University Folks, Explain Community Colleges to Me

“There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves.”
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

First of all, let me admit, this post has been in draft form for almost six months. My new job and my new life have taken up all of my attention these days. In fact, I’m in a bit of guilt spiral right now taking one minute away from the goals of my new job. Because I love it. Because I’m so thrilled to work with so many smart people who care so much about the same things I do.

I know this about myself: If my eyes strain too close, I lose focus. Taking this break to finish this post will feel like stretching a bit. It’s like gazing out at the window when I’ve been focused on the laptop screen for days. For weeks. For months.

Here’s the thing.

I have this fantasy that community college teachers have the time to debate on Twitter, blog, and go to conferences to share their experiences. I have this fantasy that adjuncts are the ones debating about what open education means and who it can help. I have a fantasy they are the ones talking about how to teach with open materials creatively in order to save their students money. I have this fantasy that people were more generous when they discuss the needs of our poorest students. Our poorest colleges. Our community of colleges.

The loudest voices aren’t always the ones who have the best answers. I’m riffing here, of course, with my blog title on Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me.

Men (Still), Explain EdTech To Me, (why didn’t I think of that?!) is a refrain that Audrey Watters returned to twice last year with her keynotes. And it’s awfully awesome for feminists while at the same time reminding me about the sad state of journalism.

Allow me make a connection here.

My very good friend T. Andrew Wahl is a journalist and a comic book historian, and I’m incredibly thankful for all of his wisdom that he shared with me during the almost two years we were office neighbors at a community college north of Seattle, WA.

He and I have talked extensively about the history of the newspaper industry in the last twenty years and how it connects to some of the current challenges in educational technology.

So much of what frustrated me as an eLearning director/administrator, he experienced when the newspaper industry was trying to move from paper form to digital print. From the analog to the digital. From the known to the unknown. From the past to the future.

I’m beginning this blog post with a nod to the work of Audrey and Andrew because they are both journalists. Both writers. Both very influential to me as a thinker.

Andrew said to me one day about a year ago, “You know, you’re like the Cassandra of your field.”

I laughed hard and blushed brightly. “That title’s already been taken. Have you heard of the name Audrey Watters before? She’s the one. Not me.”

I got to meet Audrey IRL in 2015 at NW eLearn when I was on the planning board for that conference, and of all the work we put into making that event happen, I’m most proud of the introduction that Lisa Chamberlin read to the audience that I helped write with her and Maria Erb. Here’s our best paragraph in that introduction, and Lisa delivered it beautifully:

Audrey often gives voice to the things we cannot say in our daily work lives while she critiques institutions and philosophies around the intersection of education and technology. As someone who claims to be a serial dropout, we’d like to give her an honorary degree in Feminist Radness. And men, if you feel excluded, allow me to remind you that feminism is for everyone.

The Open Door Policy: A Memoir

Community colleges accept everyone who walks in the door. Students sign up. Community colleges say yes no matter what. They say yes. Look up Open Door Policy.

Universities, on the other hand, say yes, maybe, or no. Community Colleges always always always say yes. Never no. Never maybe. Yes. Programs that are in demand create a waiting list.

Come on in, students. Let’s see what we can do with you. Let us see.

I just want to make a point here to defend my colleagues who support online education at community colleges. I am no longer a part of a community college system yet I want to help online education succeed in every state. In every corner of this country. In every county. Of every state of every region.

I’m having a very hard time not writing “We” when I talk about community colleges. I’ve been struggling with this for months. So I’m just going to own it and use that pronoun.

A while back, another Twitter hero turned IRL pal Kevin Gannon @TheTattooedProf posted a link for some discussion for the folks at the POD Conference. Here’s the link:

The digital revolution in higher education has already happened. No one noticed by Clay Shirky. 

Right. Sigh.

This is the writer who was very public about not allowing students to bring their laptops to his class.

This “no laptop in my class” article, and the praise (the likes/the hearts/the favorites/the retweets) that surrounded the popularity of that edict made my blood boil at the time. I’m sure he’s a swell guy, but his assertion about the reality of teaching assumes that every student has a laptop to bring to class. And his students, no doubt, in fact do own them, and that’s wonderful.

But. Remember the open door policy of your local community college. These students are not always so lucky. So privileged. So connected. So supported.

Shirky’s article is the type of online journalism that a dean or an upper administrator reads and then emails to faculty as “professional development” or as a “must read” before department meetings. Check this out, they’ll say.

When really, these edicts about pedagogy, deserve a broader conversation. This idea deserves more than just a stance, a policy draft, or a forwarded email that says, “Aha! Technology allows students to multi-task. So bad! We don’t have to pay for it after all! Ban them in your class. This reinforces what I’ve always believed in about [enter banal assumption about teaching and learning here]. Technology, Bad. My Way, Good.”


And to me, when I read Shirky’s work, he’s not saying that technology is universally bad at all. He’s asking meaningful questions about the value of seminaring in the face-to-face setting. He’s questioning the value of presence in real time with a group of people seminaring together.

Note in that last sentence that “seminar” is used as a verb. To seminar. To seminar with students is something I believe in. To seminar with people is something I believe in.

But it’s not entirely yet possible with asynchronous learning, is it? It’s a luxury that only a certain percentage of students may enjoy. Online education, however, can step in to fill this void. Asynchronous learning, like it or not, depends on technology. How do we get the educational value of the synchronous seminar in an online setting? How do we make this style of learning meaningful? How do we get to the feeling of seminaring in an asynchronous setting? How do we help every student that walks into the open door at a community college?

Shirky brings a lot of useful  research to his post, and I’ve already read much of what he linked. Let’s face it, he has a Wikipedia page and I don’t. A list of publications. Credentials. A Ted Talk. A boatload of credibility. And, well, I don’t.

He writes about online education:

You wouldn’t know this from public conversation, where online courses are discussed as something that might be a big deal some day, rather than as ordinary reality for one student in four. The dramatic expansion of online classes has been largely ignored because it’s been driven by non-traditional students, which is to say students who are older and have more responsibilities than the well-off adolescents college has always stood ready to serve.

If you’re reading this, you were probably a smart kid who did well at a good school, and that description extends to almost everyone you know. The gap between the conversation about college and its reality exists because the people who drive that conversation — you and me and our friends — mostly talk about elite schools.

Perhaps I’ve been living too long in the “ordinary reality” of working at community colleges. I wasn’t a smart kid who went to a good school and I rarely get to talk about elite schools. His best point and the idea that thrills me is what he says about online education: it’s been driven by non-traditional students. 

Like Audrey Watters. Like Andrew Wahl. Like me. Like the students I’m working to try to help.

The conversation about these students isn’t as public because the people who support these programs are too busy doing the work. Too busy to blog about it. Too busy to research and substantiate it. Too busy to have a conversation. Too busy serving the needs of the students in their local communities. Too underemployed. Too busy applying for unemployment to make it through the summer.

It’s (some) university folks, honestly, who miss an opportunity to talk about online education with community college folks.

It’s (some) university folks, honestly, who think they own the only version of higher education worth talking about.

It’s (some) university folks, honestly, who make claims about the “public conversation” when really, there are a ton of people already talking about this issue say, going 15 years back.

There is a research center devoted to community colleges.

There are state agencies such as Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges and Virginia Community Colleges leading the way for open education. The focus, to some, may be too centered on the price of textbooks, but for every fire there is a spark. One can only be so radical in austere times. Open pedagogy matters little to a student who can’t afford tuition, books, and rent without getting into substantial debt.

From time to time, articles in appear in newspapers about community colleges. Here’s the kind of quote that’s helpful for the public. For The People. For the teachers. For the students:

Community colleges have the students with the greatest problems — yet they get the least resources, said Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. It’s unrealistic to think we can have a better outcome without investing more money.

Better outcomes are sorely needed. That is, if education is to recover its role as a motor of opportunity for those who need it most.

The conversation is very public. Very local. Very political. Very personal.

The people doing the work, however are just too busy to publish. Too busy to blog. Too busy to present. Too restricted by budgets to attend regional much less national conferences. Too busy to engage in a public conversation.

Worse still, their institutions do not see the value in engaging in such a scholarly conversation because they see themselves as entrenched in the community. As institutions who have no competition in either the face-to-face, hybrid, or online setting. They are, to be frank, quite cozy being an institution.

It’s been deeply troubling to me meeting many of my OL scholar heroes IRL over the last two years only to discover they are under-appreciated, under-funded, and under-utilized at their local institutions. Audrey Watters, without an institutional affiliation, for example, may not have access to academic databases to do her work.

These are realizations I wish I could unlearn.

But really, university folks, keep focusing on the failures of community college. The gaps in data. The limits of what we don’t know. Our focus on open textbooks rather than open pedagogy (as if you can separate the two, but I digress). When really, you need to be looking at what community colleges have done well to support a variety of learners during very austere times. How they try to respond to the needs of their communities without knowing if they have the right answers.

Watters, as usual, honed in on this exact reality in her keynote from NW eLearn about the Pacific Northwest:

Austerity looms over so much of what is happening right now in education. Between 1987 and 2012, the share of revenue that Washington State University received from Washington state, for example, fell from 52.8% to 32.3%. Boise State University saw its state support fall from 64.7% of its revenue to 30.3%. The University of Oregon, from 35.8% to 9.3%.

This austerity at the university level has trickled down to our community colleges. We need to look at what community colleges have done to meet the needs of their communities. Look at what community colleges have tried to do to help their students. On a shoe string. On a dime.

I’m heading into TL;DR territory, so let me return to a favorite passage of mine from Rebecca Solnit’s “By the Way, Your Home Is On Fire:”

Sometimes the right thing to do in ordinary times is exactly the wrong thing to do in extraordinary times. That’s easy to understand when something dramatic has happened. It’s less easy to grasp when the change is incremental and even understanding it requires paying attention to a great deal of scientific data…

The problem is: How do you convince someone who is stubbornly avoiding looking at the flames that the house is on fire? (Never mind those who deny the very existence of fire.) How do you convince someone that what constitutes prudent behavior in ordinary times is now dangerous and that what might be considered reckless in other circumstances is now prudent?

Change is incremental. My community college teachers taught me that.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
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16 Responses to University Folks, Explain Community Colleges to Me

  1. Lots to think about here. One tangential thought: You ask “How do we get to the feeling of seminaring in an asynchronous setting?” I’ve been able to do this when I’ve taught small online courses (<13 students). It's not the same as a f2f seminar discussion, but it's better & worse in different ways. The asynchronicity allows for thought before responding which helps some students get into the convo. And you need a tight community to make it work, which is harder online. So I think the real constraint is class size and my impression from a university is that CC classes tend to be larger than the ones I teach.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As always, Steve, you take one point I make and you help me realize where my inner English teacher would have written in the margins: “Say more, here!” Class size for OL classes intersects with my passion for adjunct labor politics, and I worry a great deal about the future of OL teaching. Some teachers are paid less for teaching online, as you may know. One way administrators have tried to save money is by expanding class size. That “tight community” is tough to establish, and most of the people making decisions about online courses, curriculum, and programs have not taught OL classes themselves. I’ve seen a few glimmers of hope lately with leaders that I’ve met through work, but this idea that OL classes are “easier” to teach or less expensive is just plain rubbish. Thanks for reading my work, Steve.


  2. actualham says:

    I love this piece. Thank you! Though for me, open pedagogy is exactly the point in austere times. As I think of it, it’s the broadening of open textbook advocacy so that it can think more comprehensively about access: what barriers we face and what benefits we could work toward by confronting those barriers. I am trying to find ways to frame open pedagogy as a movement focused on strengthening public education, which is tough to work out with only textbooks on the table. This doesn’t mean we don’t work on open textbooks–but maybe just that we talk about that as only one strand of the access issues facing (higher) education right now? Anyway, very much enjoyed this work. Thanks again!


    • Thanks for reading actualham! Your public advocacy about open is truly inspirational. As we work to weave multiple threads of open advocacy, I think access to openly licensed teaching materials such as courseware and texts are a meaningful start. Many of the folks I work with are just learning what the acronymn”OER” stands for and how it could change the way they teach. Learning about open for the folks I’m trying to advocate for happens on their own time and/or without institutional support. Having those discussions about textbooks is a conversation starter for policy makers and administrative decision makers at the community college level. I sometimes think we have to choose our part to help dismantle the walled garden brick by brick. We’ll get there. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lisa Chamberlin says:

    Will it be #Universitysplaining? #4yearsplaining? There’s definitely a new hashtag I can make good use of germinating from this great post!


    • actualham says:

      One differentiation is between cc’s and 4-yr public colleges/universities. But another is between public cc’s and colleges/universities on the one hand, and private colleges/universities on the other. Curious about how the distinctions would add another level of nuance to the conversation.

      Liked by 1 person

    • LOL, Unisplaining came up on my feed, Lisa, but that feels a bit too unicycle for me;) I think I like Universitysplaining best. Good to see your smiling face on my bloggy blog. This post was actually twice as long, so I’ve got a few more points on ice. Oh, and there’s that paper we’re going to write together…Just sayin. Let’s wait until you’re the chair of the eLC and we’ll bust it out. Seriously.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. CogDog says:

    A funny thing happened in reading your post. It must have loaded in my RSS Reader on my phone just before the plane door closed for my cross country return flight (ahem, too bad you were not in D.C. 😉 so I read it offline, and thought about it without responding.

    This might be more post than comment.

    There is no disagreement about the perceived positions of universities vs community colleges, and there is a lot to ponder in reality vs perception. I’m not quite ready to conceded what is known through popular media and what people’s lived experiences are.

    As a well performing school kid of middle class parents, I was on the direct road to university; my awareness of community colleges of embarrassing ignorance as a place to maybe learn welding or for those who “could not make the cut”. Fast forward to my first job, ever, as an instructional technologist in the Maricopa system, and an immediate schooling to see that (a) these CCs were a place all about teaching/learning (b) operated by faculty and staff who were zealots of care; but mostly (c) that I was there on what I see now as the tailing cusp of an era of strong visionary leadership. I, and my colleagues, did get to go to /present at conferences (the League for Innovation at one time was that), faculty were provided release time for projects to enhance their craft; and technology was something looked at maybe a generation before the internet was a “thing”. They system did ground breaking work in automating information systems in the 1970, to get the first generation of PCs into faculty hands in the 1980s, and to look at distance learning as a means of a mission of going to where the students were in the 1990s. There was a 1980s BBS system developed at Glendale Community college called Electronic Forum that was the idea of an English faculty. While I was there, people at Maricopa *were* doing research that showed students who transferred two years of cc experience had better success at Arizona State than ones who began there (and saved a boatload of $ on tuition).

    It wasn’t just one place, the Dallas system was breaking grounds with video classes, there was success with multimedia from Houston, Miami-Dade. Colleagues from Kapiolani Community College were running online conferences in the pre-web era.

    In many ways Arizona State University borrowed ideas from Maricopa – from one mono-campus to branch campuses to go where in the region students were, flexible course offerings, etc.

    I’ve been gone from the CC sphere since 2006, yet I doubt if everyone has gone back to their chalkboards. Yes, they are not in the TED Talks and the media spotlight. But what CCs do well is becoming known for smaller scale innovations, like at the teacher scale, at a more local level because you find an awareness of a large number of people whoi benefitted from individual CC teachers, not some mass produced degree splat. Stuff like

    My hunch is that community colleges can ‘splain plenty to Universities, if they were interesting in spending time ‘splaining which they usually are not (which is more or less what you wrote). But it truly is a mistake to think of them as second-rate institutions, and the people who can counter with their own success experiences are out there (two of them are my family members), quietly being good community people, not media bleaters.

    A significant mentor for me, Alfredo de los Santos, Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs when I was hired, was fond of reminding people that “community” was our middle name. So on goes that work, media spotlight or not.


    • Mr. CogDog, I was super excited about the prospect of coming to DC, but it wasn’t meant to be for me. Doggit! I can’t wait to see what came of that meeting of the minds. Thanks for posting some history and perspective. That must have been a wonderful time, and I get the sense that what you experienced then helped shape the work that you do now. I get a little zealous with my current post-recession view on things at community colleges, so having some insights from another lived experience is good for me to see. I had no idea this post would strike such a chord. You know, sometimes you get your fur up when you really should just take a nap 😉 I’ve really enjoyed your posts about your life with Felix lately, so thanks for sharing your thoughts here.


  5. T. Andrew says:

    I would have replied to this post sooner but, of course, have been crazy busy with students 🙂 I’m touched by the shout-out and miss our frequent conversations about the future of eLearning, community colleges and, well, life. The hallowed halls of Whitehorse have been less engaging since your departure.

    I do worry about our inability to find headspace at the community-college level to wrestle with the future, be it eLearning, program building, or even keeping our curriculum updated regularly. Along with mentoring students, it’s the work I find most crucial – and time consuming. As such, I try to make it a priority. Which is why I’m always behind in grading. And why I still haven’t figured out if the work-life balance of the job is sustainable over the long haul. (Another reason I miss my office neighbor: regular professional counseling sessions!)

    Community colleges seem to lose their best and brightest minds (I include you on that list, of course). Lack of resources and support along with increasingly challenging demands (hello, Guided Pathways) make it a tough environment in which to do great work. And there’s very little incentive for doing such work. Except for seeing one’s students succeed, of course. As a product of the community-college system myself, seeing the student journalists in my program thrive, earn scholarships, rock internships and move on to universities that originally told them no is the rocket fuel for my teaching. But rocket fuel burns hot; I don’t know if it can be a longterm replacement for the time and resources that would allow me to do my job to the full extent of my abilities.

    In the meantime, I try to find satisfaction in the incremental change you mention. One day at a time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sir Journalist,
      I just remembered that I hadn’t responded to you. In my mind, we already had a convo about this. Having been in Texas for four days, I’ve gotten earful about the guided pathways. It doesn’t seem good for your beat or the Humanities in general. In fact, I’m really quite worried. When you come to Camas on your comic book tour, I hope we can chat about this. Leaving higher ed for a start-up didn’t necessarily help me find a work-life balance either, so you know, I miss chatting with you too. And LOL about the “hallowed halls of Whitehorse.” Thanks for reading, friend.


  6. xolotl says:

    I’m late to the game as usual, but I like the way “#versplaning” rolls off the tongue, but it’s probably too opaque. Given how the issue you are pointing out seems like a form of myopic universalism, maybe #universplaining would come in handy in this discussion and many more. I would pronounce it with an emphasis on the VER 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  7. enkerli says:


    > I want to help online education succeed in every state. In every corner of this country. In every county. Of every state of every region.

    Just wondering: have you heard of the “CEGEP system” («Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel»)? Designed by Paul Gérin-Lajoie in the late 1960s in Quebec as a network of community colleges to bring Higher Education to everyone in the province. It’s still going strong and it has done a lot of great things. But there’s been a very significant shift which may serve as a cautionary tale on the fate of community colleges in any region.


    • Hi Enkerli,
      I have not heard of that organization, so thank you for the suggestion. I’m a big fan of my neighbors to the north and those in the Commonwealth. It’s always thrilling to learn from my non-American readers and friends, and you charm me with the mention of a “cautionary tale.” Thank you for reading!


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