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Why Placed-Based Online Education is the Future for Community Colleges


The pandemic brought a series of different learning modalities to higher education, but successfully educating learners requires figuring out which modalities work best for them.

Continued post-pandemic growth in online enrollment at community colleges has fed some misconceptions about how online education will play out in the coming years. Many are still convinced that the path to institutional growth and sustainability is through building more online courses and programs. With a saturated online market and the pending demographic cliff, colleges need to shift from thinking about online as an enrollment strategy to thinking about how to better support our online students. 

When I look at online enrollment at my institution, Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), I notice four things. First, post-pandemic online enrollment continues to be strong at SLCC. If you consider it a campus, it is our largest. Second, most of our online course-taking students avoid taking their entire course load online. Instead, students at SLCC (like many other community colleges) strategically combine online and in-person classes to make their schedules work. The online modality is often more of a convenience than a preference. Third, we continue to see a statistically significant difference between online and on-campus completion rates in courses. Finally and most importantly, students who combine online and on-campus courses at SLCC perform better than either purely on-campus students or purely online students. We don’t know all the reasons yet, but there’s something about the mix of online and on-campus that’s an important lubricant to completion.  

These facts lead me to conclusions that cut against the grain of the current conventional wisdom that expanding online education will support enrollment growth. We need to focus instead on retaining the students we already have. Given the on-campus nature of our online students, focusing our online strategy around the goal of connecting students to campus makes sense. A retention-focused, placed-based online strategy better serves the needs of an urban community college student population like SLCC’s.

There are a handful of initiatives underway at SLCC that should serve this broader retention-focused, campus-based strategy. We are beginning to place a greater emphasis on instructor presence in online courses. We noticed something unusual in our online courses last year. The courses that went through the rigorous Quality Matters process produced lower retention rates. Quality Matters provides a very strong set of design standards, so it wasn’t at fault. However, we believe that high design can unintentionally lead to low instructor presence in courses. It turns out that some of the courses that were maybe less complete in their design required more instructor attention. In response to these findings, SLCC is developing a new set of course design standards that speak to both traditional instructional design concerns and account for pedagogy. We want well-designed courses but following recent Department of Education guidelines around regular and substantive interaction, we also want a set of standards that define what effective instruction looks like in an online environment.

For years, our default proctored testing option was campus-based, which presented an obvious barrier to our online students. Under the leadership of Director of Testing Services, Kiesha Fehoko, we are now developing an online testing center to support our online students. We are not, however, using an out-of-the-box proctoring software solution. The problems with those solutions have been well documented. Instead, we are leveraging Zoom class and redirecting staff resources from some under utilized testing services locations to provide online, human-based proctoring for individuals and smaller groups. We believe this solution supports our interest in academic integrity while also respecting the needs of our students.

Under the leadership of our Director of the Contact Center, Brandi Mair, we also plan to scale our online success coaching program. Online success coaches intervene when a student begins struggling in an online course. Under this more intrusive support model, students meet weekly with a success coach to set goals and receive mentoring to succeed in the course and college. Our research suggests that online success coaches play an important role in retaining online students.

Finally, we are interested in scaling promising models like the one our English department developed. They call their modality online plus. Online plus recognizes that our online students are typically campus-based, so it requires synchronous on-campus meetings. (If a student is truly distant, they can set up a Zoom meeting.) We have been reluctant to incorporate the required synchronous components into our online courses, and I believe that has been a mistake. But when our online students meet the instructor, it supports their connection to the class and the campus.

I expect our online enrollment to remain relatively stable in the coming semesters, but I am hopeful that some of the initiatives I have described will both close the achievement gap in online courses and better connect our students taking online courses to our campus. Our students will continue to expect online courses, but we need to upend our thinking about their value and the role they play in the educational journey. What I envision for SLCC and other urban, open-access institutions is what I call the hybrid college. Hybrid colleges understand how to combine online and affiliated support services with high-impact, placed-based education. Our students want to come to campus. They also need to access their courses online in the evening. They want to take advantage of in-person tutoring, but they’ll also use online options. SLCC doesn’t have either on-campus or online students. We have hybrid students, and we need to start thinking about our scheduling, instruction and student support services to address this reality.