Arapahoe Community College has embraced technology as a means for students to pursue an education in ways best suited to them.
Beginning this year, ACC, through a partnership with the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will be part of a pilot program to use technology to help teachers identify what individual students need.
In theory, the "fly-by-wire" system MIT is developing would ask students, using an easily accessible technology platform like a smartphone app, to answer questions that will help gauge how well they understand material or how well they have mastered a certain skill, giving their instructor real-time information on how well that student is doing and where he or she might need help, ACC dean Rebecca Woulfe said.
"Research has shown students learn at different levels and run into different barriers that may prevent them from being successful," Woulfe, the school dean of arts, humanities, business and technology said of the project. "Faculty will have practically instantaneous information on where all of their students are. Who is getting way ahead? Who is behind? And then, of course, students are going to benefit because they are going to get what they need to learn."
The four-year project is being funded by a $2.9 million U.S. Department of Education grant, $300,000 of which will go to ACC's implementation efforts, Woulfe said. She said the first year most likely will be setting up performance metrics and developing a prototype, with test versions of the assessment and feedback software possibly hitting ACC in 2017.
MIT aeronautics and astronautics professor Karen Willcox and associate dean for digital learning Vijay Kumar are leading the project. The term "fly-by-wire" is from Willcox's field, and refers to the technology systems in an aircraft that provide more information to the pilot.
"The demands of piloting a complex modern aircraft aren't unlike the demands of many classrooms today, where teachers have finite attention but a large number of students," Willcox said in a news release.
ACC is the only college outside Massachusetts that will be part of the work. Kumar said ACC fits because it is part of the Colorado Community College System that has already begun looking at competency-based workforce education — another important focus of the program — and it draws students from many backgrounds with a variety of motivations and needs.
Among the 9,240 students enrolled in classes in the Littleton-based school's three-campus system in the fall of 2015, 2,940 — nearly 32 percent — took at least one course online.
Data from ACC's fall semester showed that the average age of its students is 25, 79.4 percent of its students are part-time and 21 percent are not actively seeking a full degree.
"These are exactly the kinds of places with students that can maximize this kind of intervention," Kumar said.
Woulfe said there are seven or eight full and adjunct instructors she wants to be involved in testing the software.
Jennifer Dunlap is an interior designer by trade who has worked as an adjunct instructor at ACC since 2007, teaching classes in architecture and computer-aided design. She accompanied Woulfe to MIT in December to talk to project leaders about situations in which this technology might help her as a part-time instructor. She noted many of her students are pursuing second careers and some are so far behind on their computer skills she has had to explain what "save as" means.
"This software, in theory, would sense those different levels of need and be able to tell me, 'Hit this student with this, hit this student with that' and I'm not obligated to develop those assessments on my own," Dunlap said. "It's a testament to ACC's commitment to education that they got involved in this grant. We're the testing ground, Our students are the guinea pigs who are super lucky to get the opportunity to use this software."