Embracing the Elephant(s): Cultures of Inquiry, Online Program Implementation, and Institutional Change

Concurrent Session 2

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This presentation describes online academic program implementation strategies within a large urban community college resistant to change on both structural and cultural levels.  We demonstrate how we engaged such resistance through introducing a culture of inquiry that prioritized transparency, shared data, ongoing dialogue and a relentless focus on mission. 

Sponsored By


Cathy Leaker is the Dean of Faculty at CUNY, Kingsborough Community College where she oversees faculty support and development, including the Kingsborough Center for Teaching and Learning, the Kingsborough Center for e-Learning and Kingsborough’s academic support centers. Fueled by her commitment to the reciprocal relationship between faculty success and student success, Cathy is also actively involved in institutional student success initiatives, including learning communities, OERS, adult learner initiatives and the expansion of online learning.

Extended Abstract

This presentation describes the planned roll out of an online program at a large urban community college, the first fully online Associates program within the one of the largest urban university systems in the world.   While declining enrollments,   competitive pressures and environmental scans all made a compelling, even urgent, business case for a  fully online program at the the Associates level, three distinct but related local opposing forces worked against the likelihood of our college moving forward with online degrees and certainly of doing so with any success. In the face of such entrenched opposition, we made the strategic decision to address these forces proactively and honestly, even at the expense of deemphasizing the business case for change; our session will share how we went about embracing “the elephant(s) in the room” through promoting a “culture of inquiry” approach to change management.  Throughout our discussion, we will encourage those in attendance both to name their institutional elephants and to brainstorm techniques for including them as a key part of their change management strategy.

In 2018, it is almost passé to note the continuing explosive growth of online enrollments in higher education, particularly at public institutions, including two year institutions.  In this context, it is not difficult to argue the strategic advantages of fully online programs for community colleges.  Indeed, for our institution at this historical moment, strategic advantage was and is more aptly framed as strategic imperative. Over the last 3-4 years, the college has seen a steep drop in enrollments, in part a response to economic recovery, but in part a function of our institutional focus—in recruiting, marketing AND programming—on traditional age students enrolling directly from high school with the primary goal of transferring to a four year student.  In keeping with national trends, that pool of students continues to decline, a decline which in our case is further enabled by system level admissions policies that encourage students to bypass the community college and enroll directly in four year schools within the system.   Moreover, our urban campus is difficult to reach by public transit, the overwhelming transportation preference of our students, a point which undoubtedly contributes to institutional data showing that the farther students live form campus, the less likely they are to graduate on time.  

Given the strength of what might be termed a strategic mandate for online programs at our institution, it was perhaps tempting to dismiss any opposition to that mandate as reactionary and to plow forward by delegitimizing and marginalizing “obstruction.”  Yet yielding to that temptation would not only have been impractical but also would have lacked the academic integrity and openness that, we believe, must guide institutional change management in higher education. From a practical point of view, although opposition was certainly led by strong faculty voices—too easily dismissed as “the usual suspects”—those voices were rooted in a governance model which gave considerable force to their pronouncements. In addition, because our institutional identity was rooted in not just classroom instruction but a history of extraordinarily successful classroom teaching (as denoted by our comparatively high retention and graduation rates), the academic case for change lagged behind—and arguably far behind-- the business case. Moreover, as noted above, our academic success had developed primarily in the context of an unusually high proportion of traditional age students seeking transfer to four year colleges; while these students might want to study online, the conventional institutional thinking goes, they are not likely to need to study online based on the kinds of life factors that might limit non traditional students’ enrollment choices. Finally, for the last few years, our institution has been entangled in a series of often contentious transitions at the leadership level and severe constraints at the fiscal level; in that context, any change—regardless of its validity or lack thereof—brings with it a profound set of emotions, anxieties and tensions that inevitably color, even shape, the perception of the change.  Ultimately, we are convinced that to ignore any of these factors, driven by our own administrative conviction of the necessity for change, would have doomed the online program proposal to failure, if not at its inception, then certainly throughout its implementation. 

Beyond its manifest impracticality, the danger of a bullish change management approach was its potential disregard for academic values like integrity and openness.   However much OLC attendees take for granted the academic value of online learning, the fact remains that in the context of community colleges, there is considerable evidence that online students are less successful than face to face students.  Data based on large scale longitudinal studies from both the Community College Research Center (2013, 2011) and the Public Policy Institute of California (2015) show that in states as diverse as California, Washington and Virginia, community college students are less likely to complete online courses than face to face courses and may be less likely to complete their programs when they study online (the data on this last point are somewhat mixed).  Perhaps even more disturbing, the online modality consistently increases those equity gaps-that is the gap between course completion rates for white students and students of color---that continue to haunt traditional instructional modalities.   For us, these data were so persuasive that to overlook them and/or dismiss them would not only be intellectually dishonest but would increase the probability that our own online program would reproduce those exact results.   Perhaps counterintuitively, then, we decided to make this daunting research the centerpiece of our advocacy for fully online programs.

We did so as part of a larger institutional strategy devoted to creating cultures of inquiry, especially in regard to student success.  Alicia Dowd (2005) takes the concept of “culture of inquiry” from the work of sociologist Richard Alford and explicitly contrasts its aims from those suggested by the more familiar term “culture of evidence.”   Dowd advocates for “purposeful sharing and analysis of data,” for “insightful questioning of evidence and informed interpretation of results”, and for “sustained professional development and dialogue about barriers to student success” (2).  Essentially, Dowd asks us to replace foregone conclusions--even about such presumably settled questions as the advisability of online learning--- with open questions.    Thus, we grounded our college wide conversations about fully online programming in a series of complex data sets which together demonstrated both that online learning is a fundamental component of access to higher education AND that access to online learning is fraught with real challenges in regard to educational outcomes and educational equity.   Our goal was to engage college stakeholders in a “sustained dialogue” not about whether to move forward with fully online programs but about how to do so based on shared data and, ideally, collective interpretation of that data.

In our presentation, we will share and collectively critique a series of artifacts and action steps that emerged from this “culture of inquiry” approach, including the following:

  • A shared strategic overview/literature review of online learning in community colleges
  • A college wide Town Hall—the first in the history of the institution-- to address concerns about the prospect off fully online programs
  • A plan for continuous information sharing and stakeholder engagement, particularly at the department level
  • A faculty mentoring program to support professional development in online teaching
  • Cross functional collaboration to ensure “wrap around” student support
  • A shared implementation timeline with clearly demarcated benchmarks
  • A robust assessment protocol that includes sharing comparative data between online and face to face modalities

As we share these artifacts, the “culture of inquiry” strategy that undergirds them, as well as the context-- the institutional elephants, if you will-- that determined that strategy, we will engage participants in a scaffolded series of guided reflection activities designed to encourage a “culture of inquiry” approach to greeting and embracing the particular elephants that inevitably wander into—or stampede through—the best laid change for managing change in multiple online, e-learning and digital contexts.