Behind the Scenes Look at the 2018 ATL Conference Theme

A few days ago, I woke up to an e-mail from a faculty member in the system that made me breathe a deep sigh of relief.

In the e-mail, this dedicated and passionate chemistry professor posed a question about the upcoming 2018 ATL Conference:

Centering Student Learning: Connecting Completions, Equity, and Guided Pathways

She wrote


“This theme is right on target!  Wow!  It’s like you crawled inside my head and plucked out professional development needs and community information sharing desires!”

Lest you think this post is purely self-congratulatory, I’d like to let you in on a little secret.  The night before, I had woken up around 2AM thinking panicked thoughts about the Call for Proposals I posted to this blog and to the ATLC listserv.

Thoughts like . . . Am I completely out of touch with your lived reality as a faculty member?  Have I mindlessly drank drunk the Kool-Aid?  Did I just create the most boring conference theme in history?     

Every year, I agonize about the conference theme, and this year was no different.

I spent a great deal of November and December using every creative process I know: freewriting and journaling to get down all my bad/wrong/silly ideas, talking to faculty members like you, brainstorming with my boss, and catching up on my reading.

One document that really captures my imagination and continually inspires my thinking around the annual spring ATL Conference is “The Emerging Learning System,”  a report on a convening hosted by the Lumina Foundation in support of their Goal 2025.

I know what you’re thinking.  Yup.  Jen definitely drank the Completion Kool-Aid.

But let me try to explain.  Here’s Goal 2025 in a nutshell:

Increase the proportion of Americans with degrees, certificates and other high-quality postsecondary credentials to 60 percent by 2025.

When thinking about 60% of Americans earning degrees or certificates by 2025, I like the adjective “high quality” and I like the noun “credentials” to describe the work we do in higher education.

I LOVE the two terms together.

The key educational reform efforts (increase completions, close equity gaps, and create transparent, flexible, guided pathways for students) are attempting to begin, to borrow a phrase from assessment, “With the end in mind.”

And talking about “the end” can get messy.  Wires can get crossed.  Toes can get stepped on.  The potential for misunderstanding gets really, really high.

Has that been your experience too?

Unpacking the Term “Credential”

If you’re like me, wrapping your own mind (what Adriana Kezar calls “sensemaking” . . . a change management term for “making sense”) around what “the end” is can get confusing and overwhelming.

That confusion and overwhelm can be quickly exacerbated when you talk to your colleagues who operate in a different functional area than you.   I’ve been in more than one meeting in the Education division at SBCTC, for example, where we’ve foundered over the lack of a shared language and understanding about which end, exactly, we are prioritizing.

While I know this is sort of a “duh” statement . . . there are SO MANY different kinds of credentials  (certificates, the AA, the AAS, the BA, the BAS, the MA, the MS, the MFA, etc.) that can signify a particular “end” we have in mind for the students we work with.

We all want to mobilize our students to get to “the end” in ways that will transform their lives, and if we develop a fixed mindset about which “credential” we’re talking about (a certificate, an Associates, a Bachelors, a Masters, etc.), that’s when things get tense.

So I’m grateful to Lumina for doing the hard work of establishing the term “Credential” as an umbrella term for how to talk about “the end.”  It seems like the right term to identify multiple (and generally interconnected) end points, sort of like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Note: Sometimes, if I think a word is apropos, I call it a “Goldilocks Term”– it’s not too big or too small . . . it’s just right.

Participate in a Quick Poll: Do you think the term “Credential” is a good way to articulate “the end in mind” in ways that will help us work together?

The Notion of High Quality

Lumina defines “high-quality” credentials as those that have “transparent learning outcomes leading to further education and employment.”

Ah, learning outcomes.  Assessment.

For me, learning outcomes is not, to quote Pat Hutchings, when “token members
of a committee [are] cobbled together for an accreditation visit” or “an after-the-fact
audience for assessment results they had no part in shaping.”

Here’s what learning outcomes assessment is, for me.

Outcomes Assessment Is Asking Questions About Student Learning

To engage in outcomes assessment means we, as educators, ask questions– of ourselves and of each other.  To paraphrase Pat Hutchings, we must ask about

  • our students’ learning in the course of their time with us . . . whether that is a class, a program, or the time spent earning a credential (see what I did there?)
  • what purposes and goals are most important in regards to student learning

And . . . here’s the clincher: “if those goals are met, and how to do better.”

In an earlier blog post, I invoked the idea that to write well is an act of listening, and no one models this better than Hutchings.  Here’s a great quote she heard from a faculty member

“Assessment is asking whether my students are learning what I am teaching.”

Which brings me back to The Emerging Learning System, which is a report on a convening Lumina hosted titled “It’s All About the Learning.”

The Quote that Inspired the 2018 ATL Theme

“What is increasingly apparent from these conversations
is that they are converging around learning as central to
the national effort to increase postsecondary attainment.”

Let’s get a little more specific about our context.  In Washington State, our executive director, Jan Yoshiwara, has set three very ambitious goals for our community and technical college system:

  • Increase the completions of ALL students
  • Eliminate equity gaps
  • Create transparent, flexible, guided pathways

I asked Jan to speak about this at the 2017 New Faculty Institute, and here’s how I sensemake around what I heard her say:

Our big goal, the one we are working on together as a system, is to increase the completions of ALL students.   To contextualize the word “All” is important, and that’s where equity comes in.  Closing equity gaps is the strategy to increase completions.  Universal design for Learners (UDL) and other learning frameworks have shown us, robustly, that when you design to ensure the leaning of your most vulnerable populations, you end up ensuring the learning of ALL students.  And the primary method, the “best thinking” about how to do these two things, is to engage in the reform efforts of guided pathways, because guided pathways attempts to address a big problem: that reform efforts often get siloed.

Obviously, there’s a lot more for me to write about these three goals– individually and how they work together.  I’ve committed to this blog as the vehicle to do this.

But for now, I want to propose that putting student LEARNING at the center of all three movements connects them and energizes them– asking questions about student learning creates a synergy that electrifies all three.

Each piece needs each other, and they ALL need to be centered in student learning to be the change they wish to see the world.

At the 2017 ATL Conference, keynote speaker Tia McNair said that “completions without learning is a false promise and a failure of the American Dream.”


When I do presentations on the assignment design as an equity strategy using the Transparent Assignment Template New Faculty Institute and at colleges around the system, more than one faculty member will write in a formative assessment that he/she/they had always thought of equity as “dumbing down,” and they are relieved to learn that equity is NOT that.  The opposite, in fact.

And I know that many faculty members have real and valid concerns that implementing a Guided Pathways Redesign will compromise the thing they most value: student learning.

I want to acknowledge that if you have fears, doubts, and suspicions (just merrily passing students along with the ubiquitous “C” to satisfy external stakeholders and agendas that feel imposed on upon you) I know they are real.  They are the result of your lived experience, and who am I to deny that?

Furthermore, I know fears CAN turn into reality.  Our institutions and our cultures are imperfect.

However, our fears turning into reality doesn’t have to be the case in Washington State.

To do that, we must discuss how we can work together to ensure that we center completions, equity, and guided pathways in rigorous, challenging inquiry around student learning (ahem, outcomes assessment).

I hope the 2018 ATL conference is a forum for that conversation.

Please consider submitting a proposal for a concurrent session at the conference and join me and your colleagues at the 2018 ATL in Vancouver May 2-4.

Submit a Proposal to the 2018 ATL Conference!

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