use it better and how to cite it. In most cases the Wikipedia article has better documentation for sources than the papers you get from students - and better than citations than in articles you read online in most major publications.

When I was a young student in the last century, we used encyclopedias and World Book was the one my teachers didn't want us to use. It was the Wikipedia of its day - too simple; too easy. That was wrong to do then. It's wrong to make believe that Wikipedia is not useful. Even with the flaws inherent in its use by students, it is here to stay. Use it. Teach how to use it.

And start giving your students who have different needs the link to Simple Wikipedia.

cross-posted from Serendipity35

July 3, 2012

Is Technology Changing Teaching Models?

We often hear that technology is changing the way we teach and the way students learn, but that doesn't always seem evident. In an article titled "Technology Driving Widespread Shift in Teaching Models" the indicators are that change is occurring. The article was in THE Journal (which is focused on K-12 education) but certainly much of this applies to us in higher ed too.

Their main point is that, according to the report referenced, "over the last two years, nearly half of faculty have moved away from a traditional lecture model and adopted a range of technology-driven teaching practices."  That report, "Learn Now, Lecture Later," was done for the tech vendor CDW-G.

They found an increase in the adoption of classroom-based technology use which resulted in a variety of changes to teaching and learning.

The vast majority of faculty and students, for example, now use notebooks and netbooks as classroom learning tools (75 percent of students and 72 percent of faculty overall), as well as digital content (69 percent of students and 73 percent of faculty).

Learning management systems were in use by a smaller majority, with 56 percent of students and 58 percent of faculty members reporting they use an LMS in the classroom.

What changed in the pedagogy? The increase of tech led to an increase in the use of non-lecture-based instructional delivery methods during class time. Those were identified as s hands-on learning, group projects, guided independent study, distance learning, and one-on-one instruction.

The majority of students participating in the study indicated they'd prefer a mix of delivery models, including:

    Distance learning (the choice of 11 percent of students);
    One-on-one tutoring (8 percent);
    Independent study (14 percent);
    Group projects (12 percent); and
    Hands-on projects (17 percent).

Additional findings included:

    69 percent of students reported they want to see more technology used in the classroom;
    26 percent of students reported they have used tablets in the classroom;
    34 percent of faculty have used tablets in the classroom;
    33 percent of students have used telepresence in their classrooms; and
    31 percent of faculty reported used telepresence.

No surprise that 76% of campus IT pros reported that teacher requests for classroom technologies have increased over the last two years.