Recap: Open Digital Pedagogy in Gateway Courses

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Image Info: “Acrylics” by Tracy Solomon

Thursday September 27th marked the first of two Open Pedagogy Events planned for Fall 2018, Open Digital Pedagogy in Gateway Courses. This event asked: how can open digital platforms like the OpenLab support and help address the challenges present in gateway courses across the disciplines? Faculty who taught gateway courses (or intro courses, which can have similar challenges) in English, Mathematics, Computer Systems Technology (CST), Business, and Biology joined us in the Faculty Commons (N227) from City Tech and other CUNY campuses. 

A special thanks for Jonas Reitz, professor of mathematics and Director of the Opening Gateways project, and Robert Lestón, professor of English and Director of First Year Writing, who led the conversation with their experiences teaching and coordinating faculty in relation to gateway courses.


Before sharing more of the evening’s discussion, let’s clarify what a “gateway course” is:

Officially speaking, gateway courses are courses recognized across CUNY campuses as required, entry-level courses for specific majors. For participating majors, students must take 3 of the defined gateway courses in order to continue with the major and take higher level courses. These gateway courses are transferable across CUNY institutions, meaning students start and finish their degrees at different campuses without fear that credits will transfer. Learn more here.


At an academic level, gateway courses are entry-level courses that introduce students to their chosen fields and disciplines and to skills deemed necessary for success in college. In a similar view, success or failure in these courses has consequences not only for the student’s participation in the course, but for their overall college experience and outcome. This understanding prompted the evening’s discussion.

We began with a self-reflection and discussion of: “What challenges do you [faculty] face when supporting student success in gateway or introductory courses? How Have you [faculty] addressed these challenges?” During the discussion portion, we discussed a number of non-discipline-specific challenges that threaten student success including:

1. The newness of college: College comes with new routines in an unfamiliar setting, a lack of knowledge of the supports and resources available and how to access them, a lack of community connections, a heightened level of academic rigor – lots of newness at once.  

2. Institutional constraints

  • Space constraints at City Tech, for example, pose challenges to independent and group study among students, and faculty or faculty-student meetings and gatherings (whether academic and/or social in nature).
  • Class sizes for gateway and introductory courses are often overwhelming in terms of size and workload, and limiting in terms of how you can structure the course and discuss the material.
  • Gateway and introductory courses often have predetermined assessments that may contradict a faculty members pedagogical values and strategies for addressing student success.
  • Adjunct, part-time and often short-term faculty increasingly teach gateway and introductory courses. Low pay and minimal contract rights among adjunct and part-time faculty (and the stress of needing to take on other work to fill the gap) limits the support they can provide students, distances them from their department’s community and decisions, and may result in high turnover rates.

3. Home-life constraints: Some of our students lack access to a computer or quiet space at home. Some face time constraints due to household-supporting activities like part-time or full-time work or care work activities. In turn, these time constraints can raise questions about the value of pursuing a degree at all – in the minds of the student and/or their family.

Do you recognize these challenges in your own courses?

In laying these challenges out, we discussed which of these challenges we could and had tried to resolve, and which seemed largely out of our control. We don’t, for example, have much control over the constraints posed by a student’s home-life. However, there are steps we do or could take in supporting students and faculty in overcoming related or other challenges. Faculty attendees discussed crafting scaffolded assignments, group projects, low stakes writing assignments, using mobile-friendly digital platforms (like the OpenLab) so students could submit assignments via their phone as needed, and more.

Recognition of these challenges and more encouraged City Tech’s Math Department to partner with faculty and staff at BMCC and the OpenLab to initiate the Title V grant-funded project, “Opening Gateways to Completion: Open Digital Pedagogies for Student Success in STEM. Known as Opening Gateways for short, this collaboration integrates the OpenLab with another open source software called WebWorks with the aim of helping students and faculty address (some of) the challenges posed by gateway courses. You can learn more details about the project on their OpenLab site, but in short – this integration allows students to complete individualized homework problems online and get answers and feedback right away, and to ask questions and get support from their professor and fellow students in a community discussion forum. The grant included a Faculty Professional Development component (yearly cohorts of Fellows who attend a weekly seminar) and dedicated resources to building Open Educational Resources – which might replace expensive textbooks and offer faculty more control over the curriculum.

The remainder of the evening was spent discussing how and to what extent Opening Gateways had addressed some of the challenges discussed earlier, and how similar lessons could be applied in disciplines other than mathematics.

Through the conversation, the seemed to be consensus around a few ideals –

1. Professional Development: Sharing of resources and teaching strategies; also helps with curriculum coordination, and social support and community building.

1B. Supporting Inclusion of part-time faculty: Any professional development initiatives should explicitly include resources and additional compensation for part-time faculty (who not only teach the majority of these courses, but of all courses at CUNY – conservatively estimated, part-time faculty make up 56% of all faculty at CUNY). Additionally, course resources should be readily available in an easily accessible place – see the First Year Writing site for a good example of how the OpenLab can be helpful in this endeavor. These qualities are a part of the Opening Gateways fellows program, and a Fellow, who is an adjunct and who attended the even reflected that it was nice to be treated as someone whose ideas mattered; to have an invitation to the table; to feel invested in (to paraphrase).

2. The OpenLab can help: The OpenLab is not a silver bullet – but the platform does have features that can limit barriers to student success in your gateway courses. You can make the information publicly or privately available and mobile responsive by housing resources for your course or curriculum on the OpenLab. The blogging platform can help cultivate community in the classroom by hosting public class discussions; and students can get experience with public writing. For your courses/departments, you may consider creating Open Educational Resources.

Do these strategies make sense for you?

What seemed useful or not about the Opening Gateways project?

What other strategies would you suggest?

What challenges do these strategies pose for you and how might you address them?

Join the conversation below!


All-in-all, it was a great evening! Thanks to all who attended the event for a lively conversation, and for the support from the Faculty Commons and Charlie Edwards.


Join us for 3 upcoming related events:

  • Workshop, Thursday 10/4 2:30 PM – 4:00 PM  (G604). A hands-on look at supporting student success on the OpenLab RSVP
  • Event, Thursday 10/18 4:30 PM – 6:00 PM (N227): A discussion about remixing and sharing in Open Digital Pedagogy
  • Workshop, Thursday 11/1 2:30 PM – 4:00 PM (AG-21): A hands-on look at remixing and sharing on the OpenLab RSVP

Learn more about workshops and office hours on The Open Road!

Check out our student blogging team, The Buzz!

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