Thursday, July 12, 2012

Wanted: A Vision for California Community Colleges

"If organizations can sense and respond to emerging opportunities, there is a good chance they will endure. If they can sense and respond to each new opportunity with greater ingenuity and speed—that is, if they can get better at getting better—there is a good chance they will bloom." (Conner and Clawson, 2002)
Today, I read once again of the horrific budget cuts looming for California's community colleges which is the largest system of higher education in the nation serving roughly 2.6 million students (down from 2.9 million a few years ago, as a result of the budget losses).  The situation is dire and I, for one, am saddened and dismayed to see the great Golden State lose sight of its commitment to providing free and low cost college education to its citizens.  This commitment is what laid the foundation for the state's Master Plan for Higher Education and is what provided access to education for the Baby Boomer generation (including my father who emerged from poverty to a PhD thanks to Porterville Community College) which, in turn, provided for a highly skilled workforce in California to cultivate the world famous Silicon Valley.

As a California community college educator since 1999 and a parent, I find myself wondering what the future of California will look like.  And I find myself searching for the vision that will carry the legacy of the CCC system forward.  I believe it's critical that we must turn our eyes from the budget mess and realize that without a vision, there are a world of opportunities that are passing us by.

Fellow California Community College educators, we are amidst the greatest information revolution ever.  47% of US adults have a smartphone in their pocket right now that connects them to a world of content, the opportunity to foster relationships with like-minded individuals anywhere in the world, and even shape our own digital profile into becoming a subject mater expert, author, and creator of rich media content.  Learning is wide open.  For decades it has been our mission to deliver open access learning -- well, that mission is changing and buried within this change are opportunities for us to redefine our future.  But we will continue to miss these opportunities if we do not look for them.

Students come to community college for all kinds of reasons but, arguably, the number one reason is because they're affordable.  This is a result of our committment to providing open educational access to all.  Well, today learning is free at the Khan Academy and even at Stanford and MIT.  This isn't news.  What is news is the fact that these open learning approaches are now beginning to dabble with new forms of certification in the form of digital badges.  This is a future pathway that will replace community colleges for some students, but not for others.

I know, the ivory tower will scoff at the concept for years to come but, yes, digital badges will change the future course of community colleges.  I believe buried in the depths of digital badges and open education lie the early whispers of a paradigm change.  You see, there are skills that one may demonstrate her proficiency of very effectively in an online environment with a digital badge coupled with an ePortfolio and recommendations from clients (on LinkedIn or a simple blog created with WordPress or Blogger, for example) -- and this type of digital credentialing process will shift the sands of college enrollment.  We won't get there tomorrow but we will get there. 

Remember, smartphones were non-existent five years ago.  Five years ago! Today, half of all US adults own one. Change happens quickly today.

Moreover, there are "different flavors of learning for different types of learners" (taken from a tweet sent by @Bio_prof).  Many learners who come to community colleges for a low cost education would do just fine in an open course provided by many of the open courseware providers.  And once those courses are paired with a credentialing process that is socially valued those students will make a different choice in where they will go for their learning experiences -- and that is terrific.  Because what's important is that people -- all people -- have access to education. 

But what's also critical to understand is that many learners will not succeed in a Stanford or MIT-type open courseware class.  The students who will continue to come to community colleges well into the future are the students who are the first in their families to go to college, the students who speak english as a second or third language, the students who have struggled since birth with cognitive learning differences (many of whom are not diagnosed).  These students will rely heavily upon community colleges because it's within the community colleges that great, committed teachers work.  It is in community colleges where students are empowered to see that they too are capable of learning.  It's in community colleges where stunning teaching innovations are occuring not because faculty have institutional support and funding for new technologies but because there are professors who see the value, the critical role of using emerging technologies in a student's learning experience to make an online class more human, more connected, more collaborative, more inspirational.  Innovations in teaching and learning -- in the classroom and online and in between -- is the future of community colleges. 

And I hope our system leaders can see that the future of California Community Colleges hinges not just upon funding but also upon re-imagining what the mission of the community college is in the context of a global, digital, open learning society.  For if we can create a vision, we will create opportunities and we will bloom, rather than wilt.

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