In a former shopping mall, Austin Community College sees a new way to learn

Editor’s note: This story is part of a package examining how community colleges in Texas are innovating to address pressures facing two-year schools nationwide. We started this reporting before the pandemic, and as the crisis unfolded, we thought it was important to show how schools are set up to respond to a potential rise in interest and a heightened need to retrain workers.

From the outside, the former Highland Mall in Austin, Texas, looks like a typical shopping center, with room for dozens of boutiques and department stores. But visitors passing through the large glassy entrance on its west side are greeted by something else: an expansive learning center run by Austin Community College.

The college has transformed 32,000 square feet of the mall, once a J.C. Penney store, into a sleek, open-plan learning lab, with wood accents and an exposed ceiling to round out the contemporary vibe. Shared workstations with more than 600 desktop computers fill out the space. The rest of the mall and the surrounding area, which the college also owns, has or will soon be redeveloped into academic incubators, office space, apartments and retail shops.

Called an ACCelerator, the lab is a place where students can take college classes, book study rooms and access a suite of services. The college acquired the mall in phases, spending $15.7 million to buy the J.C. Penney building and surrounding parking lot and $46 million to renovate the inside, according to local media reports. It opened the ACCelerator in 2014. 

The new space gave ACC room to transform the way it teaches developmental math, drawing inspiration from Virginia Tech. The university turned a discount department store into a massive computer laboratory for developmental math education and overhauled its own courses for the new format. Called the Math Emporium model, the bulk of the instruction is self-paced and uses adaptive learning software, saving the institution costs on instruction. Students can flag down one of several tutors on hand if they need help with a problem. 

The Emporium model’s technology-based instruction hasn’t improved student success at every institution that’s tried it. But dozens of community colleges have since adopted it in the hopes it will take some of the burden off faculty members and give students the freedom to work at their own pace, said Wes Anthony, director of the Kellogg Institute, which educates about best practices in developmental education. 

ACC started with that model as the basis for what it would create, said Guillermo Martinez, Austin’s associate vice president for student engagement and analytics. But, he added, “we are in Texas, so we wanted it bigger.”

Although the Highland ACCelerator first focused on developmental math, it now offers around three dozen types of courses, from digital arts and media to biology and geography. It also includes student services. That lets learners access tutors for specific courses as well as academic and career coaches for broader issues, such as time management, test-taking skills and resume help. 

One of the ACCelerator’s main draws is the open-style format, which makes it easier for students to access classes and academic help in the same space, Martinez said. That feature isn’t easily replicated on existing campuses.  

“It’s not just a learning lab, it’s not just a math lab and it’s not just a computer lab,” he said. “It’s literally a learning environment where there’s full wraparound support.” 

Students mostly sit at pods — curved tables that house four computers each — in wheeled chairs they can move around. Although many classes are taught in the ACCelerator’s main area, a handful of regular classrooms are available on the outskirts as well, Martinez said. 

“The biggest difference is for the faculty. They’re no longer up in front of the classroom,” he added. “There are not four walls.”

The success of the Highland ACCelerator prompted officials to build two more. 

One, located on the San Gabriel campus, boasts 110,000 square feet and includes a computer lab, science labs, a library and a rooftop terraceA third recently opened on Austin’s Round Rock campus and a fourth is slated for completion in 2021.

The change has worked for ACC. Students who visit one of the ACCelerators seven or more times are around six percentage points more likely to persist into the next semester than students who don’t visit one of them, according to a college release.

The impact is more significant on new students, who are 11 percentage points more likely to persist if they visit one of the ACCelerators. “For the students that have never been to ACC and that go to this type of environment, they like it so much that they stick around,” Martinez said. 

Students can access a broad spectrum of support services at the ACCelerators, including tutoring and career help. 

Permission granted by Austin Community College


A new way to learn

The ACCelerators borrow tactics from active-learning classrooms. There, movable seating and desks let students face each other to make collaboration easier, and whiteboards give them a place to solve problems together. The goal is for students to work through problems, whether alone or in groups, rather than listen passively to a lecture.

This design also encourages more one-on-one work between professors and their students, said Curtiss Stevensexecutive director of the ACCelerators. Students are “talking with the faculty,” he said. “They’re getting that individualized attention.” 

However, Stevens noted that not all developmental math classes are held in ACCelerators, and it’s likely to stay that way to offer students more flexibility if they prefer or perform better in the traditional class format. 

Dozens of colleges have pivoted toward active-learning models, and several studies have found this mode of instruction generally has stronger learning outcomes than traditional lectures. 

“Because often you have screens or whiteboards around the room, students have a little closer access to the content,” Tracey Birdwellprogram director of Indiana University’s active-learning initiative, said of active-learning classrooms. “The information is a little more diffuse and democratized throughout the room, which means it’s a little bit more accessible to students.” 

“It’s not just a learning lab, it’s not just a math lab and it’s not just a computer lab. It’s literally a learning environment where there’s full wraparound support.”

Guillermo Martinez

Associate vice president for student engagement and analytics, Austin Community College

Students may not always feel like they’re learning as much in these types of environments, however. In 2019, Harvard University researchers found that students taking an introductory physics course learned more in active-learning classrooms, even though they thought they learned more from typical lectures. 

Louis Deslauriers, a physics instructor at Harvard and lead author of the study, said this is likely because active learning takes more effort than listening to “superstar lecturers,” he said. “When things get difficult, which learning should be, sometimes students are going to misinterpret that as a sign of poor learning, when exactly the opposite is true.”

When the Highland ACCelerator first opened, in the fall of 2014, students who visited it were far more likely to receive a C or higher in the developmental classes, as well as persist into the next semester than students in non-ACCelerator courses. 

Although some of these gaps have narrowed as ACC expanded the ACCelerator format, course data shows students are still seeing these types of benefits. 

The success of the Highland ACCelerator spurred ACC to create more, including one (pictured above) at its San Gabriel campus. 

Permission granted by Austin Community College


‘Location, location, location’

Although the redeveloped Highland mall draws visitors from community colleges and other organizations, Martinez suggested its scale and cost could make it hard to duplicate. ACC got some assistance when voters passed two bond proposals in 2014 that gave the college $386 million for capital improvements, part of which will help it further develop the Highland mall. 

“It’s beautiful and it’s huge, but it’s not necessarily the replicable one,” he said, adding that the smaller ACCelerators are easier to build. 

However, several other community colleges are transforming former malls or big-box stores into learning spaces. Among them is the College of the Desert, a two-year institution in California. It is in the process of turning a former mall in Palm Springs into a 330,000-square-foot campus. It purchased the property in 2018 for $22 million after the mall had been mostly abandoned for years.

Grand Rapids Community College, in Michigan, purchased a former J.C. Penney in January. It plans to renovate the space for $12 million in order to consolidate programs spread across four nearby locations. 

Bill Pink, president of Grand Rapids, invoked a common real estate mantra to explain the allure of purchasing mall space: “location, location, location.”

“Malls are typically placed in high-traffic areas, and accessibility is important,” he said, adding that they are usually also close to a bus line. “All those things make sense for community colleges as well.”

Meanwhile, community colleges can help revitalize malls that are struggling to compete with mega-retailers such as Amazon and the rise of online shopping. Students can bring in business by patronizing stores after their classes and by drawing companies to the area who want to employ them. 

“The information is a little more diffuse and democratized throughout the room, which means it’s a little bit more accessible to students.”

Tracey Birdwell

Program director, Indiana University’s Mosaic Initiative

Des Moines Area Community College picked up a 65,000 square-foot space in 2012 that used to house a J.C. Penney for $1. In return, the college pays the developer that owns the mall around $8,000 a month for security support and maintenance. 

The college renovated the former department store for $13 million to include spaces for a broad spectrum of classes, including welding and healthcare. 

“What (the property owners) were interested in was drawing more individuals to the mall area,” said Rob Denson, the college’s president. The college, he added, wanted a site close to where a significant portion of their students live.

Now, the college is converting an additional 20,000 square feet of the mall into classrooms and offices. “It really works,” Denson said. “We have a highly visible facility.”

ACC similarly hopes to revitalize the area around its outposts by partnering with a developer to transform the remaining space into apartments, offices and retail shops — some of which have already opened

The college also plans to open another wing of the mall next year that will include a workforce development center replete with a makerspace and equipment for advanced manufacturing, as well as a media center, performing arts space and student-operated restaurant. 

Before the college bought the property, the mall “was disappearing” and plagued by vandalism, ACC’s Martinez said. Now, there’s a multiyear plan to bring new people through its doors. “Once it’s all said and done,” he said, “we’ll probably serve about 15,000 students.”

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