New teaching methods show promise at FMCC

Fulton-Montgomery Community College Professor Mark Swain shows the Board of Trustees on Thursday examples of the innovative classroom arrangements the Room Pilot Committee tested to boost student engagement. (The Leader-Herald/Ashley Onyon)

JOHNSTOWN — Fulton-Montgomery Community College professors presented details to the Board of Trustees on recently piloted teaching models to increase student engagement, finding the methods improved academic outcomes and retention.

FMCC President Dustin Swanger asked professors to form committees to research and test new teaching methods to attract and engage students about a year ago. The committees presented their findings to the board Thursday.

Members of the Independent Learning Committee, Martin Waffle, Charlene Dybas, Mark Swain and John Armstrong, presented information on programs they piloted surrounding web-based learning and a digital micro-credentialing system.

FMCC currently offers three teaching modalities; traditional classroom based learning with little or no online components; web-based classes that are completely online; and a blended model that combines traditional and web-based learning, with students physically attending class once or twice a week while completing some coursework online.

The committee piloted two new teaching modalities the college will offer to students this fall. The first is a hybrid model incorporating a traditional and web-based component.

Fulton-Montgomery Community College professors Charlene Dybas and Mark Swain tell the Board of Trustees on Thursday about the new Flex-Mode classes they will hold on alternating weeks this fall. (The Leader-Herald/Ashley Onyon)

Under the hybrid model, a 16-week class will begin with all students physically attending class during the scheduled time. As the course progresses students with a set grade point average are offered the opportunity to physically attend the class a portion of the scheduled time, once or twice a week, completing other coursework online.

Later in the course, students that maintain the set grade point average are offered the opportunity to take the remainder of the course completely online.

Waffle explained that he piloted the model in his computer science class, offering students with an average of 90 or higher the opportunity to continue the course in a blended online and physical format after five weeks and to move completely online during the final four weeks.

“I’m there teaching the class traditionally either way so they are always welcome to come back in,” Waffle said. “The nice thing here offered to our students is they can try out web-based courses.”

Waffle said the hybrid model positively impacted retention rates in the two introductory computer science courses he offered it in.

“Retention in that course was always pretty good, but I saw 90 percent retention in both pilots. That’s a really good retention for an introductory course,” Waffle said.

The second modality, under the moniker of Flex-Mode, will offer students the opportunity to attend a particular course in person, online or some combination of the two.

“The student can come in or go as they please,” Swain said. “When students want to come into the class they can. We are there for them. If you think about it, the students who don’t need it can be independent and the students who do need it can be there, because we’ll be in the classroom.”

Swain explained that he has offered this option to transition from classroom to online learning before to students who were considering dropping out of his class altogether when a life event prevented them from physically making it to campus at scheduled times. He asks these students to check in with him during office hours or by phone.

“I teach it the same way as I would online anyway,” Swain said. “Hence being flexible. We’re small enough as a campus that we know our students names, we have individualized education, so why not capitalize on that?”

In addition to meeting the needs of students, Swain pointed to Flex-Mode as a method of combating declining enrollment allowing FMCC to combine what may have been small sections of a particular course offered solely as physical or online options into one full class.

“This summer I am offering Flex-Mode for accounting one,” Swain said. “The last couple years I got like 10 students, this year I offered it as a Flex-Mode, we did a little bit of marketing, not much, and now I have 29 students and I’m going to have two classes.”

To further interest non-traditional students, Swain and Dybas are working together to offer two different evening Flex-Mode classes that will meet physically once a week on alternating weeks beginning this fall. These classes can also be taken fully online.

“We want to make it easy on people to take two classes, but only come once a week,” Dybas explained. “Every other week I’ll start the first week with my class, Mark will come in the second week with his class, when they’re not in class they will be doing work online.”

Dybas noted that students will not be required to enroll in both classes, providing the option for students to take a single class every other week if desired. Both Dybas and Swain said the alternating Flex-Mode courses could especially benefit working students and will offer a new setting for struggling distance learners taking a course online to seek support.

“Even though you offer to meet with them, sometimes they won’t come, but if they know you’re going to be there from 5 to 8 every Thursday night, they’ll come,” Dybas said. “The students can do their thing, we can be there to help them and I think it’s going to certainly pump up our success rate.”

To help FMCC students convey their successes to admissions counselors or prospective employers, the committee has developed a micro-credential system of digital badges denoting a certain skill or knowledge similar to those used on websites like LinkedIn that students can earn by successfully completing courses in targeted areas.

Armstrong explained the committee worked with the school’s advisory board to identify the coursework and skills four-year schools and employers are looking for in students seeking to enter specific fields. The committee then developed badges attached to courses on specific career tracks within all of the college’s departments.

Students should not expect to earn all badges within a certain area of study, rather the system can help identify preferred coursework on the path to a specific profession or industry.

“It helps students hone it down to career choices,” Armstrong said. “They’ll have something else they can put on a resume.”

The system of badges is currently in limited use. A full roll out is expected this fall.

After learning of the college’s digital future, trustees were presented details on options to best use physical classroom space by members of the Room Pilot Committee, including Swain, John Van Bladel, Colleen Sanders and Flor Trespalacios.

The committee primarily experimented with the arrangement of college classrooms. The committee found rooms like the school’s recently remodeled computer lab, featuring wavy shaped desks that can be pushed into rows and large and small groups created opportunities for student engagement. Computers around the perimeter of the room offered students without laptops increased access to online coursework and research.

The professors agreed that classroom where desks could be easily rearranged so students can engage with one another and their teacher on a more personal basis are an improvement over large lecture halls where professors may struggle to reach all of their students.

Trespalacios shared her experience teaching physiology and anatomy in the school’s TV studio where she arranged desks in a U shape, allowing her to easily walk around students and make eye contact. She said the setup generated improved test performance and led more students to attend her office hours than in previous semesters.

“They felt like I was connecting with each one of them and it made a significant difference,” Trespalacios said. “I had an engagement that I have been searching for a while, it was something as simple as having this room, this change in dynamics.”

The committee surveyed students on the reconfigured classrooms receiving positive feedback including comments that the setup was non-intimidating, refreshing and made it easier to understand material.

The committee said they will be sharing their findings with other professors to encourage their colleagues to adopt new classroom arrangements and offer their own suggestions. The committee also recommended the college consider reconfiguring and refurnishing existing classrooms in the future, something Swanger signaled his support for.

“I’ve been saying for a couple years I really would like to get our classrooms out of rows and into a different way of teaching,” Swanger said. “I believe the data is showing that our students are responding well to those environments, so I really would like to get many more of our classes in that kind of a setup.”

The Board of Trustees responded positively to the committee reports, voicing support for the teaching modalities that could help attract new students while keeping them engaged in modern classroom settings.

“The reports that the staff gave tonight were fantastic,” Vice Chairman Geoffrey Peck said.

“It’s the kind of thing we need to be doing, looking forward and changing for our audience,” Trustee William Easterly added.