My hope was that not being a classically trained teacher would be an advantage in a community college setting, but I wasn’t so sure. Yes, the format is completely different that a traditional high school or college, but it was still an educational institution and I was coming from the corporate world.
I quickly discovered that there was in fact, plenty of bureaucracy and ineffective policies within the school system. Fortunately for me, I had a wonderful co-teacher named John who would shield me from most of it and help me to navigate through the rest. As it turns out, John was enjoyed and was great at the administrative part of the job and I was great at developing the curriculum, so we made an outstanding team!
John would handle all of the grading, attendance, and paperwork and I would develop and deliver the most up-to-date lectures I could imagine. From cutting-edge technical topics to philosophical and ethical business / life discussions, I had the freedom to truly pour into the lives of each student. Because the program was setup like an apprenticeship, I was able to spend 25 hours a week with each student for an entire calendar year which resulted in the development of advanced skill sets and deep relationships.
As the years progressed, my philosophy on teaching evolved. In the beginning, I was told that it was my responsibility to teach each student a predefined set of skills. What I quickly found was that each student was completely unique and that a one-size-fits-all model was completely inefficient. During my first four years, I encountered students from every walk of life: From high school dropouts with a GED to retired Public Defenders, from college graduates with Marketing Degrees to stay at home moms, Brigadier Generals, and homeless veterans. Seeing such diversity in the student population, there was no way I was going to be able to treat every student the same.
So I didn’t.
Rather than have just one training plan for all of the students, the first thing I did was create multiple training plans with different timelines. The first training plan was a minimal framework of simply what the state curriculum required. The second training plan (which I called the Honors Program) was at an accelerated pace and included more advanced topics. The third and final training plan was called the Apprenticeship in which the pace was greatly accelerated and the goal of the student was to learn absolutely everything I knew about web design, business, and life in general.
Though I’m sure there were some sort of policies against this type of model, I really didn’t care. My goal was not to just meet the standards of the state. My goal was to push each individual student to their absolute highest potential. Because each student came into the program with a different background and a different set of skills, it didn’t make any sense to measure each of them against the same minimum standard.
What really made my three tiered approach work was that there was no barrier to entry. If a student wanted to be on the Honors track, they didn’t have to apply or go through any interviews, they simply had to “act as if” they were an Honors student. This meant completing their work at an accelerated pace and then completing the additional curriculum that I had created. Because there weren’t any barriers to entry, many students who might not have even thought about applying to an Honors program (because of their background or personal situation) were actually willing to give it a try.
While some of these students weren’t able to maintain the accelerated pace, some of them actually did complete the Honors Program, surprising both themselves and everyone else at the same time! As for the students who tried to complete the Honors Program and failed, they all still managed to complete the regular program along with some of the advanced curriculum. So, either way, everyone was a winner in this system which was directly modeled after the saying “If you shoot for the moon and miss, you’ll still be among the stars.”
By design, my teaching strategy is to always set extremely high expectations for all of my students with the understanding that even if they don’t meet my expectations, they can rest assured that they will have still exceeded the expectations of the state curriculum. What I found through this practice is that the overwhelming majority of students will rise to the occasion and meet whatever expectations I set. Many of them would even surpass my expectations and only a small percentage would not meet my expectations, for a variety of reasons. But in general, if I am clear about what is required and I am ready, able, and willing to work with each individual student and meet them where they are, they will rise to the occasion.
Connecting with each student, though a worthy goal, is an incredibly difficult task. Especially in the confines of the modern day high school or university structure. In high school, most students have eight different classes that each last about 45 minutes and have 25+ other students in the class. This equates to approximately 33 seconds of individual instruction that a teacher can provide if they work with each student one-on-one. It’s an understatement to say that this structure is not as effective as it could be, considering that students benefit the most from individualized instruction, which is why I love the community college model so much.
In my current program, we have an “Open-Entry / Open-Exit” policy which means that any student can start the program at any time and complete the program at any time. There is no waiting around for a semester to start or finish. Students only take one class at a time (unlike a traditional university schedule) and they work at their own pace. The classroom doors are open from 8am – 9pm everyday and each individual student sets their own schedule with a minimum enrollment of 12 hours / week and a recommended enrollment of 24 hours / week. Because of this incredible level of flexibility, no two students are ever in the same place in the program and I have 75+ students enrolled. This means that operating under the traditional model of lecture, assignment, lecture, assignment, is impossible. Instead, I’ve adopted a four-part approach where I utilize video tutorials, textbook tutorials, hands-on projects, and individual instruction.
The video tutorials consist either of screencasts where I record my voice and my computer screen and cover both high level bullet points in a presentation and in-depth topics by demonstration (like writing some HTML code or using the pen tool in Photoshop) or of traditional classroom style lectures.
Here are three ways I have found using video to be more beneficial for both the students and the teacher:
If a high school teacher has to deliver the same lecture to six different class periods in the same day, their delivery will undoubtably be varied. In the morning, they might be tired and it will be their first time giving the lecture. Before lunch, they might be hungry, after lunch, they might be sleepy, and at the end of the day they will probably be tired. So, over the course of the day they will have maybe given one or two outstanding lectures, where they hit all of their talking points with just the right vocal inflection, and the other four performances would have been less stellar.
In contrast, if the teacher would have created a video lecture of one of their outstanding lectures, all of the class periods would have received the teacher’s best performance as opposed to only one or two of the classes. Additionally, the teacher wouldn’t have had to deliver the same lecture six different times that day, thus making them available to work on additional / more advanced curriculum.
In a traditional classroom setting where the entire class progresses as a cohort, many of the students are limited in their ability to progress effectively. For example, if a student didn’t comprehend what the teacher said, they are usually reluctant to raise their hand and stop the lecture to ask the teacher to repeat themselves. The reason they are reluctant is two-fold: 1) They don’t want to bring negative attention to themselves and 2) They don’t want to slow the rest of the class down.
This is where individual video instruction really shines! If a student didn’t catch what the teacher said, they can simply stop the video and rewind. If the teacher flipped the slide before the student finished taking their notes, they can simply rewind. And if the student would simply like to see that example again, they can simply rewind, all without drawing any negative attention to themselves or slowing down the rest of the class.
Likewise, if a student already has some knowledge of the topic, they don’t have to just sit there and be bored as they have the ability to fast-forward. Rather than be frustrated with their classmate who “just doesn’t understand”, the advanced students can progress uninhibitedly.
Posting a video lecture online (either through a Learning Management System or to the open web) makes the curriculum available to the student at any time and any location. Whether they are watching it for the first time because they were sick the day it was originally presented or because they are simply trying to review, or even better if they are hoping to get ahead, having this resource available increases the chances exponentially that a student will retain the information. Even more advantageous is making sure that the video content is available on the student’s mobile devices (phones / tablets) so as to meet the student wherever the are.
Utilizing textbook tutorials is a more traditional / direct method of delivering curriculum. Read the chapter, work along with the exercises, and take the quiz at the end of the chapter. Though this is a very common method, I don’t think it is the most effective method. However, when it is coupled with the video tutorial where the video tutorial serves as an introduction and overview of the subject matter and the textbook tutorial serves as a workshop exercise, I do believe that this method can be effective.
##Hands On Projects
The Video Tutorials and Textbook Tutorials serve only as exposure tools, where as the Hands-On Projects are where the student actually learns the curriculum. Through the videos / textbooks, the students are instructed step-by-step how to accomplish a specific task. On the contrary, in the Hands-On Projects, the students are given the freedom not only to create something that they care about or are interested in, but they are also given the freedom to make mistakes and start over. While many people might see making mistakes as a bad thing, I believe that mistakes are the difference between theory and experience. Where theoretical knowledge is knowledge you obtained by listening to someone else or reading it out of a textbook, experiential knowledge is knowledge you obtained by trying, failing, and eventually succeeding at a task.
As any job posting will indicate, employers are looking for 2 – 5 years worth of “experience”, not 2 – 5 years worth of theory. As such, I integrate as many real world, hands-on projects into my curriculum as possible so that my students will not only have a plethora worth of work to include in their portfolios, but also because it is in these types of projects that the students actually learn.
What makes this model of curriculum delivery different than any typical online course is that I am always available to the students. Whether they are working through the videos, the textbooks, or the hands-on projects, I am present in the lab and ready to address any questions or concerns they may have. When they do have questions, the simply call me over or come to my desk and I sit with them and explain whatever it is that they may be struggling with. That might include writing some code for them or showing them a best practice in Illustrator. Whatever the case, the students always have access to as much individual instruction as they need and because I am able to provide so much individual instruction, I actually get to know the students well!
Over the course of a year, I will spend 1200 hours in the presence of each student. During that time, we will have seen each other on our good days and our bad days and will have built a solid relationship with each other. We will had had countless conversations about both academic topics and life topics and will have developed a genuine respect and care for each other. Rather than simply having teacher – student relationship, we have a mentor – mentee friendship.
For me, it is this mentor – mentee friendship that really makes me love my job. Yes, I love coding and designing and marketing, but it is the ability to provide value though positive relationships that really gets me up in the morning.