Innovation Anchored in Tradition:
Action Research @ Glendale Community College

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Reflection on '04-'05

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Michael Dulay

Cycle One Report: New Technology & Attrition in Student Enrollment


Although there are numerous choices for technology to best facilitate on-line learning, Glendale Community College (GCC) made a commitment to WebCT over four years ago.    The college has grown with the software, and I was among the first to adopt it.    Initially I used the software as a supplement for my General Psychology and Physiological Psychology courses.    I reveled in the number of tools available, and with time I used nearly every tool offered.    I began with those that were straightforward and comfortable: posting syllabi, links, and static html pages of my assignments.    I moved from these to assessment tools; I made quizzes to assure that my students were reading, and used a drop box for students to hand in assignments.    Following these "innovations", I experimented with the package's communication tools: chat rooms and discussion boards.    My apparent savvy with the tools afforded by WebCT lead to me to share my experiences in presentations and workshops at GCC.    I even published an article on the effective use of virtual office hours. In hindsight, however, this progression was predictable, embarrassing, and a direct function of my own insecurity regarding change and content mastery.    That is, my expansion of WebCT incorporation reflected my need to maintain control of the learning that occurred among my students.

My mistakes were made out of sheer ignorance, and they occurred at a time when answers were not easily found regarding effective educational technology use.    "Ease" is important to address briefly at this point because professional development and training were minimally available, and those that were placed technology atop the workshop's curriculum.   I believe my impulsive offering of virtual office hours for a class of over 120 students is an example of what happens when a person does not question the pedagogy behind the technology.   In any case, my work with WebCT made me one of the focal points for online learning in the largest division of departments at GCC (i.e., the Division of Social Sciences offers nearly 30% of GCC's courses).    My chair asked that I teach the first and only on-line course, a General Psychology Hybrid course (PSY101H).    We agreed that academic integrity would be my primary concern as the course developed.

My mistakes began there.    I assumed that integrity was best judged the way I had been.    I took a traditionalist stance regarding leaning, and assailed my students with assessments: three unit exams, one cumulative final, eight online quizzes, five writing assignments, 18 weekly discussions, and in-class writing activities.    Stated plainly, I failed to conceptualize my actions in the historical context of communication technologies and pedagogy.   Term after term, I had deplorable retention rates that I justified by devaluing the online pedagogy and inflated grades of those around me who also taught online.   This was a defense that was short-lived because I realized that I should first be concerned with my own courses and the students they serve (or not serve) in my case.  

My first 5 terms of teaching the PSY101H, I had a 67% attrition rate. This was emotionally taxing because these rates were unlike anything that I had experienced in my traditional, face-to-face (f2f) courses.   My f2f courses normally have a total attrition rate of 50%, and this rate is dispersed across the term.   That is, students withdraw or stop coming to class late in the term, not within the first couple weeks (which is what occurred in my PSY101H courses).   Little did I know that attrition is a bane of on-line teaching- a problem that only magnifies the risks of being non-traditional, as many are at a community college.   According to research (Howard, 2000), from a community college only 15 miles from GCC, enrollment attrition has been higher for distance education students than for traditional students for the past 18 years.    There are at least two possibilities for this disparity.    One, they drop because of external (i.e., beyond the scope of the class) forces, and this is likely magnified by the fact that most online students report that time pressure is the most common reason for taking online courses.    Two, students may drop because of a lack of familiarity with the environment (i.e., new hard/software, self-direction, or lack of personal interaction) created by the online format.    As part of my planning, I tried to contrast these two possibilities with my own past as well as my experiences in the Pepperdine's Online MA program.

I began to probe my past in an effort to foretell my future.    Because of my own experiences in school and the seat loads that were given to me early on (i.e., my first classes had 100+ students), I adopted a teaching style that could best be characterized as interactive lecture.    I longed for dialogic inquiry, but such an approach proved to be impossible in large lecture courses.    With time, I abandoned my dreams of teaching like the ancient Greeks, Confucius, or Paolo Freire, and I honed my craft around interactive lectures.    My classrooms were teacher-focused and they embodied what Smith (1998) would call the official theory of learning.    As the terms passed, I began to feel rather dissonant about my pedagogy, and I wondered if my students remembered only my humor and anecdotes in the semesters following their time with me.   I also wondered if my retention rates were related to me (i.e., my "psychology show"), and not to my students own engagement and learning.   

After months of liberating contemplation I began to draw on my knowledge about the human mind and learning.    I revisited the place in my mind that been enamored once before with the writings of Vygotsky (1978), Freire (1970), Smith (1998), Sternberg & Swerling (1996), and Epstein (1996).    I envisioned mutual support in a collective, selfless environment, but I could not move beyond this vision.    That is, I lacked a concrete logistical plan to make my vision real.    Because the PSY101H course is technology intensive, I searched for technology that could best facilitate this pedagogical vision in my mind.   Fortunately, my professor and mentor, Margaret Riel, introduced me to a technology called Wiki.    Wiki is an open source software system designed to facilitate collaborative writing, and intellectual pioneers are slowly tapping its potential.  Two examples of this are the Wikipedia and the California Open Source Textbook Project.   Weeks before Fall 2004 the term began, I secured funding for the wiki software and a server to host the course.    Of course, I had no time to fully research the merits of the wiki, but my familiarity with cognitive sciences enabled me to identify several features that would justify its use; and these are more clearly articulated in my literature review. I also required the maintenance of a blog for each of my students.   This technology would give them a personal space to share ideas and connect with others in the class.   Taken together, the wiki and blogs would maximize the use of technology as a means of connecting minds and building community.   This design was a dramatic departure from anything that I'd done in any class, as a student or teacher.   With the nature of my course redesigned, I turned my attention to the most obvious problem with my PSY101H courses: attrition.

Since community among learners helps provide a broad support system, I began to research the manner in which communities are developed in academia.   Designing groups for collaborative work on-line requires a "normative period", where a group's members get to know each other and become familiar with the manner in which they will work. (Palloff & Pratt, 2005)   I was concerned that this period would be especially difficult to work through if the class size was too large.   At GCC, social science courses have a seat load of 40, which means that enrollment is capped at 44 (40 plus a 10% wait list).    My early experiences in the OMAET program gave me a first-hand appreciation for the significance of size in distributed learning across a community of engaged students.   I needed to reduce the size of my course so that it would be more consistent with my own VirtCamp experience.    I did this by sharing the common seat load in distance education courses nationwide with the my college's administration.    According to the NCES (2002), the average seat load for distance education is 31.5, and this is paired with increased office hours (7.5 hours vs. 6.4 per week) despite the smaller class size.    My Division Chair agreed, and my load was changed to 32.

With the smaller class size secured, I began to plan a strategy for uniting the group against a problem.   I wanted them to gel early so that the normative period would not be excessively long.   I also did not want to be manipulative in the way that I evoked this need because I feared that I might force my students to develop a mob mentality.   That is, I did not want them to develop "group think", and lose their sense of intellectual and moral autonomy.   I decided that I would give them learning as a common problem, and I did this by spending most of our first meeting using colloquial examples, facts, and images to discuss their learning and forgetting in primary and secondary school.   I based much of this talk on the ideas found in Smith's (1998) contrast of the official and classical theories of learning.   After a sufficient rousing, I explained to them that we would need to become a community, and that this would allow us to create something that would reflect our growth and learning.   I then described what I considered to be a community: an environment where members are familiar with and respectful of each other, because there is a common understanding and belief in the need to connect to work toward a common goal.   I asked them to each blog a personal introduction, and then to comment on at least three of the blogs created by their classmates.   I saw, in a way that I've not in any other class, relationships emerge within the first four class meetings.   Two weeks after the blog introduction, I introduced the technology of the wiki.   The delay was planned because I did not want to overwhelm my students with training sessions.   The smaller seat load, coupled with the community building technology of the blog and wiki, decreased my attrition rates dramatically.  

This seeming success did not occur without sacrifice.   I spent at least twice the number of hours working on the PSY101H course, and this was in large measure a result of my ignorance regarding the technology used.   Unlike my previous practice of relying on the college's support system for WebCT, I was now using technology that no one else on campus used.   As a result, I encountered numerous hurdles during the semester.   For example, I had to set up my own blog in response to student demands.   I was also forced to develop a back up system for the wiki.   These technology needs paled in comparison to my outright confusion about the pedagogy used in the class.   Ultimately, I had to become a bit more lenient in my grading practices, and this was is painfully evident in a comparison of my A&B totals with enrollment.

Did I compromise my course's academic integrity to increase retention?   This question will frame my actions in the next cycle, and it addresses my next two research question:

  1. What aspects of my own praxis are best suited for teaching in a hybrid course?
  2. How can I best use constructivist principles to fold wiki technology into my PSY 101 so that it encourages active participation?

References

Epstein, M. (1996).    Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective .    Basic Books: New York.

Freire, P. (1970).    Pedagogy of the Oppressed .    Continuum International: NY.

Howard, A. (2000, April) Strategies for Increasing Retention of Online Students.    Retrieved on November 10, 2004 from http://www.cvc2.org

National Center for Educational Statistics. (2002a). Distance education instruction by postsecondary faculty: Fall 1998.    Retrieved November 4, 2004, from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/2002155.pdf

Palloff, R.M., & Pratt, K. (2005).   Collaborating Online: Learning Together in Community.   Josey Bass: San Francisco.

Smith, F. (1998).    The Book of Learning and Forgetting .    Teachers College Press: New York.

Sternberg, R.J., & Spear-Swerling, L. (1996).    Teaching for Thinking .    American Psychological Association: Washington, D.C.

Vygotsky, L. (1978).    Mind in Society .    Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.


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