April 8, 2016, Blue Bell/Pottstown, Pa.—Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) is ranked as the top community college in the country for its use of technology according to a recent Digital Community Colleges Survey issued by e.Republic’s Center for Digital Education (CDE). The 250 data-point survey analyzes how community colleges use digital technologies to improve services to students, faculty, staff and the community at large.
MCCC, with campuses in Blue Bell and Pottstown, Pa., has ranked among the survey’s top 10 large community colleges since CDE introduced it 11 years ago. This is the fourth time MCCC has ranked first.
“Earning the top spot in CDE’s annual survey is an impressive honor. Earning it four times in the past 11 years is extraordinary. I am extremely proud of Montgomery County Community College’s faculty and staff for embracing technology and using it in creative ways to build student access and success and to improve student retention and completion,” shared MCCC President Dr. Kevin Pollock.
A key reason for MCCC’s success over the last decade is its holistic approach to using technology.
“IT innovation is no longer about the technology itself. However, when that technology is combined with vision, creativity and leadership, it has the power to revolutionize teaching and learning,” said Dr. Celeste Schwartz, vice president for information technology and research at MCCC.
At MCCC, Schwartz and her team of IT professionals play an integral role in college-wide initiatives and planning.
“It’s important for my team to see the connections between their work and the work of other areas—to understand, for example, how IT can support initiatives in Academic Affairs or Student Affairs,” said Schwartz.
Empowerment is key. MCCC’s IT team works with faculty and staff to help them leverage technology so they can make informed decisions that lead to improved student access and success. The technology can, in turn, empower students to take charge of their education.
Analytics through MCCC’s learning management system Blackboard provides an excellent opportunity. By using analytics, faculty can follow student behavior trends and can personalize the student learning environment, identify potential learning concerns and adjust the course content flow as needed.
To illustrate, MCCC Political Science Assistant Professor Jodi Empol-Schwartz worked with
Instructional Designer Mary-Kathleen Najarian to redesign course assessment based on student retention throughout the semester.
“Throughout the semester, student retention would fluctuate based on the due date of the assignment. I tried to adjust the dates, introduce rough drafts and instituted a number of failed reforms, but retention and the level of critical thinking did not change,” explained Empol-Schwartz.
She worked with Najarian to change the assignment. Instead of one large research project, she divided it into two parts—one research and one analytics. She also divided her exams into two parts—multiple choice and essay—and gave students an entire class period to complete each.
“After using Blackboard Analytics, student retention not only increased, but the students were actively engaging in critical thinking. The quality of the students’ work increased dramatically,” she said.
MCCC faculty also use predictive analytics to help students stay on the path to success.
“Analytics might not tell you the whole story, but it does give you talking points to start the conversation with a student and provide early intervention if he or she continues on the current path,” said Najarian.
The students, themselves, can also access analytics tools in Blackboard so they can see, in real time, how they are doing compared to their classmates.
“Don’t be left behind by your fear of data. You can use data to lead the pack,” said Empol-Schwartz.
Advising and Student Planning
The College’s redesigned advising process is another example of how MCCC uses technology to improve student success and completion. A grant from the Gates Foundation enabled MCCC to launch an Integrated Planning and Advising Services (IPAS) initiative as part of its Student Success Network.
Phase one of MCCC’s Student Success Network was comprised of three parts: an early alert system that enables faculty and advisors to monitor progress and identify at-risk behaviors; an educational planning tool that allows students to map out their entire degree or certificate program; and a student dashboard system that provides a single source for information about their financial aid, Blackboard engagement, early alert and education planning.
“We have seen a number of positive results. There has been an increase in student persistence as students gain greater access to planning resources and as they receive greater feedback on their progress. We have also seen increases in full- and part-time persistence rates from 2011 through 2015 for all new and returning students,” explained Assistant Professor and Academic Advisor Stefanie Crouse.
Work on phase two is underway and includes building out career exploration and financial planning components of MCCC’s Student Success Network, as well as adding additional analytics.
“This work will complement our ‘Student Success Matters’ resource: an online, open-source, interactive series of free courses we developed to educate students in the areas of financial, civic, and digital literacies,” explained Crouse.
Earlier this year, MCCC’s Virtual Campus received its first-ever “Learning! 100” award from Elearning! magazine. The award recognized the comprehensive process through which MCCC faculty design and refresh their online courses.
According to Kelly Trahan, director of MCCC’s Virtual Campus, that process is two-fold. New faculty learn how to teach online and build academic courses by participating in a collaborative course of their own—e-Learning 101 (EL 101), facilitated by an instructional designer. Meanwhile, existing online faculty engage in a “refresh” process any time curricular modifications are made.
“Our faculty are dedicated to creating a high-quality learning experience for students, regardless of location,” shared Trahan. “We also have a very strong information technology team that supports faculty and students and is always looking for the best products and tech to improve students’ experiences.”
MCCC’s Virtual Campus also offers support services to online students. Examples include online advising, access to live tutors, support discussion boards and online readiness resources.
“We have a tutorial that teaches students how to navigate Blackboard, time management and technical literacy. It’s free once they register for an online course,” said Trahan.
About the Center for Digital Education
The Center for Digital Education is a national research and advisory institute specializing in K-12 and higher education technology trends, policy, and funding. CDE provides education and industry leaders with decision support and actionable insight to help effectively incorporate new technologies in the 21st century.
CDE is a division of e.Republic, the nation’s only media and research company focused exclusively on state and local government and education. To learn more, visit centerdigitaled.com.
- Alana J. Mauger