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PACEPrep: A Preparatory Course for Incoming First Year Students to Pace University (2013)

 

Reinventing Liberal Education
A National Symposium
November 22-23, 2013
University of Miami
Miami, Florida

 

Andrés Villagrá, Pace University

Introduction

How can we prepare our students better to enter higher education? Recent international education rankings place the United States in a not so favorable position in terms of quality of education in major key subject areas like math, sciences, etc. In his most recent publication on Disruptive Education (2013), Clayton Christensen speaks not only of adapting to innovation but of transforming the existing educational model to address this critical issue. We are living in the age of connectivity, mostly by means of these reduced-sized powerful computers called smartphones. Connectivity also means access to information and education. Online education or computer-based learning offers many advantages to today’s students such as: access to dependable quality education anytime and anyplace; self-paced completion; customization by course adaptation to different student’s learning styles; and mostly, affordability because residential and transportation costs are not necessary. To a certain extent, we are experiencing a sort of perfect storm where the low employment rate combined with rapidly increasing tuition rates and the impact of technology is bringing all sorts of demands to higher education, such as shorter time to complete degrees, competency-based credits and a focus on skills for rapid professional employment.

Other major factors impacting higher education in America are global universities and the role of online massive education (commonly called MOOCS) capable of attracting thousands of students from existing institutions and new and emerging economies. The long-term impact of these MOOC courses remains to be seen. Individual colleges have the final say as to whether to accept credits, even if the American Council of Education starts credentialing massive open online courses for credit (Paul Fain, “Making it Count, Inside Higher Education, June 15, 2012). While the MOOC phenomenon may evolve in numerous ways it, nevertheless, presents a number of lessons to be learned. In this way, PACEPrep pilot course represents a response and a unique approach to MOOCs by limiting the access to the pre-college student population only.

Project Components and Learning Objectives

The PACEPrep pilot project is a five-week summer course intended to serve as both a college preparation and review course for incoming first-year Pace University students. The multidisciplinary areas of study cover approximately the first two weeks of a typical first semester. This online PACEPrep pilot course was offered during the regular Summer II schedule from July 15 to August 23th, immediately prior to the fall semester 2013. The goal of the PACEPrep Pilot Project is three-fold: it is expected to prepare students to succeed in major common core disciplines resulting in an increase of first-year retention; it aligns majors tracks with career opportunities to help students declare a major by the end of the first year; course statistics will also track the impact of this program in underrepresented students success versus the general population of students.

The five-module course is integrated in a very innovative approach characterized for flexibility and project-based learning that enable students to explore academic disciplines and careers while acquiring a rigorous academic experience in an online environment. Students also work together and develop the skill to synthesize disparate approaches through technology. As a “bridge course,” it helps students to connect the experiential gap between high school requirements and the expectations inherent in earning a university degree. A team of experienced professors with demonstrated academic expertise and successful record in online education develop and teach each of the modules.

What Makes This Project Unique? A Response to Massive Teaching Initiatives

1. By Aligning Disciplines with Professional Careers

The PACEPrep pilot course serves a dual learning purpose of addressing academic requirements and professional careers. Academically, course content addresses key concepts in the discipline and provides collaborative practice and exercises. In English, math and science modules, the content combines knowledge acquired at the high-school level with the equivalent to the first two weeks of college courses in each. In Communication Studies, the content showcases the different discipline tracks offered by the department.

Professionally, each module is focused on establishing clear paths for students to the professional world. In the video segment, students watch pre-recorded interviews between professors and recent Pace graduates about their first professional experiences. These interviews inform about academic disciplines, career experience and professional development by showcasing job opportunities and networking development. Unlike any other existing MOOC, both majors and undecided students benefit by an open discussion of an academic path that can lead to future careers.

2. By Offering Cohesive, Integrative Modules

The PACEPrep pilot course is composed of five modules. One preparatory module includes introductions to: “Online Education,” and “Blackboard Learning Management System”, “Information Literacy” and “e-portfolio”; and four subject modules offer content from the Pace Core Curriculum: English, Mathematics, Science and Communications Studies. The latter offers students a survey on Video Production, Public Relations, and New Media (i.e. the impact of Social Media outlets such as blogs, vlogs, message boards, and podcasts in today’s professional world).

During the final three days of the course, students prepare a comprehensive e-portfolio designed to showcase their reflection on all four modules. This e-portfolio, along with an online certificate of completion, serves as a proof of having completed all the required components.

Online assessment is aligned with development of soft and critical thinking skills and effective measures of student knowledge will support student-placement during the first semester of studies.

3. Teachers/Facilitators Role and Pace University Brandings

The second most innovative aspect of this project is the teaching component. At the discussion forum and group project segment, teachers create problem-based assignments focused on collaborative learning. Student exercises are comprised of either or both inquiry-based teaching frameworks: problem-based learning, which tackles a problem but doesn’t necessarily include a student project, and project-based learning, which involves a complex task and some form of student presentation, and/or creating an actual product or artifact (http://www.edutopia.org/pbl-research-learning-outcomes). Active learning approach engages students in creating, questioning, and revising knowledge, while developing skills in critical thinking, collaboration, communication, reasoning, synthesis, and resilience (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008). Students are presented with assignments that gauge what they have learned rather than what they have memorized.

The PACEPrep pilot course is offered through the free learning management system, Blackboard CourseSites. This platform mirrors the Blackboard platform already used here at Pace University. Following the “flipped classroom” model, professors are available to participate in a discussion forum, respond to questions or develop group projects using online conferencing features. In this environment, teachers become coaches and facilitators of inquiry and reflection and provide a pass/fail grade after completion of assignments.

4. Partnership with Learning Solutions/McGraw-Hill

The partnership with Learning Solutions/McGraw-Hill Publishers results in an inexpensive ebook with engaging lessons rich with multimedia and assessment materials integrated in the free Blackboard CourseSites. The use of data analytics and adaptive learning in “selected teaching and learning activities are ‘automated’ to create efficiencies and rapid insights for both learners and instructors”, as described in Learning to Adapt: The Case for Accelerating Adaptive Learning in Higher Education by Education Growth Advisors, (http://educationgrowthadvisors.com/gatesfoundation/). Adaptive learning results in better outcomes in terms of mastery and completion (with respect to actual completion rates, time to completion, and the cost of completion).

Program Learning Outcomes

PACEPrep pilot course empowers students with the pre-college knowledge and practical skills to successfully perform at the higher education level. Teams of teachers/facilitators provide a college-level education that:

  1. Effectively prepares students for college work in collaborative environments either as team members or team leaders. Different learning methodologies and teaching approaches in each module is similar to the experience the student will encounter during the first year at Pace University.
  2. Develops self-determination and student control over the learning process.
  3. Addresses student needs in critical subject areas such as English and Mathematics.
  4. Challenges realistic problems, as they would be solved in the real world.
  5. Provides online group collaboration.
  6. Prepares the student for the demands of online college education.

At the end of the PACEPrep pilot course, students demonstrate the ability to:

  1. Apply knowledge they acquired to solve task-problems using Math, Science and English.
  2. Combine theory and practice to connect fields of study and the professional world.
  3. Develop an understanding of professional careers, skills and job opportunities
  4. Use research skills.
  5. Develop an e-portfolio prior to entering Higher Education.
  6. Demonstrate effective written communication skills as required for their professional interactions.

Course Assessment

In the PACEPrep pilot course, students advance as a cohort through the modules. Each module includes lesson content and quizzing to assess students understanding and completion. Deadlines need to be met to advance to the following segments. Each module provides students with specific tools that test their knowledge and provide immediate feedback. As the student progresses through the material, there are several checkpoints to test for comprehension and successful learning. A set of questions grouped by the level of difficulty engages the student with a scaffolding learning method.

Students have two opportunities to pass each module. Initially, if the student fails the final test for a particular module, the student is redirected to a new set of learning exercises before taking a second final test. In order to receive a passing grade, the students must successfully complete all five modules.

The Implementation and initial results of PACEPrep in Summer 2013

The initial group to enroll in the first pilot course consisted of 124 voluntary student participants from the incoming class of 2017 at Pace University. The course carried “0” credits. Recruitment was conducted during Spring and Summer orientations and/or via email. During the 5-week period during the Pace Summer II session, the specific time-allocation and sequential format allowed for greater communication between professors and students in the activities prepared for each module. Initial results showed a decreased of student participation as the course progressed. Rates of completion showed that a group of about 25 students were consistently completing all assignments while meeting deadlines. Two main reasons were mentioned in the final students’ surveys: the large amount of material to be covered and the intensive nature of the course prior to entering College for a course that carried no credit, even though this was a free course.

Long-Term Student Benefits of PACEPrep and 2014 Plans

During the Spring semester 2014, a comparison study of student participants in the PACEPrep will reveal the impact of this course in retention rates, early declaration of major and benefit of online education and preparatory courses in the underrepresented population. These results will be available via academic publications. In Summer 2014, PACEPrep will be offered at not cost for student and on a voluntary basis, will carry 1 credit elective, and will include new small sessions focusing on student success. Collaboration with teams of professors from other universities is also a possibility. According to Michael Tanner, Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, (www.aplu.org) these kind of projects represent a new recruitment strategy: give (students) them a free sample, and maybe they’ll find they have an appetite for it” (“Public Universities to Offer Free Online Courses for Credit,” The New York Times, January 23, 2013, (www.nytimes.com/2013/01/23/education/public-universities-to-offer-free-online-classes-for-credit.html?_r=0).

Conclusion

The challenge of offering a succesful onine prepartory course faces numerous challenges beyond the purely academic content. By offering a cohesive, well-implemented approach, problem-solving approach addressing academic disciplines and professional careers in an online environment help students develop “problem-solving and collaboration skills. A succesful preparatory course also improves students’ attitudes towards learning (Strobel & van Barneveld, 2009; www.edutopia.org/pbl-research-annotated-bibliography#strobel).

There are a number of lessons to be learned from massive online courses: from accreditation issues, flexibility of access and completion, application of flipped classroom models, problem-based collaboration projects and adaptive learning to the development of a successful business model for the institution (Kirsten Winkler, “The Rise of Adaptive Learning,” Big Think, November 10, 2011, bigthink.com/disrupt-education/the-rise-of-adaptive-learning). There is an increasing demand for well-designed cost-effective courses designed for specific audiences; such is the goal of this PACEPrep course. A challenge for PACEPrep course and similar course will be to prove that its graduates produce greater retention and student success. By meeting this challenge, this program may serve as a future direction for massive online courses. The establishment of the PACEPrep program would not only meet the needs of our students, but also strengthen Pace University’s established reputation for innovation and quality of its teaching.