As a resident of Northern California this February, I have experienced an intense period of weather. Others around the state have also dealt with heavy rains, gusting winds, snowstorms, mudslides or flood waters. It’s a pattern we haven’t seen for a long time.
Watching each storm pass by from my office window, pining for the calm and sunny days to return, has brought some perspective to the challenges we deal with when we are not dealing in scarcity. In fact, having too much of a good thing (in this case, much-needed precipitation) can bring its own set of challenges.
Having a bit of time to reflect recently, it occurred to me that having supported and run distance education programs in the California Community Colleges (CCC) for many years, we have had our own periods of drought. For many years, we complained about no funding, no respect, or little institutional support for online programs. The drought lasted a very long time.
Times have changed, however, and with the birth of the CCC Online Education Initiative (OEI) in 2013, California is now resourcing online education, allowing colleges to more fully support online students and programs.
Absorbing The Abundance
While the OEI is providing reduced- or no-cost access to colleges for an array of platforms and services (course management system, online tutoring, online counseling, readiness, proctoring, etc.) we occasionally hear from colleges that it can be tough to keep up with the implementation timelines. We have learned to stagger these timelines, and provide more hands-on support to colleges so that too much of a good thing does not overwhelm local staff.
While the resources the OEI provides are designed to promote student success, they also provide colleges with avenues for compliance in equivalent online services for students. The incredible online learning infrastructure that is taking shape – including Canvas as a common course management system, the Course Exchange infrastructure and the suite of learner support services – is world class and providing a more consistent, robust online experience to help students across the state to succeed online. However, with limited college staff, additional statewide initiatives and other mandates, there are a lot of components for colleges to absorb into their local “reservoirs.”
Why Our Work Is Important
It is helpful to remind ourselves why the effort is so important. For a glimpse at the potential for improved success rates for students impacted by the OEI, a recent internal analysis completed by the RP Group found that success and retention rates in OEI pilot course sections, compared to statewide online course sections, were higher by approximately four percentage points. Course sections that piloted OEI products and services had success rates of 69 percent, compared to a statewide success rate of 65 percent for online courses. Because of the shape of the pilot, the numbers of sections are small – but the results look very promising as we begin to scale beyond the pilot phases and look at data from multiple terms.
The OEI is providing infrastructure and online student supports that provide equitable access to learning for students and colleges across California. During the online “drought” years, colleges saw significant differences in how local distance education programs were resourced. Now, with a common CMS, more consistent student support platforms, and implementation of equivalent services for online students in a robust way, the online landscape looks to have widened for students and for colleges.
Statewide, we have seen incredible cooperation across colleges as the sense of collective momentum and shared purpose is helping us to do what’s best for students. The Course Exchange, now picking up momentum with the addition of Coastline Community College having gone live on Feb. 14, is breaking new ground and will provide students with new avenues for accelerating their achievement.
In fact, the OEI Steering Committee recently approved new criteria for colleges to expand courses eligible for the Course Exchange from the original 19 courses identified for the pilot. This will help more students find online access to accelerate their journey toward transfer or a degree, while providing local enrollment managers flexibility and real-time demand data to help inform decisions about which or how many local course sections to put online.
The work we all do to support expanded access to high quality online learning opportunities is important. In the same way that flood control or other infrastructure can serve us well in times of actual drought, we must also ensure that the critical online infrastructure components – the “plumbing” of our online ecosystem – remain intact and sustainable.
So far, the investment from the state is yielding enormous efficiencies across the system. While some are financial, we believe that others will ultimately be measured in higher success rates or lowered time to completion. The OEI and our college partners are proving that, in California, we can achieve scale while reducing costs and improving outcomes.
Jory Hadsell is Executive Director of
the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative