news from Channel Islands

Last week I visited the CSU’s newest campus, CSU Channel Islands, founded in 2002.  The name is misleading:  the campus is on the mainland in Camarillo, north of Los Angeles, and visitors find it surrounded not by water but by farms.

The university has one or two other surprises, too.  For one, it has an entrepreneurial, even private sector feel.  It’s still small enough for the faculty to meet as a whole, and they like taking risks.  Most faculty and administrators were present at the creation, yet – second surprise – they make a conscious effort not to dwell on founder status, preferring to look forward.

My first meeting was with a dozen or so faculty building high-impact practices (“HIPs”) into their classrooms.  This is important:  the students likeliest to drop out – and therefore likeliest to benefit from HIPs – are often the same ones who don’t have time to do more than come to class.  So HIPs like service learning, international experiences, and civic engagement may miss the mark.

The group on Thursday morning focused on two practices in particular:

Writing intensive learning.  Two challenges hit the CSU here:  our class sizes are growing, and our students’ academic preparation is all over the map, even from those who transfer in.  That’s exacerbated by a conviction among some weaker students that good writers are born, not made.

Group work.  Here it’s a different challenge:  as educators we’re told to require it, and most of us do.  But few know how to teach it, to develop our students’ capacity for teamwork with anything more directed than sheer random practice.   We throw them into groups, we grade, we move on.

Here’s what was cool:  as they talked about it, this group used aspects of each high-impact practice to meet the challenges of the other.

For example, we know that reading out loud to peers can help emerging writers, especially those working in their non-native language.   So some of the initial grading can be handled by reading aloud, trading drafts, and “group journaling,” something I hadn’t heard of before.  One professor said she collects all the written work that results – every week – but doesn’t carefully grade it.  Much of the benefit of feedback can be realized with mere triage, looking over the essays and sorting them into Good, Good Try, and Missed the Point.  Students always learn which pile they ended up in, but it’s all explicitly low stakes, mostly for practice.  Every week.  Only the midterm and final are carefully read and annotated.

Others used the weekly group work to rotate roles, assigning each student in turn the job of note-taker, mediator, devil’s advocate, facilitator, etc.  Project assignments included brief reflections written after taking each role.

Repeated, low-stakes writing like this, and deliberate rotation through social roles, is I think our antidote to some of the workload problem and much of the born-not-made problem, as students start to see themselves and each other as resources, possessed of intellectual and social capital worth sharing and developing.

I’m guessing that most of the professors in the room had heard of these ideas before.  What was fun was hearing them sifted through, compared and rediscovered against this particular context.

From the faculty group I went to an appointment with university president Richard Rush, who speaks more knowledgeably than most about teaching and learning.  Like the other Channel Islands founders, he seems uncomfortable dwelling on the origin myths.  As we talked he looked only ahead, to competency based education, self-paced learning, and flipping the classroom.  These ideas animate him, and it’s clear that, at least in its early going, he’s been able to get that ethos into the campus culture.

But . . . . we’ve been down this road before.  People on the CSU’s 20- and 25-year-old campuses might have attended my two Thursday meetings and remembered what it felt like to be ten, that sense of being born at just the right moment to pull off something distinctive, and effect lasting benefit.  Then the realities of institutional adulthood set in:  credit hour funding, relentless articulation.  You hang onto the ideals, but many of the quirks of campus individuality start to feel like separate European currencies, charming but just not worth the inefficiency.

Here’s what I wondered on the drive home:  is this time different?

The whole higher education ecology is roiled with change at this moment.  The CSU has larger campuses that are also experimenting with flipped classrooms, hybrid delivery, and learning outcomes more appropriate for hyperconnected world.  But within my system Channel Islands is different for trying it institution-wide.

And it’s just possible that small, under-resourced, and brand new is exactly how to be, as all of us look to rediscover and apply the things that we know work.

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