Tennessee State University Partners with CogBooks to Boost Enrollment of Underrepresented Populations in Agricultural Sciences

Tennessee State University (TSU), recognized as an accredited historically black college or university (HBCU), partnered with CogBooks to boost underrepresented student enrollment in their agriculture program, paving the way for diverse learners to discover fruitful careers in the agriculture industry. Working together, we created a multi-course curriculum with the help of high school and college instructors from around the country. 

CogBooks sat down with John C. Ricketts, PhD, Professor and Extension Specialist Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at TSU to discuss their enrollment challenges and the role our adaptive learning platform played in the solution.

What Are The Enrollment Challenges Facing The TSU Agricultural Sciences Program?

“Most people in agricultural education are from rural areas. We serve rural students too, but the majority are from urban areas like Nashville, Memphis, Atlanta, and Chicago area kids. So it’s a very diverse, urban population.”

Attracting ethnically diverse, underrepresented students, often from urban centers to study agriculture at TSU, a field that is commonly perceived as a predominantly “white” vocation, has always been an uphill climb.“ On the one hand, rural students may not consider coming to an urban college like TSU, but on the other, urban kids don’t necessarily see themselves in agriculture. In part, it’s about inclusivity, access and awareness. We struggle with enrollment, and so we’re looking at flexible, online degree programs to help us reach a wider, more culturally diverse audience by presenting agriculture as an attractive, relatable field that is ripe with employment opportunities post graduation.”

Tackling the enrollment challenge is worth it for the school and the students.

“The agriculture industry is thirsty for diversity. Many neat opportunities come our graduates’ way, and they end up in high-paying jobs.”

How Did A USDA NIFA Covid-19 Rapid Response Grant Help Your Efforts To Launch This Initiative?

“TSU used a grant that was part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) COVID-19 rapid response for teachers and students. Our idea was to keep students on track in their learning in case they get sent home again (due to the pandemic) or if they have responsibilities that prevent them from being able to physically sit in classes all day long. We swung for the fence when writing the grant proposal for a full eight courses. I worried that it wouldn’t get funded because we were so ambitious, but I’m happy that it did. If we want to continue building a robust pipeline of students into agriculture degrees, we need to be willing to go the extra mile to give students the necessary skills to succeed and the extra support when needed.”

Why Select Cogbooks To Help Create The Program?

“We could have never developed eight courses without Cogbooks. I’ve developed courses with some online components, but none entirely online. This was a $1 million grant with eight courses, so the stakes are just too high. I’ve been intrigued by the potential of personalizing the learning experience using the capabilities of adaptive technology to make sure our students have a great experience and stay on track. What appealed to me about CogBooks was their extensive experience building out interconnected programs using adaptive learning technology that have been proven to work, and how easy the user experience is, especially for students. I knew ease-of-use would be extremely important for our students and the related engagement and performance analytics would be important to our instructors. Also, when I talked to CogBooks, they made me feel like we could do it, so we’re doing it. The course pathways we’re developing align with the National Council for Agriculture Education career clusters and also supports the priorities of the USDA. We’re creating courses that solve industry standards and meet the future needs of our learners as well.”

Can This New Adaptive Courseware for Agriculture Be Used By High School Students?

“Yes, we’re working toward a dual enrollment concept to deliver the most value to students. These courses not only help students earn high school credit, but they would get college credit and a faster pathway to a productive career in agriculture for less cost, which is essential for our students as it relates to degree persistence and completion.”

How Will Content Be Authored For The Agriculture Courseware?

Though a large undertaking for the ultra-busy high school teachers,  the eight new courses had to begin with the folks who had boots on the ground. We’re crowdsourcing much of the new instructional content from subject matter experts around the country. We received mini-grant applications from high school agriculture teachers across the country who have large demand for agriculture studies and are excited by our initiative. Teachers contributing content came from Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Ohio, California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Georgia. Faculty experts from Tennessee State University, University of Georgia, Tennessee Technological University, Mississippi State University, and Auburn assisted in content development and ensuring the courses would be rigorous enough for an introductory level college course. These faculty worked closely with CogBooks instructional designers and content engineers to build out the courseware topics, subtopics and learning activities for each course. 

I believe in the premise that instructors have to be involved in curriculum development if they and their peers are going to use it in their teaching.”

How Will The Program Be Unveiled?

“We plan to allocate a portion of the grant money to promote the new online agricultural sciences adaptive learning courses at teacher conferences, extension meetings, and youth development events. Initially, we’re targeting the National Future Farmers of America (FFA) convention and the National Association of Agricultural Educators as a launch opportunities, and we’ll also work with CogBooks to provide training and onboarding to anyone who would like to use the courseware in their agriculture studies curriculum.”

Will TSU Have Grants Available For Interested Students?

“Part of our philosophy at TSU is to provide financial support for students in need when they’re enrolled full time, and this new program will be no exception.” The grant provides 3,000 user licenses for free to students who want or need respective courses.

Designing Adaptive Learning Courseware To Improve Engagement and Enrollment at HBCUs

CogBooks adaptive learning courseware is expanding enrollment opportunities for TSU by making agriculture courses more inclusive, accessible and engaging for a wider range of students. Higher education institutions or instructors can choose CogBooks for a single course or work towards an entire degree program such as the new Agricultural Sciences program at TSU or Biospine at Arizona State University. CogBooks adaptive learning technology has been used by more than 200,000 students worldwide. It is proven to reduce dropouts by 90%* while improving student performance by 24%.* Connect with us if you’re interested in learning more, creating a custom course, or developing an entire degree program.