Innovation Anchored in Tradition:
Action Research @ Glendale Community College

Project Links:
What is PAR?
Literature Review
Cycle One
Cycle Two
Cycle Three
Reflection on '04-'05

Future Cycles

Michael Dulay

Literature Review


American Higher Education began with the 1636 founding of Harvard in Boston, bringing the Oxford tradition of students living together in a college building while in constant contact with their teachers or tutors. (Thelin, 2004) An implication of this model was that the college would create a unique type of community of scholars that could serve the nation.    Although an elaborate critique could be developed about the elitism, ethnocentrism, sexism, and theocratic nature of this tradition, the core idea and model of a community of scholars as social and civil servants is something that cannot be disregarded because it gives us a vision of the past to connect to the future.   As we begin the third millennium, community is the model that many are invoking to revitalize and redefine the modern American College. (Grubb & Hines, 2000)

As the nation grew and the system of higher education expanded, colleges tried to find ways to serve the growing population and the states to which each committed itself.    This was an obvious impossibility, and beginning in the 1920s communities across the country began setting up "junior colleges" with liberal arts curricula that mirrored the first two years mandated by the typical bachelor's degree. (Thelin, 2004)    With time, the junior colleges adopted more and more technical and vocational training programs, which flourished because of the college's cost and ability to meet varying local and national vocational needs.    The core funding for most junior colleges came from local taxes, and this made each accountable to the other.     In as much, the colleges were seen as a service for the local community, and many changed their names to reflect this interdependence, as well as a means of clarifying their mission to serve both transfer and terminal students (i.e., those seeking vocational certificates or 2-year associate degrees).  

Often dubbed as an American Invention, the community college system's roots can be traced to the midwest and west, eventually spreading across the country.   The system's success is due largely to its open door policy- one that offers hope and success to any one willing to put in the time and effort to succeed.    This embodiment of the American Dream via academia has an allure that has drawn millions of students.    Current data show that more than one-third of all students enrolled in higher education in the United States are in a community college. (NCES, 2002b)    This ratio is even greater in California, a system of 109 community colleges with a total enrollment of 2.9 million. (State of California, 2004)    The enormity of the community college system in the United States creates a need for an understanding of the type of student that the system enrolls.  

In 1929, Charles H. Judd posited that Junior College (hereafter referred to a community college) students have three psychological characteristics that set them apart from other students. (Gray, 1929)    First, he argued that students are immature because of their lack of exposure to broad contacts and rich social life.    He extended this by stating that the immaturity leads to deficient methods for independent self-directed study.    Second, he argued that courses in junior colleges only serve to extend generalist education, and that this leads to little instruction in higher, "more advanced" methods of thought.    Third, he highlighted the fact that some colleges were changing their curricula to accommodate newer forms of instruction so that they can serve the double purpose of completing the students' general education and readying them for independent thinking (Gray, 1929, p.13).  

A closer look at the history of the curriculum at the community college indicates that Judd's seventy-five year old concerns are still very much the forces that drive curriculum development today.    An analysis of this history outlines trends characterizing the changing curriculum offered by community colleges from 1918 to 1930. (Eells, 1931)    During this period, much of the community college curriculum was academic (i.e., natural and social sciences, modern languages, etc.), in some cases as high as 82%.    This was followed by an infusion of remedial programs as early as 1931; by 1956 as many as 75% of community colleges had remedial programs.    This data seems logical, particularly since previous research (Koos, 1929) demonstrated a significant difference, as assessed by the Thorndike College Aptitude Test, in freshman attending California community colleges (median=61.2) versus those freshman attending other institutions of higher education (median= 75.8).    A boom of nontraditional liberal arts courses (e.g., health, first aid, music/art appreciation) followed this period, in addition to growth in vocational areas. The offering of such courses, however, fluctuated as a function of the job market. (Schuyler, 1999)

The community college curriculum of today, looks much like it did in the 1970s, with the humanities making up the core of the curriculum.    The current trends in curriculum include the following:

  • there is a negative correlation between the size of the college's remedial program and its honors program;
  • ESL programs are now present at 55% of community colleges, in comparison to 40% in 1991;
  • 26% of community colleges offer courses in ethnic studies, a number which has fluctuated from 15% in 1975 to 9% in 1991;
  • distance education courses (i.e., those mediated via television, internet, two-way video conferencing, or correspondence) made up 1.7% of the curriculum offered by all community colleges in the late 1990s. (Schuyler, 1999)

It is from this last point that the current research efforts extend, but the other trends also define various aspects of this undertaking.

Distance Learning first appeared in Boston in 1728 (Holmber, 1986, as cited by Kozeracki, 1999) as a correspondence course; and in California, this can be traced back to 1913 (Georges & Boehler, 2004).    The age of this is important to note because it demonstrates that distance learning- where learning can occur regardless of the distance between student and teacher- is not new. In fact, distance learning has merely evolved in relation to the changing media available (i.e., postal mail to telephone to television to the Internet), and much of the criticism regarding it is aimed squarely at the technology used to bridge the distance.    Noted scholars, such as Larry Cuban (2001) and Neil Postman (1992), have repeatedly pointed out that technology is too often offered as a quick fix solution to social and educational problems that will not easily be rectified.    However, this type of attack is not without its opposition from equally eloquent minds.    Seymor Papert (1987), regarded as a leader in computing innovation in education, levied the argument that most criticisms are "technocentric", and built upon logic that too often places technology as the crux of reform.    This, he contends, is a mistake made by many, including those who advocate for technology and computers in the classroom, because it separates the computer from its cultural context.    History has shown us that this is a terrible mistake. The computer is merely a form of technology, akin to the flying buttress, pulley, or printing press.    Technology is often a means of defining a culture, and this notion is best connected to academia in E.C. Moore's aphorism that "education is learning to use the tools which the race has found indispensable" (UCLA, 2004).    Moore's words, enshrined above the stage at UCLA's Royce Hall, embodied his ideology and they lead to the establishment of UCLA in 1919, which coincides with the era that gave birth to California Community College system.

As "an object to think with" (Papert, 1993, p. 11), the computer has a great deal of potential.    Coupled with the internet and the boom of high speed internet access, this tool has the power to reshape education by reframing epistemic ideas about thinking, learning, and communication.    Among community colleges, this potential has yet to be tapped.    Although computing technology is accessible and utilized by college faculty and students, the pedagogy of such use is only now drawing appropriate attention.    Forty-eight percent of all students enrolled in online courses at degree-granting institutions are at community colleges. (NCES, 2003)    These 1.7 million students are paired with faculty who often use technology for purposes that do not entice questions about the epistemic nature of the machine.    Akroyd, Jaeger, Jackowski, & Jones (2004) found that, among faculty with class web sites, 81% of full-time college faculty use their class web sites to provide links, 77% post course syllabi and general information, and 65% use it to post homework, assignments and readings. This usage needs to be examined and paired with financial support for professional development so that the technology involved could be used to its full potential.   One possible approach to such examination of educational technology is a mutual influence model, which incorporates interaction and information processing on behalf of both educators and students.   (O'Sullivan, 2000)   This model is a viable alternative to past technocentric practices, and it is also of particular importance at the community college because twelve percent of the faculty at community colleges have taught distance education courses, which places them atop the list of instructors who have taken this step. (NCES, 2002a)    This commitment reverberates throughout the institution.    Namely, 15% of community colleges with distance education programs offer less than five courses; so those colleges with such programs have made a more significant commitment to them than other, similar institutions. (Kozeracki, 1999)  

The primary reason for these trends in faculty practices, institutional commitment, and curricula is the student body served.   Community college students reflect a very broad range of skill and experience, which differentiates them from the typical college student who is used in much of the literature on student learning.   These demographic differences are underscored by differences in academic ability.     Data taken from the National Center for Education Statistics are rather illuminating. (Hoachlander, Sikora, Horn, & Carroll, 2003) Thirty percent of 12th graders beginning community college had math proficiency scores at Level 1 or below. This level indicates that students were unable to perform simple operations on decimals, fractions, powers, or roots, and that they could only perform simple arithmetical operations on whole numbers. With regard to their reading ability, forty-four percent of 12th graders entering the community college had reading proficiency scores at Level 1 or below.    These students could not make relatively simple inferences beyond the author's main point.    The research form NCLS also found that thirty-nine percent of students enrolled in community college were at risk of dropping out of high school, and that 54% of these students enrolled in a community college were at risk of not completing their post secondary education.  

The population at the community college also has students from the other end of this skills continuum.    Research indicates that 36 percent of high school graduates enrolled in a community college were academically qualified to attend a 4-year institution.    Seventeen percent of these same students scored at the highest level of proficiency on their reading exams, and 24 percent scored highest on the mathematics exams when they were still seniors in high school.    (Hoachlander, Sikora, Horn, & Carroll, 2003)    Although many of these students could not afford to attend the 4 year schools to which they were accepted, many simply choose to attend a community college because of the academic programs offered.    The institution upon which the current study focuses, for example, has two programs that are explicitly designed for these students.    These programs, a Scholars Program and a Science Academy, have smaller class sizes, more demanding curriculum, cohort models for learning, and resources allocated to these programs exclusively.  

Overall, students enrolled at community colleges are more often from an ethnic minority group, working, first in their family to attend college, and older than other students enrolled in college.    Community college students are also broad ranging in skill and ability, and they are likely attending college for reasons that differ from the typical university student. (UCLA, 1999)    Hence, the typical mission statement of the community college is very different than that of the typical university.    Designing curriculum to reach such a diverse student population is challenging; and doing so for an entirely new mode of delivery requires creativity and institutional flexibility.    The primary goal of these efforts at renewal focused on retention; after all, new pedagogy needs persistent students in order for it to work.

Retention, Technology, & Pedagogy

Research on retention is complex, and it offers a great deal to curriculum designers, especially those pairing new technology with alternative pedagogy.   In a study of online developmental writing courses (Carpenter, Brown, & Hickman, 2004), four key findings were made:   

  1. online students "withdraw" at higher rates than students in face to face classes.   
  2. writing assessments impact the likelihood of student success.   
  3. students who are enrolled full-time are more likely to complete the course.  
  4. online students are either as successful or more successful than their face to face counterparts, if they complete the course.

Because retention and commitment are interdependent, and both rest heavily on the social dynamic of the classroom, a review of research bridging educational technology with sociology and group dynamics is in order.   Chris Dede (1995) built upon the work of a graduate student of sociology, Marc Smith.    Dede argued that community building requires three cultural commodities.    One, a "social network capital" that is essentially an immediately available network of people with skills needed for the community.    Two, "knowledge capital", which is defined as a "personal, distributed brain trust with just-in-time answer to immediate questions" (ibid., 1995, p.17).    This brain trust is the basis for the students to acquire and express mastery over the content learned in the course.    Three, "communion" provides the community with a means of experiencing and sharing their cognitive, affective, and spiritual trials and tribulations associated with the course.   These three commodities involve collaboration, which has been argued to be part and parcel of community. (Johnson & Johnson, 2000)   Community, then, is the focus for meaningfully addressing the problem of attrition while rethinking the integration of technology in course redesign.

According to Palloff and Pratt (2005), community and collaboration exist in a cycle where one strengthens the other.   Among the many ideas presented in their text, they stress that collaboration fosters the development of critical thinking, the co-creation of knowledge, reflection, and "transformative learning".   These four merits of collaboration are mere extensions of constructivist learning principles, which posit that people make meaning from their worlds using their previous knowledge and experience.   Knowledge is actively constructed as students engage their worlds in conversations.   When conversations exist about the same topic and they are carried across the same individuals there is a heightened sense of commitment that develops.   This can be seen in what many call a Community of Practice (CoP).   The three interdependent dimensions of practice that form the core of a CoP are joint enterprise, mutual engagement, and shared repertoire. (Wenger, 1998)   These dimensions center on a common artifact that the whole community treats as its focal point.   In courses where instruction is mediated by technology, the means by which communication occurs should be the backbone of the artifact: writing.

Using writing to build community in hybrid courses should bear with it the characteristics of a CoP as described above.   The goal of writing should not be length or depth, instead it should emphasize student development of a community artifact about specific ideas, as well as dialogue.   The joint enterprise, then, would be the tasks and activities required to discuss ideas facilitated by the instructor.    The mutual engagement would reflect the weekly face to face time together, some regular and required communication between students, and the reciprocity of respect involved in creating a community-authored document.    This document is the focal point of the CoP's shared repertoire, for it reflects the CoP's style, actions, discourses, and history.   Such writing also provides lessons that transcend the course content.    Specifically, it teaches community as a process and precedent over excessive individuality and ostentatious egoism.   Emerging technologies provide educators with tools to facilitate the creation of such artifacts, and one particularly powerful technology is the wiki.

Godwin-Jones' (2003) review of new technologies for on-line collaboration conclude with a description of wikis as shared repositories of a growing knowledge base that is built of content that is anticipated to have some degree of stature and stability.   As a shared writing environment that combines reading and editing into one interface, the wiki allows authors to develop content that is ego-less (i.e., there is no author in a wiki), time-less and never finished. (Lamb, 2004)   The wiki is, therefore, a fitting place to develop an artifact of shared history regarding learning, and this defines the essential idea behind a "community of practice" (Wenger, 1998).   In essence, wiki technology is the epitome of what scholars refer to as "shared minds made visible" (Riel, 2000).    One way of weaving a CoP with wiki technology is to prompt the common writing around the essential ideas of a course, which can be ascertained using backward design. (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998).

In Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998), several means for improving the thoughtfulness of curriculum design are offered that can be integrated into the planning and redesigning of a traditional course into a hybrid offering.   Backward Design involves three steps: identifying desired results, determining acceptable evidence, and planning learning experiences and instruction.   Using the specific course understudy in this action research project as an example throughout the remainder of this document, consider the redesign of a General Psychology course.   The desired results for this course are built around "exit standards", which have been defined by the department of psychology to meet state requirements.   These exit standards are:

Upon successful completion of the course, students will be able to demonstrate a basic knowledge and understanding of:

  • scientific methods in psychology.
  • psychophysiology, sensation, & perception.
  • lifespan human development.
  • personality theories & assessment.
  • intelligence, memory, & thinking.
  • factors in emotions and motivation.
  • social influences on behavior.
  • behavioral disorders & therapy.

These exit standard are vague and do not imply weight and priority to the content they contain, and this is done to ensure that the person teaching course maintains academic freedom.   However, because the infusion of technology into a course requires redesign, the curricular priorities of the course should be revisited as part of this first step of backward design.   There are three layers to the content (i.e., skills, topics, and resources) covered in a course.   The broadest and bottom-most layer of course content is made of those ideas with which it is worth being familiar.   The second layer of content is made of those ideas and behaviors that are important to know and be able to do.   The third and most critical layer of content reflects those ideas that can best be described as enduring understandings.   These are the big ideas that hold the course/unit together.   After determining the curricular priorities of a course, designers should then move to the second step of backward design: determining acceptable evidence.

Acceptable evidence is determined by blending assessment planning with the priorities discovered in the first step.   There is a continuum of assessment methods that range in their structure, setting, time frame, and scope.   The most quick, simple, decontextualized, and non-structured form of assessment is the informal check (to see whether the class of student "gets it").   Moving away from these checks, Wiggins and McTighe (1998) note the following assessments along a continuum: observation/dialogue, quiz or test, academic prompt, and performance task or project.   All are important facets of assessment because no single form of assessment addresses the three layers of curriculum previously described.

The final step of the backward design process involves planning learning experiences and instruction.   Placing this last on a list of design planning helps to ensure that the course redesign focuses on student understanding, not technology. Wiggins and McTighe (1998) have developed the acronym W.H.E.R.E. to capture the facets around which this type of planning occurs.

  • W (where and why) - tell students where the class is going by announcing the essential questions of the course, and let them know how they will be assessed (i.e., rubrics)
  • H (hook) - use engaging, thought-provoking activities to draw their interest
  • E (engage & equip) - give students the skills/tools needed to complete assessments; this may include performance tasks that are both real and relevant
  • R (reflect, revise, refine) - urge students to rethink and deeply examine the core ideas of the course
  • E (exhibit & self-evaluation) - guide students through self evaluation so that they can identify their strengths and weakness, as well as those areas that need growth

Using this planning scheme, the designer of a course under revision could now focus on technology used to mediate the course.   As previously argued, wiki technology capitalizes on the principles of constructivism because it connects students to each other in a CoP, and it changes as a clear function of the perspective of the person making a contribution.

An additional tool that can be used to supplement the wiki is a web log, or "blog".   Blogs are places where individuals can share ideas and resources about anything; and their use is driven largely by the connections that emerge from them, rather than on their individual scholarship and merit.   They first appeared on the internet as a tool 1997, and have seen their usage grow to 3 million as February 2004. (Downes, 2004)   As a supplement to the wiki in a CoP, the blog gives students a place to be an individual in a community, whereas the wiki does not invite individuality.   The primacy and simple logic of an individual in a community cannot be overstated.   The blog is a place where a student can express individuality; but such expressions are open to the public, and they are driven largely by the connections that grow from them.   In a hybrid course, these connections take the form of student comments posted on other students' blogs.   The integration of the CoP with wiki and blog technologies also gives students opportunities to develop their writing skills, critical thinking, and technological competencies.

A reasonable amount of inquiry has been done to examine the impact of electronic communication (i.e., word processing, e-mail, etc.) on writing.   Often, papers in this area begin with assertions that warn of caution about the need to reframe the way writing develops and is taught.    For example, Leibowitz (1999) argued that the new medium definitely makes students write in greater volume and with more frequency, but that this does not make them better writers.    Part of logic in this case has to do with the malleability of the medium.    That is, because documents are readily changed, the likelihood of a student committing to a thought, which would heighten the student's attention to detail in presenting it, decreases as a consequence of the medium.    Amazingly, this argument steeply contrasts more popular advice about writing, and it may be directed toward those who are already avid writers and readers.    As previously mentioned, community college students often have difficulty writing and reading.    A standard solution to this can be seen at the intersection of the ideas of two experts in the field, Stephen Krashen (1993) and William Zinser (1993).   Stated simply, one learns to write by writing and reading, and to read by reading and writing.

Wiki software provides an arena in which students can both read and write in a secure environment at their own leisure.    Because the students are constantly writing and reviewing changes in the writing, they are being enticed to read.    Literary experts such as Steven Krashen (2004) have long realized the importance of learning to read voluntarily, which he calls free voluntary reading (FVR).   Numerous studies in his text demarcate the problems that educators face when trying to encourage students to read.   For example, Worthy (2000, as cited by Krashen, 2004) discovered that both teachers and students believe that more interesting reading material would encourage reading (35% & 45%, respectively).   The study also found that although teachers believe in the importance of developing an intrinsic motivation to read, "more than half said that they used external motivators as inducements of reading".   The need to motivate students to read is also heightened among students from lower socioeconomic statuses, and this is a systemic problem- not one attributable solely to the student and his/her family.   Neuman and Celano (2001) study of the differences between the print environments of two high-   and low-income communities yielded staggering results: there were more places to buy books in upper income neighborhoods (13 & 11) than low-income (4 & 4) neighborhoods; a comparison of the print-richest and print-poorest shows that high-income children have 4000 times the number of titles available than low-income children; and libraries in low-income neighborhoods were never open past 6:00 pm, while those in high-high income neighborhoods were open two evenings per week.   Taken together with the previous description of student demographics at the community college, FVR can be seen as a necessary piece in the redesign of hybrid courses at the very least.   Wiki and blog technology both heighten the likelihood of FVR among students because they are reading their own work and responses from others to their work.  

The technical limits of the wiki are also among its strengths, paradoxically.    Because text must be entered in a relatively plain format (i.e., wiki offers few coding options for text), students are forced to be more cognizant of their use of language and minimize their reliance on emoticons, hyper text, or color to express themselves.   This limit also heightens the students mastery over basic skills such as spelling.   In a comprehensive review of research on reading, Krashen (2004) found only two studies (from 1930 and 1977) where spelling instruction seemed to demonstrate a clear effect; and in both studies problems seemed evident.   Krashen (2004) states that "when spelling instruction works, it may only be helping (students) learn to spell words they will learn to spell on their own from reading".   He also notes that FVR helps students develop their mastery over grammar, writing style, and vocabulary, all of which compliment the efforts of other programs designed to teach basic skills at the community college.

The content driven nature of the wiki also compels students to read more critically than they might in other contexts.   This occurs because of the personal nature of the material being read (i.e., it was constructed by and for the students themselves), and the dynamics of social construction and collaboration that extend from the CoP paradigm around which the class was designed.   Among the many dynamics that must be accounted for is power, and its impact on student ownership and motivation.   Power in the wiki is distributed because authorship is not emphasized, and this counters much of the hidden curriculum that many students have experienced.   Ironically, it is the relinquishing of power and ownership of ideas that are mandated by the wiki that increase the level of critical thinking that occurs among those who use it; this seems to be related to the heightened affective response caused by the relinquishing of power over one's ideas, in addition to the spiral (i.e.,wiki) and personal nature (i.e., blogs) of the course. (Martin & Reigeluth, 1999)   Furthermore, research shows that affect is one part of the triad (behavior and cognition are the other two) that constitutes attitudes, which is the "fundamental unit of learning" (Kamradt & Kamradt, 1999).   Affect, once aroused, activates behavioral and cognitive process, and this attitudinal arousal increases the vigor with which students participate via the wiki.

This enhanced vigor parallels a concept that Friere called critical literacy (1970), which can be most simply interpreted as a form of reading that goes beyond passive acceptance of content offered in text.   It emphasizes the role of power in knowledge transmission, and it encourages reflection, transformation, and action.   Freire's ideas were recently extended by Laughlin and Devogd (2004) as practical classroom strategies.   In their book, Critical Literacy: Enhancing Students' Comprehension of Text, four principles are presented as a means of framing critical literacy:

   1. Critical literacy focuses on issues of power and promotes reflection, transformation, and action.

   2. Critical literacy focuses on the problem and its complexity.

   3. Critical literacy strategies are dynamic and adapt to the contexts in which they are used.

   4. Critical literacy disrupts the commonplace by examining it from multiple perspectives.

The blog and wiki are two tools with which students could develop their critical literacy.   The blog provides a place for reflection and connection (i.e., students and faculty comment on each others').   It also gives the teacher a place to assign work that stimulates critical literacy: students could be asked to perspective take (e.g., take on the role of a theorist with whom they disagree), write hypothetical essays (e.g., what if John Watson was an Asian American), or share their blog work with faculty in another class (i.e., across disciplines).   Assignments such as these could force students to see diverse and conflicting interpretations of information, and this is one way to help students develop conscientizaçäo (Freire, 1970).    According to Paulo Freire (1970) conscientizaçäo is best translated as learning to see and appreciate contradictions among social, political, and economic domains, and to engage in practices that challenge oppression caused by these systems.    This recognition of contradictions is liberating, and it can be presented in General Psychology in numerous ways. For instance, psychometrics always leads classes to discuss intelligence, which spirals into a discussion about history, power, stratification, privilege, and more.  

The wiki also stimulates critical literacy because it asserts and challenges the issues of power and ownership overtly, as part of its design.   Ownership of ideas is denied and multiple sources of information are integral to the growth of a wiki based project.   Because of this, wiki work is best assigned to small groups of students called learning circles. (Riel, 1993)   These circles are composed of approximately 5 diverse students, and each circle is given a terminal task which the must learn to deal with democratically.   These tasks are designed using the UbD principles described previously in this document.   Some tasks are mere concept checks (i.e., students could be asked to take notes in the wiki, and this obligation could be cycled through the learning circles), while others are performance tasks that exemplify project based learning.   For example, students could be asked to develop modules in response to carefully asked and ordered questions; and the modules they write could then be turned into a textbook for a general psychology course.   Harnessing the wiki to develop critical literacy also prompts students to see their thinking as a consequence of two processes: their social interaction with the CoP, and the intrapersonal interaction between their prior knowledge and the current information.   These two processes capture Vygotsky's notion of internalizing higher psychological processes.    In Mind in Society (1978), Vygotsky argues that speech and action are part of one complex psychological function, and that symbols (i.e., signs and words) allow us to have social contact with people.    The wiki is a means for minds to connect because it presents symbols of thought that are taken in, changed, and shared again by other people.

In the final analysis, Freire and Vygotsky can be seen as two of the most progressive thinkers who attempted to develop theories supporting the social construction of knowledge.   Their ideas, however, have failed to thrive in public education because of numerous misguided notions of learning. (Smith, 1999)   Fortunately, the technology available today may provide a means for framing their ideas as renewing strategies for education in America.   Namely, wiki and blog technology can be used to revitalize notions of connection and construction, which are principles that underlay the ideology of community.   Redesigning courses along these lines may provide a means for re-conceptualizing "community" in increasingly broader domains.  


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