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Blazing the Trail in Texas: Work in Progress on the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate

 

“What we’re talking about is a different satisfactory academic progress model than most of you are used to,” said project leader Van Davis to a large group of faculty from the two Texas campuses implementing the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate. Far from being shocked by his statement, the group appeared eager to dive into the day’s work on that very model.

The degree program they are creating, one of the ten in NGLC’s “Breakthrough Models for College Completion,” will offer students the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership either entirely online or in an online and face-to-face blend. It launches in October. With project leadership by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), the degree program will be offered by two institutions located almost 600 miles apart: South Texas College in McAllen, near the Mexican border, and the Texas A&M campus in Commerce, in the northeastern part of the state. To further our understanding of the program during its evolution, NGLC staff recently headed to Austin, where faculty from the two institutions were holding one of their monthly meetings. Their task for the day: figuring out course equivalencies for the competencies they’d already developed and then determining how they would assess, weight, and grade progress toward them.

Students will complete general education courses in the program entirely online. They will be required to complete 90 credit hours of lower division coursework – and have mastered every competency - before they go into the upper division program. Both of the institutions will be responsible for providing students with the self-paced, non-faculty led lower division general education hours. For this reason, faculty collaboration on the development of the competencies and on their assessment—what NGLC staff witnessed on our visit—is a key step on the timeline that leads toward offering the program beginning this October. Van Davis, special projects director for THECB, is leading the development of the program and also organizes and facilitates the regular meetings of the faculty leaders. As a part of the development process, general education faculty from both schools have worked together to develop competencies, learning outcomes, and enabling objectives for their fields during their monthly meetings. In between those meetings, these faculty members have continued to work together off line as well as work with colleagues on their campuses to finalize this material. NGLC staff appreciated the opportunity to meet some of these pioneering collaborators and to sit in for their reports on the day’s progress on development of the objectives and competencies.

The day’s agenda for the faculty touched on several other key aspects of the program:

  • Course Materials: Two representatives from Pearson Publishing, a content partner in the project, introduced themselves. This summer, Pearson will match up materials from their libraries, including appropriate formative and summative assessments, to the objectives emerging from the faculty collaboration on competencies; where no appropriate materials exist, Pearson will work with the subject area faculty to create those materials. Faculty at the meeting expressed an interest in having video as well as textual materials available, and the Pearson representatives indicated that this was indeed in the works. By the program’s launch in October, faculty will have vetted and approved the materials.
  • Student Support Staff: Van Davis also discussed with the faculty the job descriptions and hiring conditions for the coaches and tutors who will provide support to students. Because all of the lower division coursework is self-paced and non-faculty led, the role of the academic coaches and content tutors is especially important. Each student, upon entering the program, will be assigned a coach who will work with that student until graduations. Coaches will help students map a pathway through the lower division coursework and work individually with their students, providing feedback and support across disciplines in the online general education program. They will be full-time professional employees, qualified at least to a master’s degree level, with backgrounds in student services and counseling. The program will also employ content tutors who will help the general education students with discipline-specific questions. The tutors will also be full-time, master’s-qualified professionals, and their qualifications will include backgrounds in the disciplines that they are charged to support.
  • Assessment and Technology Integration: South Texas College and Texas A&M-Commerce use different learning management systems. To assure that the program works similarly in the two systems, the THECB has contracted with Blackboard Solutions, a consulting arm of Blackboard, to work on the technical integration and also to help them to build program level assessment and collect analytical program data via the learning management system.

 

In addition to observing the faculty work session, NGLC staff also heard from the project leadership. Dr. Ali Esmaeili, Dean of Baccalaureate Programs at South Texas College, and Dr. Mary Hendrix, Vice President for Student Access and Success at Texas A&M-Commerce, described the reasons for the interest in moving down this bold path at their respective institutions. For South Texas College - located in one of the nation’s poorest areas, where 50% of the population has less than a high school diploma – the mission of serving the students in their locality and, at the same time, providing the kinds of education that the local employers are seeking are key to regional advancement. For Texas A&M Commerce, where online courses have been offered since 1994, the move to a competency-based model provides a new way to honor their commitment to student success – and to the faculty change that is necessary if there is to be significant improvement in completion rates. Dr. Raymund Paredes, Texas’ Commissioner for Higher Education, also spoke about the role that this groundbreaking new program plays in the state’s strategic higher education plan.

Comments

It sounds like Texas is doing a great job with this project. Institutions should teach to the community and it's needs. When 50% of the general population in the area have less than a high school diploma, the need for affordable education is very important. 

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