Making Sense of Higher Ed: #DLRN15 Reflections

Last week, I attended the Digital Learning Resource Network conference #DLRN15 at Stanford University with my colleague, Jill Leafstedt. It was a very worthy experience and I’m processing a lot of ideas right now. With a couple of days of distance, I am now sensing what my most important takeaways are — at least for the moment.

The Hidden Curriculum

“the student who better understands the student role & tacit expectations does better. does NOT mean they’re brighter” @MarciaDevlin #dLRN15

— Bonnie Stewart (@bonstewart) October 17, 2015

We still use the term “non-traditional student” to refer to individuals enrolled in higher education who do not fit the classic “student” model:  full-time student, residential status, 18-24 years old. Looking out over the higher education enrollment demographics, these students are now the minority. Not earth shattering news. However, each of us must examine what this means within our own institution. A professor at Stanford, for example, and an instructor at a community college will have different relationships with the needs of non-traditional students, because the proportion of them in their classes will be different.

Sociocultural incongruence. Replaces deficit thinking. Important @MarciaDevlin

— Lee Skallerup (@readywriting) October 16, 2015

At DLRN, Marcia Devlin shared an exceptional presentation that uncovered the ways higher education incorporates invisible barriers that interfere with the success of non-traditional students. These barriers are constructed through the gaps between students’ and faculty cultural currency (the skills they arrive with, which are informed by their socio-economic status). In other words, a first-generation college student from a working class background may feel prepared for a class and be ready to apply herself, but not have the same access to criteria for completing work successfully.  For example, when she receives an assignment in a general education course to write an essay in APA format that is written in a scholarly voice, will she understand how to apply these criteria in the same way other students may?

Devlin termed these barriers “hidden curriculum,” which was a new term for me. Honestly, I found myself reflecting deeply on my own experience as a student in higher education. My first memory was from a Romanesque to Gothic art history course in graduate school. As a grad student, I felt like I should be achieving at a higher level than the undergraduates in the class with me. I was keeping up with my reading but found myself sitting through my professor’s lectures with complete confusion about what he was talking about. I recall him referencing a person named “Soojay,” which I kept writing down in my notes (by this point, I learned that without taking prolific notes during lecture, I would not retain a thing — another gap).  I would go home and pour over my book to locate any reference to this “Soojay” figure.  Then — literally after about a week of time — it hit me. He was referring to “Suger” (an important character in the historical development of Gothic architecture in France) but was using the French pronunciation. Ugh. I felt utterly stupid. This gap derailed me quite a bit and the fact that this memory from nearly twenty years ago came back to me instantly (along with lots of other memories too) as I listened to Devlin, says a lot about the imprint it left on me.

Critiquing the assumption that students are students first, that doesn’t fit students who are parents and employees. @marciadevlin #dlrn15

— Kate Bowles (@KateMfD) October 17, 2015

When we teach online, Devlin pointed out, these barriers may be even more difficult for learners to resolve, as students are less able to lean over to a fellow student and ask, “Hey, are you getting what she means by that?”  And as we know from our own experiences, most students are not willing to ask for clarification in a classroom setting either.

Social and Affective Aspects of Learning

The other theme that I’m reflecting on is the number of research projects shared at DLRN15 that were examining the social and affective aspects of student learning. This was also refreshing to me, as I’ve been exploring a similar thread in my Learning Out Loud research (about how participating in asynchronous voice conversations impacts students on a cognitive, affective, and social level).  What I was not happy about, however, was the strict reliance upon textual data to examine affective and social dimensions of learning. I understand text is more “accessible” than voice when it comes to data analysis; however, how can we rely upon textual cues to determine when students are feeling confused, stressed, disconnected, anxious, frustrated? I look forward to seeing data in the form of voice and video be integrated into the future studies of the social and affective aspects of learning.

Including Community Colleges

It feels very good to have the CA Comm College Online Education Initiative included here at #DLRN15. @PatJamesHanz @joryhadsell @DrBSI

— M Pacansky-Brock (@brocansky) October 16, 2015

Last, but not least, I felt a sense of community at this conference that I don’t normally feel at events that incorporate an international audience from higher education. This time, representatives from the California Community College Online Education Initiative (OEI) were in attendance. The CCC system serves just over 2 million students and is the largest system of higher education in the country. Nearly 27% of these students enroll in at least one distance education course, up from 12.5% in 2005-2006. Yet, it’s rare to bump into my CCC colleagues at conferences that aren’t specifically set up for that system.

Pat James, Executive Director of the OEI, participated in several presentations to showcase the work of the OEI team, which is focused on creating a way for CCC students to locate and complete the bottle-necked courses online that they need, in a streamlined fashion.  The OEI team has developed new online student support resources and shared them with a CC-license for others to easily re-use, and is integrating professional development (via @ONE) and instructional design support for faculty (which is lacking from the faculty support services offered at individual colleges the system).

Hey @diglibarts check out amazing resources that our transfer Ss will be familiar with soon. #dlrn15

— Andrea Rehn #TvsZ (@Profrehn) October 16, 2015

Here, here, @PatJamesHanz speaking to the near absence of Instructional Design support in CA’s Comm Colleges. Faculty #DoItAll. #DLRN15

— M Pacansky-Brock (@brocansky) October 16, 2015

“Higher education” events really need to be more focused on bringing together representatives from 2-year and 4-year colleges. Local/regional/statewide systems, especially, need to be crafting ways to connect, share, and learn from one another. While 52% of students who graduate from the CSU system started at a CA Community College, I am dismayed at the lack of collaboration between the CCC and CSU systems and as I return to my day-to-day work, I am reflecting deeply on this gap and what effects it has on our state and on our students — because they are all our students.  Not ours and theirs — just ours.

DLRN15 provided opportunities to address tensions and conflict within higher education. I can only speak for myself, but I believe this is not only important but essential to “make sense of higher education.” Thank you to the wonderful coordinators of DLRN15 (who I will not list, as I will miss someone important) and thank you to Laura Pasquini for encouraging me to attend.

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