New Faculty Orientation

Fall is always an exciting time on campus because we welcome new students and new faculty.

Last week, we had a two-day orientation with new faculty (and some staff). Below are some photos from a reception and resource we held on the plaza outside the faculty-staff dining room.

Here they are, in no particular order.

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Myths about Online Classes

The higher education writer, Goldie Blumenstyk, as a blog on the Chronicle for Higher Education website about some common myths about online education. One is that the instruction is all one-way, and she points out that the best online courses have plenty of student-to-student interaction. You can read the blog here.

She asked her readers for other examples of myths about online learning, and I sent her an email with this message:

“One other myth that I hear often is that students don’t do as well in online classes as they do in face to face classes. And that the drop out rate is higher. Neither viewpoint is supported by evidence at my college. Our pass rates for courses, in all modalities, is around 70-72%. Drop rates are similar.”

Take a look at our reports about success rates in online classes at BMCC. The most recent report is from Fall 2016. It’s on the E-Learning website here.

Chart shows that Students succeed at nearly the same rates online and face to face at BMCC.

Students succeed at nearly the same rates online and face to face at BMCC.

We’re working with the Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Analytics to include mode of instruction in their regular reports on student success. We hope to have regular reports soon.

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Seven Principles of Good Practice in Action

This summer at BMCC, teams of fulltime and adjunct faculty will plan and implement a project to improve outcomes in Gateway courses. Planning and design will happen in June and professional development for adjuncts will take place in August and September.

The approaches they take will vary across the eight disciplines that are looking at the high enrollment courses. Some will build a culture of care in their classrooms, others will focus on active learning and critical thinking, and others will integrate early feedback and supplemental instruction. Some are looking at small changes and others will attempt larger interventions.

Following up on the last post, I wanted to share some thoughts on Gamson and Chickering, “The Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education.” (This is a clear and easy to read version.) Below is an annotated list of the seven principles as applied to the community college student with a few links for more information and ideas.

Chickering and Gamson state that “Good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty.
    1. Get to know your students and let them know you.
    2. Use individual conferences, office hours, and group office hours.
    3. Empathy can help alleviate student resistance.
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
    1. Find ways for students to work together in and out of class.
    2. Constructivist theories tell us we learn more through cooperation than competition.
    3. Learn about informal and formal cooperative learning.
  3. Encourages active learning.
    1. Get students to do something and think about what they are doing.
    2. Small changes can be good: writing to learn, buzz groups.
    3. Lectures can be made active and engaging. See how.
  4. Gives prompt feedback.
    1. Give meaningful assignments and feedback early.
    2. Student want to know how they are doing.
    3. Blackboard’s gradebook allows students to track their own progress.
    4. Use BMCC’s early alert system, Starfish. See the link on the BMCC Website Student Page, and it takes you to the BMCC Portal. http://www.bmcc.cuny.edu/students/
    5. Learn more about designing feedback for learning into your classes.
  5. Emphasizes time on task.
    1. Think about the best use of class time.
    2. “Flipped classrooms” can be effective.
    3. Student can benefit from a writing workshop with you and each other.
    4. Here’s a list of ways to make sure your class time is effective.
  6. Communicates high expectations.
    1. Set the bar high and offer support for students to reach it.
    2. Beware of stereotype threat: low expectations can discourage students.
    3. Challenge and support are two keys to teaching men of color.
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.
    1. Recognize the talents, experiences, and heritage student bring to the class.
    2. Adopt a growth mindset for yourself and your students.
    3. Ditch the deficit model.
    4. Research culturally relevant pedagogy. Here’s a synthesis.
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The Gateway Initiative

In a previous post, I quoted Kevin Gannon:

“When it comes to closing the shameful gaps in college student success, we need to place pedagogy at the center of our efforts” from his commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Case for Inclusive Teaching.”

The Gateway Initiative is an effort by BMCC faculty and staff to improve student success by looking at pedagogy, course design, and student supports in courses that students often take in their first or second semesters in college.

It’s part of the college’s strategic plan, and it relates to Goal number two: “improve the student experience.” That goal has several objectives, including a specific one to “improve student outcomes in Gateway courses, including integration of developmental skills.” One of the intended outcomes is to “reduce the DFW rates in targeted Gateway courses.” “DFW” refers to grades D and F that students earn and W is the rate of withdrawal.

So, what are Gateway courses anyway? In the past, you might have heard about them as “gate keeper” courses. These are the courses where the Professor would say to students on the first day, “Look to your left, look to your right, one of these people is not going to be here at the end of the term.” Some saw them as a right of passage, a class so hard only the most “qualified” students could pass them and go on to the next stage of being a major in that field.

St Peter at the Pearly Gates

The ultimate gatekeeper

However, as the John Gardner Institute puts it: “Perhaps the gateway-course weed-out function was more appropriate in the days when a college or university credential was reserved for a privileged few, or even during the era when a high school credential was more than adequate preparation for work and life in a democratic republic. But we no longer live in those times.”

And at BMCC, we don’t live in that type of institution. Our mission is to teach the students we have, the top 100% of the graduating class of New York City schools. We meet them where they are and we help them get where they want to go.

In this context, Gateway courses are Introductory courses that college students need to pass before they can take other courses in their field, such as Introduction to Business or General Psychology, or beginning courses that all students need to take regardless of major, such as Freshman Composition or Public Speaking.

We also consider developmental courses that prepare students to take college-level courses, such as Intermediate Algebra or Basic Writing, and more generally, large-enrollment classes that are taught via multiple sections with many instructors. These courses serve a large number of students, are pre-requisites to more college courses, and are taught over multiple sections with different teachers.

The top eight courses at BMCC by enrollment are English 101, Speech 100, English 201, Psychology 100, Sociology 100, Math 150, Health Education 100 and Critical Thinking 100 (which is also listed as Philosophy 115).

So why are we doing this? In January, Provost Karrin Wilks shared some data about graduation rates at BMCC. The good news is that they are going up, primarily for fulltime students.

Three year graduation rate

Three year graduation rate

But when you break out the data by ethnicity, you start to get a better picture of what is happening with our students.

Three year graduation rate by ethnicity

Three year graduation rate by ethnicity

Note that the difference in graduation achievement is ten percentage points in some places.

Also, one of the key indicators of success at college is whether students come back, so we look at retention of students from their first fall to the following fall. We have varied success there as well.

Retention by ethnicity

Retention by ethnicity

As Provost Wilks said in January, we need to take a design approach to addressing equity issues. That approach begins with acknowledging that “Every program, every service, every policy, every college is perfectly DESIGNED to achieve the EXACT outcome it currently produces.”

We ask faculty engaged in the the Gateway Initiative to take an inquiry approach and a design approach to your classes. Faculty have used a process similar to this:

  1. Examine success rates for your course and disaggregate the data
  2. Identify potential barriers to success
  3. Determine what evidence is available
  4. Use course design model to reimagine success in the course

We have seen some small changes with individual faculty, and some of those changes have been incorporated by others. We’re beginning to see some course-wide redesign discussions as well.

Recently I was reminded of an important article on pedagogy from 1987, “The Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,” by Zelda Gamson and Arthur Chickering. (Various versions exist online, this one is clear and easily readable.) This piece synthesized was what believed about good teaching and learning, and it has been reprinted and expanded on a number of times in the following years.

Chickering and Gamson state that “Good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
  3. Encourages active learning.
  4. Gives prompt feedback.
  5. Emphasizes time on task.
  6. Communicates high expectations.
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

I expect another blog post soon on the “Seven Principles” as it relates to community college teaching, so come back soon.

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Faculty Publishing at BMCC

Every year, I host a reception for faculty who have published books in the past 12 months. This year’s group includes faculty who work in mathematics, poetry, computing, philosophy, and literary translations.

Photo featuring faculty and their publications.

(L-R): Professors Matthew Ally, Margaret Carson, Paquita Suarez-Coalla, Shamira Malekar, Marcos Zyman, Geoffrey Klock, Vincent Cheng and Holly Messitt (holding the book of the late James Tolan).

Authors and their books included Professors Matthew AllyEcology and Existence: Bringing Sartre to the water’s edge; Jodie CulkinLearn electronics with arduino: An illustrated beginner’s guide to physical computing; Margaret Carson, translator of the novel Baroni: A Journey, by Sergio Chejfec; Vincent ChengTime is out of jointKeridiana ChezVictorian dogs, Victorian men: Affect and animals in nineteenth-century literature and culture; Erik Freas,The Exclusivity of holiness: The Role of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in the formation of national identitiesGeoffrey KlockAestheticism, evil, homosexuality, and Hannibal: If Oscar Wilde ate peopleAmy LawlessBroadaxAndrew LevyArtifice in the calm damagesShamira Soren Malekar (co-author R.P. Mohanty), Success with emotional intelligenceSophie MaríñezMademoiselle de Montpensier: Writings, châteaux, and female self-construction in early modern FrancePaquita Suárez CoallaHestories pa contales (Más nomes de muyer);  Marcos Zyman (co-authors A.E. Clement and S. Majewicz), The theory of nilpotent groups.

Poet James Tolan, who died in 2017, had his book, Filched, published posthumously.

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What happens in the classroom matters

I have been saying this internally for some time now: our efforts to increase success rates (completion, retention, persistence) have improved services and supports for students outside the classroom. And we’ve seen some good progress.

And now, as Kevin Gannon says, “when it comes to closing the shameful gaps in college student success, we need to place pedagogy at the center of our efforts.” Read his commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Case for Inclusive Teaching.”

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Using Twitter in Teaching and Professional Development

As part of a series on using social media in the classroom, I did a professional development activity for BMCC faculty on using twitter in the classroom. (See my earlier post.)

At the end of the two weeks, I created a Storify summary.

You can see it here.

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Student Engagement via Twitter

It all started with a tweet, as these things often do, which led to a blog post.

A colleague I have met IRL and online wrote about teaching with Twitter. Joshua Eyler is the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University. He presented #twitterteaching as a way to increase engagement among students. Read his blog here.

I was faced with a course that met once a week, with too much content to even try to cover in the time allowed face to face. The course is on community colleges in graduate program on higher education. #AcademicTwitter is a thing, and I wanted students to see how academic professionals discussed issues and ideas online, not just in journal articles and conference presentations. So I adopted some of Eyler’s ideas for my own assignment (giving credit, naturally). Here’s how I put it in my syllabus:

This course will make use of social media, where the most up-to-date research and policy discussions in higher education are engaged. We will tweet, and we will blog. You may engage as yourself or create an anonymous account. If you do not use a recognizable version of your name on your account, email me your username, url, etc.

Twitter: higher education professionals use Twitter to announce initiatives, research, and policy. Start an account if you don’t already have one. Follow me @DeanJimBerg, other members of our class, and at least fifteen other higher education feeds (publications, organizations, and individuals). (I borrowed this from Joshua Eyler, so you can follow him too @joshua_r_eyler.)

You will be required to tweet a minimum of five times per week.  The only guidelines for tweets are: 1) they must have something to do with the class (i.e. a response to the reading, a link to a related article, a question, etc.); 2) they must be substantive; and 3) they must be respectful.

Use the hashtag #ORLH4012, so we can keep track of each other’s posts. Posts without the hashtag will not be counted. This portion of the class will be pass/fail. If you post the required number of relevant tweets, you get an A on this assignment. If not, you get an F.

From my point of view, and luckily this can be supported with evidence, the Twitter assignments did engage the students with the material. I was responding to students’ tweets and they were responding to mine on days that class did not meet. One student wrote on the end-of-semester evaluation that Twitter was one of the “most valuable” aspects of the course:

Loved the Twitter # and convo we had over twitter! Never before had an instructor do this and I think it contributed a lot to interacting with each other outside of class and kept us thinking about community colleges and higher education.

Some fun things happened on twitter. About half of the students read Sara Goldrick-Rab’s book Paying the Price. She’s an active twitter user (@saragoldrickrab) so many of the students followed her. Imagine their pleasure and surprise when she not only “liked” their Tweets but Tweeted back! Students engaging with a prominent scholar about important issues in the field. When else does that happen?

We even did a Twitter activity in class. In response to a discussion of what makes students “college ready,” we posted with the hashtag #collegeready.

Student tweets on the issue of college readiness.

Student tweets on the issue of college readiness.

Student tweets on the issue of college readiness.

More student tweets on the issue of college readiness.

Note that the last tweet in this line is from the day after the class.

Students used the hashtag to discuss other issues as well, such as some pod casts that several of them were listening to on their commutes. At the end of the semester, the students insisted that I retire the hashtag #ORLH4012. They completely owned it and the experience.

My first Twitter requirement was rather loose, and I let students choose the what and how of their tweets. There are a lot of good ideas out there about how to create good assignments on Twitter. Here are some:

This post is the start of a professional development activity for BMCC faculty on using social media in the classroom. The series has several modules, looking at various platforms. Twitter is up first, from October 10-24. Check out the website: https://socialmedia.commons.gc.cuny.edu/ Follow along on with #BMCCSocialEd.

Tweet ya later.

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Humanities at the Community College

Today I gave opening remarks to a symposium called “Reimagining Borders and Boundaries within a Globalized World.” It is the culmination of a project on cultivating global competencies in the community college curriculum, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
In a nod to the sponsor, I chose to speak about the state of the humanities at BMCC. I am posting my remarks here.

When talking about the humanities, I assume I’m like a lot of people and feel that I need to come up here and make a case for the utility of the humanities. To explain that, by studying the humanities, we give students in science and technology fields the “soft skills” they will need to be successful in the workplace.

But I’m sure that with this audience, I don’t have to do that. We know that the humanities serve a purpose in the market place of work that our students will enter or are already in. We also know that the humanities hold a central space in the market place of ideas.

And then many of us hold on to the idea that the humanities have value in and of themselves, and we don’t really want to defend their utility all the time.

So we can celebrate the place of the humanities in the community college, and I believe that place is at the center. That’s one reason that BMCC has recently joined the Community College Humanities Association. And so all of you faculty from BMCC are now members.

And speaking of our fabulous BMCC faculty, last night we recognized forty-five faculty members who had achieved tenure or have been promoted at BMCC in the last year. About twenty of them were in fields considered to be in the Humanities, or as the NEH describes them, “those aspects of the social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods.” Those fields include language, linguistics, and literature; history, philosophy, and art history.

BMCC faculty who were tenured and promoted in the last year were recognized at BMCC’s Fiterman Gallery.

In addition, every year the office of Academic Affairs awards research and publication grants to faculty, many of whom are conducting research in humanities fields. Studies have examined the literary careers of certain authors, aestheticism in popular culture, as well as autobiographical essays of growing up Chinese in New York City.

What I want to illustrate here is that the Humanities is alive and well at BMCC.

But I’m very proud to say that we are also pushing the Humanities in new directions at BMCC. In addition to your activity today and over the last year and a half, we have also had an NEH funded project to infuse Asian-American studies across the community college curriculum. That project, led by sociologist Soniya Munshi, involved BMCC faculty as well as faculty from Laguardia, Kingsborough, and the Bronx Community College.  They came from the disciplines of English, Japanese, communications, as well as the social sciences.

Our students have many opportunities to study the Humanities. BMCC has majors in Art History, Communication studies, Modern Languages, Writing and Literature, as well as interdisciplinary majors with significant humanities content, such as Gender and Women’s Studies.

On a personal note, and as a thank you to the National Endowment for the Humanities, which has supported your efforts, I’ll tell you that I was the recipient of a grant from the Minnesota Humanities Commission, and affiliate of the NEH, in the early 2000s that help facilitate my study of the writer Christopher Isherwood at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California. The grant supported the publication of a collection lectures that Isherwood gave to California colleges in the 1960s, that I published with the University of Minnesota Press under the title Isherwood on Writing. The NEH made that possible, and I will be forever grateful to my former home state and my nation for their support of humanities scholars. Long may it last.

So, the humanities aren’t dead. And they are not only represented in the curriculum as “general education” or as an “add on” to technical or science-based degrees. They are at the center, and that’s where they will remain.


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Online Students and Learning

Did you know that Blackboard turned twenty? It’s true, and they recently released a white paper on the future of higher education. “Future Forward” says that online learning is the most important thing to happen in higher education in the last twenty years. Not surprising, really, considering.

Here at Borough of Manhattan Community College, we have three major goals for online learning: 1) improve student success, 2) increase access, and 3) create a faculty community of practice. [See the strategic plan here.] I’ll write more about the second two, but first I want to talk a bit about our online students and their success.

In Spring 2017, we analyzed demographic data of students taking online courses. We also sent a brief survey to students enrolled in online classes. 324 students replied. This was the first time we tried to get any information from our online students.

A little over half of them said that they were taking an online course for the first time. The vast majority (94%) said they had “consistent access to internet service at home,” and 34% said they used computers on campus to do coursework for online classes. Over three-quarters of those who were not graduating or transferring said they planned to take more online courses at BMCC. (Note: we did not ask how well they liked their classes or how well they thought they were doing.) Only 15% of the respondents said they were taking any classes anywhere else.

It turns out that online students are a lot like students who take face to face classes at BMCC. However, they are somewhat older and more of them have sophomore standing. About 72% of them are women compared to 57% of the student body overall.

There are a few reasons for these differences, we suspect. BMCC had, until January 2017, a policy that only students with a 2.0 GPA or higher could take online classes. This policy was not enforced in any systematic way, but it tended to keep first semester students out, as they did not have a GPA. Also, some departments offer more upper level courses than they do lower level courses, this is true for accounting and psychology, for example. Those factors may account for the relatively older online student population.

Other research tells us that students who take online courses may do so for the flexibility that they offer. Many community college students have characteristics that suggest that flexibility is important to them. Many students have dependents or may be single parents. Those factors may help explain why more online students are women.

Students who take online courses fall into the same top three majors as the rest of BMCC students: Liberal arts, business, and criminal justice. Very few of our students are taking courses online only, and 70% of the students taking online courses are fulltime students at BMCC. So basically, the students we see in the classrooms are the same students we interact with in the Blackboard space.

So, how well do our students do in their online courses? BMCC colleagues Katherine Conway, Claire Wladis, and Elise Hachey have been looking at online education at the college and in CUNY. They report “that there is no meaningful difference online versus face-to-face in the proportion of students who successfully complete a course with a C- or better, once the specific course taken and student characteristics are controlled. … Students in online courses actually had higher successful completion rates before these other factors were controlled.” (Wladis, Hachey & Conway, 2016).

Overall, our internal data show that pass rates in online and hybrid courses are about the same as they are in face to face courses. They range between 65% and 70%, from 2007 to 2015. The pass rates by instructional mode in academic years 2014, 2015, and 2016, were all between 71% and 73% as shown below. (Office of Institutional Research and Analytics)

Chart shows that Students succeed at nearly the same rates online and face to face at BMCC.

Students succeed at nearly the same rates online and face to face at BMCC.

These are things we know. And they are a starting point for a discussion about how we can help our students to succeed in online courses. The staff in our E-Learning Office works hard every semester to help students log in to their courses and provide technical and to encourage new online students to complete a Blackboard orientation module. We will also be implementing a number of recommendations from a task force on student success that met last spring, including a new early alert system and expanded academic supports for online students.

Online learning is an important element of modern higher education. Leaders interviewd for the Blackboard white paper agree that it will continue to transform higher education in the United States. BMCC is committed to offering quality online courses with the supports students need to be successful.


“E-Learning Success Update.” (2017a) Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Analytics. Borough of Manhattan Community College. [Office web site.]

“E-Learning Student Profile Fall Terms 2013-2016.” (2017b). Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Analytics. Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Wladis, C., Hachey, A.C. & Conway, K.M. (2016). Who Succeeds Online? Using Student Characteristics to Predict Online Versus Face-to-Face Attrition, NSF Envisioning the Future of Undergraduate STEM Education Symposium, April, 2016, Washington, D.C. [See more about the online learning research project here.]

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