The School of Continuing Education and Professional Development at Miami Dade College (MDC) is acknowledged for its spirited student population as well as quality learning environment. The school has the mission of increasing the accessibility of college to members of the public (MDC, 2015). In addition, the school boasts the fact that it meets community needs that are not covered by the traditional conventional college programs (MDC, 2015). Nevertheless, learning and teaching environment in the context of higher education is undergoing rapid evolution attributed to the increase in enrollments and the fluctuating student demographics. In addition, higher learning institutions are consistently under pressure to offer flexible programs, formulate novel and innovative courses, apply effective instructional practices, and create and utilize active learning spaces (Banta, Jones, & Black, 2009). Moreover, higher learning institutions are under pressure to illustrate the value of their programs to various stakeholders such as government bodies, employers, parents and students (Biggs & Tang, 2011).
MDC has a reputation for high quality student experience as well as innovations across various schools. Nevertheless, the departments and faculties within MDC including the School of Continuing Education and Professional Development face substantial barriers with respect to large-scale improvements. Large-scale improvements and redevelopment need considerable time investments in learning about new approaches and their subsequent experimentation, investments in novel technologies and consultations with educational developers (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2010). MDC has a number of strength areas as well as areas that need improvement, such as student-faculty engagement, collaborative learning, and active learning. There are numerous benefits associated with improving conventional university instructional practices using technology support, curriculum planning, collaboration and active learning. Some of the benefits include enhanced learners’ experience and engagement, cost effectiveness to the school, and benefits associated with convenience and flexibility (Ghaye, 2010). As a result, an area of priority in this action plan relates to the formulation of the teaching enhancement program that encompasses high-impact program, especially for large teaching enhancement initiatives, and innovations programs that focus on smaller initiatives suggested by instructors and the faculty. The scope of high-impact improvement initiatives can cover the entire program/course offered by the school of continuing education and professional development, a group of large courses under the school guidance (such as corporate training, and online courses – occupational Spanish, medical coding and billing certificate, real estate courses, and adult education program), or collaboration between various departments at the school. Innovation programs are relatively smaller in scope and emphasize proposals for improvements suggested by instructors or faculty. Initiatives to transform program and courses positively affect learning by enhancing student engagement, encouraging active learning, and improving interactions between students and faculty (Moore, Green, & Gallis, 2009). The redesigned programs and courses can be assessed by conducting students’ engagement surveys. The university-wide or school-wide teaching improvement programs have reported significant improvements with respect to leaning in other institutions – an example is the redesigned Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia.
Collecting and distributing crucial information regarding the state of engagement and learning and the perceptions of the student community help the institution, schools, and departments make cognizant decisions (Shephard, 2008). According to Banta et al. (2009), learning analytics involves collecting and analyzing data relating to learners, including their learning behaviors and patterns with the main objective to make improvements to student support, learning environments and curriculum. In addition, learning analytics plays pivotal role in institutional decision-making. Banta et al. (2009) further underscores the importance of effective collection and analysis of the information about various courses and programs offered at the institution. This information can assist in optimizing the learning environments as well as informing institutional decisions. In this regard, this action plan recommends the development of a learning analytics program at the school of continuing education and professional development. The components of the learning analytics program should include the key performance indicators assessment, continued oversight of current metrics, and identification of priority areas in the future (Zubizarreta, 2009).
The development of the learning analytics program at the school of continuing education and professional development is a novel idea, and it should commence with a pilot project that mines data from the learning management systems in place in order to yield information that could be of interest to the heads of the departments, instructors and students (Biggs & Tang, 2011). Owing to the fact that the school of continuing education and professional development does not currently make use of data in informing decisions, the people in a decision-making capacity are less likely to know the kind of information to request, the ways of interpreting the information, and the ways of ascertain the metrics that they can use to measure the effectiveness of the outcomes associated with their decisions (Zubizarreta, 2009).
The main objective of the pilot project is the introduce the users of the learning analytics tool to the data sets, and survey the faculty members in order to determine their knowledge regarding the use of the most valuable data. DuFour et al. (2010) outlined the steps in performing the pilot project. First, a number of brief reports can be generated for each user of the learning analytics, together with quantitative data profiles that include narratives clarifying the findings associated with an issue of interest. The second step entails undertaking a brief survey and focus groups of various users in order to examine the reports, hold discussions about the results including the identification of further research issues. The third step involves providing answers to the issues raised during the focus groups discussions and surveys. The last step in the pilot study involves sharing the preliminary findings using broad avenues such as faculty meetings and dashboards (Ghaye, 2010).
The group responsible for performing the learning analytics should advise the school on issues associated with the collecting and communication of data as well as the assessment of learning experience of students. In addition, this group should be tasked with coordinating and communicating faculty, staff and students surveys on issues such as the success of students in the long-term, faculty experience, learning outcomes, program/course achievements, and learning experience of students. The group managing the learning analytics project must make sure that the program evaluation is aligned with the priorities of the school (Shephard, 2008). It is also imperative for the learning analytics project to make use of suitable survey approaches to students and faculty, which should also focus on surveying learners’ experiences with online learning, blended learning, and face-to-face learning. DuFour et al. (2010) recommend performing regular surveys in order to have a better understanding of how the school can help students during the transition between technology-facilitated learning and face-to-face learning.
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The demand for online learning is increasing, which can be partly attributed to the flexibility associated with online learning with respect to scheduling, and the changing learners’ demographics as evidenced by the growing number of post-degree and professional adult learners. Online learning eliminates a number of learning constraints relating to timetabling, infrastructure and space. Nevertheless, it is imperative to note that the forms of technology-facilitated, blended and online learning are being rapidly adapted in order to enhance students’ engagement to reach comparable levels with face-to-face learning (Banta et al., 2009). Empirical evidence shows that, for diverse learning outcomes and students, learning in the fully online environment is comparable to face-to-face environments (Ghaye, 2010). However, students who are highly motivated and ready to learn autonomously are more likely to benefit most from online learning environments when compared to students who are ill prepared and not motivated. According to Moore et al. (2009), employing online technologies in learning and teaching has both risks and benefits, and the relative outcome depends significantly on the manner in which the technology is used and supported. Therefore, the school of continuing education and professional development should incorporate evidence-based practice in the development of courses and programs, and utilize the changes in making contributions to instructional research. Moore et al. (2009) assert that no single instructional medium is superior to another; however, the use of evidence-based practice and suitable technologies can enhance the quality of learning experience for students. Modern day students acknowledge and value the use of virtual learning. According to Moore et al. (2009), 73 percent of students think that technology assisted them in achieving their educational outcomes. In addition, 46 percent of the students have enrolled in an online course last year, and about 58 percent owned at least three internet-enabled devices. These survey findings show the opportunity that online learning offers for higher learning institutions including the school of continuing education and professional development at MDC.
In order to improve the existing online courses offered at the school and ensure expansion and growth, it is imperative for the school to offer structural support as well as resources needed to facilitate course and program development (Biggs & Tang, 2011). It could entail the use of online learning speaker series; development of one portal for all online programs and courses offered at the school; support to early adopters of online learning; promotion of scholarly development of online learning; and allocation of resources to instructors and specialists to go to online learning conferences (Shephard, 2008).
Assessing the quality of teaching in higher learning institutions is a complex undertaking that has been subject to discussion for several years. Teaching evaluations are supposed to offer formative feedback from students to teaching assistants and instructors. In addition, teaching evaluation should offer summative feedback aimed at evaluating the performance of faculty members. Because of somewhat conflicting needs of summative and formative evaluation, assessing the quality of teaching is a challenging task (Ghaye, 2010). In institutions of higher learning, there has been an increase in the use of non-conventional instructional practices such as technology-facilitated learning, team-taught programs and courses, skill-based programs and courses and project-based instructions; all of these approaches must be taken into consideration when assessing the quality of teaching (Biggs & Tang, 2011).
It is imperative to gather pertinent information regarding students’ learning and instruction in order to help in informing the decision-making process related to enhancing the learning environment and act as summative evaluation of instructors. According to Moore et al. (2009), evaluations ought to be aligned with the institutional context, thus, evaluation policies must be equitable, and those performing the evaluations must be provided with institutional support in order to help enhance the reliability of the assessment instrument. Empirical evidence shows significant limitations associated with dependence on students’ assessments of teaching. In this regard, students are only effective at evaluating in-class activities and teaching behaviors; however, they lack the qualifications to assess the teaching goals and course content. There is a need to revise the teaching evaluation approach used in MDC including the school of continuing education and professional development. This action plan recommends the use of a multidimensional evaluation system that uses student-generated data, peer evaluation and self-reflections on various aspects of teaching (Biggs & Tang, 2011).
In addition, MDC and the school of continuing education and professional development should strive to make the performance evaluation and review a collaborative undertaking that involves utilizing the results in order to enhance the students’ learning experience. The program evaluation and review process ought to respect the fact that individual departments and faculties are likely to use different program improvement goals and approaches to performance evaluation and review. Instilling a culture of performance/program review as well as continuous improvement is a crucial initiative that should receive support from all academic and administrative levels within the school, including adequate technological, financial and human resources. Effective evaluation does not happen overnight; instead, effective evaluation is a gradual process that requires thoughtful planning (Shephard, 2008). Furthermore, for program review processes to lead to real curriculum improvements and subsequently enhance the learning experience of students, they ought to be proactive and not reactive. This means that performance evaluations should not be a a one-time project but continuing cycle of utilizing data in decision-making to improve teaching quality and programs (Zubizarreta, 2009).
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Developing learning communities is also an important focus of this action plan. The need to transform the educator’s profession and practices has been reiterated by several authors. In addition, educators have the responsibility of continually improving education in order to facilitate innovation. Given the ever-increasing career expectations of educators, there is the need to have a platform through which educators can improve their skills and knowledge, which can be achieved using learning communities (DuFour et al., 2010). Learning communities comprise a group of individuals sharing common attitudes and academic goals and meet on a regular basis for purposes of collaborating on class work. Learning communities can be established in various forms including linked courses, learning clusters, freshman interest groups, federated learning communities and coordinated studies. In linked courses, students enroll in two connected programs or courses. In learning clusters, students enroll in at least three linked courses having a common interdisciplinary subject linking the courses. In freshman interest groups, the arrangement is the same as in learning clusters; however, students have the same major and usually get academic counselling as a component of the learning community. Federated learning communities use the same format as learning clusters; however, a Master Learner teaches an extra seminar course. A Master Learner is a member of the faculty who has enrolled in other courses together with students. In coordinated studies, the learning community is analogous to a giant course characterized by faculty members working on a full-time basis during the whole academic year. In the school of continuing education and professional development any format of learning communities can be adopted in accordance with the course/program requirements. The benefits of learning communities have been well documented in literature; they include increasing rates of students’ retention, positively affecting students’ achievement, and facilitating collective knowledge construction (DuFour et al., 2010).
This action plan focuses on five core areas. The first area focuses on the establishment of a school-wide teaching improvement program that entails high impact programs with a large scope of teaching enhancement initiatives, and innovation programs that focus on smaller initiatives suggested by instructors and the faculty. The second area of the focus relates to the development of a learning analytics program, which involves collecting and analyzing information regarding learners such as their learning behaviors and patterns for making improvements to students’ support, learning environments and curriculum. The third area focuses on school-wide support for online learning, whereby the school of continuing education and professional development at MDC is supposed to offer structural support as well as resources needed to facilitate course and program development. The fourth area aims at reviewing the means used for the assessment of teaching quality, which focuses on establishing a culture of review and continuous improvement within the organization. Lastly, the action plan recommends the development of learning communities based on the course requirements.