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.