Tuesday, June 27, 2017


A Natural Experiment

In the 1960’s, community colleges were established at an average rate of one per week.  Now, new ones are rare birds.  So a story about the new one emerging in western Pennsylvania seems worth noticing.

The new one, clunkily named Rural Regional College of Northern Pennsylvania, is starting out as a de facto extension site of Gannon University.  Apparently its classes are conducted by “interactive television,” which in this context seems to mean synchronous distance classes held at various centers.  I can see why they did that: the format provides the tight control, regular schedule, and human interaction of a classroom class, but can be run over distance.  And given that broadband is not ubiquitous in rural northern Pennsylvania, dedicated connections at particular sites can provide reliable connectivity that students may not have at home.

(A few years ago, vacationing in rural northern Pennsylvania, I saw a roadside stand with a sign advertising “live bait and wifi.”  I wish I had taken a picture.)

The format could get trickier as they move into more technical classes, but the basic concept strikes me as plausible.  If they deploy tutors or advisors to the various centers, along with some generalist student support, they may be able to make it work reasonably well.

But I hope they don’t settle for that.

During the rapid growth period of the 1960’s, institutional isomorphism was the trend, mostly by default.  There’s no faster way to get something off the ground than to copy something that already exists.  (Brookdale was an exception with its embrace of “mastery learning,” a sort of competency-based approach before it was cool.)  The cookie-cutter approach had the considerable merits of speed, economy, and simplicity, and it helped people avoid some basic mistakes.  But it also meant that some pretty standard ways of doing things got entrenched without anybody really thinking them through.  Now, after decades of kludge, people who want better results have to bushwhack through layers upon layers of sedimentary past decisions.

RRCNP -- it just rolls off the tongue -- has the chance to become a proving ground.  It’s largely free of the kludge of legacy systems, “past practice,” and people who’ve done their jobs the same way since the Nixon administration.  It has a unique opportunity to build entire systems based on what we know now.  And it can even perform the service to the industry of becoming a sort of demonstration project.

To do that, it would probably need some level of philanthropic support, as well as considerable assistance in research design.  It would likely be money well spent.  Most community colleges are programs already in progress, but this one isn’t.  It’s a rare chance.

So, Gates folk and ATD folk and Lumina folk, here’s a chance to do something you couldn’t normally do.  (And I say this with no personal connection to RRCNP.)  A relatively small investment of money, and a larger one of expertise, could be a game-changer.  Then we can talk about that name…

Program Note: it’s vacation time!  We’re heading to Canada, hoping to see the six-story rubber duck in Toronto harbor.  (Seriously.  Google it.)  The blog will be back on Monday, July 10.

Not from Pennsylvania, but very similar sign outside of Savannah, Georgia:
Enjoy your trip! I got to join a celebration of Canada Day one year, and the people at the party were just as crazy as the #WhatTheDuck motto on t-shirts suggests. If you can be there on the 1st, you will see a real event!

Regarding the college in NW PA, I know that area as the land of hunting camps and summer beach trips, so I can understand the challenges they face with getting even a CC education locally. It is a very low density rural area. Interactive TV classrooms are a very plausible option, especially if you have live faculty at each of the sites so everyone gets a chance to have a live-in-person class and f2f advising.

If it is like the system I have seen, it has been around for several decades and works pretty smoothly if you have a dedicated line between the sites. The quality is much better than streaming video. The instructor can see all of the classrooms and there is 2-way audio available for Q&A or student presentations, but the audio is not on all the time so a restless student doesn't disrupt everyone. It takes some getting used to, some sort of ice breaker so everyone sees how it works, but it could be superior to a really large classroom because there is a protocol for each remote small group to reach out to wherever the instructor is located with the in-person small group.
On the off chance that someone involved might see this ...

It really does strike me as a 50th anniversary repeat of what must have happened in Florida, when an entire system of CCs was created from scratch. Although there were a handful of junior colleges, they were segregated so even the existing ones had to be reinvented as integrated colleges. Many CCs were created in what must have been a crazy experiment at the time: the exclusive source for the first 2 years of college for students who wanted to attend the new upper-division-only universities like FAU as juniors. I think that is what made the strong articulation possible, because it was necessary! Only this college can do it with hindsight as well the kind of ed research platform you envision. Active learning done live on TV with groups of groups in different places? I like it.

But first they have to decide if it is intended as the first 2 years, with workforce goals met by a 4-year degree, or as the only 2 years, with terminal degrees. If the former, they need a transfer target school(s) and articulate with them from day 1. Pathways from the very start! In an ideal world, they could even use interactive TV to allow groups of their students to take classes as transient students at a university for niche majors where they can't offer the class.
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شركة تنظيف بالقطيف
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