My thoughts on the Budget: ESL, Basic Skills and Adult Ed

The way I see it, there really is a larger plan embedded in Jerry Brown’s budget.  Yes, it would take some funds away from richer K-12 districts and reapportion it equally to all school districts.  Education would be perceived as a social necessity, an area in which equity is the best course of action.  How can we not see it that way?

As more and more research shows that, for basic skills, the first few years of life – and school – are the most important, it only makes sense that young children are afford an equal chance.  Naturally, this is considered a sort of egregious, politically-motivated “socialism” by parents in more affluent school districts:

Ventura County People React to Brown’s School Budget

I went to one of the “poorer” school districts (Santa Paula), and although we knew we didn’t have the resources that Buena or Nordhoff had, the disparities were perhaps not as great back then.  I remember getting to university and being disgusted, really, that I had never seen any sort of computer (other students had been taught binary codes and how to punch those cards and do simple calculations, including Buena students).  Today, it’s my impression that college bound students in Fillmore, Santa Paula, El Rio and parts of Oxnard do not receive the support that they should.

Neither do the “basic skills” students.  When schools have to teach such a wide range of ability (and language) levels, they need more resources.  That’s what Jerry wants to address in the earlier grades.  But there’s a cost.

The idea that we’d spend more educational resources for K-12 means that, if a student hasn’t learned the basics by the end of 13 years, there are a couple of options.  Schools have “fifth” and “sixth” year high school programs, where 18-20 years are segregated, for fairly obvious reasons, from the 13-14 year olds.  I haven’t heard anything about that changing.  But, if a person has dropped out of high school, or failed to attain the skills for a GED (the requirements of which every community college instructor should be familiar), Adult Ed has been their option.  Adult Ed provides more than basic skills, it also provides some career training.  Apparently about half the counties in California have already shifted this task to their community colleges, and the spokespeople imply that those districts are doing better with the project.  I want to reiterate that community college instructors are not teaching adult ed, but instead, a different union (usually CTA) and a different pay scale applies, different minimum qualifications of course.  I also want to make it clear that these proposals of Gov. Brown’s are in no way enacted into law at this point.

But, it’s an interesting question:  what would these kinds of changes mean for the current system that we have at Oxnard College?  I don’t know.  It makes sense that the “can’t go two years below college level” rubric that the Board created last year was in anticipation of just these sort of changes.  I don’t see anything specific in the new budget that would force changes regarding Adult Ed, at least not right away.

At any rate, the way in which the State Chancellor’s Office eventually interprets any Budget Bill and its requirements is, as usual, not easy to predict.

In our county’s Adult Ed, the typical registration fee for, say, an ESL or basic skills class is $10 for a year of classes.  Classes are open enrollment, a student can join anytime (and come and go from class as required by their work).  The State is setting aside some $300,000,000 (in addition, I believe, to already existing funds) to move this system to the community colleges, hire a new sort of teacher, and allow the adult ed learners to be in an adult environment, with college libraries, and, if possible, college classes alongside their ESL or basic skills classes, as they learn.  I hope you can all see that this may be a fundamental challenge to the way we do ESL and basic skills.  Further, Ventura County Adult Ed already has some quite popular automated ESL classes, taught by computer.  

That’s Jerry’s second pronged approach to adults who, after up to 14 years of attempts to teach basic skills and ESL, still need more education.  An online support system.  It’s not clear how this will work, but his spokespeople keep saying they in no way intend to compete with existing college level distance ed.  So it should be no surprise that San José State University has been asked to develop on all-online university for basic skills students, call Udacity.  50% of their students come in “underprepared” (which is about the same at most CSU’s).  Can they learn these basic skills in an online, low cost environment, served out by one giant state-run server, with top notch support for the classes?  The pilot project on that has begun, with several different consultants employed (not just from SJSU of course) to assess its results.  Universities like Harvard and Stanford have been involved in creating these courses, after years of work on determining what works best.  Such courses are already being used in Sri Lanka, in India, and in other places around the world to teach English and “prerequisites” to college courses.  Such courses are, as we know at Oxnard, in high demand.  Below are some links on the pilot project, which is expected to move to a larger project for the 2013-14 school year – in other words, very soon!

First, let me say that these are not MOOCs!  (Massive Open Online Courses).  State Academic Senate and  Educational Officers have been firm in their opposition to MOOCs.  

One of the aspects under discussion, therefore, is the “unbundling” of certain parts of college education.  That refers to the fact students are already choosing to get various resources from various places.  They will be given the option to attend low cost online remedial classes, often with no textbook cost, at their own time and place – but not from the institution they are currently attending:

Udacity offers unbundling

As the author above notes, some fear this is the “unraveling” of higher ed.  That’s why it’s a pilot study right now.  Earlier pilots show that these classes work, especially for young adults who are computer savvy, for stay-at-home moms, for military personnel and for many others.

Udacity is basically another version of Coursera (if you’re familiar with that).  Udacity has announced plans to build career and job placement into its framework.  In other words, employers who are looking for employees who need those basic skills could put in requests through Udacity’s career and job placement center (all initially online).  The power of something like this to attract students cannot be easily dismissed.  

There are, of course, private competitors.  What the above analysis (the one I just linked to) shows is that the State-run Udacity will have to follow FERPA, so employers won’t actually be able to “see” inside the classroom.  Students will be given privacy.

Not MOOCs but the author thinks that’s the general term to which this belongs…

This second author misunderstands a little of the project, but is still providing up-to-date analysis of something that is only about two weeks old, as I write, in conception.  While the author gets the MOOCs part wrong, it is true that these courses will probably be free or nearly free.  They probably won’t be entirely open access – a student will have to enroll in a community college or CSU to obtain these services, because the goal of Udacity is to get students college ready.  Note that many professors are in favor of these courses, and have some experience in evaluating them.  I checked some of the evaluative literature and it is true:  non-credit, online courses that are virtually free can do a very good job of teaching basic skills to motivated students (for whom they are being created).  As the last author (above) states, the idea of Udacity is enrichment or help to students already enrolled in some kind of degree program.  The above article also notes that in some pilot studies, success rates are actually higher for Udacity-like courses than for their real world counterparts.  That’s one of the main things they will be studying this semester in preparation for implementing Udacity statewide next year.

Why are they not MOOCs?  Well, in addition to be attached to a real college, they also have teachers.  MOOCs, by definition, rely on peer-tutoring and peer-help to attain the course goals.  Udacity will have professors or some sort of teacher available.

When Gov. Brown rolled out the pilot project in December, he had with him several national experts on online education.  They are, of course, to some degree already invested in online education, but here is a white paper from one of them:

White Paper on Online Education (used as part of the argument for Udacity)

High schools are already using methods of this sort for summer school, especially in the absence of funding for summer school.  Here’s an article on the success of such methods:

How online learning is saving rural high schools

Some of these articles ask universities to reassess their own assessment measures; employers are wanting to have a better look at SLO’s, seeking to have students learn what is needed in future workplaces (as opposed to what academia might dictate).  This is especially true for basic skills.

Lastly, for a really basic summary of what the new pilot (and next year’s $118M allotment to furthering this project might mean), here’s another link

Udacity partnership announced by Brown

I can say that, as we move into the preparation of our VCCCD Educational Master Plan, questions about the impact of all of this were at the forefront of some people’s minds.  Whether or not this all comes to pass, we need to be ready for innovations that are legislated from the top, and which could affect our local practices a great deal.


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