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By Paul Bradley  /  
2010 May 17 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Future Shock


Inside a meeting room at the 90th annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges convention in Seattle, the image of a little girl flickered across a video screen.

The video of a pajama-clad 2-½ year-old commanded the hushed attention of a roomful of college distance educators as the tot was handed an iPad by her dad, an executive with a high-tech company.

With little prompting, the girl begins to easily manipulate the device, activating a couple of spelling applications aimed at toddlers and easily spelling out “lion” and “bike” and expressing delight with her new toy.

The video has gone viral on YouTube, closing in on a million views. But to the community college distance educators filling that room, the girl was more than a bright kid with a sunny smile and newfound online fame. She was symbolic of a new generation of distance learners who are filling the pipeline toward college, a group whose worldview, life and learning styles are being shaped by technologies like iPad and Kindle and the ever-expanding list of high tech gadgets.

Even as community colleges struggle under the weight of the steady growth in their distance education programs, leading educators worry about how they will reach and motivate young learners who are populating schools around the country and growing up in a touch screen world. The ease with which they manipulate media underscores the need for colleges to keep pace with technological advances and adapt to the new learning needs of these students. They have a world of information at theie fingertips, but may never set foot inside a college library.

Associated Press photo

The ready embrace by younger students of devices like Apple’s iPad presents a new challenge to educators.

Immersed in Media

In his new book, Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and How They Learn (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), Larry D. Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, contends that educators need to develop plans to engage these new learners — or risk losing them forever.

“We now have the know how to provide an educational experience — both inside and outside the classroom — that is motivating, captivating, and engaging,” Rosen wrote in a recent blog post. “We can no longer ask our children to live in a world where they are immersed in technology in all parts of their lives except when they go to school. We must rewire education or we risk losing this generation of media-immersed, tech-savvy students.”

“My advice is to understand that no matter how technologically advanced you are, you are not in the same league as these digital natives,” he continued. “To us, technology is a tool. To them, it just is. Period. They know no other way to live and communicate. Virtual worlds are their worlds.They live their lives behind screens and that makes them so very different. If we look at them as simply more tech-savvy we do not understand their world. We must see them as different, unique and challenging.”

Already, community colleges are seeing students whose learning styles are far different than those of previous generations, or even those of their older siblings, said Pamela K. Quinn, provost of the LeCroy Center for Educational Telecommunications, the online arm of the Dallas County Community College District. Those differences will only grow more pronounced over time as technology continues its steady march, she said.

“None of these students are afraid of technology in any way,” she said. “This is what is coming our way. We’re at the point where all learning will soon have a distance education component. By the time these students get to college, they are expecting to learn in a certain way.”

“People come with the expectation that they can shop online, they can make travel arrangements online,” she added. “They expect to be able to learn online. Technology is changing very rapidly, and I’m not sure that all of us are fully prepared for the changes. It’s not so much evolution. We need a revolution.”

New Imperatives

The new generation of learners creates several imperatives for community colleges, Quinn said. They must identify, hire and train distance educators who are comfortable with new technologies. Colleges must demonstrate the capability to respond quickly to students who move through a connected world at warp speed and expect instant responses to their text messages.They must monitor, assess and improve the quality of online courses and resist the temptation to use technology for technology’s sake.

And they must begin in earnest to address connectivity and technical issues in their long-term strategic plans and annual spending plans.

“The majority of capital improvement money on community colleges campuses goes into bricks and mortar,” Quinn said. “Not enough is going into improving the quality of the online experience. People have to begin to recognize that some of that money has to go into online building.”

But first, community colleges must cope with the here and now, and the fact that distance education is growing by leaps and bounds and has been for several years. Today, almost all education includes a distance education component, whether it is an Internet link in a classroom, or a social networking site linking students together or a video feed of a classroom lecture.

A January 2010 report by the Sloan Consortium, a group of institutions committed to improving the quality of online education, found that among all college students, online education has been increasing steadily since Sloan’s annual survey started in 2002. Enrollment increased by 16.9 percent between 2007 and 2008. In 2008, about 4.6 million students were enrolled in at least one online course, or about 25 percent of total enrollment.

Community colleges make up the fastest-growing segment of institutions employing distance education programs. The 2009 survey of the Instructional Technology Council found that distance education enrollment at community colleges jumped by 22 percent in the 2008-09 academic year. The year before, online enrollment had increased by 11 percent.

The ITC study identified several trends in community college online education, including:

  • Online classes represent the only growth in enrollment at many institutions. Online classes will continue to attract younger students because of their comfort level with technology and older students trying to fit education into busy schedules.

  • Colleges are struggling to recruit faculty and offer additional sections to meet the ever-increasing demand from students.

  • Blended/hybrid classes and Web-assisted classes represent some of the sharpest increases in distance education.

  • The most difficult courses for students include lab-based science, speech, fine arts, nursing, math and foreign languages.

  • The migration of distance education programs from informational technology divisions of institutions to the academic side of the institutions is accelerating.

  • Some traditional administrative units feel threatened by the growth of distance education.

  • The gap between course completion rates for distance learning (72 percent) and face-to-face courses (76 percent) is narrowing.

Maturation Process

“I think what we are seeing is the continuing maturation of distance education,” said Fred Lokken, chair of the ITC Board of Directors and associate dean for teaching technologies at Truckee Meadows Community College. “The growth has been phenomenal.”

“These programs are very young, especially the online portion. The nature of online learning is different than anything community colleges have ever seen. But the model is so brand-new that administrators came through at a time when this did not exist. Administrators want to support it, but it is unfamiliar to them.”

The learning styles of younger students are also new, Lokken said. The pedagogy employed in many classrooms today was developed in the 1940s and 1950s and work poorly with younger students, he said.

“We know they are different,” he said. “The challenge is to figure out how to reach them. The technology means they learn by trial and error. They are not going to read a manual. The whole educational system is predicated on the notion that failure is a bad thing. But failure means nothing to them.”

The ITC study also found that as online instruction continues to mature, administrators are moving beyond access and addressing course quality and design, faculty training and preparation and improving student readiness and retention.

“It’s not about the distance. It’s about the education,” said Jean M. Runyon, dean of the Virtual Campus at Anne Arundel Community College. “A good teacher is a good teacher. What we have to understand is that technology can be used to support what we are doing in the classroom, and what we need to do. We have access to the bells and whistles, but we need to use them purposefully.”

Runyon believes that even as the tech-savvy generation comes to college, not everyone can thrive in an online world. Despite the pervasiveness of technology, some students don’t have ready access to the Internet or the new technological tools, she said. Others do well in a classroom setting but falter online.

The challenge is defining who is who, she said, and responding to the needs of all the parts of the communities that colleges serve.

“What we really need to understand is who our learners are, and how they learn, and be prepared to meet that need.”

In many respects, the future has already arrived at community colleges, she said. Community colleges grappling with how best to utilize technology need not peer over the horizon, Runyon said.

“It’s not a matter of seeing what’s over the horizon,” she said. “The horizon is already here.”

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

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