Helping Students – One Email at a Time

Can one email really make a difference for a student?  I’m pondering that question after reading this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I will be teaching an online class this Fall – for the first time in several years – and I am spending a lot of time thinking about how I should craft my course.  Crafting a course means thinking through not only the assignments and assessments, the due dates and course rhythms, the policies and support links – it also means thinking through the communication plan.

I took the eight-hour Quality Matters training earlier this summer and found it to be very helpful.  While I have taught in an online setting for . . . probably 20 years, there are still things I can learn about effective, engaging, and active online teaching and learning.  I also took training in July on using VoiceThread – another interesting and creative tool for the online teaching toolbox.  Can I take advantage of these professional development opportunities to craft an effective approach to communication?  Absolutely.

It’s easy to be an effective communicator in the classroom – that’s why we love the classroom.  It’s more challenging to be an effective communicator in an online setting.  How do you communicate (effectively) about course navigation?  Learning objectives?  Course activities?  How you will measure students’ learning?  How students should use the available instructional materials?  How students would benefit by actively practicing learning in a particular course?  How students should participate in the course and engage in learning the materials?  How they can find help with their learning (e.g., learning labs, accessibility services, technical support)? There are multiple answers because I just listed multiple questions.  Course navigation can be communicated initially with a “Start Here” button.  Active learning can be instilled with a discussion board or a blog or a wiki or VoiceThread.  In some instances, the communication possibilities are numerous.

But most importantly, how do you communicate your interest in each student and in their learning?  How do you communicate when a student seems to struggle with a course assignment?  What do you say when a student fails to submit work?

The latest idea is “nudging”.  Can you help a student by a nudge?  A nudge is a gentle push, a reminder, a slight prod to action.  Will nudging make a difference?  Don’t we offer nudges in the classroom?  Don’t we say “this is only the first exam, and you can each learn from this experience so that you can adjust your approach to studying”?  Don’t we say “please come see me during office hours and we can talk about how you did on this assignment”?  Don’t we nudge by our very presence in the classroom?

So my question for myself is “how can I nudge” in a way that helps my students in an online setting?

I’m going be intentional in my communications plan for the semester.  And my plan will include some personalized emails.  Calling students by their names, helping them to connect with their classmates as well as with their professor, sending out reminders of due dates, gently nudging students to assess their approach to learning in the class – all of these things are something I can and will do this Fall.  And I’ll let you know how it goes.

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We ARE a public good

Are community colleges a public good?  Do we benefit the common weal?  If your answer is “yes” (as mine is), then here is another question for you.  What can we do – what are we doing – to tell the story of the public benefits of our community college?

Inside Higher Ed and others recently reported on some interesting survey results.  Community colleges are a public good, and the article makes the point – our work is not just about ROI (return on investment) for the individual, it’s also about the investment in our civic, cultural, social, and economic systems.  In other words, it’s about the work that we do that becomes an investment in the common weal.  Teachers College at Columbia University conducted the survey and presents the results  – overall, good results, but significant differences across gender, race/ethnicity, age, political persuasion, and other categories.  It appears as if we need to be more intentional about telling our story.

To adapt some language from Thomas Jefferson, community colleges are  guardians of “the public prosperity”.  Our open doors, our community focus, our belief in second chances, our broad scope of programs – all serve to support “the diffusion of light and education” that is at the heart of the community college mission.  I will always believe that the good work of faculty and staff at Austin Community College deserves “the reward of esteem, respect, and gratitude.”

My respect and esteem for the adjunct and full-time faculty at ACC is immense.  Please help me tell our story in every way that we can.  And thank you for your work in ensuring that what we do supports the common good.

Student Success and Z

How can we help our students engage in their learning, persist through the semester and into the next semester, and move along their chosen pathway?  I hope that one part of the answer to that question is embedded in the recent work of our faculty, work that was supported by a grant from Achieving the Dream.  The grant is known as the “OER Degree Initiative“, and it concludes in December.  As a result of the grant and the dedicated work of faculty across our transfer disciplines, I can announce that we are launching two Z-Degrees in the upcoming academic year.

What are Z-Degrees, you ask?  They are degree pathways that can be completed entirely with Z-classes.  What are Z-classes, you ask?  They are classes where students pay zero costs for their textbooks.  In most instances, Z-classes are taught with openly-licensed, freely available, high quality electronic course texts that students can access on the first day of class.  These texts are known as open educational resources (OER).  In other instances, Z-classes are taught with course materials that are in the public domain and/or available through JSTOR or EBSCO or other ACC Library Services databases.

The launch of two Z-Degree pathways is wholly the result of faculty work.  It is our faculty who crafted course materials for Z-classes.  It is our faculty who shared their course materials with their colleagues.  It is our faculty who recognized the barriers that many students face when confronted with purchasing textbooks and chose to respond in an active way by developing Z-classes.  It is our faculty who recognized that some students who could otherwise succeed in their classes were likely to fail because they were starting the semester without the required textbook, and often could not afford the book at any point in the semester.  Thanks to our faculty, we are offering students opportunities to learn with quality course materials for which students do not have to pay.

Our two Z-Degree pathways are available in the Associate of Science in General Studies in Science (I know – it’s an awkward title), and the Associate of Arts in General Studies in Arts (another awkward title).  And while not all General Studies students will precisely follow these Z-Degree pathways, many of our transfer students will benefit from the availability of core curriculum Z-classes that help them afford college.

If you’re wondering about the quality, rigor, or impact of zero-cost course materials, a recent article in Inside Higher Ed tells the encouraging story of the University of Georgia.  The report can be found here, the authors are Colvard, Watson, & Park, and the article was published in International Journal of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education.

Let’s hear it for the letter Z!

Picture credit: By Acf [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons. 

Dual Enrollment

Do you read “Confessions of a Community College Dean” in Inside Higher Ed?  If not, I would encourage you to do so.  He’s no longer a dean (he’s a VP now), but his insights are always useful and – dare I say – insightful!

Here’s a particularly good column on dual enrollment.  While he is writing from the perspective of Brookdale Community College in New Jersey, his insights certainly apply to our own world of dual credit, Career Academies, and Early College High Schools.

Do those of us who teach dual credit see it as “an exciting adventure, or as a foray into social justice work”, as he says?  Do we believe that our college classes taught on a high school campus reflect our standards and expectations?  Do we include our dual credit faculty fully in the life of our department and the College (whether our own faculty or high school faculty hired to teach our dual credit classes)?  Do we celebrate what can be accomplished for our community and our polity when high school students are energized and engaged by the opportunity to complete college-level work?

Dual credit students are our students.  Cheers to the good work of our faculty and our Office of College & High School Relations in supporting our students – who happen to still be in high school.

A Day in the Life . . . of an AVP

Ever wondered what ACC’s administrators at HBC do all day?  Well, like you, we swirl and spin and move from running a meeting to responding to a student complaint to dealing with a personnel issue to gathering information for an update to signing what needs to be signed to checking email to offering advice to writing reports to making decisions – and then we start all over again.  Yesterday was one of those swirling and spinning days for me, and I couldn’t get The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” out of my head.   “Woke up, fell out bed, dragged a comb across my head.”  So – with apologies to The Beatles – I thought I would offer a little insight into a typical day in the life of an AVP.  A bullet list seems most appropriate, so here you go. I’ve included the occasional annotation where a little more explanation is required.

A Day In My Life As AVP of Academic Programs:
  • Checked email, answered some, put some aside.  Rinse, repeat throughout the day.
  • Started to make my “to do” list for the day.  But then . . .
  • Received a call to go down to Mike’s office where I was given a task and a two-hour time frame.

What task, you ask?

We’re still trying to make sure we have accurate information about faculty move requests, office assignments for requested moves and new faculty, and confirmation that moves have occurred or are scheduled.  There’s a massive master spreadsheet that needed to be triple-checked before Mike went into a “campus moves” meeting in two hours.

Some lines on the spreadsheet said “new full-time faculty” and needed a name and a campus location.  Other lines had a campus request but no assigned office.  Other lines were duplicates that needed to be deleted.  Some showed a move as pending that had been completed.  You get the idea.

Across academic programs we have a lot of moves – more than usual with the closing of Pinnacle and the opening of San Gabriel – and quite a few new full-time faculty who need offices.  So confirming information meant texting one dean who was at a conference, texting another dean who was on his way to a conference, calling a third dean in his office, and trying to catch the Executive Director of Adult Ed before she left for a meeting.  Luckily everyone returned my calls or answered my texts!

Now, back to my bullet list.

  • Had hallway meeting (at the copy machine) with Marvi Reyes in PICM about how to recruit FTICs (first-time-in-college students) for our Fall Institutes using data provided by Matt Figg on “projected new students” and “FTICs with fewer than 6 semester credit hours”.
  • Acted on an email with an off-cycle pay request that needed to be signed and pdf’d to Payroll.  It was the same song, second verse (and third, and fourth verses) throughout the day – every time I returned to checking email there was a new off-cycle pay request in the bunch.
  • Addressed a process question about First Day Access.

What question, you ask?

How do you handle FDA when a faculty member who chooses to use that option for her students withdraws from teaching a section and the new faculty member doesn’t want to use that FDA book?

Figuring out a process for this (because students will need to be refunded their FDA fees) required working with Dianne Olla, Cheryl Coe (Student Accounts), and the department chair, among others.  Do we delete the FDA fees on the section (triggering a refund to registered students), or do we cancel the section and create a new one that the registered students will need to sign up for?  How do we alert the three students registered in the section to the changes?  Who alerts them?  What is the timeline on refunds to the students?  Who makes sure the course schedule note is removed?  Who notifies the bookstore?

FDA is new, so all our processes associated with it are new.  And we’re still creating those processes.  As you can see.

Now, back to my bullet list (again).

  • Met with Grant Potts and Estrella Barrera who are co-chairing our Faculty Advising (now called Mentoring) Implementation Work Group.
  • Worked on a draft of updates to the full-time faculty job posting template.
  • Prepped for a meeting first thing the next morning.  Prepping means developing the agenda, putting the handouts together, and thinking through the implications of the issues we were trying to address.
  • Took delivery of Institute standing banners for our Institute campuses.  Each banner comes in its own (unmarked) bag, so each had to be opened to determine which campus is to get which bag.  So yes, I opened each one, pulled out the banner to see which Institute it was, and labeled the carrying bag.
  • Delivered the Business Studies Institute banner to Northridge Student Services.

I revisited my “to do” list at the end of the day to confirm that I had not made any progress on anything on the list.  In fact, I had not had any time to look at the “to do” list since the work day began.  But I had gotten some things accomplished nonetheless.

And I listened to the The Beatles on the drive home.  (“Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall. . .”)


Picture credit: By Adam Diaz [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons


What makes a good college teacher today?

It’s easy to settle into routines, isn’t it?  It’s easy to teach largely the way we were taught. It’s easy to go with the tried and true.

But students change, and technology improves, and the art and craft and science of teaching and learning shifts.  This little article in Faculty Focus reminds us that we too should change, and improve, and shift if we want to get the best out of ourselves and our students.

Enjoy those six reminders of successful and enjoyable college teaching.

Picture credit: Attributed to Meliacin Master [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  File provided by the British Library from its digital collections. Illustration at the beginning of Euclid’s Elementa, in the translation attributed to Adelard of Bath. Photographic reproduction considered to be in the public domain.

What’s Obvious To You About Your Work As Community College Faculty, But Not To The Public?

I was reading The Chronicle of Higher Education and found this article fascinating.  Someone on Twitter asked professors to answer this question:  “What’s something that seems obvious within your profession, but the general public seems to misunderstand?”

Scroll through all the answers in the article, and you’ll find some jewels that apply to us as well.  Here are a few.

  • “History isn’t stuff that happened, it’s why.”
  • “Successful learning is not necessarily a 4.0[GPA] or a [score of] 100.”
  • “The quality of a professor is unrelated to the prestige of their institution.”
  • “Good teaching evaluations do not necessarily indicate that someone is an effective teacher.”
  • “Most professors don’t try to influence students’ political opinions, and those who do rarely succeed.”
  • “Half your college teachers are adjuncts with no job security . . .”

Next, someone on Twitter flipped the question:

‘What’s something that seems obvious to the general public, but your profession seems to misunderstand?”  And the answers were just as enlightening.

  • “That many first gen and low income college students are one family emergency away from having to leave school.”
  • “Literally everything.  We’re philosophers.”

So I thought I would ask a similar question.  What are some things that you think the general public does not understand about our work as professors in a community college setting?  Email me your answer and I’ll compile a list.


Picture credits:  National Security Agency, 1950s classroom; MiraCosta Community College 2018.

Listening Matters

You know how folks are always offering advice?  In a recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the advice from David D. Perlmutter includes “listen as well as you speak”.

I tend to believe I’m a pretty good speaker.

But that advice in The Chronicle caused me to think about whether I’m a good listener.  I think I’m getting better at listening.  But I also think I tend to jump in, or cut someone off, or add a comment, or assume I know what someone is about to say.  I think I need to practice my listening skills so that those who are speaking – whether one-on-one or in a group – can finish their thoughts.

How about you?  Are you a good listener?  Do you listen to your students?  To your colleagues?  Or are you more like me – with a tendency to chime in too soon?  We’re all highly educated, capable, assertive, accomplished, opinionated folk.  So – speaking for myself – I know I could be a better listener, which would make me a better colleague and a better AVP.

My pledge to you is to listen intently.  So let me know what I can do to help you do your work.  Let me know what ideas I can take forward.  Let me know if I can bring people together around a concept or a notion that needs a little brainstorming.  If you let me know, I promise to listen.

Picture courtesy of the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health

Welcome to my AVP blog

Communicate, communicate, communicate

One of the things we hear too often at ACC is that we don’t communicate well.  In my own small way, I’m hoping to make a dent in our tangled lines of communication by establishing this blog page.  My goal is to use this blog as a way to highlight the things we’re doing in academic transfer programs to support student access and enrollment, persistence and engagement, and completion and transition to employment or transfer.

If the list above (access, persistence, completion) sounds familiar, it should.  It’s ACC’s Strategic Plan in a nutshell.  Everything we do in instruction and student services reflects our focus on student success.  Our efforts to improve how we help students find and navigate their educational pathways comes from our desire to help students achieve their goals.  After all, that’s why we’re here.  That’s why we come to work every day.  That’s why we stay up late grading or creating a new assignment.  That’s why we listen to students’ stories and try to help.  That’s why we have a bounce in our step when we walk into a classroom.  We are here to help students achieve their goals.

Community colleges have a mission that I treasure and one which I try to support in all my work:  open doors, second chances, better job opportunities, richer lives, more engaged citizens.  My belief is that you too treasure our mission.  My goal with this blog is to provide you with information and inspiration culled from learning more about what we are doing in academic transfer programs.  My hope is that I can help you do what you love:  help students achieve their goals.

Blessings on your good work.  And here’s to a little bit better communication.  Cheers!