By Jim Shimabukuro
For college students in general, a 2011 survey found that 75% are part-time. Of these, “Even when given twice as long to complete certificates and degrees, no more than a quarter ever make it to graduation day.”1 Another study in 2012, focusing on community college students, found that 59% are part-time. Of these, 42% work more than 30 hours a week, 37% care for dependents 11 or more hours a week, and 40% take evening or weekend classes.2
In comparison to full-time students, part-timers fail at over twice the rate in completing certificate and degree programs. Here’s a breakdown from the 2011 survey:
Considering their numbers and their low completion rates, it’s a wonder that community colleges continue to do business as usual, with little or no change in practices that date back over half a century.
Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to find, in my college emailbox, an announcement that I’ve been returning to, off and on, for the past few days. It is a call for proposals to address the problem of part-timers. The proposed plan has to either (1) assist part-time students earn 12 credits in an academic year or (2) shorten their time-to-degree. The deadline is close and the form is complicated, so I won’t be submitting a proposal. But I do have some thoughts on this subject.
From a part-time student’s perspective, college is only one of a handful of other responsibilities with higher priorities. S/he has to be able to fit it into her life, and not the other way around. The problem is that colleges are set up for traditional students whose main priority is to complete a program. So, like a square peg, she’s trying to fit into a round hole.
The courses she needs are either filled or offered at a time that’s not convenient for her. Offerings at night or on weekends are slim pickings. Even when she can fit a class in, she finds it difficult to meet deadlines, complete learning activities, or obtain learning assistance. Competing for her time are work and family demands. Furthermore, the commute to campus is all too often time-consuming and, if she drives, the cost of gas and limited parking stalls are an ongoing concern.
The fact that our hypothetical part-timer is among the majority of students who are poorly served should be an incentive to change, from a perspective that’s campus-centered to one that’s student-centered. In other words, colleges ought to be asking, How can we accommodate part-timers with their unique needs?
The title of the 2011 report mentioned above goes to the heart of the problem — “Time Is the Enemy.” The traditional college schedule is the enemy of the part-time student. It’s in one dimension, while part-timers are in another. Put another way, part-timers make up a completely different population that isn’t being served by the colleges as they are now. Put in still another way, part-timers are an open invitation for disruption, for a disruptive approach that will accommodate the needs of a large population of students who are currently being ignored.
When the word “disruption” creeps into higher ed conversations, the reaction is immediately defensive. How can we stop it? It’s a dreaded monster, an invader on our turf. Either we kill it, or it kills us. Thus, every bit of news about the apparent weakening of the monster is greeted with a sigh of relief.
But what we fail to realize is that disruption has nothing to do with losing our traditional student base. The fact is, for disruptive theory to play out, the consumer base has to be different. Ford’s Model-T is a good example. It was disruptive. Not because it competed for the business of the rich. It didn’t. Those who could afford it continued to purchase luxury cars from custom manufacturers. The Model-T was disruptive because it changed the customer base by making ownership possible for the growing middle class. Prior to October 1, 1908, cars were accessible to a very small minority. After, a larger, wholly different population bought into the new technology.
The lesson here is a simple one. Think of college as a technology. As is, it’s fine for full-time students. The problem is, it doesn’t work for the large number of part-timers. For these, we need something disruptive. Our technology has to change, just as Ford’s breakthrough production methods lowered the price of cars.
So, what will work?
We can’t know for sure until we pilot test it, but a good place to start may be scheduling. The semester may be much too long — too much time for a work- or family-related crisis to jump up and bite the student. One or two of these and the semester is shot, and the student has to wait for the next semester to start all over again, from the beginning, even if she had completed a good portion of the course the first time around.
One way to get around this is to break the semester up into smaller chunks, e.g., four 4-week modules. Each mod could stand alone, and successful completion could earn the student a badge. Four badges would translate to 3 credits. This way, the student who fails to complete one mod could still receive three badges, and the following semester, all she needs to do is complete the missing mod for 3 credits. Another student who earned a single badge in a semester wouldn’t feel it was a total waste since that badge will still have currency the next semester. Thus the motivation to continue is leveraged.
This adjustable modular scheduling (AMS) approach is like a Lego kit. You can create an almost infinite number of designs with the same uniform blocks. For example, to ensure that students earn 12 credits in an academic year comprising two 16-week semesters, colleges could offer four 3-credit courses in a year-long block and allow students to attack the mods in a number of different ways. Students who have difficulty concentrating on more than one course at a time have the option to string the courses out into a sequence of four 8-week courses, with each course consisting of four 2-week mods. With each mod completion, the student earns a badge, and with four badges, 3 credits. In June, she has 16 badges and 12 credits.
If a student fails to complete a mod, she can still move on to the next to keep up with her cohorts. She can complete the missed mod the following semester or backtrack and complete it as she’s working on the latest mod.
Another variation for those with short attention spans or who enjoy variety is to attack all four courses at once over a whole year. Each course would be divided into four 8-week mods spanning the entire year, which translates to two 8-week mods a semester.
The idea is to granny step what amounts to a single giant leap for part-time students. This way they can accomplish a large task in smaller increments, and failure doesn’t mean returning to step one and starting all over again. Every success builds capital, and the failures are minimized.
Another twist in this Lego model is to build in self-pacing. In other words, students can work ahead, slow down, or keep pace. To sustain engagement and interaction among students, a continuous network of online forums is necessary. That is, a forum is devoted to each mod and students are required to participate. Thus, while they’re spread out over real time, they share virtual asynchronous discussion spaces. In Sakai and other LMSs, the discussion board has a feature that allows students to monitor without having to log in to a forum. When there’s a post, they’re automatically notified. Thus, even when they’ve moved on to other mods and forums, they can still participate in previous discussions. Built into LMSs is a private mail (PM) feature that allows one-to-one conversations, providing a means for students to reach out to individuals.
For a multi-semester, year-long block of courses to work, students would need to develop blog portfolios in WordPress or Blogger to share drafts and projects. These blogfolios could also be used to display students’ mod badges, which not only showcase accomplishments but notify classmates that they are resources for help in completing specific mods.
This Lego approach could also be MOOCed. Students and non-students could be allowed to register for free and caps could be lifted. The first assignment could be used to sort the serious from the merely curious. The former could then be gathered into a more closely guided group while the others are allowed to participate in the general environment. All would be able to earn badges. However, to have them turned into credits, the student would need to pay the course fee and submit her blogfolio for assessment by instructors.
In this MOOC variation, student interaction would play a critical role, and grouping the serious students assures that the quality of discussions is high. Also, participation and quality of comment would be a factor in grading. This peer review process is needed to offset the instructor’s workload when MOOC class sizes are large.
The number of students completing a MOOC will be considerably smaller than the number who enroll. Ten to 20% is probably in the ballpark. However, the actual number may still be equal to if not greater than regular classes. Noncompleters, too, gain a lot. In this relatively nonthreatening exposure to a course, they can still earn badges and gain enough confidence to retake the MOOC for credit at a later date.
In this rambling discussion, I’ve described a few technologies such as LMSs, discussion forums, MOOCs, and blogfolios, but these can be adapted for use in blended as well as completely online courses. In fact, flipped approaches are natural outgrowths. Students do most if not all the content mastery and discussion work online and out of class while class time is devoted to activities that benefit from F2F interaction with the instructor and classmates.
The advantage of online approaches is best realized among part-time students for whom traditional time and space requirements are obstacles. Finding the time and means to attend a class in person at a specific time in a specific place is difficult if not impossible when juggling job and family demands. A creative approach to managing online offerings could go a long way toward creating a disruptive model that works for part-timers.
Finally, in this discussion, I’ve been careful to weigh in with ideas that are sustainable. This Lego model is based on existing technology, staff, and procedures. It doesn’t require new software or hardware. It doesn’t depend on hiring additional staff. The blogs I’ve mentioned are available at no cost on the web. Nearly all colleges have LMSs. Discussion forums are familiar to most faculty and students.
Most faculty already use blended approaches in which course resources are accessible online via LMSs. Dividing them into Lego blocks or modules is a relatively simple task. Thus, many courses can be easily massaged to fit into this adjustable modular scheduling system.
Devising procedures to facilitate this scheduling and grading process may be a bit challenging at first for the records office, but it can be made to fit in nicely with existing practices.
Perhaps the greatest asset of this Lego approach is scalability. Over time, instructors could work at refining and improving their online learning modules with brief videos and other media, open web content, etc. Students could be included in the building of knowledge bases. Instructors could experiment with varying levels and types of F2F and online blends, or develop the means to move completely online.
The ultimate beneficiaries of an adjustable modular scheduling approach are part-time students who arrive at our gates in the thousands, looking for a way to make college a part of their demanding lives. By exploring and developing new ways to serve them, we transform the community college system into a dynamic gateway for upward mobility in the 21st century.
This approach could also serve as a fallback or safety net for traditional students who find that circumstances in their life have changed and they can no longer attend college on a full-time basis. Instead of dropping out, they can drop in to an alternative system.
In closing, I realize that I’ve only skimmed the surface of ideas and that much more thought needs to go into this approach before it can ever be applied. Please don’t hesitate to comment. Your questions, concerns, and suggestions will only help to further the discussion.
1 Time Is the Enemy, Complete College America, 2011.
2 Center for Community College Student Engagement. (2012). A Matter of Degrees: Promising Practices for Community College Student Success (A First Look). Austin, TX: The University of Texas at Austin, Community College Leadership Program.