Earlier this week Dr. Jill Biden and I had the privilege of visiting Austin Community College (ACC), in addition to meeting with innovators at the SXSWedu education conference. Once again I was inspired by the tremendous collective effort to increase student success—from the students themselves to college leaders to technology entrepreneurs.
During our visit, Austin Community College student Jenny Bragdon allowed us to observe her work at the Learning ACCelerator lab. The school believes the lab to be the nation’s largest computer lab, and it combines computers—more than 600 — with faculty and tutors who help students when they need assistance.
When Jenny arrived at ACC, she was told she was prepared for college-level English courses, but needed to take some courses to get her ready for college-level math, since it had been over 20 years since her last math course. She enrolled in one of the classes that meet in the Learning ACCelerator, a developmental math class that allows students to reach college-level math in a self-paced environment.
In addition to the faculty and tutor assistance in the lab, Jenny’s professor, Prof. Vance, schedules optional small lessons in one of the adjoining conference rooms on subject areas where many students indicated they needed assistance. In one example, Prof. Vance offered a lesson on fractions, which was a topic Jenny had already moved beyond. But by attending the lesson, Jenny learned some helpful tips that reinforced her understanding. ACC has worked to build a model that integrates the best of technology-based and face-to-face teaching and learning on a large scale.
Jenny said that the impact of the developmental math class has been tremendous. She is on pace to finish three semesters worth of content in just one semester. And while she has always had the goal to teach, she is now considering teaching math, based on her rich experience in the math lab. Jenny, who has a young daughter, wants to encourage all young people—especially girls—to love math as much as she has come to.
The Austin Community College ACCelerator lab is just one example of innovative thinking by community college leaders, a strategic use of technology tools, and the hard work and dedication of students. My visits to the two community colleges and with technology entrepreneurs at SXSWedu underscored the importance of bringing all of these resources together to ensure student success.
At the Department of Education, we’re working to identify, support, and build the evidence base for these kinds of innovations. Our First in the World grant program will award $60 million in the upcoming competition for innovations to increase student success, and is currently inviting comments on its proposed priorities (due March 25). And our current round of Experimental Sites in Federal Student Aid includes a focus on competency-based education, to better support students in self-paced programs.
Our great thanks to the students, faculty, and leadership of ACC and those across the country working to increase student access and success.
Ted Mitchell is the U.S. Under Secretary of Education.