Distance Education, the Wave of the Future?

Executive Committee Member

In the focus of the November 2 elections, the publication of the Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) paper “The Master Plan at 50: Using Distance Education to Increase College Access and Efficiency” did not receive the notice that it might have otherwise engendered. The recommendations of the LAO potentially have significant impacts on all community colleges, regardless of their current use of distance education.

The paper is divided into four major categories of discussion: an overview of distance education, an assessment of the effectiveness of distance education, the funding and costs of distance education, and a discussion of “Where Do We Go from Here?”, which includes recommendations for the future of distance education in California. The overview provides a context in which the rest of the discussion in the paper takes place. The LAO points out that definitions of “distance education” vary and that there is no consensus among educators, providers, and researchers as to where to set a threshold for what constitutes a distance learning course. The LAO report cites the Sloan Consortium report that nationally, distance education enrollments have been consistently growing since 2002, seeing double digit growth through those years. Sloan estimates that 4.6 million students are enrolled in distance education courses, representing approximately “one-quarter of total enrollments in postsecondary institutions for that time period.”

Distance education courses are offered at virtually all of the California community colleges (CCC) and all 23 campuses in the California State University (CSU) system. While at least two colleges (Coastline and Foothill) in the CCC system offer fully online degrees and certificates, the CSUs do not, although they do allow for bachelor completion programs and master’s degrees and teaching credentials online. The University of California (UC) system does not currently offer more than a few dozen classes online, although it does offer a significant number of online classes through its extension program. The LAO report suggests ways that the UC system could move into more online education, including providing the opportunity for fully online degrees, as well as other collaborative efforts with the CCC and CSU systems.

The LAO report addresses concerns regarding the quality of distance education courses, stating that courses are generally held to the same standards as their face-to-face counterparts. The report also addresses national research which indicates that similar learning outcomes occur for online and in-person courses, although it is clear that retention continues to be a concern. There are also concerns that colleges do not possess uniform standards in dealing with issues of academic integrity and that in many colleges there is no proof that the student enrolled in the class is actually the student submitting the work for the course. Finally, the LAO reports that many faculty, especially at the UC level, are concerned about the efficacy of distance education classes, pointing out that many respondents to a survey by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities indicated that they believed that the learning outcomes for the courses offered through distance education were inferior or somewhat inferior (these numbers were considerably higher among faculty who did not teach online in comparison to those who did).

The cost and funding of distance education courses is also discussed in the report. The fiscal impact on students enrolled in distance education courses might be less, for instance, as those students can complete courses while caring for children and thereby saving the cost of child care. The fiscal impacts on campuses, in terms of technology and instructional costs, seem to be comparable; however, the impact on facilities can be mitigated by distance education courses, and therefore might be a cost-saver for colleges. In addition, savings through collaborations with other universities and colleges might also allow colleges to save monies.

The recommendations of the LAO in terms of where distance education should go from here provide a myriad of options and can certainly be used to spark local discussions. First, the LAO suggests that the Legislature should adopt a standardized definition of distance education, as the CCC and CSU systems use different definitions. Second, the LAO recommends that the Legislature require periodic reports on data related to distance education, including enrollment trends and performance data. Third is a recommendation to build on the already existing distance education foundation to expand on collaboration between the three internal systems as well as external groups. This collaboration would allow for a clearer path for students moving between the systems, and could facilitate sharing of curriculum across campuses and systems, as well as potentially creating collaborative academic programs. Fourth, the LAO suggests consideration of an online degree completion program that is targeted towards re-entry students, particularly those who began a degree but never completed it; the model that has been created in Texas (the “Bachelor’s Accelerated Completion” program) is mentioned as a possible model to study and determine feasibility for a similar type of program in California. Finally, the LAO recommends the formation of a legislative-executive task force to examine the possibility of creating a model along the lines of the recently developed Indiana-Western Governors University (WGU) partnership, involving the WGU board of trustees along with input from Indiana officials and state leaders. This new plan allows advanced students to complete their programs in a more accelerated manner, and the LAO sees potential for a similar program in California.

In conclusion, this is a paper that all faculty involved with distance education, curriculum, articulation, and enrollment planning should read, especially in terms of the recommendations that the LAO proposes, which could potentially lead to the creation of policies with limited or no faculty input. While the LAO points out that distance education will not replace face-to-face education, the potential for growth is almost unlimited and as such merits closer scrutiny.