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SDSU Prof's Research Helps At-Risk School Kids and Businesses

Group photo of children in school uniforms - Reading and Writing: 2 years higher than peers; Creative Problem Solving in teams: Off the charts; Drop-out rate: 0%

Dr. Robert O. Briggs, management information systems professor at San Diego State University, didn't set out to explore new ways of keeping kids from dropping out of school. "I was working with business and military organizations to reduce their project cycle times," said Briggs. "As we explored theories on learning techniques and we found that we could cut their project cycle times by 90 percent while improving the quality of their work product." This was achieved through Group Support System (GSS) software developed by Briggs when he was in process of obtaining his Ph.D.s. at the University of Arizona.

Helping Kids Stay in School

Their focus changed with a visit from a public school administrator from Washington, D.C. who asked Briggs if he could apply the software to at-risk students in the D.C.'s public schools. At the time, the schools had a dropout rate of 64 percent. The team agreed to take the project.

When a learner has a stake in the outcome, learning feels like scratching an itch, but when they see no stake in the outcome, learning feels like putting your face on a belt sander
Dr. Robert O. Briggs

At first, Briggs, who was raised in San Diego County and holds three degrees from SDSU ('86, art history, '86, information systems, '87, M.B.A.) had a difficult time grasping why learners-at-risk were dropping out until one student said:

"I got on the wrong side of a gang and I may not get home alive tonight. If I do get home alive, I don't know whether my mom will be strung out on heroin. If she's strung out on heroin, I don't know whether I'll have anything to eat until I get back to school on Monday. What do I care when Columbus sailed? What do I care what seven-times-five is? That has nothing to do with me."

Redefining the Goal

For Briggs, this was a "Eureka!" moment. "When a learner has a stake in the outcome, learning feels like scratching an itch, but when they see no stake in the outcome, learning feels like putting your face on a belt sander," said Briggs. "We had to stop preparing the kids for a future they didn't believe in and put them to work on real goals where they had an immediate interest. We chose the tasks carefully so they would have to learn what we wanted them to know in order to get what they wanted."

We tracked them for five years and all 22 stayed in school, while more than half of their peers dropped out.
Dr. Robert O. Briggs

"On one level, the study was a stunning success," said Briggs. "During the two years that the students participated in the study, their reading and writing skills advanced two years ahead of their peers and their creative problem solving abilities were off the charts. We tracked them for five years and all 22 stayed in school, while more than half of their peers dropped out."

But, said Briggs "It was also a glorious failure. Those results were obtained only by expert facilitators and those resources are scarce and expensive. That meant most groups that could benefit the most, including small businesses, public schools, and non-profit organizations, couldn't realize the potential gains of GSS."

Making it Accessible

Briggs went back to the drawing board and his further research led him and Gert-Jan de Vreede at the University of Nebraska in Omaha to pioneer Collaboration Engineering, a new discipline focused on making benefits of these systems available to groups that do not have the resources to pay for an expert or extensive training. This group may include marketing researchers, health care organizations, government agencies and public schools.

Briggs is headed back to school this fall to see if their approach works on another class of at-risk students in Chicago. "If the pilot project succeeds in Chicago, we'll know that we can apply this not only to schools, but to any organization that seeks group efficiency and success at a low cost," said Briggs.