First-Generation College Students Are Not Disadvantaged Slobs

Felix J. Aquino, Ph.D.
Vice President of Academic Affairs
Oklahoma City Community College

I am a first-generation college graduate. There . . . I’ve said it. I grew up in a very solid, blue- collar household. My father had an eighth grade education and my mother finished high school.

If one is to believe much of what has been written about those of us raised in similar circumstances and going on to advanced degrees, we have all had to overcome tremendous adversity in reaching our exalted status. The litany of our “deficiencies” is familiar: our parents can’t advise us on navigating college, we don’t do as well on standardized tests, we don’t have academic role models in the house, we’re lower middle-class, and we don’t value learning. The list goes on. Therefore, our task as collegiate educators is to take these slobs and improve them into being productive members of the educated classes—people like us.

I would submit that this view of the non-college educated working class is a result of our applying a deficit model to this group; their problem is that they differ from us. The extent of their difference from us is the extent of their deficiencies. We assume that they bring little to the collegiate table.

In my own particular case, it is true that, once I was in high school and beyond, there was not much my parents could do to help me, other than being financially and emotionally supportive. I never got help from either parent in figuring out quadratic equations or chemistry valences. It is also true that my parents were of no help to me in navigating college or graduate school. Nor did they have a clue about what was involved in getting a doctorate in anthropology. Fortunately, I found all of the aforementioned pretty easy to figure out on my own.

Did I learn nothing from my parents? Nothing could be further from the truth. However, the valuable lessons they imparted may have been different from those learned by the sons and daughters of the upper middle class. I would like to share some of the most salient.

The value and dignity of hard work. I have vivid memories of my mother, a dressmaker by trade, bringing home piecework to do on her home machine after the dinner dishes had been cleaned up, when economic circumstances required it. There was also no tolerance for any indignity directed toward them, or their children, by anyone.

How to make do on limited resources. It was not until I got to graduate school that I realized how poor we were because, through my parents’ sacrifice, we never lacked for anything.

The value of upward mobility. From very early on, my siblings and I knew that our parents were determined that our lives be different from theirs and that the mechanism for that was education. And a blue-collar background was not something to be ashamed of, but to be proud.

I could go on but my deeper point is this: our challenge as educators is to figure out what strengths all of our students bring to the table and how to build on those strengths and bring them all along, irrespective of their origins.


Fail Safe, Fail Fast: One Creative Solution to College Completion

Jeff King, Ed.D., Executive Director, Center for Excellence in Transformative Teaching & Learning, University of Central Oklahoma

Dr. Randy Bass of Georgetown University teaches a course in which he asks students to design the kind of learning environment they think would work best for them, to “design the college of the future” that is best built and run in order to help students learn.

Over the terms he has taught this course, he reports that students frequently create similar designs because certain aspects and characteristics are commonly described. One that is often mentioned is a safe place to fail in service to learning.

In many ways, the business-as-usual college is not a safe place to fail simply because there are few places to do so without losing the academic currency you’re trying to accumulate; namely, grades. Failing reduces your net worth; passing increases your net worth.

It can be a dog-eat-dog world for students in higher education.

Contrast this with an environment such as that posited by the Georgetown students. In their university, the fact that you fail on the way to learning is not something you’re penalized for; rather, you fail safe and fail fast on your way to learning (i.e., achieving course, program, and institutional outcomes). When you think about it, this is the natural human process of learning.

The infant learning to walk fails safe and fails fast — her mom is nearby, protectively scaffolding the support to take those first tentative steps, no matter how many times the “failure” of lurching off balance and landing kersplat occurs. The point is, this process isn’t thought of as “failing”; it’s called, “learning to walk.”

And that’s what the Georgetown students are advocating for. This can’t happen, though, in a class with a couple of tests, a mid-term, and a final — those constitute summative, high-stakes engagements where failing costs you dearly.

On the other hand, a class in which failing is “fast” because constant formative assessment occurs — ongoing feedback meant to help students correct course during the process of learning — is also one in which that kind of “failing” is also safe: it’s not thought of as failing, it’s thought of as learning to walk.

So what about this creative solution for college completion:

The process of learning is safe, scaffolded, and iterative because constant feedback is provided, and “failing” is called “learning” as students advance toward achieving the learning outcomes. At certain summative points throughout the class, tests are then not so fearful because students have “failed fast, failed safe” during the constant-feedback process of correcting course as they develop skills and acquire knowledge.

Fail fast, fail safe, then prove what you know and can do. This may be a creative approach to help students learn that isn’t really that creative at all.

Ask any two-year-old.


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Creativity and College Completion: Certificates

By Bret Danilowicz, Dean of Arts and Sciences, Oklahoma State University

To achieve Oklahoma’s goal of increasing the number of students who complete higher education, we need to connect with a broader audience than just “traditional” undergraduate students.  I define traditional students as those who progress into a full-time undergraduate degree program within a few years of completing high-school- roughly 60% of our high-school graduates.  For the non-traditional population (the remaining 40%), the cost, time and interest needed to complete an undergraduate degree can be overwhelming.  Let me walk you through why, and follow with a recommendation how our state can provide a simpler transition into higher education for non-traditional students.

Higher education is generally perceived as a two-year or four-year degree.  Although the value of a degree to a graduate’s long-term earnings is well documented, the upfront cost is daunting.  For individuals paying for their tuition, fees, books, and other expenses, costs range roughly from $6,000 for a 2-year degree at a public community college to over $200,000 for a 4-year degree at a private university. The cost is well known; what the potential student does not know is if they themselves will complete the degree to benefit from its cost.  Will they achieve passing grades and will their personal motivation for the coursework persist?

Compounding the cost investment is the time needed to complete a degree.  Many non-traditional students need to work full-time (or close to it) to cover their living expenses – and possibly their family’s- while also covering the cost of their degree.  Someone working full time and managing to take four courses a year (an accomplishment in itself) would take five years to receive a “two-year” associates degree or ten years to receive a “four-year” baccalaureate degree- assuming the student passes all of their courses.  Cost + time = uncertainty about higher education degrees.

Yet there is another route towards completion in higher education: undergraduate certificates.  These certificates are comprised of a small group of related courses that provide targeted education within a specific subject area.  Certificates can be used as a stepping stone to a full degree- allowing a student to take courses which immediately align with their career interests, yet also align with the requirements of a full undergraduate degree (should they choose to continue after earning a certificate).  Starting at just five courses, these certificates cost as little as $1,500 at a community college and can be completed in under two-years even by part-time students.  Upon completion, certificates add value to a person’s competitiveness in the workforce, adding an average of 27% pay for men and 16% pay for women1– and these count towards Oklahoma’s completion agenda.  (The primary reason for the gender difference appears to be the certificates associated with the largest salary increases as in the computer-related fields tend to be predominantly completed by males- see Inside Higher Ed).

Real examples of undergraduate certificates include project management, biotechnology research assistant, digital arts, accounting, and family services: each is directly applicable to a growth area in the workforce (see some options in Oklahoma by looking at the OCCC and TCC websites).  While undergraduate certificates are presently available at community colleges across much of the state, certificate programs number less than a quarter of the available associates degree programs.  Alongside the more limited range of programs, certificates are not promoted with the same effort used to promote degree programs.  Just how aware is Oklahoma’s populace about the certificate option and its potential value?  (Note that undergraduate certificates are also available at universities- but these are generally intended to be taken concurrently with a degree program.)

Colleges should be encouraged to increase the availability of these undergraduate certificates, while the state launches a marketing effort specifically to promote the value and flexibility of these certificates. It would allow non-traditional students an entry into higher education that is likely better suited to their cost and time needs, and they can more quickly assess the value of higher education for their career.  National data suggests that after completing a certificate, a full third of these students will continue into an undergraduate degree program (and there are many benefits to them and Oklahoma for them doing so- perhaps a subject of a future blog?).  While no single solution will result in Oklahoma’s goal to have more of its residents complete some form of higher education- increasing the availability, awareness of, and completion of undergraduate certificates should be a part of the plan.

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Creativity and College Completion: The Challenge

By Blake Sonobe, Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education

A college education has for generations been, for many, the primary route for economic advancement.  I still recall the words of my father, “In order to get ahead, you have to have a good education.”  These words remain true to this day.  Similarly, there is excellent correlation between the economic wealth of a nation and the educational attainment of its people.  Recent studies have shown that the economic health of our nation may be at risk.  The recent Georgetown University study provided the following statistics.  Through 2020,

  • there will be 55 million job openings in the economy; 24 million openings from newly created jobs and 31 million due to baby boom retirements.
  • 35% of the jobs openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree, another 30% will require at least some college or an associate’s degree and the remaining 35% will not require education beyond high school.
  • at the current rate of certificate and degree production in the United States, there will be a shortage of 5 million workers with postsecondary education by 2020.

To remain economically competitive as a state and a nation and to give our residents an opportunity for economic advancement, it is imperative that we significantly increase the number of postsecondary certificates and degrees.  Oklahoma’s Complete College America project was kicked off in September 2011 with five major reforms:

  • Focus on Readiness
  • Transform Remediation
  • Build Bridges to Certificates and Degrees
  • Adult Completion – Reach Higher
  • Track and Reward Progress and Completion – Performance Funding

Through continuous development of strategies to implement the reforms, Oklahoma has exceeded its goals for certificates and degrees in the first two years of Complete College America.  To successfully achieve its goal of increasing the number of degrees and certificates by 67% (the number predicted to be needed in Oklahoma) by 2023, new strategies must be developed in the following areas.

  • Increasing the retention and graduation rates for students attending college.
  • Reaching traditional and non-traditional students who in the past were not able or had not considered attending college.

How can we better do this?  2020 is not far away.

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Becoming Open

By Andrew Lang, Oral Roberts University

This blog post is dedicated to Jean-Claude Bradley who is dearly missed [1, 2].

In 2007, I began investigating how to use Multi User Virtual Environments (MUVEs) such as Second Life for research and education.

I taught a class “Cellular Automata and Finite State Machine” completely in Second Life.

My students working on their cellular automata projects in Second Life - February 2008

My students working on their cellular automata projects in Second Life – February 2008


I worked with my undergraduate research students to development Open chemistry visualization tools [3].

Interaction Selection Rules Demonstration – June 2008

Interaction Selection Rules Demonstration – June 2008


I even did some consulting, developing islands and content for several institutions, including: Nature (NPG), the American Chemical Society (ACS), and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Fertilizer Runoff Demonstration on ACS Island – July 2008

Fertilizer Runoff Demonstration on ACS Island – July 2008


As a fan of OpenCourseWare both then and now, all the content, objects, and scripts I developed I released as Open Source. This work culminated with the co-creation of an OpenCourseWare initiative within Second Life “OpenSLedWare” and co-authoring, with Jean-Claude Bradley, a review paper on Chemistry in Second Life [4].

Jean-Claude (the cat) and I presenting together in Second Life – May 2010

Jean-Claude (the cat) and I presenting together in Second Life – May 2010


It is for this creative and Open work that I was named a DaVinci Fellow in 2010. An award that I believe I would not have received if it wasn’t for the collaborative research needed to create the Open Source chemistry visualization tools I co-developed. This is a clear example of how working and collaborating in an open way leads to things that wouldn’t be possible any other way.

Receiving my DaVinci Institute Medallion – March 2010

Receiving my DaVinci Institute Medallion – March 2010


Even though Second Life has never really lived up to the hype or expectations of its early years, it was the Open Education, Open Science philosophy that I experienced and have since adopted that has really made all the difference in my career since, which has included being recognized by Google, the Blue Obelisk Movement, and even The White House [5, 6, 7].

Jean-Claude and I at The White House – June 2013

Jean-Claude and I at The White House – June 2013


I now do all my research completely in the open using a process called Open Notebook Science [8, 9], where all research is made publicly available under a CC0 license in as near real-time as possible. The value of Open Science to society is immense and I believe it is the future for mainstream science. I’m not just talking about Open Access to papers, I’m talking about true Open Science – Open Notebook Science.

If you’re interested in Open Education, Open Science, Open Data, and Open Source initiatives and are unsure where to start, feel free to contact me directly and I’ll point you in the right direction.

Andrew Lang, Professor of Mathematics
Chair, Computing and Mathematics
Oral Roberts University

Quick Links

  1. Jean-Claude Bradley.
  2. InMemoriumJCB.
  3. Visualizing Atomic Orbitals Using Second Life.
  4. Chemistry in Second Life.
  5. Google Recognition. Sci Foo 2009.
  6. Blue Obelisk Award 2014.
  7. White House Recognition 2013.
  8. Open Notebook Science.
  9. My Open Notebook.
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Congratulations to Mary Linn, a 2009 DaVinci Fellow, who after 12 years at the University of Oklahoma and the Sam Noble Museum, will be joining the staff at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution as Cultural and Linguistic Revitalization, on October 6, 2014.

2014 Fall Forum

The DaVinci Institute in pleased to announce that it will hold its annual Fall Forum at Northern Oklahoma College’s Eleanor Hays Art Gallery – Kinzer Performing Arts Center on October 24th from 9:30am – 3:00 PM.

We will celebrate creativity with artist Dennis Hodges.  Hodges will lead participants in a session devoted to “Powerful Pauses.”

We will also explore using the DART tool (see Creativity@DaVinci link on the DaVinci website) for use is creativity education.

For good measure we’ll add in art, food and ample reasons to smile!

The Schedule for the Day is:

Registration opens at 9:30am

10-10:45am:  Welcome and DART News (DaVinci Academic Research Tool)

11-11:30am:  Perspective: a look at life through a lens (Dennis Hodges)

11:30am -12:30pm:  Lunch and viewing time for A sense of his soul  – art exhibit in gallery

12:30 -2:30pm:  Powerful Pauses – an interactive journey in creativity (Dennis Hodges)

2:30-3:00pm:  Wrap-up

All DaVinci member institutions may send up to two faculty and two students at no charge. Registration for additional participants or for those from non-member institutions is $10, payable when you check in at the event.

Online registration is required for this event.  To register click on the Events link on the website.

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Lack and Restrictions to Prompt Creativity?

Image of Jeff King standing alone in front of a blue and white mural with a red sunburst to the right and above his head.

By Jeff King, Ed.D., Executive Director, Center for Excellence in Transformative Teaching & Learning, University of Central Oklahoma

There’s an exercise that some creative writing teachers use as a spark to student creativity. It goes something like this:

Write a short story.

The first paragraph must be comprised of four sentences. The first sentence must contain 16 words. The second sentence must contain the word, “blue.” The third sentence must mention a season of the year. The fourth sentence must use a gerund.

The second paragraph must be comprised of three sentences. The first sentence must be spoken by the protagonist. The second sentence must refer to a smell. The third sentence must be a spoken exclamation by a character.

You get the idea. Writers are intentionally shackled with restrictions that can be daunting to overcome while still maintaining the flow of a successfully told story with characters, a story arc, and so on.

Students often amaze themselves and others with this exercise. What at first blush seems an impossibly restricting set of directions, and which therefore are initially interpreted as a huge clamp on the creativity needed to write a short story, turns out to be a prompt to the creativity needed to find ways to work successfully within the restrictions.

If such an exercise does unearth otherwise hidden founts of creativity, some might say that an environment or upbringing without much lack could actually limit the instances when children are forced into creative solutions brought on by a dearth of resources. For instance, the idea of making something because it can’t be bought might not occur that often if funds to buy the thing exist and the thing is usually available for easy purchase.

Have you seen a recent soap box derby competition? The first line from an Internet site advertisement for a soap box derby car kit declares that buyers of the kit can “eliminate the necessity of writing time consuming dimensions and descriptions of components” by buying the kit, which includes all of that.

Would a kid who has to find inventive solutions for components he can’t afford to buy be exercising more creativity muscles in the process?

In an online article for Forbe’s, Rob Asghar suggests that money ruins creativity. “If you can’t stretch a dollar, you can’t stretch your imagination,” he says, and he proceeds to offer cautionary tales.

Maybe it all comes down to how humans are most likely to get those flashes of inspiration that result in creative work. “Necessity is the mother of invention” might be more than just a homily.

Or it might be that, in an age of abundance, it’s easy to distract ourselves. In that scenario, it’s never necessary to invent a solution due to a constraint because: 1) constraints don’t come around that often, and 2) there’s that episode of Duck Dynasty on cable that we haven’t seen yet.

Whether we buy our way out of creativity or we distract ourselves from creating, we’ve missed the chance to exercise our creativity muscles.

Perhaps the best situation to prompt creativity is being trapped with no access to distractions. (The place many college students might identify is a boring lecture over material they already know and during which the professor has banned laptop and cell phone usage.)

In such a situation, the restriction you experience coupled with the lack of ability to distract yourself by any other means than directing your attention toward or away from your own thoughts and environment might give your creative self a much-needed opportunity to come out and play.

Living in conditions where there’s not much lack, of course, is not a bad thing.

Unless it’s a lack of creativity.






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By Kyle Dahlem, Executive Director, DaVinci Institute

Consider these questions

  • What foresight has gone into educational decisions, legislative action when considering the role of cultural/economic influences? These are not necessarily new questions but ones that are being asked more frequently.
  • What role does higher education play in addressing health problems? “It is estimated that 13 –20 percent of children living in the United States (up to 1 out of 5 children) experience a mental disorder in a given year . . .” Center for Disease Control, Children’s Health Report. May 16, 2014
  • When will the discrepancy between college debt and career salaries influence college going rates and graduation?
  • As youth become more media-savvy with ubiquitous wireless, global positioning, global information systems displays everywhere, how will higher education adapt?
  • How will higher education respond to unbundled education—open content, curriculum, social media?

Creative minds, innovative practices are needed as strategic planning is developed for the future of higher education.

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Directions of Change

By Kyle Dahlem, Executive Director, DaVinci Institute

This isn’t the first time that I’ve focused my comments on the ever evolving . . . . . .you name it. And it won’t be my last.

“It” is evolving, changing, morphing. Since education is our forte´, let’s name the “it” education.

Like the many earthquakes that have disturbed Oklahomans over the past several years, the unsteady, unpredictable nature of future forces make educating students a “shaky proposition.” Educators must, however, be more proactive and to focus on how the world is changing.

It’s not as if all educators haven’t been thinking about this conundrum.

“Realigning American education for the jobs of the future isn’t just about the duration of school. It’s a question of what to study and how to encourage kids to see their education through.” Time, February 24, 2014, pp. 24-25.

“The Studio School is a new concept in education, which seeks to address the growing gap between the skills and knowledge that young people require to succeed, and those that the current education system provides.” Studio School Trust 2011

Open Culture (, just one of many such sites, offers free online courses from the world’s leading universities-Stanford, Yale, MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, Oxford and more. Their collection includes over 800 free courses in the liberal arts and sciences.

Holographic video games which are in the infant stage of development hold promise for evolving into computer generated classrooms. “Students will learn while moving through real environments with mobile technology. . .” Knowledgeworks Foundation/Institute for the Future, 2006

In the interest of unselfishly preparing for the future we may not experience, creative thinking and innovative implementation must be parts of our daily reflection of what we do as educators.

Think about it. How do you see the future?

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