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What it Takes: Making Online Education Work in Community Colleges

The EvoLLLution | What it Takes: Making Online Education Work in Community Colleges
Simplifying the online student experience and shaping the technologies and demands to match the experiences and expectations of students will have a positive impact on completion and success.
Every few years, a new wave of media attention gets focused on online education in community colleges. Surprise! Students taking online courses have lower “success rates” than those taking traditional, face-to-face courses. A recent study headed toward publication by researchers from the University of California, Davis, suggests that students are less likely to succeed in an online version of a given course as compared to the face-to-face version. As practitioners in the field, we have known this for some time now. So, why are we still offering online courses for our community college students? And why do we seek to ever expand the number of online course offerings available?

The benefits of online education for community college students cannot be ignored. Students with limited access to transportation, no time available during traditional class schedules, intensive work obligations, and family commitments often require educational opportunities that will work around such challenges. Our students demand access to online education for many of these reasons, and online courses at community colleges fill at rates well outpacing those of their face-to-face counterparts.

The call to action is clear: online courses aren’t going away, so the experience needs improving and needs it now! This will require more funding, plain and simple. Consider an analogy. Imagine for a moment that students didn’t know how to open the door to their classroom on campus. Then, imagine that educators are put in charge of providing the instructions for opening the door to the room as well as finding a desk for the students once they are inside the classroom. If these conditions were actual initial challenges to gaining access to the learning experience, it would be reasonable to expect that students would be less successful in their classes. The same sort of thing happens in online learning, in the sense that students are accessing a potentially unfamiliar environment and trying to get direction from a faculty member who may or may not have a deep sense of how to navigate that environment. The result is a gap between the student experience and their overall success.

Institutional and system-wide investments in online education for community colleges should focus on closing this environment and experience gap. If the environment can be simple and relatively barrier-free, and if faculty are empowered with the professional development and technology tools necessary to bridge the gap, then the success of online students could readily outpace that of the face-to-face classroom alternative.

Let’s consider what conditions are needed to make this success happen:

1. Access to high-quality professional development for faculty

Online instructors have wildly varying levels of preparation for teaching online with only some colleges requiring training before entering the online education arena. Even that requirement can range from a handful of hours to the equivalent of a semester-length course. The more robust the training opportunities are for online educators, the more prepared they will be to help students close the environment and experience gap. Faculty should have access to training on the course management system, effective methods for online teaching and learning, use of state-of-the-art technology tools, study skills for online learners, and many other topics.

A model for such a program exists in the California Community College system, and many colleges have chosen to adopt well-defined effective practices or implement their own. Students are best served when educators have access to quality coaching, guidance, and professional development for teaching in the online environment.

2. Easy-to-access technology

Many students are accustomed to mobile apps that they can download and use without a need for instructions. And yet, many course management systems are still riddled with complexities that make navigation confusing for students. Add to that the customization “opportunities” for faculty and instructional designers, and each course experience becomes a wild new adventure for students. Not only should the ideal technology require limited instructions for students, customization should be focused on the delivery of instructional content, not the location of menu items or the decorative “wallpaper,” if you will. Complex course environments can cause unnecessary barriers to students’ ability to access content.

3. Student services need to be where the students are

Many online students are also physically on campuses taking on-ground classes, but there are also many others whose college experience exists entirely in the digital space. Those students are unlikely to be able to go to brick-and-mortar services such as the campus tutoring facility. Students need access to high-quality online tutoring services that are available at all hours of the day, even at (perhaps especially at) 3:00 in the morning. This need applies to counseling and other services for students as well. Furthermore, students need access to readiness tools that will help to inform them of the online learning experience and give them important study skills and tools for success.

4. Portability through responsive design and mobile applications

We are a society on the move. Though students may not choose to participate in an online course entirely using a mobile device, critical moments of communication may occur while at the bank, picking up a daughter from school, or generally while away from the laptop or desktop. Technologies need to be designed and distributed in such a way that the learning experience can carry from the laptop to the mobile device seamlessly. Social media tools, SMS messaging, and other technologies can help bridge the environment and experience gap as well by relying less on design and more on communication.

Efforts such as the Online Education Initiative (OEI) for the California Community Colleges are providing funding to address the conditions listed above and more. Large-scale commitments such as these are critical, as individual colleges may struggle to have the resources (both human and financial) to get these pieces all into place. It’s time for a convergence of talent, technology, and services that save us from reinventing the wheel thousands of times over. Fortunately, if current trends continue and ample funding combined with innovative planning can be provided to colleges and systems, our students will benefit from an online course experience that rivals – no, exceeds that of the traditional classroom.