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.