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once established, can be expanded at little additional cost.The
human-to-human interchanges of teaching and counseling
generally cannot be scaled up, he said, but technology changes
that.
Nowhere is the enthusiasm for technology and scalability
more evident than with the programknown as the Virginia
Wizard, a new effort that will attempt to convert the laborious
and expensive process of student advising into an online
experience.
TheWizard begins by administering a career assessment
programand then, via an avatar known as Jenny, leads students
through college selection, course planning, registration, and
possible transfer to a four-year institution.The program
was developed through a $2.5million federal grant and, if
successful, could eventually replace several hundred human
advisors that the systemotherwise would be forced to hire as a
result of increased enrollment.
DuBois loves to anticipate the future of Jenny. Conceivably,
he said, she could eventually detect students’ errors in course
selection, remind themof upcoming exams via text messaging,
and even nag themwhen their class attendance falls. “Getting
through college is complicated, andmost kids can’t do it by
themselves,” DuBois said. “Jenny could be there 24 hours a day,
365 days a year, and that’s something no human can do.”
In all, the Virginia plan seems determined to introduce
change into every nook and cranny of the Virginia system.
DuBois already has placed special counselors inside 150 state
high schools to help with college planning, and promoted
joint efforts with school superintendents to write more
effective high school curriculums.The reformplan also will
attempt to redefine the role of adjuncts—the miserably paid
and overworked part-timers who form the backbone of the
teaching corps at community colleges.
On and on it goes. To spend a day withDuBois is to be
assaulted by ideas, plans, programs. His determination, in
part, seems to stem fromhis own personal
history. He was raised poor by a single
mother and is the product of a community
college himself. He has a French name and
an Irish face, and his steely resolve is often
combined with Irish charm. With faculty
members he disarms and cajoles as easily as
a Dublin ward heeler.
He has also learned the trick of enjoying
himself in the midst of relentless work. A
bicycle enthusiast, he once rode his bike
more than 700miles through Virginia’s
back roads to raise money for foster-home
kids to attend community college. On his
two-college tour by state airplane this fall, he
made hour-long addresses to two campus
faculties, met with college presidents, and
pressed the flesh with students, all without
a break for ten straight hours, and seemed
ready for more at the end of the day.
Whether he can transform the culture of Virginia’s system
remains to be seen. Community colleges have the most
complexmission in higher education, teaching quantum
physics on one side of campus and truck driving on another.
They operate remedial high schools during the day and
transform themselves into adult education centers at night.
And theymust do it far more cheaply than full-fledged colleges,
because that’s all the market will bear.
And because they are so intertwined with their local
communities, community colleges can be difficult to change.
“Reforms tend to fail at community colleges because the
problems are bigger than the colleges themselves. To change
the college in an important way, you also have to change the
community,” said Earl Simpson, a retired English professor in
the Virginia system.
But others sense that the sheer magnitude of the current
problems is creating amomentum for reform in Virginia and
elsewhere. “After talking about reform for so long, we are finally
seeing some institutions change themselves across the board,
rather than in pockets and corners,” said Robert McCabe,
executive director of the National Alliance of Community
and Technical Colleges. “They are developing newways of
delivering education.”
DuBois agrees that momentum is on the side for change.
But, returning on the state airplane to Richmond, he argued
that Virginia’s efforts, contrary to the views of some, are not
intended to redefine community colleges and are not intended
to offer all things to all people.
“We could be starting honors programs for kids with
high SATs,” DuBois said. “And we could be offering four-year
baccalaureate degrees. A lot of community colleges are doing
that, and you’ll notice that some have even removed the word
‘community’ from their names.
“We’re not interested in those kinds of programs. Honors
kids don’t really need us; they’ll do just fine. Our programs
are aimed at the kids without the money, without the best
background, the first ones in their family to show up at college.
The simple truth is, those are the kids who need us, and we’re
going to help them.That’s what the change is all about.”
u
Robert A. Jones is a former reporter and columnist for the
Los
Angeles Times
.
In the past year
Tidewater Community
College has worked
with many local
companies to develop
customized training
programs specific to
their needs, and now
has 9,000 students
enrolled in them.
Deborah DiCroce, president of Tidewater Community College,
has used databases to shape the school’s job training programs,
based on demand in the community for certain jobs. “We now
assume that every program has a shelf life,” she says.
Jay Paul, Black Star, for CrossTalk