Redesigning college, one course at a time

June 22, 2010

By Steven Byeon

A new project aims to make college textbooks more affordable — and ultimately, prevent more students from dropping out.

The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges has initiated a 15-month project to improve student success and reduce the price of textbooks by redesigning 80 high-enrollment first- and second-year college courses.

The project, the Washington State Student Completion Initiative, will be supported by grants of $5.3 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and $800,000 from the Ford Foundation.

Community and technical college instructors and librarians will assemble a set of course materials from free or inexpensive resources. Ten Bellevue College instructors and staff members — including one from Issaquah and one from Newcastle — have been selected to work on the initiative.

A goal of the initiative is to reduce the cost of textbooks and other course materials to no more than $30 per course.

“Low-income young adults rely on community and technical colleges to get the skills they need in today’s economy, but many are struggling to succeed despite their best efforts,” Jan Yoshiwara, the state board’s deputy executive director for education, said in a press release from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dan Mitchell, a Bellevue College chemistry instructor and resident of Newcastle, is working with three other chemistry instructors from local community colleges to redesign two beginning chemistry courses.

“If we do it right and we all share our best [resources] together, hopefully not only will things be cheaper and more accessible, but the real goal is that it improves student retention,” Mitchell said.

Issaquah resident Nicole Longpre, a Bellevue College librarian, is also working on the initiative.

“What’s nice about the way this project is happening is that the classes will be built in segments, so if another instructor decides they like one portion of that class, they can use just a small portion and then continue to teach in their own way,” she said.

Only about 28 percent of first-time, full-time students at two-year institutions earn an associate degree within three years of enrolling, according to the press release.

While redesigning courses, instructors will examine and assess successful teaching practices to improve student success.

An emphasis will be placed on improving success in pre-college and college math courses. More than 56,000 community college students in Washington are required to take remedial-level math (a 9 percent increase in the past year alone, according to the press release.

Instructors will use the new course materials beginning in 2011. The material will undergo an assessment for effectiveness thereafter.

“Eventually, all of this material will be out freely on the Web, so if somebody in Africa wants to learn about a subject … the materials will be out there for them to learn,” Longpre said. “So it’s really a good outreach, not only for students in Washington state, but for around the world hopefully.”

Steven Byeon is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory. Comment at

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