We teach in a bridge program that combines community college students from the City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) with students seeking bachelor's degrees from DePaul University’s School for New Learning (SNL), a college dedicated to the needs of returning adult students. Our classes meet once a week at the community college campus for the first half of the term and at DePaul for the second half of the term. In a survey completed by most of the students in the three classes we studied, the average age was twenty-nine, with ages ranging from seventeen to fifty-one. Forty percent of the students were the first person in their family to attend college, sixty percent were female and seventy-five percent were community college students. Many were immigrants or the children of immigrants, and most were from working-class communities.
The odds are that most of our students will not complete their bachelor's degree any time soon, if at all. Nationally, only twenty-two percent of community college students transferred to a four-year institution within five years of graduating (Witkowsky, 2000, p. 4). At the Chicago City Colleges, this number is closer to five percent (Witkowsky, 2000, p. 4). At SNL, forty-six percent of those who started in Fall 2006 returned in Fall 2007 (Office of Institutional Planning and Research, DePaul University, personal communication, April 21, 2008). Because community college students often transfer before graduating, because not all community college students are pursuing a degree and because adult students often drop in and out of school as their circumstances allow, these numbers paint a bleaker picture of the plight of adult students than is likely to be the case. Nevertheless, clearly many adult students who return to school intending to attain their bachelor's degree do not do so. Research on adult student persistence indicates that, among other factors, a sense of belonging and early academic success are both significant factors in determining whether adult students will stay in school (See, for example, McGivney (2004) and Smith (1999)).
A central premise of the CCC-SNL Bridge Program is the idea that, by making the university familiar to community college students, the program will create a bridge to the university for students who are otherwise unlikely to persist in their educational endeavors. The CCC-SNL Bridge Program deliberately mixes community college and university locations, instructors and students in each class as a way of making the university environment familiar to our community college students.
That, at least, is the theory.
When the teaching team of Polly and Michelle walked into their first bridge class in the winter of 2007, they found a class divided down the middle. On one side, students with gray or graying hair, healthy waistlines and dressed in some form of business attire chatted with each other. On the other side, younger, skinnier and hipper students looked confused and occasionally whispered to each other. Between the two groups of about eight students each was enough space for Polly and Michelle to walk up a central aisle. One older student asked pointedly whether the whole class would be held to “university standards.” Despite this assumption of superiority from at least some of the SNL students, Polly and Michelle found that feelings of not belonging and undeveloped writing skills worked against the success of students from both the community college and the university.
For their writing-intensive literature class, Polly and Michelle decided to use a wiki to help build a collaborative learning community, give students practice writing and to solve two other issues-–the need for one course management site for students from schools with incompatible systems and the need to help students read, rather than just react to, historical texts. In so doing, they were building upon Polly’s prior experience using wikis in her classes and on articles extolling the benefits of wikis for developing writing skills and supporting collaboration. When Peggy and Suzanne signed up to teach a new bridge freshman composition class, Polly and Michelle enlisted them in this study and helped them learn how to use a wiki to address some of the same issues. To evaluate our use of the wikis and their effect on student writing skills, collaboration and sense of community, we drew from class observations, course evaluations, student surveys, and analysis of wiki usage.