Applying Maker Principles to Developmental Education at Sauk Valley Community College

See the related literature review for research background on this project.

Community colleges have long fought the perception that they are just an extension of high school, or “high school with ashtrays.” This is certainly understandable, as they devote a lot of time and resources to striving to ensure that the quality of education is college-level. However, in another sense, assisting the transition from high school to college is an important role that community colleges fill — whether for those students who are not independently wealthy, not able or ready to move away, or who are not yet prepared for college-level work.

That third category — developmental education — is an area of the community college that is ripe for disruption. At Sauk Valley Community College, fewer than half of students are successful in developmental education courses the first time, and only half will continue as students past the first year . The current prevailing model places these courses as a barrier to be overcome before taking college-level coursework. A student — who may well have been receiving the message for years that they are “not good enough,” or “not college material” — takes a placement test, where they are told they are not good enough for college-level work. They must then enroll in and pay for classes — often multiple semesters’ worth — for which they will not receive credit. If they cannot pass the first time, the process repeats. Is it surprising, then, that the completion rates are so low?

I believe— and the reasearch shows— it is crucial to reach these students prior to college placement tests. Often this is done by pointing the finger at high schools, who are already facing extraordinary pressure to be everything to everyone. Instead, I would like to study the effectiveness of a self-directed, online college-readiness program based on principles espoused by the Maker Movement.

The biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity for the Maker Movement is to transform education. My hope is that the agents of change will be the students themselves. Increasingly, technology has given students more control over their lives, and even the simplest cellphone can change a person’s sense of agency. Students are seeking to direct their own education lives, looking to engage in creative and stimulating experiences. Many understand the difference between the pain of education and the pleasure of real learning. Unfortunately, they are forced to seek opportunities outside of school to express themselves and to demonstrate what they can do. 

Even if physically producing objects isn’t involved, I believe that some core ideas of the Maker Movement can make learning and particularly developmental learning more successful.

The Maker Movement is built around the idea that encourages people to try to do something; to take what then know and add something more. Traditional developmental education, by contrast, starts by reinforcing that the student is not good enough. Makerspaces are designed with collaboration, and particularly collaboration across areas, in mind. For example, to make a lamp, one may need help from someone who does ceramics for the body of the lamp, an electrician for the wiring, and a glazier for a stained glass shade. Everyone works together, and everyone gets to be both the teacher and the student. Developmental education classes separate students into the areas where they are weakest, further demoralizing them. A Maker has the freedom to proceed at the pace they are able to and desire to, whereas developmental education classes feature set times; if the student is not able to “get it” during that time, they must repeat the class.

A maker-style developmental education class, therefore, would

  • be encouraging to the student as they pursue college readiness,
  • be collaborative and enable the student to assist others as well as learn, and
  • be self-paced so students could move as quickly or slowly as they need to.

A core suite of online, self-paced college-readiness courses could be made available to high school students. Courses could have a common question-and-answer forum where students would be encouraged to ask and answer questions. A StackExchange-style reputation score for answering questions would encourage interaction and could be used as a basis for additional incentives such as digital badges or even scholarships and credit discounts. To my knowledge, such a forum is not available in SVCC’s Learning Management System (LMS), so I could find or develop a plugin using Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI). Classes and the forum could remain available to students even after college matriculation, connecting high school students with college students who have progressed through the course; they could also serve as refresher classes.

While this approach certainly would not solve all college-readiness problems, I do believe it is a model that could help lower barriers for many students who desire a college education but face challenges.


Applying Maker Principles to Developmental Education – Literature Review

Developmental Education

The typical model for college placement, and the model employed at Sauk Valley Community College, is that the prospective student takes a placement test to determine if they can meet the required level and, if they do not, is placed in a developmental course of study to be completed prior to college-level work. However, many concerns have been raised as to the impact of this model on student success.

Scott-Clayton found that placement exams are better at predicting which students will succeed in college than who would fail and that multiple methods of placement would be more effective and could help more students be successful. Once a student has been placed into a developmental course, Park, Woods, Richard, Tandberg, Hu, and Jones found that taking developmental education classes has a significant impact on degree and career completion and many students simply do not ever take the core classes. In fact, less than half of the students complete their developmental education series of courses and nearly one third simply do not take the developmental education course . According to Hu, Park, Woods, Tandberg, Richard, Hankerson, Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast (ED), National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (ED), and Florida State University , “the logical extension is that developmental education…was more of a barrier than a support in the aggregate.”   Nunez found this to be true at Sauk Valley Community College as well; fewer than half of students are successful in developmental education courses the first time, and only half will continue as students past the first year. He concludes, “It is pretty clear that if we are going to admit students to developmental courses, then we must do a better job at helping these students be successful the first time.”

There is, however, much promising study in this area as well to give hope. Hodara, Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest (ED), National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (ED), and Education Northwest found that, since academic preparation during high school years predicts college success better than than socioeconomic or demographic factors, it is important to target students for remediation prior to enrolling in college. Even new first year experience courses were found to not help students move through developmental education faster or improve academic achievement . Further, after Florida disallowed requiring placement tests and developmental education classes, Hu et al. found that fewer students took developmental education courses but more passed them and that while more students both took and failed gateway courses, the ratio of all first-time college students who passed gateway courses increased. Finally, Booth, Capraro, Capraro, Chaudhuri, Dyer, and Marchbanks found that developmental education students reported being more successful as a result of being placed in a common cohort for collaboration.

Maker Education

Schank describes goal-oriented learning and learning by doing as methods to motivate learners. According to his model , learning involves having a goal and some obstacle, something to help you overcome the obstacle and accomplish the goal so you know how to do it next time; technology’s role can be to help provide the means to overcome the obstacle. This learning process will be most effective when the goal is an authentic one, one with real-world implications to the learner .

The Maker Movement exemplifies this approach by allowing learners to identify their own authentic goals and access to the means to reach those goals. Martin identified three key elements of the Maker Movement that can be readily applied to education: embrace of digital tools, community involvement and collaboration, and Dougherty’s  maker mindset, “a can-do attitude that can be summarized as ‘what can you do with what you know?’”  In many ways, this is nothing new; Viviano  observes that “This community that Martin speaks of exists right inside the walls of [Career and Technical Centers] and nothing exemplifies the maker movement more than Project-based Learning (PBL).”  However, in reality, high-stakes standardized testing often crowds out PBL efforts, as PBL takes longer in the short-term and teachers feel pressure to ensure that students perform well on annual standardized tests .

Conclusion

The preceding evidence suggest that an online, collaborative college preparatory program modeled around maker principles and made available to high school students could help students succeed in—or even bypass—developmental education courses and be more successful in their academic or career endeavors.


Applying Maker Principles to Developmental Education (First Look)

The following is an initial broad overview of a study I would like to develop and work to implement at my institution, Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon, IL.


Community colleges have long fought the perception that they are just an extension of high school, or “high school with ashtrays.” This is certainly understandable, as they devote a lot of time and resources to striving to ensure that the quality of education is college-level. However, in another sense, assisting the transition from high school to college is an important role that community colleges fill–whether for those students who are not independently wealthy, not able or ready to move away, or who are not yet prepared for college-level work.

That third category–developmental education–is an area of the community college that is ripe for disruption. An alarmingly high percentage of students need to take developmental education courses, and the success rate for those students to complete their program is even more disturbing. The current prevailing model places these courses as a barrier to be overcome before taking college-level coursework. A student–who may well have been receiving the message for years that they are “not good enough,” or “not college material”–takes a placement test, where they are told they are not good enough for college-level work. They must then enroll in and pay for classes–often multiple semesters’ worth–for which they will not receive credit. If they cannot pass the first time, wash, rinse, repeat. Is it surprising, then, that the completion rates are so low?

I believe it is crucial to reach these students prior to college placement tests. Often this is done by pointing the finger at high schools, who are already facing extraordinary pressure to be everything to everyone. Instead, I would like to study the effectiveness of a college-readiness program based on principles espoused by the Maker Movement.

The biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity for the Maker Movement is to transform education. My hope is that the agents of change will be the students themselves. Increasingly, technology has given students more control over their lives, and even the simplest cellphone can change a person’s sense of agency. Students are seeking to direct their own education lives, looking to engage in creative and stimulating experiences. Many understand the difference between the pain of education and the pleasure of real learning. Unfortunately, they are forced to seek opportunities outside of school to express themselves and to demonstrate what they can do. 

Even if physically producing objects isn’t involved, I believe that some core ideas of the Maker Movement can make learning and particularly developmental learning more successful.

The Maker Movement is built around the idea that encourages people to try to do something; to take what then know and add something more. Traditional developmental education, by contrast, starts by reinforcing that the student is not good enough. Makerspaces are designed with collaboration, and particularly collaboration across areas, in mind. For example, to make a lamp, one may need help from someone who does ceramics for the body of the lamp, an electrician for the wiring, and a glazier for a stained glass shade. Everyone works together, and everyone gets to be both the teacher and the student. Developmental education classes separate students into the areas where they are weakest, further demoralizing them. A Maker has the freedom to proceed at the pace they are able to and desire to, whereas developmental education classes feature set times; if the student is not able to “get it” during that time, they must repeat the class.

A Maker-style developmental education class, therefore, would

  • encourage the student to pursue college readiness,
  • be collaborative and allow the student to assist others as well as learn, and
  • be self-paced.

A core suite of online, self-paced college-readiness courses could be made available to high school students. Courses could have a common question-and-answer forum where students would be encouraged to ask and answer questions. A StackExchange-style reputation score for answering questions would encourage interaction and could be used as a basis for additional incentives such as digital badges or even scholarships and credit discounts. To my knowledge, such a forum is not available in SVCC’s Learning Management System (LMS), so I would need to find or develop a plugin using Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI). Classes and the forum could remain available to students even after college matriculation, connecting high school students with college students who have progressed through the course; they could also serve as refresher classes.

While this approach certainly would not solve all college-readiness problems, I do believe it is a model that could help lower barriers for a great many students who desire a college education but face challenges.


Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Jim Lovell on Failing

Neil deGrasse Tyson on failure and experimenting:

…it’s not only admitting or celebrating when you don’t know something, but also recognizing the value of failure. You don’t want to fail doing something that has already been done where people succeeded. You want to be able to fail at something that has never done before and recognize that the day you never fail is the day you are no longer on the frontier of anything. So we should celebrate the experiment.

Jim Lovell on Appollo 13’s legacy:

Not landing on the moon was probably the best thing that ever happened to NASA. …it looked like it was so routine that people were not getting interested any more and not realizing the amount of technology and work that had to be done to make those flights safe…. 

References:

Learning Should Be:

From the moment we’re born, and even before , we are learning. Why then do so many of our kids learn to hate school? As an educator, I do not believe it has to be this way. I do believe that approaching instruction with a “Theory Y” approach , trusting that students have existing motivations to learn, can make learning environments more effective by making them:
Engaging, Challenging, Personal, Available, and Continuing.

Learning Should be Engaging

I use the term “engaging” hesitantly because I fear it is too often associated with gimmicks or strategies to trick the learner into learning. At best, this approach will yield only short-term results.

baby food photo
Photo by sully213

Many parents have seen the limitations of this approach when feeding a young child. If the child spits out or refuses to eat their peas, what is a parent to do but attempt to hide the pea in the child’s applesauce? If this works, it is easy to think the problem is solved–the child is eating their peas! But what has the child actually learned? For some, just repackaging the pea in with something they like may be enough to get past the initial resistance to change and help them to like–or at least tolerate–peas. However, for others, what the pea-in-applesauce approach teaches is that peas are so gross they need to be hidden. Then, as more vegetables are hidden, the child may learn that in fact all vegetables are gross. Or perhaps the child will learn that applesauce can no longer be trusted.  Do we not often see the same with, for instance, math?

Just like all children are motivated to eat–if only what they view as the “good stuff”–so all students are motivated to learn. They’re motivated to learn Minecraft, to ride a bike, to build a go-kart, to bake a cake. Armed with this knowledge, a teacher can use the pea-in-applesauce method and swap in a Minecraft example into a math story problem. For a few, this might help them make the connection between something they love and something they don’t understand. However, for others, it can just further reinforce the perception that math is hard or something they just cannot understand even if it is adapted to them.

I believe it is more effective to look for–or guide the student look for–connections to build on to what they already know . While it can look similar at first glance, finding authentic connections–for example,

  • pointing out to a student playing Minecraft that they are using a graph,
  • explaining that how center of gravity makes it possible to ride a bike,
  • taking measurements and drawing up plans for a go-kart, or
  • scaling recipe measurements to make twice as much cake–

will build on the student’s existing knowledge to help them gain understanding of the topic. This of course does not replace pedagogy, but it can certainly enhance pedagogy and make it more effective.

Learning Should be Challenging

Just as believing students are motivated to learn leads to making learning engaging, so believing students are capable of learning leads to challenging them. Dweck calls this the growth vs. the fixed mindset . If we know that students are able to learn, we can and should teach so that students are being stretched enough that authentic learning is happening but not so much that it is demoralizing.

Caution must be exercised here, though; challenging the student continually without recognizing and celebrating achievement can also lead toward a fixed mindset. I believe the best outcome is one where the student needs to work hard to succeed, does succeed, and then is empowered and encouraged to continue working hard and succeeding.

Learning Should be Personal

While I would not advocate abolishing all educational goals and standards, our current education practices and systems often seem to be better designed to produce robots than humans . Perhaps the prime example of this, standardized testing has risen dramatically in recent years, particularly since the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act, even though studies have shown the negative effects, including reductions in subjects taught, quality of education, and even  increased segregation based on ethnicity and income .

Rather than celebrating diversity in learning styles and bents, our system still has arbitrarily determined standards and labels anyone who dares deviate:

  • Can’t sit still and focus on school for 6 hours? ADHD
  • Too focused on one or a few things but not others? Autism
  • Ethnic minority? Low income? At risk

While I don’t discount that there are real mental health issues–in fact, I am in treatment for some now–many of these classifications are used as ways to separate out segments for treatment rather than changing how we educate. We know more than ever about different learning styles and approaches, yet the overwhelming majority of students are still educated the same way.

It was for this reason primarily that my wife and I chose to home school our children. This allows for learning to be more personal, more effective, and more interactive. Obviously, home schooling is not practical for every family, but we need to reversing the trend for education decisions to be made at higher and higher levels of government will allow instruction to be more tailored to a state’s/community’s/classroom’s/student’s specific needs rather than completing a federal government spreadsheet.

Learning Should be Available

Also, as control has moved more national, opportunities for the most advantaged continue to increase combined with small increases for the lowest income brackets, while opportunities for those in between have decreased . Ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented as well; for example in Illinois, black men in 1999 were about seven times more likely to be released for prison for drug offenses than to earn a bachelor’s degree (Alexander, p. 190). I believe moving control more local will also help decision makers to more easily identify and address problems with educational access.

Further, I believe that technology is changing and will continue to change the paradigms. Never in history have we had access to as much information in as many different formats as we do today. Anyone can watch a how-to video, take an online course, or ask a digital assistant for a trivia answer. The role of teacher as a gatekeeper of information may eventually go away, but the role of coach for how to seek, process, and analyze that information will grow more vital. This also “evens the playing field,” giving low-income and minority easier access to information that had previously may have been only available to the more privileged.

Learning Should be Continuing

If learning is engaging, challenging, and personal, and available, I believe it follows that learning will be continuing as well. When we assume that students want to learn and focus on removing roadblocks to learning, the result will be a continual cycle of learning; it will just become a way of life because, well, it’s fun!


References:

COVA and Maker Mindset at Google

Brian Basgen of Emerson College sparked a great discussion on of one of my learning networks (Educause CIO Constituent Listserv) about what people are reading , and Luke Fernandez’s response really got me thinking. He recommended The History of Google from the Internet History Podcast , which is a terrific exploration of the origins and history of the internet behemoth Google. As I read it, I picked up on a lot of themes related to the maker mindset  and the COVA (choice, ownership, voice, authenticity) model .

Because Larry and Sergey were given choice in their authentic learning experiences, they took ownership of their ideas and created a company imbued with their unique voice. They are icons of the maker mindset and as a result were able to make an impact by building arguably the most influential internet company of all time.

Following are a few selected quotations from the article, but it’s well worth a full read (or listen):

Authenticity:

Larry and Sergey both grew up to respect research, academic study, mathematics and, especially, computers. And it turned out they both had inquisitive minds that believed in the power of knowledge to overcome any obstacle, intellectual or practical. Each had been inculcated into this spirit of intellectual fearlessness at a young age.

Choice:

“You can’t understand Google,” early Google employee Marissa Mayer has insisted, “unless you know that both Larry and Sergey were Montessori kids. It’s really ingrained in their personalities. To ask their own questions, do their own things. Do something because it makes sense, not because some authority figure told you. In a Montessori school, you go paint because you have something to express or you just want to do it that afternoon, not because the teacher said so. This is baked into how Larry and Sergey approach problems. They’re always asking, why should it be like that? It’s the way their brains were programmed early on.”

Ownership:

“It wasn’t that they [Page and Brin] sat down and said, ‘Let’s build the next great search engine,’” said Rajeev Motwani, who was Brin’s academic advisor. “They were trying to solve interesting problems and stumbled upon some neat ideas.”

Voice:

Part of this was simple frugality, a habit that would serve them well when the dotcom bubble burst in a few short years. But a lot of it was Page and Brin’s ingrained Montessori philosophy: they never met an engineering problem they couldn’t solve themselves. Google didn’t take pages from the established Silicon Valley playbook because, in a way, they had never bought into it. They didn’t try to Get Big Fast. Instead, Page and Brin were almost manically focused on endlessly iterating and improving upon their Big Idea, making sure it was the most comprehensive, reliable and—most importantly—speedy search engine in the world. 


References:

Reflection and Failing Fast

While reading some articles for class, I was struck by the similarity between the Reflection Cycle  and another similar cycle I’ve run across often related to in continuous improvement and user testing for websites. I have often seen the PDSA (Plan Do Study Act) Cycle, or one of many slight variations referenced as a model for how to improve a product or design . Having identified a problem, one can plan a test, perform the test, study the results, and then make changes based on the results. The cycle then repeats, studying the effectiveness of the change.

It is not surprising to find essentially the same pattern in learning; what we are accomplishing in continuous improvement cycles is learning about our users and our topic. Portfolio websites provide a mechanism to reflect on the topics we are discussing, gain feedback and alternate viewpoints, and then revisit the topics again with greater understanding.

Which leads me to another model from the software development world, “failing fast.” The idea is that, instead of writing software that can hide errors, the developer should write programs that show errors very quickly so they can be easily found and corrected . Of course a developer wants to be sure they are not shipping the product with those errors, so it is important to flush out as many of those errors as possible while the stakes are low, within a group that shares the same goals. Again, the portfolio process allows us to “fail fast” and among peers while we work through ideas and grow.


References:

Why do we Lose Creativity? 

Last night my son started dragging our old vacuum cleaner up the stairs, asking me to tear it apart so he could see how it works. That way, he could get started inventing his anti-gravity machine with enormous vacuums at the top and bottom. Of course, I was happy to oblige.

It made me think, why do we tend to lose that creativity? How can I, as an educator and father, encourage, protect, and even reinvigorate that spark? 

Grand Prix Cars and Growth Mindset

It’s Awana Grand Prix time, so that means it’s the time that I need to become an amateur (very amateur) woodworker. I’ve always tried to make sure the kids are as involved as possible, but every now and again it comes back to bite me.

This year, my oldest’s design included a “t” with a slant. It was fun to work through it with him as we tried to figure out what tools to use and how to make the cuts. After I’d made the initial cuts, I asked him again if he really wanted those slants.

“Is it going to be too hard for you?” was his response.

Hit me right in the ego, he did. “Well, it’ll be hard, anyway,” I replied. The challenge had been issued.

Maybe it was because I was trying to hurry up to get it done in time for class, but it made me think of the growth mindset we’ve been talking about. A fixed mindset approach would’ve just said, “I don’t know how to do that” and been done with it. But, even though it was primarily ego-driven, I had an opportunity to show my son an example of growth mindset.

“It’s hard, but I can figure it out” may be one of the best lessons I can teach my kids.