Serving Modern Students in a Modern Society at the Community College
The new literacy for the 21st century and beyond is clearly the ability to utilize appropriate technological tools in an information society. The personal computer and its associated technological innovations -- the Internet, e-mail, word processing packages and personal Web sites -- have become commonplace.
Current industry standards demand skilled workers who are fluent in the use of these technological tools. Often, the higher education professorate assumes responsibility for transferal of many of these technological skills to students who ultimately become society's newly skilled workers.
A never-ending supply of information has initiated a need for efficient filters of raw data at virtually any place and any time. The proliferation of distance learning programs in higher education is a direct consequence of the demands of an information-based society. Course delivery of a distance learning class often presumes a certain degree of technological sophistication by the instructor. Obviously, students must have sufficient technological savvy as well.
To effectively serve modern students in a modern society, educators at all levels and in all classes must provide students with exposure to the bare minimum of technology. Educators and students need these skills, regardless of their participation in a distance learning class.
In an unlikely scenario, however, a literal and literacy information gap has developed in the community college and university arenas, as both faculty and students have had to scramble to learn technological skills. Many faculty, notwithstanding students, have discovered that they are technologically challenged, and relatively unprepared for the new literacy and its far-reaching consequences. Often, the addition of technological tools into a traditional classroom setting becomes a class in and of itself, with its own course goals and objectives to be achieved.
The new literacy -- technological literacy -- clearly requires an investment of time and learning which often competes directly with multiple entities. For faculty, primary competing factions include standard job responsibilities, course loads and possibly research requirements. Students, especially those enrolled in community colleges, often have to juggle responsibilities, including work, family and mastery of course content material. While it is not necessarily easy, integration of technology in traditional classroom settings by faculty and students is doable.
Basic Literacy in a Modern Society
It is not so much that reading, writing, and arithmetic are outdated skills, replaced by more technological ones; rather, the forum for mastery of these time-honored skills has simply changed. Students now must read, write, and practice computational skills online via e-mail, word processors, list servers and Web sites. While basic literacy continues to involve the 3 R's, the environment in which individuals are expected to demonstrate competency has changed considerably. A dynamic change has taken place in the mode of delivery for mastery of fundamental literacy.
In order to ensure long range economic viability, educational institutions and industries alike demand a workforce skilled in technological applications. Following completion of college matriculation or comparable workforce-training programs, students are expected to demonstrate technological literacy -- the new literacy for modern students in a modern society. Universities have rushed to meet the technological revolution head on, and many institutions have begun to advise students to come to campus prepared to travel down the Information Superhighway.
The University of Florida, Gainesville, issued such an advisement beginning with the second session of its 1998 summer term. It is no surprise that technological literacy is in high demand by students who enroll at Santa Fe Community College, which exists as a primary feeder institution for students intent on transferring into upper division study at the University of Florida. Traditional students (ages 18-22) who begin their college matriculation at Santa Fe realize that knowledge of technological applications is important for university matriculation. This is especially true for those students who have secondary school backgrounds that failed to provide sufficient exposure to technological innovations. Adult learners who return to Santa Fe for retraining and workforce development also seek the new technological literacy to enhance their job market competitiveness, increase their opportunities for advancement and fulfill personal enrichment through the process of lifelong learning.
The Community College and its Mission
In attempting to fulfill the community college mission of preparing modern students in a modern society, faculty members are confronted with the reality of extremely limited time for self-learning the minimum technological skills. Often heralded as dedicated teaching institutions, community colleges assign faculty heavy class loads. A typical class load at Santa Fe Community College ranges from 5-6 classes, in addition to department and college wide service expectations.
Multiple job responsibilities c'exist as fierce competitors for the time of the dedicated teachers of Santa Fe Community College, as well as any typical community college faculty. While reduced course loads or release time has been granted for instructors involved in setting up distance learning classes, little, if any special consideration, has been given to non-distance learning faculty who may wish to incorporate current and emerging technologies in their traditional classroom settings. Budgets that are stretched to the fullest have little funds set aside for teaching all faculty the new literacy associated with current and emerging technologies, as the technological revolution has been swift in its declaration of importance.
In the absence of release time to learn new technological skills, many members of the college professorate at Santa Fe find it difficult, if not impossible, to carve out any meaningful portion of the workday to learn what is often perceived as a foreign language. Aging faculty members often opt for complete omission of technologically enhancing course delivery, as they are poised on the brink of impending retirement.
For those faculty who manage to find a window of opportunity for learning current and emerging computer technologies, four basic technologies represent the bare minimum for the traditional (non-distance learning) classroom environment -- e-mail, word processing, electronic mailing list (list server) and a class Web site.
E-mail capability is a standard component associated with most Internet service provider (ISP) accounts. At Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Florida, all full-time students receive an active e-mail account as a consequence of completing registration. Online cyberspace communication affords students a certain degree of anonymity. For many students, especially older students returning to school, a diminished level of self-confidence in innate ability may be a pre-existing condition. As with most traditional students, older students often feel a heightened sense of anxiety regarding their academic preparedness or the lack thereof. These students, who may be uncomfortable speaking about their academic deficiencies in a face-to-face forum, now have the option of stopping by an instructor's office via cyberspace. Online visits can afford a much needed comfort zone for those students who are too shy to approach the instructor in person. Eventually, most of these students will probably find their way to office hours for face-to-face conferences, provided the online communication is successful in "breaking the ice."
In addition to the psychological benefit of lessened anxiety via faceless communication, students can also use e-mail to improve on basic typing, writing and communication skills. E-mail allows students to talk to the instructor around the clock. Such ongoing communication is vital in environments such as community colleges, which are invariably nonresidential commuter institutions. It is also typical to find students, gainfully employed full- or part-time, whose only free time for asking questions may be late at night long after formal office hours have ended. A student can always send his mail to the instructor's mailbox, irrespective of how many other messages are already waiting for review in the inbox queue. In that regard, e-mail is a more efficient way to use time in an increasingly fast-paced information society.
The role of the community college in preparing students for successful workforce interaction in this computer age is an extremely important one. Community college faculties who seek to honor this role in traditional classroom settings should include e-mail correspondence as a regular and routine requirement of course completion.
Typewriters are fast becoming dinosaurs at Santa Fe Community College. Their most frequent appearance occurs during periodic college auctions of surplus property. Students preparing for successful integration into a technological workforce must have basic word processing skills. Via the college wide Big Open Lab (a.k.a. the Bowl), students gain exposure to commonly utilized software packages including Corel WordPerfect and Microsoft Word.
For those novice computer users who possess well below average computer skills, regularity in required use of a word processing program can serve as a catalyst for greater student involvement in a computerized learning environment. Useful word processing software should be actively integrated into the requirements of a traditional class. This has the potential to specifically target and help those students who may suffer from acute computer phobia.
Production of professional reports and documentation, in minimal time, is an increasingly important key skill for information dissemination. Students should be routinely required to submit reports that are prepared with a standard word processor program. This requirement is a precursor to real world expectations and standards of performance in industry. Universal company standards generally outlaw handwritten reports; such documents are widely held as inappropriate for distribution to reading audiences.
Electronic mailing list (list server)
The class mailing list is perhaps one of the greatest timesaving devices for faculties and students. Rather than answering the same question repeatedly, the instructor only has to answer a frequently asked question (FAQ) once; then any and all students who are subscribed to the mailing list can read the relevant response. This ability to reduce redundancy increases instructor efficiency, and allows students to receive clarification on subject matter on a group basis, rather than one by one. Generally, these lists are not monitored and students and instructor contribute at will. However, a fixed limit on the number of messages sent by student participants can be pre-established.
When students are allowed to contribute to the class mailing list without monitoring, however, there can be a drawback due to perceived "junk mail." Some students may tend to send the wrong type of question, as well as erroneous information through the class list server. Nonetheless, students should be reminded to read all messages as posted; junk mail quickly becomes obvious, and repeat offenders can be penalized by removal from the mailing list -- a timeout, if you will, for naughty behavior. The advantages of having an electronic mailing list and discussion site far outweigh the disadvantage associated with periodic junk mail that may be inadvertently forwarded by a student contributor.
Santa Fe Community College uses Lyris list server as the mailing list provider for college discussion sites. Gray areas that reflect problems with comprehension quickly become evident to instructor and students. Many students like the idea of having daily mail to read and the constant correspondence between the instructor and students can form a vital bond of open communication, often necessary for active learning. Students query the instructor and each other for tips, techniques and problem-solving strategies. Students can potentially get an answer to a class-related query at any time of the day, even if the instructor is unavailable. Due to the varying degrees of preparation and background experiences with computer technologies, often students help each other by useful responses before the instructor has a chance to reply. The camaraderie that is built through the class mailing list helps to provoke thoughtful student commentary, as students realize their messages will be posted to the entire class.
Electronic mailing lists, discussion groups and special interest groups are commonplace on the Internet. Educational institutions and industries routinely use mailing lists to make announcements and disseminate vital information in an online format. To that end, integration of a classroom mailing list is considered a primary component of the "bare minimums" of technology requirements in a traditional college class.
Class Web Site
The constantly evolving Web site has become an integral part of the new frontier in cyberspace. Web presence is more the rule than the exception in today's information society. A basic educational Web site for a community college class can include course syllabi, assignments, course announcements, practice quizzes and exams, frequently asked questions, and links to other related Web sites. Except for server down times, students can access information at a time of convenience in their schedule. This is especially true for students having home computer access. Even for students without home computers, access to information is readily available through on campus computer labs. Students may view information online or print out a hard copy for later review. Distribution of class-related information is efficient, as the instructor d'es not have to request printing of multiple copies of handouts.
While educational Web sites often require a huge investment of time up front, the timesaving in the end can be phenomenal. Recently, however, even basic word processor packages such as the latest versions of Corel WordPerfect and Microsoft Word have built in tools for easy formulation of Web pages. File Transfer Protocol (FTP) can be used to readily transfer Web pages and related linked files to college allocated Web space. As the technological revolution continues, a basic Web site for each course seems a plausible reality. Currently, most instructors who have a Web site at Santa Fe Community College are those involved with the Open Campus and distance learning courses. However, a minority of faculty teaching only traditional classes also offer Web sites in conjunction with course delivery.
Closing the Technological Gap between Distance and Non-distance Learning
Distance learning and online courses routinely incorporate current and emerging technologies as part of the fabric of the associated curriculum. However, many of the technologies often associated with these asynchronous learning environments can also be introduced in a traditional classroom setting. Incorporation of basic e-mail, a word processor program, a list server/class mailing list, and a Web site is generally well within the technological grasp of most colleges and universities.
At a bare minimum, these four technologies are suggested for faculty and students alike in terms of meeting the requirements of basic literacy as we approach the millennium. Utilization of these core technologies is expected and often required of individuals preparing for entry and/or reentry into the workforce. Technology has offered itself as an excellent teacher aid that, when used properly, becomes a tool assisting faculty in learning and helping students learn.
Finding the Time
Both community college faculty members and students need to schedule the requisite time for mastering the companion language of technology, alongside standard course material. Those individuals who persist in finding the time to attain the new literacy will definitely place themselves at an advantage. Invested time will reap dividends in time saved in the long run. By availing themselves of the basic technological tools, faculty and students can become more efficient consumers of information. Those who avoid the technological revolution may find themselves confronted by an information society that has little tolerance for individuals lacking basic technological literacy.
Dr. Ruby Evans is a member of the faculty of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Santa Fe Community College, Gainesville, Florida. Students who enroll in traditional classes with Dr. Evans are exposed to the Internet, a class Web site, E-mail, Microsoft Word, Minitab statistical software, a Lyris listserve mailing list, and TI-83 graphing calculators and their associated Graphlink software. Dr. Evans has strong research interest in recruitment, retention and graduation rates for minority students in the areas of mathematics and statistics.
Corel Corporation (U.S.A.)
File Transfer Protocol
Lyris list server
Lyris Technologies, Inc. (formerly Walter Shelby Group, Ltd.)
TI-83 Graphing Calculator, Graphlink software
This article originally appeared in the 10/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.