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How California Is Improving Online Education

By Ellen Ullman

Thanks to a grant from the governor, California community colleges are adding necessary support and other services to the online environment.

Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, we wrote about the pros and cons of online courses, mentioning the success that Butte-Glenn and Foothill-De Anza community college districts, in California, have had. In today’s article, we explore the tools and supports that can make the online-education experience more successful.

California community colleges offer more than 41,000 online sections a year to about 625,000 students in the state and beyond, but several recent studies show that students fare poorly in these classes. However, thanks to a $56.9 million grant from the California Community Colleges Board of Governors, the Foothill-De Anza and Butte-Glenn community college districts are transforming the online experience.

The colleges have formed the Online Education Initiative (OEI), a collaborative effort that includes faculty, support staff, administrators and students from all over the state.

“Two major themes are driving our work,” says Joseph Moreau, vice chancellor of technology at Foothill-De Anza Community College District and executive sponsor of the OEI. “We are focused on what’s best for students and how can we improve the overall quality of online offerings by providing better resources to faculty and students.”

Moreau says it’s no secret that there are achievement gaps between online and face-to-face students and that most community college students take online classes to fit more schoolwork into their busy schedules. That’s why the OEI is developing tools to help faculty create better-designed courses, launching an online tutoring system and creating an assessment process so that students can gain the specific skills needed to be successful online.

Developing stronger online courses

To ensure that online instructors have the necessary tools for quality course development, the OEI is offering training in instructional design and professional development along with a repository of high-quality resources. “We took online course design standards based on well-respected national models and customized them for California colleges,” Moreau says. In addition, faculty members can be matched with professional assessors who suggest course improvements.

Online tutoring

“A large part of why students don’t succeed in online courses is that there haven’t been systemic support services,” Moreau says. “We’re making sure students have access to the supplemental support that on-ground students have.” The OEI has hired Link-Systems International to provide on-demand academic support. Colleges can use local tutors or ones that Link-Systems provides. Sixteen colleges are piloting the service.

Readiness assessments

Students who have never taken an online course typically lack the time-management and technology skills required for the work, and many don’t know how to engage with classmates or faculty members in this type of environment. For those reasons, the OEI has developed an assessment tool to help students determine their online readiness. Once they identify an area of weakness, they can take tutorials to improve.

Additional services

Moreau’s team knows that having one courseware management system (CMS) can greatly improve ease of use, so they are making Canvas, by Instructure, available for all colleges. “We’re hoping to provide it for free so colleges can repurpose the money they spent on their own CMS,” Moreau says.

One potential drawback is that faculty members might have to redesign their courses, so the OEI is working with Canvas to offer course-migration tools.

The OEI is also looking into online counseling and advising services and is working on a course-exchange system that will make it easier for the state’s colleges to share data about applicants, prerequisites and financial aid. The system will also streamline the credit process for when students take courses away from their “home college.”

“OEI is taking what we know about student challenges in online coursework and solving those at a scalable level,” Moreau says. “Individual colleges and districts don’t have the resources or leverage to do this on their own, but we can take advantage of economies of scale and improve the experience so retention and success go way up.”

Ellen Ullman

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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