Blending Learning Modalities: A Return to the "High Tech/High Touch" Concept

I was unprepared for the crisp clarion call: ìIf you plan to be successful in developing a new doctoral program for community college faculty and administrators, you must be responsive to their full-time professional commitments and the distance and driving time involved in taking classes on the university campus.

The Application: Developing a Program for Community College Professionals

Driving home I reflected on new challenges. I was considering a job that entailed developing a new doctoral program for community college professionals and physical accessibility was a real issue. There are 15 community colleges in this western state and the round-trip driving time from the university to the campuses of all but two of them ranges from three to ten hours. Thus, uppermost among the myriad of challenges inherent in this position was that leveled by the doctoral students themselves: to lessen both driving time and distance. Then there was the challenge of creating a program that had more faculty and student involvement than simply meeting once a month on the weekend, as was the usual arrangement.

Finally, I stopped obsessing. The following Friday I accepted the challenge to develop a new Community College Leadership program at Colorado State University.

The next eight months were all-consuming. My time was spent researching similar doctoral programs, investigating the perceived needs for such a program in the Rocky Mountain region, visiting community college campuses for many conversations, and, of course, writing the formal proposal.

The program that emerged was both rigorous and accessible, sensitive to the twin sirens of distance and the time to travel it. It was a program that would model various learning modalities and then provide transition from modeling to implementation in the community college classroom. It was a program that would develop leadership and team-building skills plus abilities and principles in both instructional and administrative areas. It was a program that would increase the kinds and quality of research relative to community college education.

This article highlights certain aspects of this doctoral program that may be instructive for others faced with delivering a rigorous academic program at a distance without eliminating the benefits of a face-to-face learning environment.

Use of Cohorts

The hub element of the Community College Leadership program is the cohort grouping of students. It is the cohort that provides the nucleus for work on leadership and team-building skills; provides a safe environment in which to risk new behaviors; and provides the positive peer pressure, reinforcement and support critical for successful completion of a doctoral program. The cohort concept per se is not new. It has been used successfully at the graduate level (e.g. the Kellogg Fellowship program) and in many programs at the undergraduate level.

I have observed positive peer pressure in action at many community colleges over my many years. And I became curious about the high retention rates that allied health and technical programs enjoyed. This was not an isolated experience but held true in all six community colleges at which I served and the dozens I visited as a site evaluator for several regional accrediting agencies.

Upon closer examination of these above-average retention rates, the key element seemed to be that a good portion of the program curriculum involved laboratory or clinical assignments in which students worked together in small groups. This cooperative environment in which they completed project assignments, studied for exams, and supported one another personally and academically was perceived by students as the key support structure leading to their successful completion of their respective programs.

Realizing this was similar to the peer support I wanted to achieve in the doctoral program, I selected two community colleges as distance sites to receive the doctoral courses in addition to the CSU campus site. These three sites served as geographic gathering points for program students, with each site becoming a unique cohort.

These cohorts took their course work together, completed exploratory assignments cooperatively, traveled together for program activities and supported each other. Initial sessions of the program were spent assisting students in each of the cohorts to develop team-building skills. These cohort groupings formed the foundation of the ìhigh touchî portion of the program.

Two-Way Compressed Video

The second major element of this new doctoral Community College Leadership program was the utilization of two-way compressed video as one of the modalities for instruction. If both driving time and distance were to be reduced and some semblance of personal connectivity was to be maintained, use of compressed video seemed a viable route.

Traditionally, graduate courses are offered in the late afternoon or evening on the university campus. Under this model students from the two identified off-campus sites would drive six to eight hours respectively for a three-hour class. In some cases students made this trip twice a week to complete six graduate-level credits each semester. Thus, it would be fair to assume that more student time was spent on the road than in the library.

In the new doctoral program, however, an interactive compressed video system brought students from all three sites together electronically on 12 of the allotted 15 Thursday evenings for 90 minutes. These 12 television sessions were not straight lecture presentations but were structured in more interactive formats: discussions, debates, demonstrations or seminar-based learning experiences. Individual cohorts prepared for these television sessions by completing special cohort assignments and readings prior to airtime. The reading assignments provided the theory and the cohort assignments provided practical applications of that theory against the backdrop of their respective community colleges.

Thus, coming together interactively for 90 minutes created a lively interchange among the cohorts, an exchange based on results of their individual group assignments and the interactive format selected for that eveningís work. The TV sessions themselves were reduced from the usual three hours to 90 minutes and from 15 weeks to 12 to contain costs and to allow for the blending of two additional learning modalities to the doctoral programís overall structure.

Friday Campus Meetings

Two-way interactive television enabled weekly meetings among students from the three sites and the instructor. Yet, as the instructor, I felt a need to have all the students come together face to face for more intense discussion, debate and experiential learning. This is accomplished one Friday per month when all students spend a day together.

Three Fridays are spent on the university campus and one Friday on each of the community college campuses. These Friday meetings allow for the individual cohorts to make extended presentations on specific assignments, which are then critiqued by the other two cohort groups and by faculty. This professional socializing makes the televised sessions more informal, friendly and caring.

It also provides time to teach specific skills. Search techniques, Internet use, listserv discussions and strategies for utilizing the compressed video system are all skills employed throughout the doctoral program and also transfer to the individual studentís own classroom.

Finally, as they progress in the program, students use part of each Friday to meet with doctoral committee members and selected faculty. This way the distance students maintain a personal, face-to-face relationship with their respective committee members as they finalize coursework and begin planning for their written candidacy exams and dissertations. Coming together one Friday per month expands each studentís support net from the tightly formed cohort group at the distance site to a larger community of graduate students working toward the same doctoral goal.

Cohort Individual Assignments

On the three Thursday evenings that the cohorts are not together via interactive video they meet at their home cohort sites to work on specific assignments. These assignments are constructed to help them further develop team-building skills, consensus decision- making skills, and for in-depth study of specific content knowledge and skill bases.

In addition each cohort uses this time for final preparations of the expanded presentations they give at the Friday meetings. These three Thursdays also provide time for students within each cohort to get to know each other better as people and professionals and to deepen these relationships.

Internet Use

Surprisingly, many students in this doctoral program were not well versed in using the Internet as a tool for communication and document delivery. To prepare them for more specific ìclassroomî assignments on the Internet, I needed to bring them into the system in a planned way.

First, a home page for the Community College Leadership Program was established; the courses, syllabi and other documents of interest were filed appropriately. Then the students were told that all pertinent handouts, assignments and PowerPoint presentations would be available on the Internet. They could download and save on disk or print out the events that would occur during the interactive television broadcast the next evening.

As the class progressed, individual cohorts were responsible for forwarding their material by e-mail attachment for posting on the Internet so that everyone else could download it prior to the presentation. This allowed each cohort to move away from straight data sharing during their presentations and spend the time analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating the material.

By beginning with the basic skills of using the Internet as a delivery mechanism, cohorts built a familiarity with the Internet that would provide a basis for more advanced techniques in the future.

Listservs and E-Mail

Placing each of the site-based cohorts in their own listserv allowed them to communicate with one another about their assignments or to simply extend and receive moral support. It supplied easy access to one another for both synchronous (real time) and asynchronous (any time) dialogue without the usual telephone tag that working professionals find so frustrating.

In addition to cohort-specific listservs, a listserv was set up for the entire doctoral class, which included the members of all three cohorts. For me, this became an easy way to communicate last-minute changes in class schedules or speakers or changes in travel plans because of weather.

The listservs also provided other benefits. For example, I found that students were developing some very keen insights into their workplaces as they explored the readings and assignments. I also discovered that they wanted to try out these new observations and perceptions on me. This has led to a professional ìmentorshipî dialogue that extends beyond classroom material. Since e-mail was the method for private journal writing (part of the programís structure), students could spend as much or as little time and at whatever time was convenient to record the weekís activities and observations. Likewise, I was free to respond to the journal when I had the time, inclination or insight. This electronic journal kept me in touch with students in a more personal way than I originally believed could be the case.

The journal worked so well on an individual and private basis that I attempted to collect the studentsí professional papers through electronic mail. However, the papers were between 15 and 25 pages in length and I found reading and evaluating them too tedious to do electronically. There is still something about being able to spread across my desk the pages of a professional paper and follow its trends of thought. Thus, I print out, evaluate by pen and mail papers back the ìold fashionedî way.

The last way we use e-mail relates to class discussions. Very often the Thursday evening sessions would end with much more that needed to be said or considered and discussed. The next morning discussion threads are posted on the listservs to all students or just to the cohort group that made the presentation on the previous evening. Discussion takes place asynchronously and still gets the points or thoughts across from the previous nightís session.

Conclusion

It is impossible to think about developing a doctoral program in Community College Leadership without also thinking about the development of interpersonal relationships, decision-making skills, conflict-resolution techniques and team-building skills. These skills must be learned and practiced together as people become comfortable with one another in a reasonably safe environment.

Yet ignoring the time and distances that are involved if each and every instructional experience is required to be in-person trivializes the reality faced by those full-time instructional and administrative professionals who serve over 25 community colleges in this Rocky Mountain region. Indeed, it is exclusionary.

The use of two-way interactive television, listserv discussion groups, e-mail and the Internet is certainly a viable alternative to the weekly driving marathon required by the traditional graduate-class approach.

The arguments that say technology makes an educational experience too impersonal are incorrect. It turns out to be just the opposite, in fact. Technology has helped reinforce and deepen the personal and professional relationships developed in cohort groups and during those monthly Friday meetings.

It is the bringing together of the best of both of these concepts ó the blending of modalities in the areas of ìhigh tech and high touchî ó that make this model both humanistic and efficient.

Timothy Gray Davies has served seven community colleges in five states during the past 32 years as a full-time faculty member, dean of faculty, and president of the last two community colleges. In the fall of 1995 he joined Colorado State University to develop a new doctoral program in Community College Leadership for the universityís School of Education. He planned and is teaching this experimental blending of learning modalities for the new program.

E-mail: davies@cahs.colostate.edu

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.

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