Getting Out Of Our Own Way

Before I get into the post for this month, I want to sincerely thank the online instructors from the Online Education Initiative (OEI) pilot colleges who will be opening their courses in Canvas this month (some this week!). You have been so patient with us and have worked so hard to get to this point, and I so respect your innovative strength and willingness to step up for the students of the California Community Colleges (CCC).

I look forward to hearing about your experiences this term. You are an inspiration to our OEI team and we thank you so much.

—Pat James and the members of the OEI team

Getting Out Of Our Own Way

For the last few months I have been talking a lot about “dwelling in possibility” because when you are in my shoes, it’s got to be your mantra! It became a theme in my keynote at the Online Teaching Conference in June, and has been part of my guiding philosophy throughout this OEI journey.

There are two things that I base my work as an educator on:

  1. Impossible just takes a little longer to accomplish.
  2. If we focus on what’s best for students, we will make good decisions.

When considering the update blog post for this month, I realized that my belief that everything is possible is, at this moment, really being tested.

We are currently trying to develop the business practices and technology implementation for the Course Exchange component of the OEI. The “exchange” as we lovingly refer to it, is only one aspect of the initiative. However, it seems to take center stage every time the OEI is mentioned and it is the most complex of the many OEI goals. The idea is that CCC students will be able to seamlessly register across colleges in online courses that they need to complete their educational goals. It’s a simple but powerful idea that focuses on what’s good for students in California. In order to accomplish it, however, we have to learn to get out of our own way!

Setting The Stage

Fresno City

Fresno City College started in 1907 with one class of 20 students and three teachers

There are now 113 colleges in our system (with the addition of Clovis Community College this year). According to the history of the California Community Colleges, “junior” colleges were authorized to offer courses in 1907 for the purpose of providing education beyond high school that would ease the enrollment load for other four-year institutions in the state. High school districts then created junior colleges.

In 1967, Governor Ronald Reagan and the California Legislature moved the authorization and supervision of the system from the California Department of Education, which supervised the high schools and junior colleges, to become the responsibility of a systemwide chancellor’s office and board of governors. At that time the “junior” college designation was changed to “community” college.

It’s important to understand that the colleges were initially set up as extensions of local high schools at a time when digital capability was non-existent. Because of the way we started, local colleges were developed based on community need and created their individual personalities and cultures from those individual communities. The world was much less connected then, and as a result of these beginnings, the colleges have separate administrations with a multitude of different business policies, procedures and practices.

The legislation that developed around the burgeoning system of colleges back then is written to both regulate and protect each community effort. Today, much of the education code that has been developed for the system focuses on keeping student enrollments within a given district’s geographical boundaries and is tied to term start dates, individual choices about matriculation time frames, and varied course prerequisites, among other disparate situations.

The funding model is centered on the number of students a college is allowed to have (capacity) based on the trending economic fortunes of the state itself, which then dictates the total of available funds for the system. If you think of a pie that has to be divided among individuals with varying appetites, you would have an idea of how our colleges are funded according to the enrollment trends in a given community. The more need (students), the more of the pie you are allowed—however, the size of the pie (total state funding for the system) determines how it is divided up because everyone has to get something! This model has kept the colleges in competition with one another for enrollment, creating an environment that keeps archaic codes in place.

New Reality Demands A New Approach

Fast forward to the digital world we are now in. We no longer function in isolation, although our ways of doing business have not exactly become shared standard practices. Students’ ability to take online classes from anywhere has given them the opportunity to “swirl”, which means they are able to apply to multiple colleges and take classes from all over the state at the same time. There’s really no management of the swirling by the system and it’s not easy for students to cobble together schedules on their own. Tremendous duplication of effort on their part often results in them spending more precious tuition money, ending up with units they don’t need, and/or ending up with often failed goal completion because they were trying to figure out degree patterns with inadequate decision-making tools.



There’s way more to this story, but the upshot is that we can help California’s students complete their educational goals in a more timely, effective and efficient way, if we help them get the appropriate classes where and when they are available. This requires extensive cooperation within the system.

Enter the idea of the online course exchange—seamless access to online courses needed to complete educational goals. Sounds reasonable and simple. Reasonable? Yes. Simple? Absolutely not!

Getting Real

Let’s go back to my foundational principle: Do what’s best for students. Add to that the fact that when students complete their educational goals, California’s economy benefits. It only makes sense then that we should consider a student of any CCC as a student that belongs to all of us. Now, consider the history and even the laws and regulations that were created in a time of isolated and competitive communities.

My comment at this juncture can only be, “Arggggggggh!”, because making the seamless registration across colleges a reality is incredibly difficult. (Remember, our own Chancellor Brice Harris referred to the task as “Herculean.”) We are now literally laboring through the creation of a complex system. Accomplishing the goal must be based on collaboration, mutual respect and the shared goal of doing what’s best for our students.

Process Toward Systemic Change

The successful process of sorting out the issues with cross-college registration practices lies in the details and restrictions in Education Code, Title 5 Regulations, and local college policies (I am calling these “The Rules”) that were developed in a time of isolation and competition. Isolation and competition run counter to the best interests of our students and our state. It’s time to change The Rules to do what’s best for students and this seems to be the initiative that exists in the opportunity to do just that.

It’s hard, however, to change these things, harder still to get really busy people to let go of what they have worked so hard to understand and have been trying to work within, and then get them to think through innovative change.

The Rules: Education Code, Title 5 regulations and local college policiesWe started with meetings with staff and administrators of the CCC Chancellor’s Office last fall. It took some time, but we all really started to understand what needed to happen and how important it would be for students if we could accomplish the exchange goals. Conversations centered on how the exchange could be accomplished despite the existing quagmire of old California rules. It took the whole day, but by the end of it, everyone we talked with agreed that we could figure it out.

We then held a Reciprocity Summit, a two-day event that brought together Chancellor’s Office staff with admissions and records, enrollment management, distance education and financial aid people from the eight pilot colleges that opted to try to create this change. We asked them to consider what they needed to help students register across their colleges, and to not be constrained by the current rules. They did an amazing job of sorting out things that could be accomplished with consortium agreements, what needed to be done with technical tools, and what needed systemic legal change.

What’s Going On?

If you have read this far, I am sure you are wondering what the heck are we doing now! The answer is that we are sorting through the legal obstacles and creating the technical solutions. My sincere hope is that we are the masters of our own world. I know it’s somewhat Pollyannaish to think this way, but I dwell in possibility, remember? We now have to get out of our own way, and make sure the legislature, board members and our own colleagues see that this is worth doing for the students of California.

Why would the state government give us money to provide greater access for students to courses they need to complete degree and transfer goals and then not help us bring the regulations into this century so we can do it? I doubt they will stand in the way of this progressive change if what we are doing makes good sense and is also based on what our world and capabilities are now, instead of what they were back in 1967. It’s just going to take time because what seems impossible just takes a little longer to accomplish.



If you have ever used technology solutions in your daily work, you know that it’s often easier to create a workaround than to actually change the origin of the problem. It’s easy to get used to workarounds, and to even get really good at creating and relying on them. The challenge and the charge for all of us working on this initiative, working within the colleges and working with the technology is not to try to create something based on the boundaries that were needed in the past and to which we have grown so accustomed, but to believe that we can use new methodologies to create something that makes those old boundaries unnecessary.

Wish us luck and think “possible.”

We are not giving up, by the way. We did have to extend the launch of the exchange component out to Fall 2016, and I am convinced we can get the work done by then. I really want to encourage everyone working on this component of the initiative to avoid the temptation to do a workaround that might result in something less than what’s possible. This is the only opportunity we may ever get to put aside our fears, self-focused concerns and boundaries of the past, and really do something amazing for the students of California. Let’s get out of the “institution” mindset and into one of an open community with a higher purpose.

In Case You Missed It

The online learner readiness tools are available for use for everyone via Creative Commons attribution license at

We have heard from more than 80 colleges regarding Canvas common course management system (CCMS) adoption. About 50 have selected an implementation cohort for purposes of migration! If your college is considering a CMS change, there are resources for helping with the decision at

Video tutorials to help solve the mysteries of making content accessible to the vision and hearing impaired are at

AND, if you missed the Online Teaching Conference this year, Phil Hill’s amazing keynote is at

PhotoRico Bianchi, Interim Director, TTIP South; Anna Stirling, Interim Director, @ONE

In Other News

Anna Stirling has just been named the Interim Director of @ONE, replacing Micah Orloff, who is stepping back to an advisory role for the professional development project. Rico Bianchi is taking on the role of Interim Director of TTIP South (CCCConfer and 3CMedia Soultions) as Blaine Morrow retires.

We want to thank Blaine and Micah for all the work they have done for our system, and congratulate both Anna and Rico on their new roles.

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