By Alexa K. Haverlah

“The personal is political,” argued students and second-wave feminists of the late 1960s. In 2021, some students don’t always connect the dots between the two.

“Students say, ‘Government isn’t my thing, I’m not a government major,’” says Kristie Kelly, Ph.D., associate professor of government at Austin Community College – Northridge. “But as much as people say they don’t like it, it affects you.”

ACC is a government-funded institution, Kristie points out. “Local decisions by local leaders have a direct impact on your life,” she says.

Kristie’s goal is not to make political science scholars; Kristie wants her students to be politically literate. The goal is “to be able to turn on the news and have a framework with which to interpret this material,” Kristie says, “Or be more equipped to go vote or to get other people involved.”

Kristie’s United States Government courses is one of 14 identified online “high-risk” courses. High-risk courses are required for many associate and bachelor’s degrees at ACC but are successfully completed by less than 70% of the students who enroll in them.

The Title V Distance Education in Focus: Improving Course Design and Strengthening Student Support (InFocus) grant intends to serve Latinx students in these courses in part by providing funding to train distance education faculty in the nationally recognized Quality Matters (QM) rubric through the College’s Online Course Redesign Academy (OCRA). Faculty who go through the redesign process will receive a $500 stipend and can take as long as they need.

Faculty work with instructional designers to make their courses consistent, organized, and easily navigable and incorporate best practices.

One thing Kristie’s students can agree on in this polarized society is how the structure of her course helps them succeed.

“Students say, ‘this class is so organized, I know what to expect, I know where to find things,” Kristie says.

When students can easily navigate and find information, it leads to self-led study and greater engagement with the material.

Kristie’s class is divided into 16 modules covering all the topics required by the state legislature. Modules are released two weeks in advance to help students pace themselves.

Each module is associated with a chapter from the textbook and is broken down into several pre-recorded lecture videos, the longest of which is 20 minutes. Quizzes, written assignments, and class discussions boards accompany the modules.

Module 2 covers Federalism, a form of government that combines a general government with regional governments in a single political system, dividing power between the two.

One only has to look at the U.S. federal response and the response of 50 different states to vaccine and mask mandates for a perfect example of federalism. Students are asked to find a recent article about federalism and participate in an online discussion with their peers to demonstrate they understand the concept.

Online discussion posts provide context and real-world applicability for the theoretical topics discussed in class.

Kristie drops her students’ two lowest assignment grades and three lowest quiz grades as a built-in contingency plan. Students have the opportunity to “course-correct” early on and ask for help if they’re struggling with the material.

Going through the national (QM) certification process has helped Kristie make her class more accessible for students with disabilities, also, benefiting all students. She uses VidGrid to record her lecture videos with closed-captioning and all her documents and PDFs are formatted for screen readers.

For the certification, Kristie needed to cite every image used in her slides. A task that would have taken Kristie weeks or even months to do alone was completed promptly with the help of instructional designer Jennifer Gray, who performed a reverse image google search.

“It was as painless a process as it could possibly be,” Kristie said. “There’s no reason not to do this.”