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Collaboration at the post-secondary level.

Abstract

Most of the current work on collaboration pertains to the implementation of co-teaching and the experiences of the teachers using this instructional approach. This study addressed some of those areas previously ignored when examining collaboration: specifically, student perceptions of co-teaching at the university level. In examining the findings of the study, the authors noted that the collaborative model clearly represented a new and unfamiliar approach for both the instructors and students. This deviation from the norm was keenly felt at the post secondary level, where traditional teaching methods are expected. When those expectations change, the results can be uncomfortable and disappointing. Accordingly, a great deal of preparation must take place to unsure that everyone is clear about the tenets of an effective co-teaching model and that such a model is implemented.

Introduction

Recently all the schools of education in the authors' state re-registered their teacher preparation programs. This gave the writers a chance not only to incorporate state guidelines but also to examine specifically what knowledge and skills they considered most important for future teachers to possess. Because of the movement toward a more inclusive model of education, the need for teachers to know and understand collaboration stood out as essential. Although they bad been including extensive discussions and descriptions of collaboration in most of their courses, the authors realized that they had not been modeling it for our students. The authors stressed the components of an effective collaborative model of instruction or co-teaching in meeting the needs of diverse learners, particularly in the inclusive setting. They lectured on the virtues of collaboration while using the traditional single teacher model of instruction (Jones & Morin, 2000). The writers simply were not "practicing what they preached." As a result, many of their pre-service teachers had little, if any, personal experience in a class that used collaborative instruction. To rectify this situation the authors decided to co-teach an introductory course in special education and look at the responses of college students to this instructional method.

Review of Literature

Most of the current work on collaboration pertains largely to the implementation of co-teaching and the experiences of the teachers using this instructional approach (Gerber & Popp, 1999). The literature on collaboration reflects a lack of research on the effectiveness of co-teaching, the perception of students in collaborative settings, and co-teaching at the post-secondary level (Gerber & Popp, 1999, Jones & Morin, 2000). This study addressed some of those areas previously overlooked when examining collaboration, namely, student perceptions of co-teaching at the university level. Due to the lack of research in this area, a brief review of some of the key points already addressed in the literature on collaboration was deemed important.

In examining collaboration, a great deal of attention has been paid to the establishment of co-teaching, including barriers to successful implementation. Idol (1997) offered 15 key questions whose answers she felt help create collaborative schools. These questions span three categories that correspond to the areas in which most of the research on collaboration has concentrated. The first area deals with philosophical concerns presented in this instructional model (Johnson & Pugach, 1996, Lilly, 1989, Vaughn & Schumm, 1995). The next category of study involved the practical mechanics of collaboration such as funding, teacher and parent support, and delivery models (Friend & Bursuck, 1999, Gerber & Popp, 1999, Thomas, Correa, & Morsink, 2001). Lastly, practical matters that affect implementation such as time, teacher roles and responsibilities, student discipline, teacher and student preparation, and monitoring programs were addressed (Friend & Bursuck, 1999, Gerber & Popp, 2000).

Of particular interest to this study was research on co-teaching conducted with older students, since our focus is post-secondary. Although some work has been done at the high school level, the research tended to center on the same issues of implementation previously considered (Boudah, Schumacher, Deshler, 1997, Trent, 1998). These studies discussed necessary steps for creating successful co-teaching teams, teacher preparation, and the need for administrative support. Jones and Morin (2000) reported on a successful attempt to co-teach at the college level. They briefly described the awkwardness of the shift to this instructional model and the establishment of the shared role of the teachers. They maintained that students adjusted, accepted, and eventually "loved" the new dynamic within the classroom. However, there is no actual collection of data concerning student perception of the co-teaching experience, rather it is the teachers' interpretation of student response.

The perceptions of all those involved in collaboration is key to refining the process. One study conducted by Gerber and Popp (1999) was particularly illuminating because it moved away from examining implementation and barriers to collaboration to examining the experience. The researchers looked at the collaborative teaching models from the viewpoints of parent and student stakeholders from elementary through high school. Students generally liked the co-teaching model and parents found it an effective instructional approach. It is interesting to note that the presence of two teachers proved a "double-edged sword." On one hand, two teachers with two ways of presenting a concept were considered a major benefit. On the other hand, having two different teachers also presented a negative side. Students reported confusion and mixed messages. The researchers felt that this resulted from a lack of sufficient preparation time or problems in communication between the two teachers. The findings of this study are particularly important because they apply to the next level of collaboration beyond implementation.

The importance of feedback from all those involved in or affected by co-teaching is vital to ensuring its effectiveness. Student perceptions in particular, provide teachers with greater objectivity to enable them to further improve their collaborative instruction. In this study, the researchers chose to examine the co-teaching experience at the university level through the eyes of pre-service teachers. The goal was to expose these students to co-teaching while coincidentally determining the effectiveness of this model.

Methods

Participants

The participants in this study included the students enrolled in a co-taught section of a graduate level survey course designed to provide an overview of the field of special education. Thirty-three students from both special education and general education programs were registered in this section. For purposes of comparison, the authors identified another section of the same course taught concurrently and employing the traditional format of a single instructor. Twenty-seven students representing both general education and special education programs attended this class. In addition, both groups compared similarly in gender composition with the co-taught section comprised of 24% males and 76% females, and the traditional section consisting of 22% males and 78% females. Furthermore, assignment to either group was based on student selection; enrollees were not informed of the model of instruction (i.e., collaborative versus traditional).

Procedures

Both instructors in the co-taught section maintained a journal in which they recorded their impressions of the experience of co-teaching as well as their perceptions of student engagement. The journal entries served to provide a record that facilitated a post-experience reflection in which the two instructors critically assessed the course curriculum and its outcomes as well as instructional methodologies and discussed these relative to an ideal post-secondary co-teaching model promulgated on "best evidence" research.

In addition, a survey developed for the express purpose of assessing student perceptions of the instructional model and course curriculum was administered to each of the students in the co-taught section as well as the students in the traditional section (see Appendix A). The survey was designed to probe the students' beliefs about the efficacy of the teaching models employed in both the co-taught and traditionally taught sections of the special education survey course. Accordingly, ten survey items were developed to provide information in three areas: teaching format, instructional style, and course content. Participants were asked to select from a Likert-type scale of 1-5 with corresponding descriptors ranging from "Strongly Agree" to "Strongly Disagree" for each of the first eight survey items. The final two items were designed to solicit a "Yes/No" response addressing specific strengths of the course as well as recommended areas for improvement. Finally, the survey design was edited for brevity and item face validity to ensure relevance and encourage maximum student participation. Analyses of the survey data were conducted using Spearman rank correlation tests. The authors then incorporated the findings derived from these analyses into their overall evaluation of the co-teaching experience. An in-depth account of the results of these data follows.

Results

The findings of this study are described under the two categories that differentiate the methods of inquiry: the student survey and instructor reflection.

The Survey Results

Crosstabulations as well as Spearman rank correlations conducted on each item for both the co-teaching and traditional instructional models provided the following. Responses to items 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8 revealed few significant differences between the responses of the co-teaching and traditional groups. For example, in responding to item 1: "The teaching format of the class was more effective than other college courses I have taken," an identical number of survey participants from each of the two groups stated that they agreed whereas there was only a slight difference between the groups in the number of respondents who disagreed. Also of interest are the responses of the two groups to item 7: "I would be eager to enroll in courses presented in a similar instructional design." A similar percentage of respondents from both the traditional (30%) as well as co-taught (26%) sections agreed, whereas 21% of the co-taught course versus 11% of the traditionally taught group disagreed--an important disparity. Furthermore, while a similar percentage of respondents from both the traditional and co-taught sections agreed that "instructional style" represented a strength of the course, twice as many respondents from the co-taught section felt that the instructional style used was a weakness. Similar disparities were observed relative to "course content," "class size," and "scope of content."

However, more relevant to the study than these trends, were the discrepancies between group responses to items 2, 6, 9c, and 10c (see Appendix A). To illustrate, in response to item 2, "The curriculum was presented effectively," approximately ten percent of the participants from the co-taught course indicated that they disagreed with this appraisal or were undecided as compared with two percent of the traditionally taught students (see Figure 1). This disparity represented an approximate significance level of p = .02 based on the results of a Spearman rank correlation. See issue's website <http://rapidintellect.com/AEQweb/fal2003.htm>

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Similarly, in response to item 6, "I would have preferred a different format of instruction for this course," 35% of the co-teaching respondents stated that they agreed whereas 8% of the traditional group indicated that they concurred (see Figure 2). A Spearman rank correlation conducted on these responses revealed a significance level of p = .007. Two other findings that are noteworthy involve an analysis of survey items 9: "The strengths of this course," and 10: "Recommended areas of improvement." In response to item 9, a greater number of students in the co-teaching model indicated that they did not feel that the presentation of the curriculum was a strength of the course (see Figure 3). This result represents a significant difference (p = .03) between students in the co-teaching and traditional models. Finally, an analysis of the responses to item 10: "Recommended areas of improvement" showed that more students in the co-teaching model than the traditional model felt that instructional format was an area of the course in need of improvement (see Figure 4). While a Spearman rank test conducted on these data revealed a probability level of p = .09, outside the accepted minimum level of significance (p < .05), nonetheless, this finding may represent an important trend that has implications for practice. See issue's website <http://rapidintellect.com/AEQweb/fal2003.him>

[FIGURES 2-4 OMITTED]

Instructor Reflections

Qualitative data from the instructors' journals clustered around four themes: planning, presentation, student/teacher interaction, and course criteria. Both professors experienced a degree of dissatisfaction with this particular co-teaching experience in all topics examined.

Planning

Instructor reflections on planning revealed a disparity between expectations and actual practice. Both professors entered the course with what they felt was a good understanding of the demands of collaboration. Instructor 1 felt secure in this model since he/she was "well-steeped in 'best practice' literature" as well as actually "having taught collaboratively before." Instructor 2 found "the compromise was more difficult" than expected and admitted that he/she "did not appreciate the amount of time or compromise needed to plan in the co-teaching model." Both professors began the semester with a sense of false clarity. Both felt that they possessed an in-depth professional understanding of collaboration that would facilitate their co-teaching. However, they never discussed their individual perceptions of the instructional format. Instructor 2 reported that, "I assumed that we shared exactly the same approach to teaching the course. This was rather naive and unrealistic." This type of assumption, and a lack of communication that resulted from it, would prove a major contributor to the dissatisfaction experienced by both instructors. At the inception of the course, extensive time was spent planning. Both instructors reported detailed orchestration of the first few classes. Instructor 2 reported, "Initially we actually worked out the amount of time we would each be presenting, and the specific components of the lesson we would teach. For some reason this seemed very important. I think we were both trying to keep some kind of control while compromising."

The detailed planning sessions did not continue. As instructor 1 explained, "However, as the semester developed and our copious extra-curricular responsibilities increased, presenting conflicts and imposing time constraints, our commitment to planning waned. Until the latter half of the course, we met inconsistently and briefly." Instructor 2 corroborated this sense that planning time was superceded by other professional responsibilities reporting, "We just didn't have the time to give with all the other commitments we have." However he/she further elaborated on the decrease in planning time by re-introducing the false clarity with which both professors embarked on this experiment. "We had both taught the course before which gave us a sense of security: However, by lessening the time we spent planning we ignored a major component of co-teaching. Essentially, we ended up each doing our own thing within the context of the co-teaching model." Instructor 1 noted that this lack of planning time proved disastrous for the course. "The result of this deficiency was that instead of being a choreographed interchange of ideas and information, our class session became static, crystallized presentations: an antithesis of collaboration."

Presentation

Instructor assessment of the class presentation aspect of the collaboration correlated with the planning experience. As instructor 1 stated, "Commentary under this heading reflects the impact of diminished planning." Instructor 2 noted "The presentation stayed fairly separate." The professors explained the individualized presentations as the response to a quest for greater efficiency and the result of an increased workload. Instructor 1 reported that typically the individual instruction "reflected our peculiar areas of interest and expertise." "This was an easier way to address each aspect of the curriculum. It allowed use to prepare independently and access material that was already part of our respective pedagogical experience." Although efficient, both instructors lamented that this approach precluded a true collaboration and led to feelings of discomfort. In support of this, instructor 2 observed, "During class time we never reached the point where we were teaching together. I felt although I had no reason to feel this way, that when I tried to contribute during the presentation I was interrupting. I was hoping to reach a point of give and take, with some banter. I don't think we were ever able to do that."

Similarly, instructor 1 described the nature of the presentation. "Typically, one of us would take attendance and introduce the topic for the class; the other would lecture on one aspect of the topic. As this was happening, the other instructor became awkwardly silent and busied him or herself with the distribution of relevant handouts and assisted with the operations of various audio-visual aids. At the mid-point of a session, the roles reversed." In addition, instructor 1 expressed the same dissatisfaction as instructor 2 in the failure to meet the desired co-teaching outcomes. "Finally, in the last half-hour of the class, some group activity would be assigned and often this was the venue that facilitated the meaningful interchange I had anticipated as an outcome of collaborative instruction."

Student-Teacher Interaction

Both teachers expressed disappointment in the nature of the student teacher interaction achieved in this particular course. Class size was seen a prime culprit in diminishing the interactions. Instructor 2 explained that, "Usually over the course of a semester I get to know the names of my students and feel that I have the opportunity to develop relationships with a number of them. Perhaps because of the size of the class I didn't feel I was able to achieve that with this group." Concurrently, instructor 1 noted, "From the outset, I felt the class size was too large to accommodate the lesson format as well as cooperative activities both of us envisioned when we proposed the ideas of a co-taught course." The class size resulted from university policy concerning teaching load. Instructor 1 explained that in order to each received the necessary 3.0 semester hour credit required to make load "the only recourse was to teach an amalgam of two sections comprising approximately forty students. In addition, in order to accommodate this number we needed to reserve a large theater-style classroom with fixed table and seats, hardly conducive to cooperative group work." The large number of students and the physical constraints of the classroom layout became factors in what instructor 1 referred to as a "sense of alienation and anonymity." Similarly, instructor 2 stated, "I never really felt like this was my class. I didn't establish a good dynamic." Although he/she recognized the influence of the class size other factors were also considered. "I guess that you can have a class of personalities that just don't blend, or blend in a way that doesn't complement the teaching style of the instructor. Perhaps that happened here. I am not sure. Whatever it was I know that I feel that I was not able to connect with the students in the way that I do in the more traditional instructional style of one teacher."

Finally, instructor 1 "found it very difficult to remember students' names, which exacerbated a growing sense of 'us' and 'them:' a feeling of 'undergraduate anonymity' began to develop and take root." This professor felt that much of weakness in the teacher-student interaction could be traced to a crumbling co-teaching experience. "Unfortunately, our disintegrating collaborative teaching model was reflected in the growing sense of alienation from our students and their intellectual 'disconnect' from the curriculum. This growing disparity was, I am convinced, a recursive process that affected both our students and us."

Course Criteria

Aside from time given to planning, perhaps the most critical and overlooked component of co-teaching in this collaborative experience was the establishment of shared criteria for coursework. As instructor 1 stated, "One glaring oversight in the planning process involved the development of a grading rubric or criteria that reflected an agreed upon standard." Instructor 2 concurred, noting that although there were discussions concerning "... a number of aspects of co-teaching, the syllabus, the assignments, how we would present, we never discussed our criteria for grading." The lack of communications on this subject resulted in real dissatisfaction. Instructor 2 reported that, "This became a major issue for me. I felt that I was not as flexible (as my colleague), and that we did not share the same standards when grading assignments." When giving quite different grades on one particular paper the issue crystallized for this professor. "The question is not so who gave the fairer grade, but that two professors who shared a class did not grade the same material in the same way." The results of this experience lead the professor to reflect on his/her practice. "This situation provoked some real soul searching in me. I wondered about my expectations for my students and how realistic I was. I am still trying to deal with this to a degree. It made me realize that I do have high demands, but in the past my students have been able to reach and many times exceed my expectations."

Instructor 1 highlighted the team's lack of attention to establishment of a mutually agreed upon coursework standard. "Whereas the process in achieving consensus may have been time-consuming and perhaps, occasionally, contentious, it would have represented a compromise that at least reflected our shared beliefs about course standards. Unfortunately, ignored until the final assignments began to trickle in, we made assumptions about each other's grading criteria that proved false and created contraposition and dissonance between us." As in the planning component assumptions were made by both parties that proved to be inaccurate. Instructor 1 explained that, "Again, we felt constrained by other commitments and because we shared similar teaching philosophies and had collaborated on several presentations and research projects, presumed that we would agree on grading criteria. This was a flawed assumption." The result of acting on an ungrounded assumption was negative. As instructor 1 related, "We needed to discuss our assessment criteria as an integral part of course planning; when we neglected the one, we inadvertently excluded the other. This oversight resulted in a mutual dissatisfaction with the collaborative process that was only partially resolved as we reflected on the whole experience."

Discussion

The quantitative and qualitative feedback from this study indicates dissatisfaction on the part of students and faculty with this particular co-teaching experience. An analysis of the survey data suggests, in total, that students assigned to the co-taught section did not appreciate or value this model of instruction as compared with students in the traditionally taught section. This conclusion was supported by an examination of the responses of both groups to several of the survey items. Specifically, a greater number of respondents in the co-taught section suggested that they did not think the curriculum was presented effectively. Correspondingly, students in the co-taught section reported that instructional style and content were not course strengths and that class size represented a potential deficiency. In addition, these students indicated that they would have preferred a different format of instruction and would not likely enroll in another co-taught course based, presumably, on current experience.

There are a number of plausible explanations for these results, including the fact that this co-taught course, an inaugural one, was a learning experience for the instructors. Both professors have acknowledged errors and oversights. Ignoring basic tenets of collaboration such as shared planning time and establishment of a mutually agreed upon course standard proved detrimental to the co-teaching model. Furthermore, the analyses of the reflections of the instructors revealed the insidious nature of assumptions as demonstrated in the grading of assignments. The lack of shared assessment criteria resulted in grading that was considered either too liberal or too rigorous by the individual instructors, thus creating unnecessary dissonance and professional dissatisfaction. The assumptions made by the two professors were based on a sense of false clarity. False clarity can result when change is thought of in a simplistic way, ignoring the complexity of the process (Fullan, 1982). Teacher assumptions about this co-teaching experience, as well as the lack of communication concerning certain aspects of this format resulted in problems in implementation. What people do and do not do during the implementation process affects the outcome. While the instructors were both very familiar with the aspects of "best practice" in collaborative teaching, preeminent of which is "scheduled planning time," they neglected to consistently employ them. To be certain, based on the outcomes of this study, implications for future co-teaching endeavors must include a stringent adherence to these "best practice" principles, notably a commitment to adequate planning time.

The by-product of this collaboration was a demonstration of the disparity between espoused theories and theories in use (Senge, 1990). Both instructors understood the importance of the co-teaching model and believed that students would benefit and enjoy this instructional strategy. The realities of the university policy concerning course load and the resulting class size compromised the implementation process. Future collaborative teaching ventures should receive sufficient administrative support to ensure a smaller class size that would facilitate both student-faculty rapport and a more effective cooperative learning model. Fullan (1982) pointed out that change must be examined "in regard to the difficulty, skill required, and extent of the alternation in beliefs, teaching strategies, and use of materials" (p. 74). Students in the two sections assigned to the co-teaching experience did not have prior knowledge of the instructional format. Many of these graduate students had limited or no experience with collaborative teaching (Jones and Morin, 2000). Their dissatisfaction with the instructional style may reflect the amount of adjustment required by students to an unexpected and new format.

The co-taught course clearly represented an innovative approach to teaching, particularly at the post secondary level. The relative newness of the use of collaboration in classrooms meant that for the most part these students had educational experiences comprised of traditional single teacher instruction. The professors, too, were steeped in this traditional model of instruction. Everyone involved in this study was working under novel conditions. The changes required to make this new format work effectively involved not only different instructional strategies, but also a shift in beliefs about the role of teachers and the expected classroom dynamic. This type of change requires an understanding on the part of the students of the nature of collaborative instruction. Students would benefit from not only explanation but also the modeling of desired behavior such as conversational exchanges to allow for meaningful invention. These types of interventions would help alter student expectations of instructional strategies, in order to move them from a traditional to a co-teaching model of instruction.

Conclusions

The implementation of the co-teaching model at the university level revealed many of the same issues evident at other educational levels. The need for mutual planning time and the use of a shared coursework criteria have been found in all collaborative settings. Adherence to the tenets of co-teaching by teachers is crucial. Uniquely, the post-secondary experience can be differentiated in two particular areas: (a) the challenge of garnering administrative support and, (b) the degree to which the traditional single instructional model is embedded in a sense of instructional autonomy.

Support for innovative teaching at the university involves a reassessment of course loads requirements. Financial reimbursement is directly tied to course load. In many cases, and in this study, that arrangement prohibits co-teaching according to the recommended model. Thus, class size becomes a factor in the implementation of collaboration since there is little support or incentive for professors to move to a new instructional format. The move to a new format at the post-secondary level exposes the inherently traditional nature of instruction. College professors enjoy a great deal of autonomy in their class, ranging from the curriculum assigned and the instructional strategies used, to the type of assessment employed. This results in both students and teachers entertaining certain expectations concerning the classroom experience. When those expectations change, the results can be uncomfortable and disappointing. A great deal of preparation must take place to insure that everyone is clear about the tenets and parameters of the co-teaching model. Once these procedural ground rules have been established, we can all begin to experience the benefits of collaboration.

References

Boudah, D.J., Schumacher, J.D. & Deshler, D.D. (1997). Collaborative instruction: Is it an effective option for inclusion in secondary classrooms? Learning Disability Quarterly, 20 (Fall), 293-316.

Friend, M. & Bursuck, W.D. (1999). Including students with social needs: A practice guide for classroom teachers. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Fullan, M. (1982). The meaning of education change. New York: Teachers College Press.

Gerber, P.J. & Popp, P.A. (1999). Consumer perspectives on the collaborative teaching model: Views of students with and without LD and their parents. Remedial and Special Education 20,(5), 288-296.

Gerber, P.J. & Popp, P.A. (2000). Making collaborative teaching more effective for academically able students: Recommendations for implementation and training. Learning Disability Quarterly, 23, (3), 229-236.

Idol, L. (1997). Key questions related to building collaborative and inclusive schools. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30, 384-394.

Johnson, L.J., & Pugach, M.C. (1996). The emerging third wave of collaboration: Beyond problem solving. In W. Staniback & S. Stainback (Eds.), Controversial issue confronting special education: Divergent perspectives. (2nd. Ed., pp. 197-218). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Jones, S.L. & Morin, V. (2000) Training teacher to work as partners: Modeling the way in teacher preparation programs. The Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 67, (1), 51-55.

Lilly, M.S. (1989). Teacher preparation. In D.R. Lipsky & A. Garner (Eds.), Beyond separate education: Quality education for all (pp. 143-157). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York, Doubleday.

Thomas, C.C., Correa, V.I., & Morsink, C.V. (2001). Interactive Teaming: Enhancing Programs for Students with Special Needs. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Trent, S.C. (1998). False starts and other dilemmas of a secondary general education collaborative teacher: A case study. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 31, (5), 503-513.

Vaughn, S. & Schumm (1995). Responsible inclusion for students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30, 264-270, 290.

Darra Pace, Hofstra University, NY Vance Austin, Hofstra University, NY

Dr. Pace is an assistant professor in special education. Her research interests include teacher preparation practice, collaboration, and attitudes towards persons with disabilities. Dr. Austin was a faculty member in the special education program at Hofstra. His research interests include collaboration, inclusion, teacher preparation practice, and behavior management approaches.
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Author:Austin, Vance
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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