Gatekeeper Courses

It’s an endless rotation of conversation. About open education.

I get paid to talk about and to advocate for open education. Mostly I get to share open educational resources. Can I tell you how awesome that is?

My favorite conversations are the ones with faculty where they learn how open works for the very first time. Their eyes either squint with skepticism or they gaze up to the ceiling pensive in thought.

I just swam in the waters of mathy conversations for almost two days at a regional conference. I did a lot of listening. I did a lot of talking. At a certain point, I changed the conversation back to teaching in some way the best that I could. Otherwise I had very little to say to mathematicians. Though I truly love their brand of dorkery; I just don’t get their jokes.

I got to see one of my former colleagues who I worked with on my very first project with the OER. It was so nice to chat with her, and reflect on very little I knew then about leadership. How very little I understood about making open education part of the conversation for community college educators and administrators. How much I failed. How that work led to the job I have today. How I still love working with/for community college teachers.

And let me tell you. The lone faculty member who is thinking about going rogue is a beautiful thing to witness.

When my colleague and I came arrived at the vendor hall at this small regional mathy conference, it was like an icy wind had blew through the room. I tried to make eye contact and smile at a few folks. I mean, we’re all there working, I thought. My mom taught me to say good morning to strangers. It was my first time not feeling a sense of hospitality arriving some place to chat about open education. Talking about open education and courseware in a crowded room of hard-bound textbook vendors is weird. Let’s just leave it at that.

Our vendor table, however, was constantly surrounded by faculty. They chatted with us, and we loved talking plans with them. Teachers had specific questions. They wanted to get down to it. How does it work? My department isn’t ready for this but I am. My department is ready for this but not my administration. My institution is ready but not the system.

We don’t have the resources to support an effort from scratch. How do we start?

Can you help me?

Hot damn. You bet.

Here’s the thing, I learned how an initiative can create a legitimacy for changing the way we teach. Not just for innovation’s sake. But you know, for the sake of helping students. What a concept! The Completion Agenda from 2010 has generated data that legitimizes some radical curriculum revisions here in 2016. Math and, wait for it–the cost of textbooks–are barriers for community college students realizing their goals. Their dreams.

The guided pathways movement is creating some real momentum for new courses. Interesting courses. Smartly designed courses. For certain pathways.

Community college leadership is looking at programs from a different angle. Curriculum change–at this scale–is made easier through open education. The 5Rs, adapting, and adopting makes a much easier path. The best work of your peers–that is licensed–makes the paths easier to create, design, and sustain.

Administrators and faculty are looking for help and guidance, if you will, and I’m delighted by what I learned from these math teachers. I can’t wait to work with some of them, and I have a stack of emails to write. Follow-up data linking together our great conversations. Plans to write. Before I do that, I need to parse out my doubts and concerns.

What really happens in those guided pathways? Will certain courses be eliminated? Will this redesign be forced on adjuncts who have no say with departmental decisions? I worry for vocational/professional technical programs. Will they lose all access to the humanities? To social science? Is this initiative another way to track poor people? Will the joy and discovery of a liberal arts education only happen for those born with a financial safety net?

As I read more about this policy, my internal Alyson-splainer takes over.

This all seems too much about employment and not education. This all seems too centered on the goals of capitalism. This all seems too aligned with creating good workers not educated citizens. This all seems too good to be true.

Yes. And no. It’s not a binary of right and wrong–as I learned in my humanities courses.

So let me pull out a couple of quotes from “Redesigning Community Colleges for Student Success Overview of the Guided Pathways Approach” by Davis Jenkins. The bolding is mine:

Developmental dead-end. Even before they can proceed with college-level courses, the majority of degree-seeking students in both academic and occupational programs are referred to developmental education. However, research suggests that, as it is typically designed, developmental education serves more to divert students into a remedial track than to build skills for college and help them choose and prepare to successfully enter a college-level program of study in a particular field. The most promising approaches to reforming developmental education involve mainstreaming students in college-level courses with support or providing alternative pathways, especially in math. But improving the success of students in passing college-level math and English is not sufficient to improve completion rates. These efforts need to be tied to efforts to strengthen supports for students to take and pass the key gatekeeper courses for their programs of study, and not only Math and English 101 (p. 3).

Lost in the maze. With so many choices and without a clear roadmap or anyone monitoring their progress, it is not surprising that many community college students indicate that they are confused and often frustrated in trying to find their way through college (p. 3).

Start with the end in mind: map student pathways to end goals. The first step in creating guided pathways is to engage the faculty, with input from advisors, in mapping out programs (p. 10).

Colleges might consider redirecting at least some resources currently spent on conventional forms of professional development toward collaborative efforts, such as providing training, facilitation, and other support as needed by teams of faculty and staff working together to create guided pathways. Doing so would reframe professional development as a strategic activity that supports the collective involvement of faculty and staff in organizational improvement as well as one that supports the professional growth of individual faculty and staff (p.11).



As I read this report and bookmark other sources, I’m reminded of a book chapter that I used to teach in my research courses.

Circa 2006-2008, we read “Shadowy Lines That Still Divide” by Janny Scott and David Leonhardt from the compilation Class Matters. 

Scott and Leonhardt explain:

One way to think of a person’s position in society is to imagine a hand of cards. Everyone is dealt four cards, one from each suit: education, income, occupation, and wealth, the four commonly used criteria for gauging class (p.9).


The open door policy of a community college welcomes students who have none of those cards. Their day-to-day is a roulette of just having enough of the basics. They walk through the community college open door without credentials, a job, or any financial safety net. Generational poverty is the phrase we use to describe their most complex barrier.

My lens, for better or for worse, is concerned with the poor at community colleges. My ideas only get so radical as they intersect with the reality of being poor.

One teacher said to me, “I’m tired of the way my department does things, and I’ve got a grant to write a course. This could change my entire department and be so good for my students. Do you think it’s possible to go that rogue?”

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
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