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Community college task force recommendations range from obvious to revolutionary

25 Oct 2011 3:56 PM | Scott Huber
In September the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents received the community college task force report along with its recommendations. Some of these recommendations are obvious and clearly needed, others are novel and still others are untried and controversial.

The task force was charged by Chancellor Klaich in July 2010 with evaluating whether community colleges were truly aligned with the future employment and learning needs of Nevadans. The task force committee members represented a diverse group of business owners, business executives, K-12 and higher education individuals, and a former regent. The committee was chaired by Bruce James with additional System support by Dr. Magdalena Martinez. The committee visited all of the community colleges plus a number of other entities that either receive or produce students for the workforce.

The report begins with a number of observations about the status of higher education in Nevada, projected workforce needs within the state, Nevada’s national ranking on these matters, and the character and function of the community colleges. The report then concludes with a number of recommendations. Given the diversity of committee members’ affiliations, and the fact that some of the recommendations represent a fundamental shift in how community colleges are to achieve their mission, there was no consensus on the recommendations by the committee members.

This lack of consensus, however, should not preclude all of the recommendations from having a fair and detailed hearing. Some of them clearly point to areas that need attention or redress if Nevada is to have an educated citizenry and well-prepared workforce. To date, there is no strategic planning whereby community colleges and employers can comprehensively determine workforce needs now, or for the future. Technology will continue to be a transformational vehicle in all phases of education; this too ought to be implemented strategically and on an ongoing basis.

Public schools are taking ownership of the fact that a significant number of the high school graduates who attend college for the first time require remedial classes. The System needs to create pathways from K-12 through college to career so that students have clearly defined goals. Avenues for students to gain an associate’s degree while still in high school are novel, as is the concept of variable-tuition pricing. These recommendations need airing, as some are sorely needed.

Other recommendations in the report are revolutionary. Should public-private partnerships be explored? They should. Should public-private partnerships undermine or compromise the academic integrity of NSHE institutions? They should not.

As for a Nevada Virtual College, there is arguably a place for it within NSHE. Using the current model, associate’s degrees could be offered online, self-paced. This model would enhance access and flexibility for certain students, reduce duplication of offerings and permit the redirection of resources. A virtual college could also reach out to students beyond our borders – for instance, to those in the military – and conceivably serve as a much-needed resource center for NSHE. Across the country, 22 states have adopted virtual colleges.

However, the task force’s recommendation that the virtual college be put out to bid undermines the significant amount of work already begun in this area by Truckee Meadows Community College, Nevada State College and College of Southern Nevada. It begs the question of who will assume responsibility for academic integrity. Evidence is mounting that for-profit institutions have significant academic challenges they have yet to recognize, much less address.

The task force report also recommends that K-12 address remedial issues for recent high school graduates, and that remedial education be outsourced for all others, so that community colleges can focus on preparing students for transfer or certificates. On the surface, this sounds fine… until one recognizes that a significant number of adult students returning to college do not need remedial instruction. These students (and they represent most adult returning students) do not lack specific skills so much as an understanding of the culture of success that is critical for any college student. These adult learners need encouragement, specific explanation and a one-on-one relationship with their professors far more than a basic skill set. For-profit institutions are prepared to offer content, but lack the ability to serve this other, often more important need.  

While the task force’s recommendations are being discussed, it is imperative to keep the students in mind – not only because it is in their best interest, but also because the training they receive will best serve the needs of Nevada. Revolutionary ideas always contain unintended consequences. Those consequences rarely affect those doing the implementation, but always affect those on the receiving end.


  • 31 Oct 2011 9:52 AM | Cyd McMullen, emeritus faculty, Great Basin College
    Your writer missed the very significant amount of work done in distance education by Great Basin College, which delivers education by interactive video and online to seven Nevada counties, providing access to education to many rural Nevadans.
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  • 16 Nov 2011 7:56 AM | Glenn Miller
    This is a very thoughtful piece, and the entire study merits a well-considered response from the Regents. The issue of who should be directing the "virtual college", and Dr. Huber's response is on target- this should clearly be the NSHE, as a whole, but rely primarily, if not exclusively the teaching and administrative resources within the NSHE.
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  • 29 Nov 2011 12:37 PM | Jennifer Nelson
    I keep hearing / reading about "self-paced" online courses, but no one using it has yet explained what it means to them or how it helps students' achievement or higher education's accountability. In these conversations, there has been little, if any, recognition that success in self-paced courses requires self-directed learning, an attribute not possessed by every student in every course. Self-directed learning skills can be taught, people can learn to become self-directed learners, but this process must start well before people become college students. If NSHE ever decides to create an online, self-paced virtual college, then much more collaboration with the K-12 system will be needed to ensure that Nevada's high school graduates are adequately prepared to benefit from the virtual path to an associate's degree.

    My bigger problem with promoting "self-paced" learning is that people assume its benefits without testing their assumptions. These assumptions come with other unexamined implications, such as 1) nothing of value is learned through interactions with other learners, 2) there is no learning involved in meeting externally imposed deadlines, 3) the learning that occurs in traditional classrooms and existing online courses is not already self-paced to some degree, and 4) every course required for an associate's degree can be presented in a "self-paced" format.

    None of these four assumptions is true. Education theorists already know that learning how to learn from social environments is an important skill, one that won't be taught from self-paced classes. As employees ourselves, we already know that employers rely on employees' abilities to meet externally imposed deadlines, but it's an open question as to how self-paced learning helps its students develop that ability. Variations in the pace of learning among students in existing traditional and online classes already account, in part, for the array of grades earned by class participants, so it's tempting to assume that giving slow learners whatever time they need will ultimately improve their success in mastering course content. For these students, self-paced learning will not shorten the length of their journey to degree or program completion while other aspects of self-paced learning may derail their college aspirations altogether. For other students taking courses in select discipline--English composition, for instance--self-paced instruction may be ineffective if not entirely detrimental to learning. We composition specialists know that learning to write effectively requires a social setting that allows student writers to interact, to think and talk about their writing with others facing similar writing tasks. It would be difficult to engage in a writers' workshop with classmates if you found yourself sprinting ahead or lagging behind the rest of the group, a situation that self-paced instruction makes all too probable.

    No, up until now, the people I've most often heard buzzing about self-paced online college courses are those associated with selling educational products. Someone please tell me, of what use are international languages faculty when all that's needed to learn Spanish or French or Chinese or Farsi is the latest edition of Rosetta Stone(R)? It seems to me that, rather than rushing to emulate self-paced forms of instruction already offered in the for-profit education marketplace, we in public higher education would do better for our students and our community if we explained more clearly why our expert services provide educational experiences that are more meaningful and rewarding.

    Just a thought.
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