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Lifelong Learning Starts Young: The Virtual Lab School and the 21st Century Land-Grant Mission

The EvoLLLution | Lifelong Learning Starts Young: The Virtual Lab School and the 21st Century Land-Grant Mission
True lifelong learning policy and process has to not only look at adult access to education, but access for younger students as well.

In the 2018 book Land-Grant Universities for the Future: Higher Education for the Public Good, Ohio State professor Stephen Gavazzi and West Virginia president E. Gordon Gee sought to clarify the 21st century mission of America’s land-grant universities. Analysis of interview data from 27 land-grant presidents and chancellors generated a core set of themes related to the current strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats faced by our nation’s first public universities, with special emphasis on the ways in which these institutions were meeting the needs of communities.

The Land-Grant Universities for the Future book featured explicit discussion about the need for critical linkages to be forged between the land-grant institution and its community stakeholders. The land-grant mission, as realized through the university’s outreach and engagement activities, were discussed in previous articles appearing in The EvoLLLution (including a first piece on Cooperative Extension Services and a second piece on 4-H programming).

Building on these previous contributions, Professor Gavazzi interviewed two of his Ohio State colleagues—Dr. Cynthia Buettner and Dr. Sarah Lang—to help shine a spotlight on one particularly stellar example of land-grant outreach and engagement activities that are meeting the needs of 21st century American families: The Department of Defense Child Development Virtual Laboratory School.

Developed by The Ohio State University for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Military Family Readiness Policy’s Children, Youth, and Families division—and supported by a grant from the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food & Agriculture—the Virtual Lab School (VLS) serves the 30,000+ individuals that work in military-affiliated childcare, who care for roughly 200,000 military dependents. That said, because the VLS content is publicly available, it also supports the wider childcare workforce, providing evidence-based information for those working in public or private childcare programs. Here, roughly 750,000 military dependents are served, and even broader, where 15 million children receive care across our nation.

This interview has been broken down into three themes exploring different aspects of the work the VLS does.

Challenging Universities to Provide Accessible and Relevant Programming for Birth-12 Learners

Stephen Gavazzi (SG): In Land-Grant Universities for the Future, we are quite critical of modern universities, especially when it comes to the lack of connection we typically see between institutions of higher learning and the education settings of children (all the way from birth through 12th grade). In contrast, the Virtual Lab School seems to be exactly what we called for in terms of land-grant faculty and staff becoming involved in the development of innovative models that unite educators from campuses and communities in the common purpose of educating our youth.

What was the impetus for creating VLS, and what lessons were learned in launching this initiative that can help others who are interested in creating systems to support childcare and education workforce?

Cynthia Buettner (CB): In 2011, the Obama administration’s focus on military families and their communities prompted the Department of Defense (DoD) and USDA to form the USDA/DoD Military Extension Partnership. The intent of this interagency agreement was to leverage the expertise found at land grant universities in support of three objectives, one of which was expanding and strengthening family, childcare and youth development programs. At that time, I had just begun work with the DoD on ways to improve the training those working in DoD childcare and youth development programs receive. My work, the VLS, became one of the earliest projects in the new DoD/USDA initiative. One of the most powerful aspects of this effort was the partnership that we developed with the leadership within DoD’s Office of Military Family Readiness Policy, Child, Youth and Families division. The framework the DoD/USDA initiative allowed, actually demanded, that instead of the usual approach of faculty having an idea, submitting a grant proposal and then when awarded, worked in isolation to fulfill the original idea, that we would instead work to build a common vision with DoD and then in an intensive partnership, work towards that vision. And, I have to say, this experience has been transformational for both parties, in addition to the creation of an incredible resource for both the DoD and the early childhood field at large.

Sarah Lang (SL): This intensive partnership is what lead to the development of a robust training system for the child and youth professionals working through military programs. The minimum qualifications to work within military childcare are similar to the childcare licensing regulations in most States – one must be at least 18 years of age, pass a background check and have a high school diploma or G.E.D. Hence, new employees often have more limited knowledge of child development and research-based best practices on caring and educating children. Military childcare programs, in contrast to most childcare programs throughout our country, have training and curriculum specialists (TCS), a person responsible for supporting the professional development of staff members, particularly new employees. The VLS provides a comprehensive on-line professional development system that capitalizes on the coaching partnership between the TCS and the direct-care staff, harnessing best practices in adult learning to empower new childcare professionals as they build the foundational knowledge and skills necessary to appropriately care for children and youth.

Teaching Professionals Who Serve Military Families

SG: In the beginning of our book, we took pains to describe some of the political problems facing colleges and universities today, not the least of which is the perception—real or imagined—that institutions of higher learning are decidedly “left-leaning” in orientation. It would seem to be the case that a program serving military families would be a tremendous opportunity for a university to rebalance these sensitivities to at least some degree.

Has there been anything noteworthy about your work with the Department of Defense along these lines?

SL: The care of children and youth, particularly of birth-5 year olds, is a cross-party issue—conservatives and liberals increasingly agree that young children deserve high quality early care and education (ECE), and access to such care influences current and future labor markets.

The DoD understands the power and need for high quality care—when their children are well-cared for, military members are able to focus on their critical defense work. In addition, DoD recognizes the importance of investing in quality ECE relative to our nation’s future security. A recent economic research indicates an $11-$18 return on investment to society for every $1 spent, that return then manifests itself in increased educational attainment and wage earnings, as well as decreased utilization of health care and involvement in the criminal justice system.

CB: The DoD also made it very clear that they wanted the VLS to be based on the latest research – including; the extensive  body of research on child development, what we know about the best ways to partner with families, the research on what are effective adult learning strategies and how to support teachers in improving their classroom practices. That focus, along with our shared vision of creating the highest quality professional development system for those who bear the responsibility of caring for our nation’s children (both military and non-military affiliated), speaks to a “purple” approach to issues. Additionally, we have been able to say in research presentations, in conversations with colleagues, and in partnerships with community leaders, that the university has been in full support of the VLS project, and that the DoD maximized the return on its investment in the DOD by making it available to the nation at large. It has allowed us to have many conversations about the importance of the land-grant mission.

Connecting Learners with the Land-Grant Mission

SG: The previous articles published by The EvoLLLution that I have helped to write have focused very specifically on rather well-known entities—Cooperative Extension Services and 4-H—whose representatives have been quite vocal about their affinity with and adherence to the land-grant mission.

Do VLS instructors specifically discuss the land-grant mission with their audience? And if so, how do you think VLS participants are impacted by this sort of dialogue?

SL: During our many annual in-person trainings with the TCS and program managers that work throughout military affiliated childcare, we specifically discuss how our partnership with DoD and U.S.D.A embodies OSU’s mission as a land-grant university. Cynthia often shares a bit about the Morrill Act of 1862 that established the land-grant universities, with one goal being to have universities contribute back in service or practical education, what they were learning in their research. Our participants are often unaware of this larger historical backdrop, but are continually thankful for the opportunity to hear the latest in research on child development/ECE, for the use of research-based knowledge and skills in their work with adult learners.

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