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Community College Conversations About Access, Equity and Quality in Distance Ed

Word cloud from OLC unconference sessions

At the Online Learning Consortium’s fall 2019 conference, #OLCAccelerate, Kevin Kelly from MindWires joined forces with Kate Jordahl from the California Virtual Campus-Online Education Initiative (CVC-OEI) and Michael Torrence, President of Motlow State Community College (TN), to facilitate community college conversations about access, equity and quality in distance education. 1 With only 45 minutes to identify and solve every possible challenge we face, we structured the session like an “unconference” session–a meeting where everyone contributes equally rather than listen to an individual or panel of speakers. The three facilitators were joined by a dozen volunteer table leaders from seven different community college institutions around the country.

Figure 1. Community College Conversations – Map Representing Institutions of Table Leaders (Stars) and Participants (Pins)

No shortage of issues or conversation topics

Using access, equity and quality as primary focal points, we asked the facilitators before the conference to help us focus the conversations further by generating secondary areas of interest. Collectively, they suggested 1) accessibility (for people with disabilities), 2) open educational resources (OER) and zero-cost degrees (Z-degrees), 3) professional development, 4) student success, 5) transfer, and 6) workforce and apprenticeship. The table leads displayed pairs or trios of topics via table tents (see Figure 2), so participants could quickly navigate to the conversations they wanted to join throughout the session. Marketing teams hone their skills by drawing cards with a product (e.g., tortilla chips, sneakers, or cars) and a market segment (e.g., sports fans, people who run, parents), and then brainstorming ad pitches, so why couldn’t educators do something similar?

Figure 2. Community College Conversations – Table Tents

Table Talk Takeaways

With 40 to 50 participants from at least 14 different states spread across 6 tables, the table leads were able to capture quite a few key ideas and questions:

General Terminology: While the words access, equity and quality are commonly used, we still have to operationally define them. For example, quality teaching is more than quality course design. Several people noted that ‘we keep changing the words we use’ to describe equity, but agreed that it should mean more than just accessibility accommodations. Access involves providing pathways for everyone to succeed, and can mean access to technology, information, disability accommodations, support, or even learner agency.

Professional development efforts: Most of the participants’ organizations use a rubric to support course design, and have created faculty development or training for online teachers. Course review teams range from two to five people, some of whom face challenges when asked to go beyond their experience (e.g., math instructors who do not regularly use discussions). More professional development is needed to support the course review process.

Open educational resources (OER): Schools are now using OER to support entire programs, such as the First Year Experience at Motlow State Community College (TN). However, OER initiatives still face issues related to faculty buy-in and adoption, despite a common belief that textbook costs are prohibitive. Some institutions are using PressBooks, an online open publishing platform, to print open textbooks and sell via the campus bookstore at a low cost.

Workforce and Apprenticeships: Some of the most pressing questions tried to determine 1) to what opportunities community colleges act as a pipeline, 2) whether or not factors like students’ background and experiences impact which programs admissions advisors recommend to them, and 3) how to promote equitable practices in workforce hiring and apprenticeship initiatives. Pertaining to this last question, in his closing thoughts Michael Torrence shared some sobering facts about the gender wage gap based on current workforce trends:

While the session could have gone much longer and did not answer every question, it fostered new connections and resulted in resource sharing among participants at each table. Conferences that do not plan unconference-style segments in their programs would do well to encourage individual session proposals like ours and to require that those sessions share their results as widely as possible.

Disclosure: CVC-OEI is a MindWires client.

1 Disclosure: CVC-OEI is a MindWires client.