Tech and Distance Education toward Purpose and Belonging
November 10, 2021
There has perhaps been no greater global effort to integrate technology into the teaching and learning process than during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. This massive effort provided all of us with a common purpose to ‘Keep Teaching’ so that our students could keep learning to meet their educational goals. There has also been no greater time to ensure that we are creating spaces of belonging in online environments for our students, faculty and staff while the advent of isolation from mitigation of the virus caused many to feel disconnected and alone.
In support of these efforts and the rapid growth of technology integration in our daily work at Austin Community College (ACC), this week we explore technology and teaching through the lens of purpose and belonging.
National Distance Learning Week
As we continue to address some of these challenges and opportunities, the Division of Distance and Alternative Education celebrates National Distance Learning Week and will host a virtual symposium Surviving to Thriving: Rocking the New Normal on Thursday, November 11 and Friday, November 12. The event will focus on best practices, distance teaching environments, current issues and emerging trends, virtual learning technologies, and opportunities to connect and collaborate with colleagues and peers. You can still register for the event.
Efforts to increase awareness of distance learning and to distinguish leaders and best practices in the field culminated in the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) establishing National Distance Learning Week (NDLW) in 2007. This is now a yearly event inclusive of practitioners and stakeholders in K-12, higher education, corporate and military fields. The TxDLA (Texas Distance Learning Association) shares that “the goal of the week is for colleges, schools, corporations, agencies and other organizations to conduct local events during NDLW to celebrate and promote the field of online learning.”
We begin with the recent Educational Technology article, “Educause Top 10 IT Issues: Digital Transformation Accelerated, looking ahead to 2022 and how the challenges and positive aspects of the pandemic have helped us envision the future more clearly. Issue number 4 focuses on faculty having the digital fluency necessary to continue effectively applying technology, even as they return to on-campus instruction, and Issue 5 directly follows with the need for higher education to find the right balance of in-person, hybrid and online instruction to meet student needs. Issue 6 turns to the student perspective:
“Turning from the faculty’s digital fluency to the student perspective, Issue No. 6 focused on achieving full digital access for students by investing in connectivity, tools, and skills. Bridging the digital divide is about more than access to reliable high-speed internet,” Grajek noted. “Students also need equitable access to devices, software and the skills required to be able to be successful students, and later thrive,” she said, adding that higher education leaders have a pivotal role to play in reimagining what equity is.
ACC has already taken steps to address these and other issues identified in the article. Within the last few weeks, we learned about the selection of ACCs next QEP (Quality Enhancement Plan) – Digital Fluency for Today’s Jobs. To address equity and digital access for students, in the Fall of 2020 the Office of Academic Technology added a department focused on Student Technology Services (STS) that loans technology (iPads, laptops, peripherals, etc.) to students, and offers training, tech support and access to on-campus labs.
We have also been looking strategically at the optimum mix of course modalities to meet student needs and student demand as we methodically return to more on-campus courses. A Spring 2021 survey conducted by the Office of Institutional Research and Analytics on Course Preference showed the top factors affecting student course selection after course availability were (1) time of day, and (2) modality. More than 75% of current students were also interested in online advising, online tutoring and other online support services.
With a significant 20% response rate from current students (N=7,370), student preferences leaned towards:
- 60% remote modalities – distance learning synchronous (DLS), online asynchronous, hy-flex
- 37% hybrid
- 40% face-to-face
Note: Students could select multiple options.
The graph below shows the swing in course modalities over the last two years moving from nearly full remote instruction to a gradual rebound of offerings on campus.
With a continued interest, demand and need by students for flexible course options, it is imperative to build community in online environments and create a sense of belonging.
We have known about the importance of building community online since early in the evolution of distance education. I’ve worked with several distance education programs during my career and whether connecting students through satellite networks in Virginia, listservs and file sharing in New York or regional teleconferencing networks in South Carolina, ensuring that remote students feel heard and accepted is a key driver of persistence and completion. At ACC, one of the first modules developed in the Blackboard training series 20 years ago was ‘Building Community Online,’ and even today related strategies are integrated in the current Quality Matters offerings and other distance education training.
In “How to Cultivate Belonging in Online Learning,” Ellen Min, Associate Director of Student Equity and Success with the Global Online Academy (GOA), explored how GOA teachers and students created and felt a sense of belonging. She relied on previous research by Allen and Bowles in ‘Belonging as a Guiding Principle’ and by Peacock, Cowan, Irvin, and Williams in “An Exploration Into the Importance of a Sense of Belonging for Online Learners,” to frame her research:
- “Allen and Bowles’ research finds a direct correlation between belonging and student motivation, school completion, emotional and mental health, and physical health in the present and future.
- Research by Peacock, et al found three significant themes emerged: interaction/engagement, culture of learning, and support.”
Her findings supported previous work and highlighted ongoing needs in the online learning environment:
“Belonging matters. In the online learning space, instructors can foster belonging by creating intentional spaces for students to show up, by reimagining assessments with equity in mind, and by supporting students by checking in and ensuring positivity in tone and feedback. These simple steps are what allowed GOA students from all over the world to come into an online learning environment where their voice was heard and they were valued as individuals.”
All aspects of technology, as a tool or as an industry, call for us to feel belonging and help cultivate a culture of belonging for others. Technology, while some may perceive detaches us from social connections, can actually be one of the greatest links to others, socialization, community, collaboration and connection.
This Microsoft learning module, ‘Cultivate a Culture of Belongingness in Tech,’ guides users through recognizing a sense of belonging to listing strategies to build inclusive environments in tech. An example here at ACC is the Women in IT program. It is also a critical element in recruitment, advising and support for students entering programs who may have felt were not for them.
“Exploring what it means to belong is an essential step on the path to living and learning authentically. Although the tech industry is changing to become more accessible and inclusive, there’s still work to be done. There are many factors that contribute to whether people in tech feel they have a place or a sense of belonging. Typically, people don’t contribute fully when they feel they don’t belong.”
This is particularly important to ensure a diverse workforce and to support our students entering the workforce. An August 2021 article in Computer Weekly notes that “around 75% of minority tech employees don’t feel a sense of belonging at work.” The research highlights the disconnect between the perceptions of employees and leadership about this issue in tech firms and provides suggestions on how tech companies can implement inclusion practices to create a sense of belonging.
“Shobha Meera, chief corporate social responsibility officer and group executive committee member at Capgemini, said: “In a world of increasing demand for tech-fueled products and services that are free of discrimination and are inclusive by design, the importance of inclusive tech workforces, cultures and practices is more important than ever.”
The Beeck Center at Georgetown University is focused on accelerating social change, noting it is dependent on all sectors operating in concert. To support this work, earlier this year they developed and offered “Technology + Belonging,” a 6-part discussion series providing a space for “collective reflection and to uncover technology’s role in facilitating systems that consciously and unconsciously function through the identities we hold and present to the world. Through our reflection, we aim to reclaim our design and use of technology to increase personal belonging for all.”
Outlining the critical nature of belonging in technology fields is framed as a shift from inclusion to belonging in the Forbes article, ‘How The Tech Industry Can Shift From Inclusion To Belonging.” Author Ilit Raz tells us that creating an inclusive culture goes beyond having representation, but in purposely creating spaces and opportunities for cross-cultural engagement that will leverage the diversity of employees within work practices, innovation and change. The article goes on to explain:
“Research showsthat employees who feel that they belong, that they are truly valued for who they are, create a successful work environment that grows far beyond themselves. This is especially crucial in tech environments: By allowing innovation and creativity thrive, employees feel free to bring their angle to the table, suggest high-impact ideas to help grow the business, or come up with out-of-the-box solutions for complex issues.
The results of this positive employee experience go beyond boundaries and point at elevated productivity, more involvement in decision-making and more hand-raising. In my experience, it also has a fabulous effect on employee advocacy, which leads to a strong and lucrative employee brand. In fast-paced environments, from emerging tech startups to large tech corporations, cultivating a sense of belonging has a major impact on the business bottom line.”
Finding Purpose in Technology
Peers and Pedagogy is a community blog focused on educational excellence and equity. Contributor Myra Hay writes about Distance Learning with Intention and Purpose, explaining the relationship between building community or belonging and engaging students with purpose. Towards that end, student agency and autonomy is shown to “ignite their curiosity and elicit their critical thinking skills. Building agency provides options and relevancy for learners. She frames her post on Zaretta Hammond’s The Ready for Rigor Framework, explaining that, once we have a community of learners and learning environment, we have to engage students with purpose. Hammond is the famed author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain (2015).
Beyond the classroom, students will engage technology in all disciplines and work environments once they leave ACC, and we have found that there are powerful drivers of purpose in the use and applications of technology. We know from previous research shared in the “Light your Fire” blog that purpose is a key component of establishing company culture and a key driver of organizational success.
In the 2019 article, “Why Technology is Fundamental to Driving Enterprise Purpose,” Tata Consultancy Services surveys the opportunities created by harnessing digital technology for more than just process improvements and efficiencies:
“Undeniably, the purpose of technology in today’s enterprise ecosystem is far greater than the traditional benefits of scale, efficiency, cost reduction, and streamlining of operations.
The purpose of technology is to drive, enable and influence:
- Growth and innovation
- Collaboration and engagement across stakeholders
- Empowerment and inclusivity
- Health, safety, and well-being
- Sustainability and positive environmental impact”
The London Business School uses a case study from Fujitsu about “Technology with Purpose,” noting that “technology exists – and matters – in order to make the world a better place. Societal and human improvement relies on technology. So, a technology company should be measured by the improvements it brings about in the world rather than the novelty value of its products or simply financial value.”
In Technological Progress, Balaji Srinivasan claims if the proximate purpose of technology is to reduce scarcity, the ultimate purpose of technology is to eliminate mortality:
“…..(We need to) start evangelizing technological progress with every word and action. To recognize that the purpose of technology is to transcend our limits, and to motivate everything we’re doing with a sense of that purpose. To take the winnings from our web apps and put them towards Mars, to feel no hesitation towards starting small and no shame in dreaming big…”
Related Guided Pathways
There are many kinds of learning styles, so it’s essential for teachers to gain the knowledge and experience they need to be inclusive and adaptable. ACC students in this program can develop the skills to lead any classroom. Teacher education is offered for early childhood-through-sixth grade, fourth-through-eighth grade, and eighth-through-12th grade. Our partnership with Texas Tech University also provides a faster track to a teaching degree through the TechTeach Program.
TechTeach Across Texas
This 2+1 program combines a two-year associate degree from ACC and a one-year degree at Texas Tech University that allows students to obtain a bachelor’s degree in three years and become eligible for teacher certification and secure a job within a partner district. The focus currently is for students interested in becoming teachers for EC-6 and 4-8 Math or English. TechTeach Across Texas has been developed in partnership with Austin Community College, Austin ISD schools and Texas Tech University
The Computer Science and Information Technology(CSIT) Area of Study has a number of programs customized to student needs including the Associate of Science degrees in Computer Information Systems and in Computer Science. Other degree, certificate and fast track programs include:
Bachelor of Applied Science in Software Development
Careers in Software Development have a higher than average growth outlook compared to all other professions by both the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and O*Net. Software application developers create, develop, or modify computer applications and ensure that those programs continue to function. They may supervise the entire software development process and may also work closely with computer programmers and customers.
Women in IT Program
Women in IT (WIT) was developed for women seeking a career in the high-demand field of Information Technology. Participants in the program are offered support services such as job placement assistance, seminars that teach essential skills for education and career success, and scholarships and financial aid resources (for those who qualify). Women in this program can earn an associate degree or certificate in one of the many IT career paths offered at ACC. Check out the WIT Careers page to learn more and to use interactive career exploration tools.
Accelerated Programmer Training (APT)
The Accelerated Programmer Training program was created with funding from a Department of Labor TAACCCT grant and was designed to speed entry into tech careers. Courses are offered in a competency-based education (CBE) format that allows them to accelerate through courses toward a degree or certificate.
The program is for full-time working professionals, students balancing work and school and is particularly beneficial to military veterans as well as unemployed and underemployed adults who have previous technical knowledge or interest. The APT program offers CBE courses in Computer Programming, Computer User Support, Database Administration and Web Development. The benefits of this program include guidance from the department’s Computer Support Specialists and career services support upon completion of their degree.
Specialized Support Programs
Information Technology Institute
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of information technology jobs is expected to grow 12 percent during the next decade, which is faster than average. ACC’s Information Technology Institute is a community-learning environment that addresses the challenges of preparing students to enter the workforce with the high-demand skill set required by the industry.
- Students progress alongside other students with the same interests and goals and receive individual guidance from expert faculty mentors.
- The Institute will offer a networking certificate (27-30 credit hours) as a one-year program designed for graduation to employment.
- Students enroll in four 8-week classes per semester (fall and spring) consisting of state-of-the-art networking courses that lead to a certificate.
- In the summer, students take a final course combined with an opportunity to obtain an internship with one of over 400 industry partners.
- Designed in a cohort model, students take classes on a single campus with a consistent schedule.
Career ACCelerator: LAN Administrator
Tech credentials can lead to great paying jobs with advancement potential. This fast-paced program enables students to earn a certificate in network administration and be job-ready in just one year. Austin Community College (ACC) and Capital IDEA have partnered to provide support while students get hands-on skills taking a block/group of courses followed by a paid internship.
Capital IDEA offers financial assistance for tuition, books and childcare. ACC provides self-paced training and credentials that can be credited towards a degree — earn a certificate in local area network systems in as little as one year, then complete the Associate of Applied Science degree specializing in network Scholarship Opportunities. Learn more about ACC Scholarships here.
New CSIT Programs
- App Development: Coding & Design – Apple application development is in-demand. This program prepares students for entry-level jobs as Swift App Developers.
- Cybersecurity – Cybersecurity analysts protect a company’s valuable data and network from attack and unauthorized access.
- Data Science – Data Scientists transform massive amounts of data into actionable business intelligence.
Continuing Education Programs in IT include:
- Apple SWIFT Coding
- Certified Cisco Network Associate
- Certified Cisco Network Protocol Track Professional
- Java Development
- MCSA SQL Server 2012
- MCSE Data Platform
- Oracle Certified Professional Database Administrator
- Oracle Certified Professional PL/SQL
- PC Technician / CompTIA
ACC Related Efforts
Distance Education Fully Online Degree and Certificate Programs
Austin Community College’s award-winning online program lets students take classes whenever it’s convenient. Many courses are fully online while others have in-person components for maximum flexibility. Students can take a single online class or earn an entire degree or certificate this way. Students also have access to ACC’s supportive faculty, free tutoring, financial aid opportunities and more. Students can complete the following fully online:
- 25 degrees
- 13 certificates
- 90+ courses
Distance Education In Focus Grant
The Distance Education in Focus: Improving Course Design and Strengthening Student Support (InFocus) grant provides $2.68 million to support work that will increase student persistence, retention and success for Hispanic and other low-income students. From the grant abstract, InFocus will accomplish this via:
- Improving academic support in high-risk online courses
- Enriching learning in high-risk online courses
- Providing targeted, intensive advising support to online students who are struggling
Student Reach – Local, National and International
This map provides the location of ACC students taking Distance Education courses worldwide.
Student Technology Support and Access
Never more important than throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been ensuring that students not only have access to technology that supports their continued progress and student success, but also that there exists a streamlined way of receiving technology support during their venture into online learning. Established in September 2020 under TLED’s Office of Academic Technology, Student Technology Services (STS) provides phone, live chat and email support for students six days a week. Additionally, STS facilitates the checking out of technology to students, including iPads, headphones, webcams and calculators. While access to checking out technology had been limited to the Highland Campus during the bulk of the pandemic, students now have their choice of visiting any of the four campuses (RRC, HLC, EGN, SAC) during operating hours to check out a device that supports their continued success.
ACC QEP – Digital Fluency
The focus of this project will be to provide a short-term, stackable, four-course Occupational Skills Award (OSA) that offers high-demand, digital workforce competencies in a shorter, skill-focused, work-relevant manner to support student access, retention and completion.
The Academic Master Plan proposal ties into our current planning through ACC’s Strategic Plan Goal 1, Equity & Access, by attracting a diverse population of students and also providing equitable opportunities for our diverse student population. Additionally, it supports Goal 3, Completion and Transition to Employment/Transfer, by providing marketable digital skills relevant to today’s workforce requirements.
It will address student success/learning by allowing students to develop the initial skills and knowledge at their own pace allowing for time and development of proficiencies in today’s workforce technologies. The key interventions will be courses offered online and in ACC’s ACCelerators aimed at providing marketable digital skills for any student. This project impacts all students who are digitally challenged–from the high school student to the parent or grandparent to the unemployed, underemployed.
IT Apprenticeships – Department of Labor Grant
Austin Community College is committed to training 350 Information Technology (IT) apprentices/pre-apprentices over the next four years. Through a $12 million Department of Labor grant, ACC joins partners San Jacinto College, Alamo Community College and Dallas Community College in providing apprenticeship opportunities for Central Texas students seeking a career in IT. ACC will be working with area businesses to develop these IT apprenticeship programs. Tuition assistance may be available. Apprenticeship opportunities include:
- Application Development
- Network Support
- Computer Programming
- Help Desk
- And more
IT Internships and Coops
Fall Semester IT Internships and Coops saw 20 students enrolled after adds and drops. Of these 20 students:
- 14 (70%) received paid internships for an average wage of $15.79
- 5 students received unpaid internships
- 9 employer partners are considered for profit
- 2 are non profits
- 9 are state employers
- Austin Community College hired five IT Interns resulting in the most placements of any of our employer partners for the fall semester
- To continue networking and building stronger employer relations, specifically with larger corporations such as Dell, Apple, Facebook, etc.
- We also hope to cultivate stronger partnerships with city and state employers as we did not see any placements from our contracted partner DIR.
Now nearly 20 months into a pandemic, we owe the ability to keep teaching and helping students continue their educational journey to the advent of technology and distance learning opportunities at all levels of academia. We have harnessed the power of technology and also the variety of technology options to meet unique curricular and educational content needs. Our students have now been exposed to technologies and work practices they will encounter in the workplace they are currently in, or will be part of when they complete their programs of study at ACC.
The constructs of purpose and belonging in distance education and in tech fields follows previous research on the significant impact they make on personal, academic and professional success. Technology has historically been one of humanity’s greatest assets, but in the last several months of global isolation it has become a lifeline to connection. Ensuring that we create environments of belonging for our students, in-person or online, and driving purpose through technology are two critical tasks ahead of us. Let’s put a ding in the universe….
In shared purpose and belonging,
Associate Vice Chancellor of Teaching and Learning Excellence
In collaboration with
Dr. Erasmus Addae, Associate Vice Chancellor for Distance Education
Matthew Evins, Director of Academic Technology
Regina McGough, Department Chair, Education Instruction
Kathryn Naughton, Internship Coordinator, Office of Experiential Learning
Terry Barksdale, Professor and Reference Librarian
Are you harnessing the power of purpose and belonging in your work at ACC?
We’d love to hear from you! Contact TLEDcomms@austincc.edu for opportunities to be featured on our website and blog.