Library, Writing Center Launch Learning Commons Transition

campus pan-300

The FCC Library and Writing Center are developing an enriched service model for students and faculty: the “Learning Commons.” The phrase “learning commons” builds on the notion of “the commons,” which is a resource held “in common” by the community, from which everyone can benefit. In the Learning Commons, the resources are staff expertise, learning technologies, and learning spaces.

The Learning Commons will support students in enriching their “learning literacies.” Successful students must not only be literate in reading; they must also be information literate, writing literate, and technology literate. The Learning Commons is not just for students. Faculty members also have their own set of learning literacies, including many forms of technologically mediated instruction. Faculty will be part of the Learning Commons as learners themselves, and also as partners with librarians, writing coaches, and tech support staff.

The Learning Commons will be housed in the present Library space, which will undergo renovation to accommodate the other Learning Commons components. Design considerations include space arrangements to allow easy collaborations and referrals, multiple types of learning space—study rooms, studios, etc.—to support varied learning approaches, and technology for individual and collaborative learning.

An important Learning Commons principal is that students are learning leaders, not just learning recipients. Thus the Learning Commons will encourage students to shape their learning activities themselves, through flexible space and equipment arrangements.

The FCC Learning Commons planning process includes not only the Library and the Writing Center, but also faculty, and College departments that support technology and study skills literacies. The group is led by Colleen McKnight, Digital Resources and Faculty Support Librarian, and Betsey Zwing, Writing Center Manager. The project is now in its early conceptual design stage. A renovation schedule will follow once the design is clarified.

In addition to serving as executive director of the Frederick Community College Library, Mick O’Leary is Database Reviewer for Information Today.


Self-Sufficiency Standard Redefines Flawed Poverty Debate


Recently I was helping a student to research poverty and income, and I came across an unexpected and valuable resource: the Self-Sufficiency Standard. It codifies what most of us know intuitively, and casts a new—and desperately needed—twist on how to measure poverty.

As of this writing, the Maryland state legislature has a bill to raise the state’s minimum wage, over a period of three years, from $7.25/hr. to $10.10/hr. There is intense debate, here and nationally, about whether this is good or bad, but I wonder, “How can you live on $10.10 an hour?” The other principal number in the poverty/income debates is the federal poverty level. For a family of four, it is $23,050 annually, but I wonder, “If that family earns $25,000 annually, they’re somehow not poor?”

The Self-Sufficiency Standard introduces good sense and good numbers into this wayward debate. It is defined as “…the amount of income required for working families to meet basic needs at a minimally adequate level, taking into account family composition, ages of children, and geographic differences in costs.” It is based upon detailed analyses of the actual costs for housing, child care, food, health care, transportation, and miscellaneous items, as well as the cost of taxes and the impact of tax credits. It is calculated for dozens of family structures: number of adults, age and number of children, etc. It takes into account the enormous living cost differences between areas, such as between, say, Garrett and Montgomery counties. Finally, it is austere, not allowing for recreation, entertainment, savings, or debt repayment.

What are some of the Self-Sufficiency Standard’s actual numbers? In our own Frederick County, that family of four whose poverty level is $23,050 would need an annual income of $77,584 to have a barely decent lifestyle. In Garrett County the amount is $42,605, and in Montgomery County it is $89,784; this great difference is due primarily to very different costs for housing and child care.

There is, obviously, a giant gulf between the minimum wage and the federal poverty level, and the Self-Sufficiency Standard. This means that large numbers of working Americans and their children do not have enough money to make ends meet, and have to make hard choices between rent and health care, between food and gas, etc. The present preferred solutions—tinkering with minimum wage laws and the Earned Income Tax Credit—will do very little to alleviate this situation. Big solutions are not on the horizon.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard is produced by the Center for Women’s Welfare, which is affiliated with the School of Social Work at the University of Washington. There are Self-Sufficiency Standards for 37 states, including Maryland (all counties).

In addition to serving as executive director of the Frederick Community College Library, Mick O’Leary is Database Reviewer for Information Today.

Exoneration Database Documents “Justice” System Failures

On June 18, 1992, 18 year old Anthony Yarbough entered his Brooklyn, New York home, to discover that his mother, his half-sister, and her friend had been brutally murdered. Yarbough and a friend, 15 year old Sharrif Wilson, were quickly arrested and ultimately sentenced to long prison terms. On February 6, 2014, the convictions of Yarbough and Wilson were reversed and both men were released.

The Yarbough/Wilson case is a perfect storm of criminal justice malfunctions. The young men confessed to the crimes after long police interrogations. Yarbough recanted his confession at his trial, but he was convicted anyway. In 2005, Wilson stated that, under police intimidation, he had falsely confessed and falsely testified against Yarbough. The “conviction” continued to collapse further. Yarbough’s attorney had evidence that could have freed Yarbough, but it wasn’t presented. Finally, in 2013, DNA evidence showed that neither Yarbough nor Wilson was guilty.

The wrongful convictions of Yarbough and Wilson are themselves bad enough but, more distressingly, these are not isolated incidents. According to the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE), wrongful convictions are in fact commonplace in our criminal justice system.

The NRE is a database of cases where prisoners have been exonerated as a result of a review of their felony convictions. The NRE, launched last year, is a joint project of the Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and the University of Michigan Law School. It includes over 1,200 cases since 1989, representing all known exonerations in the US, including 18 in Maryland.

For each exoneration there is a detailed description of the stages of the case, from the initial arrest and conviction to the subsequent exoneration. The case record includes the reasons for the wrongful conviction, which makes you doubt that justice is blind, or, indeed, “just” at all.

The NRE records show how readily and often that eyewitnesses can lie and make mistakes, that lawyers can be incompetent, that police and prosecutors can be corrupt, and that confessions can be coerced.

The NRE shows other highly troubling patterns. Almost two-thirds of exonerees are from minority populations and approximately half are African American. There can be large differences in exoneration rates in adjacent, similar jurisdictions, indicating troubling local variations in criminal justice and judiciary practices.

Exoneration researchers have estimated that as many as 5% of felony convictions are wrongful. Perhaps most disturbing is the exoneration “iceberg” effect, suggesting that, for every exoneration, there is some much larger number of innocent people who remain convicted.

In addition to serving as executive director of the Frederick Community College Library, Mick O’Leary is Database Reviewer for Information Today.

MOOC Hype Gets Stern Backlash

For the past few years, MOOCs have been acclaimed as the biggest innovation in education since online learning itself. They’ve been described as the solution to underperforming students, high costs, and every other ailment of higher education.

But, first—What’s a MOOC? Let’s start with a definition. A “MOOC” is a Massive Open Online Course. It works like this: A university has an Online Course taught by a respected professor. The university thinks, “Why limit this excellent course to our students? An online course can be made Open to anyone. Perhaps there will be a Massive enrollment

And it’s happening just this way. MOOCs are offered by leading universities, consortia, and for-profit education companies. There are many thousands of people from all over the world enrolled in hundreds of MOOCs. Many are available for free or at very low cost. And, except in a very few cases, it is not possible to get official college credit for them.

But even as the early hype continues, there is already a surging backlash against MOOCs. Higher education faculty at all levels regard them suspiciously, as a cost-saving measure that’s being eagerly eyed by administrators, boards, and legislatures: fire expensive human educators and replace them with MOOCs. (Robots are cheaper than humans in a factory. Why not in the classroom too?)

The professors’ rebellion may be self-serving, but a more devastating backlash against MOOCs was recently delivered by Sebastian Thrun, arguably the father of the entire MOOC movement. Thrun was a highly respected professor at Stanford who conducted the first great MOOC, an online artificial intelligence course that—to his surprise—attracted thousands of enrollees worldwide. Thrun left Stanford to found Udacity, a large MOOC provider. Thrun would, seemingly, be the MOOC’s biggest booster.

But in a highly publicized interview in December, Thrun threw his creation under a bus. He stated that “We have a lousy product.” In fact, MOOCs don’t work for most people. They have staggering non-completion rates—fewer than ten percent finish the course and not all of these pass. Most MOOC completers are already highly educated and educationally experienced. They have all the tools to learn in a self-paced and independent environment.

On the other hand, Thrun admits, MOOCs are a disaster for underprepared, inexperienced learners—exactly the millions of students now widely served by the community colleges. These students thrive in the personal, group-oriented, support-intensive learning environments that community colleges provide so well.

There will be a place for MOOCs in the community college. It’s just that, right now, nobody knows what it is. As experience with MOOCs grows, they will gradually find their most effective role. Just don’t think it’s time to get rid of those expensive human teachers.

In addition to serving as executive director of the Frederick Community College Library, Mick O’Leary is Database Reviewer for Information Today.

Troubling News on U.S. Adults’ Cognitive Skills


We regularly read about international studies that show American students lagging far behind their peers in other developed countries. Much of this research is done by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). OECD’s 34 members include most of the nations of Western and Northern Europe, other English-speaking countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States), and a few non-Western countries such as Japan and Korea. Last month the OECD, under the auspices of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), released a new major study on information-processing attainment. The takeaway for Americans? Our kids aren’t the only problem.

The OECD study—Survey of Adult Skills—examines the information-processing skill attainments of adults. Over 160,000 adults, aged 16 to 65, from 24 OECD countries were tested on three metrics:

Literacy – the ability to understand and respond appropriately to written texts;
Numeracy – the ability to use numerical and mathematical concepts; and
Problem solving in information-rich environments – the capacity to access, interpret and analyse information found, transformed and communicated in digital environments.

The results are similar to those found In OECD studies of elementary and high school students. The Survey shows the highest attainments among adults in Nordic and East Asian countries, with the lowest attainments among the Mediterranean European nations. And US adults? In the back of the pack. For example, the US ranks 14th in problem solving, 15th in Literacy, and 21st in Numeracy.

The Survey provides individual country analyses, and identifies three key issues for the US:

1. US adults’ performance is lower than would be predicted by the US’s relatively high levels of educational attainment.
2. Socio-economic background has a stronger effect on adult literacy skills in the United States than in other countries.
3. Literacy skills are linked not only to employment outcomes, but also to personal and social well-being.

The Survey analyzes the connections between the information-processing skill levels of a nation’s adult workforce, and the ability of the nation to compete in the knowledge-infused markets and economies of the present and future. This is surely self-evident, but the Survey identifies other wide-ranging harms caused by low information-processing levels. Not being “workforce-ready” is troubling for a nation, but certainly also for every affected individual. And beyond economic and workforce issues (important as they are) the Survey describes how weak information-processing capacities can undermine social and civic cultures, which are the foundations for vitality and accomplishment in the workplace and elsewhere.

What to do? The Survey has numerous policy prescriptions, but there is one underlying theme: lifelong learning. Adults of all ages and employments must continually learn and reinforce a range of information-processing skills. The US does not have a comprehensive, systematic program for this, but—based on mission and design—the community college certainly might be a lead agent.

In addition to serving as executive director of the Frederick Community College Library, Mick O’Leary is Database Reviewer for Information Today.

College (Un)bound Describes Higher Ed Paradigm Shift

Part jeremiad and part prophecy, College (Un)bound is a devastating critique of US higher education and a forecast of the great, fast-approaching changes that it faces. It’s written by Jeff Selingo who, as editor at large for the Chronicle of Higher Education, is an energetic and well-informed reporter.

Selingo deftly lays out the system-wide failures of our conventional higher education model: soaring costs, un- or mis-directed students, dubious academic performance, uncertain job prospects for graduates, and the massive student loan burden. (Selingo concentrates has critique on four-year colleges and universities. Community colleges get much less of a scolding, mostly because our costs are so much lower and our cost structures so much leaner than our kin institutions.)

This increasingly unsustainable model limped along for many years until it hit a tipping point in the Great Recession. This reduced financial support to public institutions, poured new graduates into a job market with no jobs, and forced families to conduct harsh cost/benefit analyses in college selection. In short, higher education faces a giant crisis of confidence from within and without, with calls from all sides for changes in direction without knowing where to go, and calls for greater accountability without knowing quite what that means

What next in this crisis? Selingo explains that a profound paradigm shift is already well underway. He captures its essence in the book’s title, in which the college experience is being unbound from a narrow and restrictive model that’s existed for hundreds of years. The change agent? – Technology. Technology is transforming the old brick-and-mortar model into discrete digital units of learning and training. These new units (we used to call them “courses”) are available anytime/anywhere, and sometimes for very low costs. They are “unbound” from institutions, so that a student can customize an individual learning program using units from different providers. Through third-party proctored testing services, students can obtain credit, certification, or a “badge” that demonstrates proficiency. Employers are increasingly looking at prospective employees actually know, instead of what degree or diploma they have.

Selingo points out that this paradigm shift is moving at great speed and will radically transform higher education. It’s a near future where nimble and adaptive institutions will fare better than slow and complacent ones—if they survive at all. He also, cautiously, imagines that the new paradigm will be better than its predecessor.

College (Un)bound is available at the FCC Library.

Choosing Textbooks in a Digital World

We are supposed to be in the digital age when everything is electronic, even books. Amazon sells more ebooks than paper ones. Over 95% of the FCC Library’s content is online. But just observe any group of students, from pre-K to post-doc, and most of them are burdened with big backpacks stuffed with heavy print textbooks. What’s going on here?

Tech transitions take place at different rates and, while you see people reading from ebook readers ever more frequently, print textbooks stubbornly hang on. There are reasons for this, but not necessarily the ones you might expect. It’s not lack of availability: almost any textbook is available in a digital version. It’s not cost: print books are more expensive than their ebook counterparts. It’s not generational: even millennials often prefer print textbooks. There are two big reasons for the gritty persistence of print textbooks. They both are based in how textbooks are actually used.

First, you do not read a textbook, you study it, and the two uses are quite different. You read a novel through, easily and pleasantly going from one page to the next. You study a textbook. You reread, highlight, and annotate sections. You use the table of contents and the index. You examine photos, charts, and other graphics. You may use end-of-chapter exercises. You can do all of these study activities with a digital textbook, but often not so easily as with the print version. The venerable paper codex, for all its antiquity, is still a highly efficient study instrument.

Second, there is the matter of device. Most ebook reading is done on a dedicated ebook reader, like the Kindle, whose technology is optimized for this one purpose. You can read a book on a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, but it’s not an optimal experience. And, very few students now have ebook readers. Library survey data estimate the following possession levels, among FCC students, of the four main portable devices: laptops and smartphones—above 80%; tablets—below 20%; ebook readers—below 10%. In other words, most students—at least those at FCC—do not now have a good device for ebooks.

Both of these conditions will change. Digital textbooks will evolve to become more “study-friendly.” Ebook readers will improve and more people will have them, and other devices are likely to become more “ebook-friendly.” But both of these transitions will take time and even then, the time-tested and eminently handy print book may never be completely superseded.

Mick O’Leary is the Executive Director of the Frederick Community College Library, a position he has held since 1994. He is passionate about libraries and information, and about making them best serve the FCC community.