Institutionalizing the Commitment to Learning: Evolution, not Revolution

Martha A. Smith, Andrew L. Meyer
Learning Abstracts

"It is not the strongest of the species that survive,
nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." 

Charles Darwin

Conducting an environmental scan of contemporary challenges faced by community colleges can be depressing. Declining state funding is just the latest in a series of clear indicators that a business-as-usual approach is not a viable or wise option in leading an educational institution into the brave and daunting new world of the 21st century. Adopting new strategies, predicting the trends and needs of the future, and organizing and staffing to maximize flexibility and effectiveness are necessary components of a successful organization in these difficult times. Yet above these characteristics, being an organization that can learn and adapt is essential.

Fortunately, through a strategic visioning process, Anne Arundel Community College (AACC) has developed its own approach to not just surviving, but thriving. The Learning College concept of putting learning first in all decisions was a movement long overdue in higher education. Becoming learning centered requires pervasive, strategic, and intentional intervention, design, and initiative. In these challenging times, developing the ability and the courage to question the status quo, to focus on core values, to have a clear and penetrating mission and vision that truly drive decision making, and to have an institutional value system that places learning first in all operations, decisions, and programs, provides a college with the essential tools and flexibility to function effectively.

Our college conducts strategic planning, as other colleges do. But we emphasize that it is really a strategic learning process as much as a strategic planning process. It is essential for us to know what is happening in our service area, our state, our nation, and the world. We need to know who our learners are and what types of learning experiences they need to be fulfilled as citizens and workers in our society. We try to be strategic planners, thinkers, and learners.

What We Have Learned

In conducting our environmental scanning in recent years, it became clear that in order to meet an increasing demand for lifelong learning opportunities not tied to traditional, credit-driven modalities, we needed to use every instructional weapon in our arsenal. We needed to value equally all instructional programs and services. With the creation of a level playing field for all instruction, the artificial and self-imposed barriers that had formerly created a caste system that valued credit over noncredit instruction and transfer over training functions would begin to erode, true internal collaboration would increase, and an organizational culture grounded in a true one-college model would emerge.

To do this, we began to embrace a simple phrase, Zen-like in its simplicity but powerful in its impact:

Learning is learning is learning.

Anne Arundel Community College is the largest single-campus community college in Maryland. It has seen exponential growth in recent years. During the period of FY97-FY02, when growth in state-funded credit and continuing education enrollments among the 16 Maryland community colleges averaged slightly less than 17 percent, enrollments at AACC grew over 24 percent. In FY02, the college served over 60,000 students. The increase in the percentage of enrollments between FY97 and FY05 is projected to be almost 30 percent.

In this period of unprecedented growth, the college was driven by its strategic plan. The plan identifies planning priorities driven by mission mandates. Planning priorities include (a) meeting community needs; (b) student success; (c) community outreach, impact, and presence; and (d) institutional integrity. The strategic plan seeks to amplify the institution's mission mandates: quality, access, affordability, responsiveness, and accountability.

As a college priority, meeting community needs is in many ways the major driver of the strategic plan. The complex and diverse needs of our community effectively caused the college to re-examine its priorities, ultimately placing equal importance on transfer programs, occupational programs, continuing education activities, and workforce development initiatives. The resulting growth in enrollments has led to discarding the old organizational paradigm, where units of the college (e.g., transfer, career, continuing education, developmental) operated in silos that were defined, predictable, and contained. The emerging model for the college is more dynamic, reflecting a variety of delivery modes, formats, and timeframes; entry and exit points; measurements of knowledge, skills, and abilities; and credentialing methodologies to meet community needs. Faced with creating internal systems to support the exponential growth in enrollments while dealing with the external pressures that all community colleges currently face, we chose to reinvent ourselves to meet new challenges and new opportunities.

Perhaps the most important step was creating the new and still emerging paradigm--a continuum of lifelong learning--as the framework for the learning college at AACC. This required blurring the lines between credit and noncredit instruction, not as the goal, but to foster the growing realization that the college was in the business of producing learning in students regardless of their age, educational plan, or mode of instruction. The key to this evolution was a series of organizational initiatives designed to accelerate the transformative process.

Organizational Realignments

In 1996, the college president realigned the organization to position the institution to be more responsive to internal and external forces. Back then, college senior administrators held traditional titles: Vice Presidents for Academic Affairs, Student Services, and Finance. The president created a new position of Vice President for Continuing Education and Workforce Development in order to demonstrate the college's commitment to the business community and the concept of lifelong learning, while combining the Student Affairs and Academic Affairs positions to reinforce commitment to student success. Consequently, the functions of continuing education and workforce development were given parity with traditional academic units of the college. Over the next four years, this new division worked with the college's academic departments on new program development while sharing resources, both human and physical, to deliver quality instructional programs, thus strengthening the college's overall linkages to the business community while fostering a culture of internal cooperation and collaboration.

Driven by the strategic plan, and responding to the growing respect earned by new continuing education and workforce development initiatives, the president moved the organizational structure to the next iteration. In 2000, the college returned to three vice presidents, but their titles and responsibilities reflected an increased commitment to the central mission and vision: Vice President for Learning, Vice President for Learner Support Services, and Vice President for Learner Resources Management. The notion that learning was everyone's responsibility was further reinforced through the merger of two instructional vice presidents into one position responsible for the totality of the college's learning offerings. The Vice President for Learner Support Services' position consolidated student support services with instructional and administrative information technology responsibilities. The concept of Learning Resources Management emphasized that offices and services previously viewed as being peripheral to instruction now played a critical role in assuring that learning was fully supported and maximized at all levels of the college. These realignment initiatives sent a clear message to all stakeholders that the college was serious about learning and meeting the needs of all learners.

Having reorganized to emphasize the commitment to learning, the next step was to implement an accelerated approach to new initiatives, aimed at meeting community needs. Several specific approaches were developed.

Learning Response Team (LRT)

The president created the Learning Response Team to replace the traditional President's Cabinet as the senior leadership team. The LRT places focus on administrative and management structures and systems that enable the college to meet the new and emerging learning needs in a timely and effective manner. Furthermore, the new structures and systems had to ensure maximum continual improvement of all instructional programs, initiatives, and services.

With weekly meetings chaired by the president, the LRT is comprised of the vice presidents, all deans, and other key administrators. Appointing members beyond the traditional academic leadership set the tone that everyone is responsible for the success of our learners.

The LRT takes a systems approach to its work. The group routinely examines issues, problems, and opportunities that are brought forward by faculty and staff. Each topic is viewed within the context of the college's mission and strategic plan. If action needs to be taken, the scope of the project is carefully defined and a learning design team is identified to develop an implementation plan. Underlying assumptions and limitations such as fiscal, physical, and human resources are identified.

Initiatives advanced by the LRT have included the establishment of the college's coordinating council for developmental education, integration of service learning into the curriculum, expansion of the honors program, and implementation of a prior learning assessment system. Additionally, the LRT reviewed and endorsed proposals for the creation of several now successful programs, including the Hospitality, Culinary Arts, and Tourism Institute; the Center for Teacher Preparation and Professional Development; and the Institute of Criminal Justice, Legal Studies, and Public Services.

Learning Design Team

When the LRT approves a new project, a Learning Design Team is generally formed to move the initiative forward. The members of the LRT identify who should be part of the Learning Design Team and the respective roles of its members. Faculty, administrators, professional staff, and individuals from the community may be asked to participate in the process. Members of a Learning Design Team are asked to develop a plan that will implement new structures and systems to support the initiative. Members of the team select an approach, develop detailed project requirements, create a timeline, and analyze budget implications.

One of the outcomes of the Learning Design Team has been close collaboration between credit and continuing education and workforce development units of the college. Colleagues across the institution have worked together to focus on delivering instructional programs in new educational arenas. In many cases, the groups have seen the need to create new entities, such as institutes or centers, in which both credit and continuing education learning opportunities are provided to meet the diverse needs of all populations served in the community.

For example, the plan to implement the Hospitality, Culinary Arts, and Tourism (HCAT) Institute included vision and mission statements, staffing and facility requirements, external partnerships, and an annual budget. The HCAT implementation plan took into account all of the learning opportunities related to the industry, ranging from associate degrees and certificates to avocational classes and international internships. The driving force behind the HCAT Institute is the realization that regardless of the way components of the program are delivered, there is one educational bottom line: learning is learning is learning.

New Ways of Doing Faculty Business

Because of increasing enrollments and new delivery methods, formats, and timeframes, instructional staff were faced with increasing demands. The college examined how best to use its own workforce to meet these demands, and implemented several nontraditional approaches to provide learning opportunities.

Since 1998, AACC has been recruiting and hiring new faculty under a new flexible job description, which allows the teacher to meet contractual obligations in a variety of ways other than teaching the standard five three-credit courses per semester. Faculty with these contracts are encouraged to accept assignments to support business and industry contract training efforts, teach continuing education courses, serve as mentors to other faculty, and work in teams to develop outreach to the community. The college recently converted 10-month faculty positions to 12-month positions in order to ensure that a consistent level of teaching and instructional support takes place all year.

Instructional Specialists

The college also began to hire full-time instructional specialists to support a variety of delivery modes, formats, and timeframes in certain disciplines. This enables the college to assign specialists to a variety of differing environments and locations. For example, instructional specialists in reading can be assigned to facilitate instruction to Adult Basic Education students in Anne Arundel County as well as developmental students enrolled at the college.


In support of its business and industry training programs, AACC has created an instructional category of full-time trainers, hired to support individual training contracts with a local organization. Each trainer is required to work a 40-hour week that typically includes a combination of training and instructional design duties. The length of the trainer contract generally coincides with the duration of the training contract with the organization.

Helping Faculty Focus on Learning

Designs for Learning

Driven by the college's strategic plan and implemented in 1997, the Designs for Learning Project funds faculty, both individually and in teams, to design innovative instructional strategies and alternative pedagogies appropriate to the college's learners and its instructional programs. Preference for funding is given to teams because this approach gives a project a broader base of expertise, creates a synergy diffused across programs, and maximizes the possibilities for duplication among a range of discipline faculties. All proposals include a plan for learning assessment that projects a potential for increased learning and increased student success through application of specific technologies or alternative pedagogies.

Online Academy

Created in 1998, the Online Academy creates a collegewide structure for developing online courses that fosters creativity and focuses on instruction within the context of a team approach. Developed by faculty and staff, the academy helps teachers develop asynchronous learning opportunities through a six-step process from conceptualization of the course to its delivery. The Academy targets the development of credit courses that meet general education requirements or are part of a certificate or degree program identified for online delivery. The Academy also supports the development of noncredit courses and training modules. To date, over 75 credit courses have been developed through the Online Academy.

Learning College Orientation

Beginning in fall 2000, the college embarked on a deliberate and concerted effort to give all new instructional employees, both credit and noncredit faculty, the necessary support to produce increased learning in all encounters with students. New faculty members hired under the flexible faculty job description are given a supplemental development contract for a week in the summer before their first year's teaching contract begins. During that week, they go through an intensive orientation to our college and the concepts of the learning college. Additionally, as part of their first-semester courseload, they are assigned 45 hours of professional development activities founded on the learning college concept. Workshops, seminars, and roundtables are presented throughout the first year of teaching to introduce this freshman class of faculty and instructional staff to Anne Arundel Community College's philosophy, mission, and learning goals.

In addition, all activities are designed to create a learning network in which the college's many development and support mechanisms are made user-friendly to the new faculty and instructional staff. The intent is to help faculty master areas such as classroom assessment, applied learning and research, use of competency-based strategies in instruction, and managing a classroom of multigenerational learners. By giving new faculty an intensive orientation to contemporary pedagogical practices and a shared understanding of the learning college concept, we view this program as a solid investment in our future and our organizational culture.

Advancing Consensus

During the past year, further steps were taken to accelerate the evolution. Our Strategic Planning Council participated in a retreat with a consultant who took them through an evaluative process where they benchmarked the college against the Krakauer Criteria for a Learning College. Almost 100 criteria were examined and evaluated, with responses ranging from "no evidence this item has been implemented" through "this item has been fully implemented across the entire college." This exercise was helpful in identifying, through a gap analysis, areas where the current strategic plan was not fully aligned with identified and prioritized criteria for a true learning college. Subsequently, the entire college community was asked to respond to an extensive survey in which strategic priorities, collegewide goals, and highly rated learning college criteria were identified. Faculty and staff responses to the relative importance of each item indicated the college community felt that the goals and strategic priorities were highly aligned with the identified learning college criteria. Faculty and staff were also given an opportunity to comment on each area of the process and to recommend multiyear strategic objectives that should be considered for subsequent implementation.

The Journey Continues

During the past seven years, faculty and staff at AACC have undergone a tremendous shift in their approach to the work of their community college. The focus on learning has generated increased respect for the various areas of the college and has led to equity among academic, continuing education, and workforce training programs. As we have made this shift, we have also increased our ability to respond quickly and effectively to new initiatives that meet community needs. Our faculty continues to evolve as we invest in their continuing professional development and expand their potential through diverse teaching opportunities.

We have come a long way, and there is much more to accomplish. We continue to take Darwin's caution about change to heart. The evolutionary journey to become a true learning college continues at AACC, with all faculty and staff increasingly focused on a common goal: to help those in our community reach their full potential as citizens, workers, and learners.

Martha A. Smith is President, and Andrew L. Meyer is Vice President for Learning at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland.