This fall, freshmen across the University of California’s campuses will arrive with expectations of how to excel—but with the institution’s newest location comes new student experiences.

In rural Merced, one unique student population brought opportunities to effect change in a community and bring digital literacy to young learners—many of whom are the first in their families to enroll in higher education.

Kevin Reimer, Instructor in UC Merced’s University Extension Department, reveals how he developed a dual-enrollment program that builds skills for high school students while putting them on the path to college.


Reducing Fears for First-Time Enrollers

Merced is located in a low-income area of California with very diverse immigrant populations and many English-language learners—and there is a significant need for childcare providers. Seeing opportunities to address the shortage and stimulate employment, Reimer designed a college- and career-readiness program for high school students to earn credits in early childhood education—and, eventually, a childcare permit from the state of California.

Reimer created the program with goals of increasing exposure to college content and leadership skills in students who may feel apprehensive about higher education—but UC Merced is an ethnically diverse campus with many first-generation, low-income learners, where Reimer says these students will find others like them.

This dual enrollment program is a “win-win,” says Reimer, where instructors are empowered to implement career readiness into their curriculum and students gain the experience needed to succeed. He explains that there are two groups of students at Chowchilla High School, where this program has been rolled out: “One knows about and wants to be enrolled in advanced placement—and the other is smart and capable of enrolling, but they’re not doing it.”

With this program, high schools bring academic and employability skills to the latter group. Instructors encourage students to progress by having them contemplate, “How can I be successful?”

Reimer adds that teachers are instrumental in demonstrating healthy study habits and showing students how to prioritize learning. “When kids decide that learning is important, changes can be made,” he says.

These programs are put into place when Reimer reaches out to regional high school principals to discuss the UC Merced mission and what dual enrollment will look like for their curriculum, then leasing begins. “The reaction almost always is, ‘This is fantastic,’” says Reimer.


Succeeding Beyond School through Digital Assignments

In order to earn their childcare permit, the state of California requires each student in Reimer’s program to have 150 hours of supervised experience working with young children. Students earn this by assisting in elementary classrooms and after-school enrichment programs, which Reimer calls cross-age tutoring: Young children see their teenaged peers in a position to succeed, and become more involved in learning.

Students enrolled in the program learn how to become compassionate educators for various stages of childhood development, and to teach material that can be grasped at preschool, kindergarten and first-grade levels.

Reimer explains that showing his program attendees how to implement structure creates a pathway for children to grow as learners. “Education requires a lot of preparation—you don’t shoot from the hip,” says Reimer. “Good teachers are good planners.”

To ensure a well-rounded curriculum, students are assigned three texts: Reimer’s The Reciprocating Self for child development, N. Beaver’s Early Education Curriculum: A Child’s Connection to the World for early childhood instruction, and W. Robles de Melendez’s Teaching Young Children in Multicultural Classrooms: Issues, Concepts and Strategies for inclusion. According to Reimer, all three are essential for honing abilities as an educator. “In California, it’s important that educators are culturally aware,” he says.

Students are then asked to write a college research paper. “They dig in and learn about Piaget, a figure in Developmental Psychology,” explains Reimer.

Other practical skills, such as how to write lesson plans, are also covered.

As for digital learning solutions, Reimer says technology is a “hidden curriculum in terms of dual enrollment.” He adds that institutions are increasingly interested in promoting digital literacy, and students need to know how to use applications and devices.

Providing the opportunity to afford these materials was achieved through Cengage Unlimited, which Reimer says is great for underserved students. By combining technology with all their course materials—including ebooks, digital learning platforms and study tools—students could access a library of resources that led them to success beyond high school.

One of the digital learning platforms students could access was MindTap, which Reimer says has “great interactive activities.”

Reimer has found the textbook-reader feature especially effective. He adds that although students today are electronically savvy, “they’re becoming less disciplined with sitting down and reading a book.”

By having the textbook read to them through MindTap, students can ensure they’re absorbing the material without interrupting their daily lives. On desktop, this feature can also translate the text to Spanish with a google plug-in.

Reimer says technology in an early childhood education program is a fantastic opportunity for soft-skill development—critical thinking can be taught when students learn how to apply real-world concepts with activities in digital learning solutions. “You want them to take the content and make it pop,” he says.


Dual Enrollment Drives Scaled Outcomes through Innovation

One of the ways Reimer could tell students were engaged with the program? They were upset when they couldn’t access it. Reimer explains this was a good sign that students were enjoying the material, adding that they are “finding the content to be solid!”

While Reimer has not yet run post-pilot surveys at the time of this article, he says one indication of the program’s efficacy is students who were previously not interested in college suddenly are.

“Anecdotally, it’s working, because students are applying to college,” says Reimer. He adds that after completion, students are much more aware of other resources—one favorite being Questia—and they’re actually using them.

In the larger community, Reimer says his dual enrollment program has created a buzz. The pilot program began with one group of 30 students, and there have already been requests for two more groups with 60 students. In schools where the student population is only around 900, Reimer says these numbers are significant.

Although online education has improved, the University of California has been reluctant to embrace online education. “Ten to 15 years ago, online education was rolled out in a way that did not prioritize culturally sensitive learning or the importance of building a learning community,” explains Reimer.

“Historically, there has been resistance to online or hybrid models,” adds Reimer—but that’s starting to change with the dual enrollment program. According to Reimer, “These courses have been reviewed and approved by the University of California.” He adds, “They’re a reminder that by denying access to online content, students are denied digital literacy.”

Reimer’s program is also predicated on wellness and hospitality. “We really want online content to be culturally responsive to students in the Central Valley,” he says. “We don’t want students to be isolated.”

Reimer adds that many students might not be equipped with fast internet at home, and it’s important not to assume students can work in a traditional way. “They may not have a computer, they may have to use their phones,” he says. In light of this, he emphasizes that online education must be a support—the technology itself is not the priority, but rather a means for collaborative, face-to-face learning. Reimer warns, “Don’t assume the technology is enough.”

So what does Reimer recommend? “Institutions should understand the difference between synchronous versus asynchronous learning,” he says. He further explains that synchronous learning involves meeting online at the same time and enabling everyone to see each other using teleconferencing technology, or giving students a remote view of the entire lecture that includes their peers.

Asynchronous is the legacy way to approach online learning, says Reimer. It involves students viewing the lesson individually, outside of an engaged, real-time setting.


The Future of Dual Enrollment

Reimer says UC Merced has already partnered with a second high school, and the number of students signing up is “breathtaking.”

“As word gets out, not only will more schools sign up, but also the right schools in need of college and career readiness,” says Reimer.