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LeagueTLC Innovation Express
Exploring Issues, Innovations, and New Developments with Information Technology Professionals

Pathfinders and The Learning College Model

Tom Huguley 
Acting Vice President/
Academic Affairs

Shrinking resources and growing accountability measures make assessment, measurement, and process improvement a critical piece of community colleges as these institutions continue to emphasize service in the teaching and learning environment. From the public wake-up call and 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk to today's current struggles with the costs of technology training, high skill demands, and global competition, program performance and instructional assessment underpin funding and support for community college teaching and learning. 

Innovative faculty and staff in community colleges are continually creating and finding new ways to transform student learning and faculty development. In light of new developments, most institutions, by their very nature, maintain numerous barriers to true innovation. Ready evidence of these barriers and obstacles includes registration processes, the awarding of credit hours based on student seat time, state funding and formulation of faculty workloads based on FTEs and credit hours, traditional academic calendars, and centralized budgets. Creative individuals often work around some of these obstacles, but these workarounds are seldom, if ever, shared with others or institutionalized. 

The Pathfinder Team at Sinclair Community College (SCC) was formed in 1997 and charged with finding and creating new ways to remove barriers to innovations and to improve student learning. The original Pathfinder Team was appointed by the president and included six designated and voluntary innovators. As a part of an institutionwide reform NSF Grant, SCC leadership appointed this small cross-functional group to address overt and covert barriers and support new ideas and developments that impact learning. The Pathfinder role, as integrator/connector/enabler, addresses systemic and holistic approaches to move beyond theoretical and philosophical tenets toward actual implementation and integration of new innovations. 

Initial reform efforts targeted modularization of curriculum and interdisciplinary teaching and learning in manufacturing engineering technology. After successful development of this engineering curriculum, additional funding was secured to support the expansion of this curriculum methodology to other instructional areas. As the Pathfinders worked with teams that oversaw the development of 15-20 modules of multidisciplinary curriculum, they discovered existing approaches and processes to impact institutional reform were daunting. 

Through observation and analysis, Pathfinder efforts with institutionwide reform evolved into the development of a Parallel College Model, which has more recently been referred to as a Learning College Model. The model was based in part on the learning college principles espoused by the League for Innovation and was designed to provide opportunities for community colleges to fulfill their commitment to learning-centered education (http://www.league.org/league/projects/lcp/index.htm). O'Banion notes that the idea of the Learning College is "placing learning first, in every policy, program, and practice in higher education by overhauling the traditional architecture of education" (1997). 

As part of the overall goal of SCC to become more learning centered, implementation of the learning college principles and new roles for the Pathfinder Team included review and evaluation of innovations through a grant proposal process already in place at the college (Strategic Learning Challenge Awards). Critical elements of proposals for these awards include team contributions, interdisciplinary efforts, and responses to two critical questions related to learning college principles: Does the proposed innovation improve and enhance student learning and success? How do we know it improves student learning and success?

Using the Learning College Model, innovations are initiated, tested, and recommended for collegewide "scale-up" or expansion beyond project-specific parameters to other departments and even collegewide implementation. Data and documented changes in student learning, faculty and staff development, and policy and procedural innovations are systemically collected and analyzed. Lessons learned are communicated to the college leadership through a variety of approaches such as presentations, student testimonials, and meetings with project team members.

How does the Learning College Model Work?

Assessment and measurement are integral parts of the Learning College Model. Plans are made to test innovative ideas, to document the lessons learned, and to use data to make informed decisions about scale-up. As an interconnected cycle, the Learning College Model includes eight steps with embedded strategies of analysis. (For graphical reference see the SCC Learning College Model.)

1) Propose Innovative Idea 
2) Review of Proposal by Pathfinders and Project Team 
3) Plan the Tests and Measures of Success
4) Conduct Tests
5) Document Test Results
6) Review Test Results 
7) Recommend Scale Up
8) Operationalize for Collegewide Scale Up

Step 1: Propose Innovative Idea

Some innovative ideas, which can originate from faculty, staff, students, or community, warrant further investigation and deeper exploration of the merits and potential impact on student success. These ideas may be submitted to the Pathfinder Team in the form of the Learning College Qualification Tool (LCQT) available on the SCC Intranet. The LCQT is a questionnaire that promotes thoughtful reflection on the project idea and its relationship to the strategic direction of the college. In the spirit of collaboration and collegewide development, initiators submit proposals as teams. No individual proposals are accepted and preference is given to those teams with interdisciplinary representation. Key questions posed by the qualification tool include a statement about the innovative idea, rationale, relationship to SCC initiatives and programs that target collegewide and community needs for 21st century workforce skills, alignment with Learning College Principles, learning outcomes, and Sinclair Core Indicators of Success.

In the preparation stages of the LCQT, initiating teams can access a database of information about other projects proposed, under way, and completed. Project submitters are then better able to determine whether their project can be facilitated by the Learning College Model. As well, the project initiators can identify ways to align a proposal more closely with college requirements. In brief, the quality of the proposals will be improved because of added reflection time and use of other project descriptions available online.

Team members conduct a needs analysis which includes a consideration of the financial impact (costs and returns) for the college. The proposal will also include sections addressing the specific project deliverables, needs, outcomes, time frame, budget, funding source, efficiency/effectiveness predictions and potential barriers. Once the proposing team has crafted its proposal, assuring congruence with college requirements and verifying that development efforts do not duplicate the work of others, the detailed proposal is submitted to the Pathfinder Team.

Step 2: Review of Proposal by Pathfinders and Project Team

Once the LCQT is complete, the project team meets with members of the Pathfinder Team. The integrator/connector/enabler roles of the Pathfinder members are critical at this step in the model to help with the connection and integration of the proposed idea with existing and similar initiatives and to assure support for pilot testing. Pathfinder members serve in a liaison capacity with each of the project teams, helping to remove constraints which might inhibit successful implementation.

Often the result of these discussions between potential project teams and the Pathfinders is a more specific statement of project purpose, clarification of the relationship of that purpose and the planned results to student success, and at times, consolidation of similar projects or the elimination of those which do not directly relate to student success.

Step 3: Plan the Tests and Measures of Success

Based on the proposal and barriers identified, a test plan is developed. If all members of the proposing team agree to fulfill the expectations of the LCQT, Pathfinder members begin to problem solve and identify barriers and traditional obstacles, allowing the project teams time to research and develop their innovative ideas. Special attention is paid to those items with direct relationship to integration issues. Three core measurements are required for all projects:

Student Perception Survey
Team Perception Survey
Financial Impact and Cost Analysis

In addition to these three core measures that allow for collegewide analysis, teams are also encouraged to include project-specific measures that are more focused on specific project issues.

Step 4: Conduct Tests

Depending upon the proposal requirements and barriers identified, special support and privileges are provided to the project team as they begin to implement their plans. The teams operate in an open environment with lots of opportunities for others to learn from their efforts. For instance, interested parties are allowed to observe and/or help to document learning successes, areas for improvement, and insights to benefit others.

Step 5: Document Test Results

Through a standardized process for documentation, the final results of the test are reported. Final results include student learning outcomes, methodology for overcoming barriers, and other predetermined measures identified in the test plan.

Step 6: Review Test Results

A Pathfinder member works with a designated project team member to connect and link specific test plan findings with other innovative projects. Results are then catalogued to track evidence and the number of episodes when similar barriers were identified and overcome. During this step, validation of the needs analysis and financial impact also occurs.

Step 7: Recommend Scale Up

Since 1998, the Pathfinders Team has overseen thirteen strategic learning challenge projects developed via the Learning College Model. The goal is to scale up the results of the project if evidence is sufficient to warrant implementation beyond the pilot tests of specific projects. This scale up occurs through the college planning and budgeting process. The innovative results are submitted in the budget process, compete for resources, and become integrated into the college environment if approved. Included in the scale up recommendation is not only evidence that the innovation would improve student success, but also a consideration of the costs to the college to implement such an innovation.

Step 8: Operationalize for Collegewide Scale Up

Once an innovative idea has entered the college planning and budgeting process and received funding, the project is implemented in the appropriate operational elements of the college.

Lessons Learned and Project Findings 

A key finding of the Pathfinder Team is that it takes a significant amount of time to collect data related to student success and analyze that data in ways that may influence scale up decisions. It is probably easier to show improvements in isolated cases or limited samples of students, but the more difficult questions concern the generalization beyond that particular project or that group of students. In addition, some ideas may have significant merit but are simply too costly to implement. All thirteen projects have been successful to the degree that lessons have been learned, but none have reached the point where collegewide scale up can be recommended. Examples of lessons learned from team members who have participated in some of the projects include:

  • Barriers identified by team members prior to project implementation were, in some cases, different from barriers encountered during implementation. This was an unexpected finding that has implications for refinement of the qualification tool.

  • Students in the innovative groups worked more frequently in teams/groups, discussed what was being learned with the instructor more often, and assisted other students who asked for help.

  • Faculty were most satisfied with student learning experiences and gains, innovative approaches to teaching, and collaboration within project teams.

  • Cost saving (economies of scale) opportunities were realized through sharing labs, equipment, and software as well as through distance learning delivery modes.

  • A recommendation emerged to collect data that could be used to compute cost per successful student for future projects.

In light of lessons learned, the challenge for community colleges today is to capitalize on innovative ideas to keep pace with the dramatic changes for students, faculty, and communities. The Learning College Model at SCC attempts to use sound assessment and measurement techniques to ensure innovative ideas directly impact student success. 

For additional information, please contact one of the Pathfinders at SCC: 
Tom Huguley 
Sue Merrell
Shep Anderson
Gloria Goldman



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