Recently, I came across a job posting for an instructional designer at a community college. What struck me about the position posting was the fact that they required applicants to submit a statement on the personal philosophy on the role of community colleges. Since I work in a community college I thought that it would be a good exercise to try it out. Read on…
Philosophy of the Role of Community College
As an instructional designer working in a community college, I am sometimes asked by colleagues what the difference is between community college and 4+ year institutions. Is community college just a stopping off point for students looking to lower the cost of their education? Or, is community college a career training school that provides certificates and education credentials that lead to entry into a professional or semi-professional career? With either case, the underlying theme between these perspectives is that community college is about diversity, therefore, my underlying philosophy regarding the roll of community college is centered on how to navigate among this diversity – in education philosophy, the student body, academic disciplines, and faculty. In its operations, a community college needs to be both an academic institution with an eye towards the academy, and a training center, focused on developing students for particular workforce needs. However, there is a tension between these philosophies and a need to bridge them that makes working in a community college quite stimulating. In this statement essay, I will provide examples from each of these perspectives and demonstrate how the two are bridged through instructional design practice.
The community college’s role as a scholarly institution has tremendous implications on the students, instructors, the institution, and the community. Consider the graduation ceremony at Bristol Community College (BCC) in southern Massachusetts. This ceremony, akin to many other higher education institutions, is immersed in the rich academic tradition and symbols many people associate with education, such as the cap-and-gown, publicly declaring the graduates, recognizing the most successful students, and the speeches on a future of lifelong learning. The fact that BCC maintains this practice demonstrates to all those involved in the student development process that there is something important being done in the name of higher education learning. The practice of the public graduation ceremony at a community college demonstrates that education and learning at such an institution is not just a cheap alternative, or stopping off point (although many students use community college for these things), but is a set of practices steeped in the tradition of scholarly pursuit. What leads up to this final ceremony is oftentimes years of hard work and dedication. Many community college instructors are keenly aware of how their work shapes and guides students through this process as scholars-in-training and do their jobs quite well when designing and teaching traditional courses such as English Composition, History, Literature, and Communications. For instance, when working with faculty on understanding and applying an abstract concept, such as “critical thinking” via the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) LEAP Value Rubrics, most understand the term in the abstract and also debate how critical thinking may vary across the disciplines. The fact that they can have this discussion is what makes community colleges scholarly institutions, practicing debate, research, and assessment which characterize most any community college’s mission. Even as community colleges begin to implement academic alternatives to a college course, such as competency-based learning and credit for prior learning experience, the scholarly perspective is guiding this process, generating new notions of what a community college educated person would look like. That is, students may bring a variety of learning experiences with them, but through academic discourse, evaluation, and critical analysis, a sense of rigor is applied to practice in turn helping students achieve their education goals and participate in the rite-of-passage graduation ceremony.
Community colleges also provides training and entry into professional and semi-professional careers through specific course sequences and learning paths. In contrast to training students on scholarly practices through general education programs, these institutions are also creating individuals to enter into a particular career field, which is also an important function of community colleges. The pressure to not just quickly graduate students, but to get those students jobs is more prevalent now than ever, particularly since the Obama administration has opened a debate on the high cost of education and its need to demonstrate a return on investment. Students who enter into a career track program simply see the outcome of such programs as entry into a career, financial stability, and perhaps a job more than the scholarly cap-and-gown. Faculty who teach in these career preparation programs such as culinary arts, criminal justice, nursing, dental hygiene, fire science, and green technology know perfectly well the kinds of skills students need to prepare for particular positions and intensely focus learning specifically on masterly of the technical skills needed to perform certain jobs. Oftentimes, outside agencies accredit these programs based on very specific criteria, so program control is external. A broad-based academic skill such as “critical thinking” is more implied in such curriculum simply because career programs have to meet these specific requirements. It is not as if a career program is not academic, but that it fulfills a different niche than the traditional general studies program.
Although these two philosophies seem different, a community college is still one institution. Students enter with particular needs, backgrounds, challenges, and skills that are not so easily segregated. Many enter into developmental level courses despite whatever career or education intension they may have. Still others are there because they are testing out a variety of life and career paths. Many community college students are adult learners, have dependents, are currently working, and seeking opportunity through investment in a low-cost education. Moreover, faculty at community colleges are disproportionally part-time adjuncts who, like their students, are challenged by balancing between work, family, and rest. Most importantly, however, is the fact that funding for community colleges is more dependent on how scholarship partners with career development and is the main budgetary funding source with expectations of student success. At BCC and other colleges in the state of Massachusetts, funding is tied into the scholarly work of outcomes assessment as well as the workforce development. This external push challenges community colleges, particularly when the goal of student success is increased graduation and successfully entering into a job. As an instructional designer at a community college, this is where I fully understand and subscribe to the mantra often spoke throughout the college – “scholarship in action”. This understanding for me has translated into helping define the mission of faculty support at a community college, by advocating for a staffing at our center for teaching and learning that are experts in higher education pedagogies (active learning, adult learning principles, and higher education best practices), technology integration that pairs with such pedagogies (e-learning, blended learning, flipped classroom design), and cross-disciplinary professional development (reflective practice groups, pedagogy discussion groups, and education technology training). Implementation should be on systemic integration of these skills that focuses professional development on faculty improvement as well as administrative skills building. This is essential as community colleges begin utilizing analytics ensure student success through early-warning systems and digitized degree plans.
No two community colleges are alike. However, I believe (echoing many of my community college colleagues) that the work we do is centered on academic theoretical foundations, which are ultimately bestowed onto our students and discussed among each other in our practice. At the same time, we need to prepare students for the workforce as efficient as we possibly can. For some students, this is a clear path, for others it is still a work in progress. Nevertheless, community colleges should be designed to be flexible enough to provide change when needed through instructional support and open for debate to ensure that a sense of academic rigor remains intact. This means more systemic instructional support through cross-disciplinary activities that bridge the career-track studies with the general education skills as well as helping developmental learners reach their goals to achieve what may seem at times a hard-to-reach dream. When sharing my thoughts and passions of working in a community college to colleagues, I communicate that with such diversity in education philosophies and students, there is an experience unlike one would have in a 4-year college or university. It is simply about being a part of the local community.