Austin Community College’s ACCelerator: Big bet on emporium approach with no pilots

While at SXSWedu, I was able to visit Austin Community College’s ACCelerator lab, which got a fair bit of publicity over the past month. While the centerpiece of ACCelerator usage is for developental math, the 600+ workstation facility spread over 32,000 square feet also supports Tutoring in a variety of subjectsFirst year experienceGroup advisingAcademic CoachingAdult EducationContinuing EducationCollege readiness assessment preparation, and Student skills workshops.

ACCelerator

But it is the developmental math course that has received the most coverage.

Austin Community College welcomed second lady Dr. Jill Biden and Under Secretary of Education Dr. Ted Mitchell on Monday, March 9, to tour the Highland Campus’ ACCelerator and meet with students and faculty of the college’s new developmental math course, MATD 0421. [snip]

“I teach a lot of developmental students,” says Dr. Biden. “The one stumbling block does seem to be math and math anxiety and ‘Can I do it?’. This (course) seems to be so empowering and so positive. Students can see immediate success.”

MATD 0421 is a self-paced, emporium-style course that encompasses all three levels of developmental math. Paul Fain at Inside Higher Ed had an excellent article that included a description of the motivation.

Dismal remedial success rates have been a problem at Austin, which enrolls 60,000 students. So faculty members from the college looked around for alternative approaches to teaching math.

“Really, there’s nothing to lose,” said [Austin CC president] Rhodes.

The Highland Campus, where the ACCelerator lab is located, is built in a former shopping mall. Student in Austin CC can choose courses at any of the 8 campuses or 5 centers. All developmental math at the Highland Campus is run through MATD 0421, so students across the system can choose traditional approaches at other campuses of the emporium approach at Highland.

Austin CC picked this approach after researching several other initiatives (Fain describes Virginia Tech and Montgomery College examples). The IHE article then describes the design:

Austin officials decided to try the emporium method. They paired it with adaptive courseware, which adjusts to individual learners based on their progress and ability to master concepts. The college went with ALEKS, an adaptive software platform from McGraw-Hill Education.

Fain describes the personalization aspect:

The new remedial math course is offered at the ACCelerator. The computer stations are arranged in loose clusters of 25 or so. Faculty members are easy to spot in blue vests. Student coaches and staff wear red ones.

This creates a more personalized form of learning, said Stacey Güney, the ACCelerator’s director. That might seem paradoxical in computer lab that has a bit of a Matrix feel. But Güney said that instead of a class size of 25 students per instructor, the course features 25 classes of one student.

“In here there is no back of the classroom,” she said.

While the program is fairly new (second term), there are some initial results described by the official site:

In MATD 0421’s inaugural semester:

  • The withdrawal rate was less than half the rate for traditional developmental math courses.
  • 75 percent of the students completed the equivalent of one traditional course.
  • Nearly 45 percent completed the equivalent to a course and one-half.
  • Over 14 percent completed the equivalent to two courses.
  • 13 students completed all the equivalent of three courses.

Go read the full IHE article for a thorough description. I would offer the following observations.

  • Rather than a pilot program, which I have argued plagues higher ed and prevents diffusion of innovations, Austin CC has committed to a A) a big program up front (~700 students in the Fall 2014 inaugural semester) and ~1,000 students in Spring 2015, yet B) they offer students the choice of traditional or emporium. To me, this offers the best of both worlds in allowing a big bet that doesn’t get caught in the “purgatory of pilots” while offering student choice.
  • While the computer lab and software are easy headlines, I hope people don’t miss the heavy staffing that are a central feature of this lab – there are more than 90 faculty and staff working there, teaching the modular courses, roving the aisles to provide help, and working in help desks. The ACCelerator is NOT an exercise in replacing faculty with computers.
  • During my tour, instructor Christie Allen-Johnson and associate professor Ann P. Vance described their plans to perform a more structured analysis of the results. Expect to see more validated outcomes starting at the end of CY2015.
  • When and if Austin CC proves the value and results of the model, that would be the time to migrate most of the remaining developmental math courses into this emporium model.
  • The one area that concerns me is the lack of structured time for students away from the workstations. Developmental students in community colleges often have not experienced academic success – knowing how to succeed, learning how to learn, believing in their ability to succeed – and often this non-cognitive aspect of math is as important as the actual coursework. Allen-Johnson described the availability of coaching that goes beyond coursework, but that is different than providing structure for coaching and self-regulated learning.
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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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