A New Fully Online California Community College?

ASCCC North Representative

Last fall, in response to a request from Governor Brown, Chancellor Oakley put together the Flexible Learning Options for Workers (FLOW) workgroup to “develop a plan to provide three to five options that enable the community colleges of California to better deliver on student success goals”[1]. In practice, the workgroup was really asked to provide feedback on proposals presented by consultants from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) based on existing fully online institutions like Western Governors University (WGU) and Arizona State University Online (ASU Online) rather than develop its own recommendations. At the ASCCC 2017 Fall Plenary Session, delegates took action to support the idea of innovation and expansion of online education, but supported leveraging the efforts of existing colleges and the Online Education Initiative (OEI) rather than development of a new, separate online college.

Most of the elements highlighted in the NCHEMS proposals and in presentations by leaders from Western Governors University Nevada and ASU Online to the FLOW workgroup were present in the budget trailer bill language[2] that accompanied the Governor’s Proposed Budget in January 2018[3].  Whether the Governor’s proposal for the California Online Community College District comes to fruition or not, senate leaders should be aware of what the proposal entails and give thought to ways to address some of the elements at their own colleges and within the California community college system.

Overall, five elements of the proposed online community college are of particular interest because of their relation to current practices and senate purview under the 10+1:

  • Target population;
  • Short-term, on-demand competency-based course offerings to meet student need immediately and shorten time to completion;
  • Sub-associate degree certificates and credentials to assist students with workplace promotion;
  • “Unbundling” of the traditional faculty role; and
  • Proposed governance structure.

Target Population

The target population for the proposed fully online college is the 2.5 million working adults aged 25-34 who have a high school diploma but no college certificate or degree, although they may have completed some college courses. This population tends to be lower income and are predominantly underrepresented minorities. According to information on the CCC Online Community College website[4], these Californians are not able to access traditional higher education because of work, family obligations, transportation limitations, and the cost of education. Further, they are expected to rely primarily on their cell phones for their education, so courses would need to be developed in formats optimized for mobile devices. The analysis provided in the Senate Committee on Budget and Fiscal Review Overview of the Governor’s Proposal to Create an Online Community College[5] suggests that individuals in this population “seek educational assistance outside of California or through for-profit institutions, paying tens of thousands of dollars but too often just ending up buried in debt.” To meet the needs of this working population, the online college is proposed to have a Career Technical Education (CTE) focus.

Flexible, On-Demand Competency-Based Educational Offerings

The interest of the Governor and the Chancellor, consistent with the Vision for Success, is to have students complete courses quickly to benefit both the student and employers. One way is to offer courses in more flexible, self-paced formats which the student can access immediately upon demand rather than having to wait for traditional semester or quarter start dates. The courses can also be taken at the student’s pace rather than be structured with defined start and end dates. Rather than pay the current $46 fee for each unit, use of a to-be-determined subscription-based fee is proposed to incentivize completion of as many courses in a given time period as possible. To further speed student time to completion, all instruction is proposed to be competency-based, meaning that a student can skip instructional modules while earning credit for them if the student meets the identified outcomes via targeted assessments at the beginning.

Sub-Associate Degree Certificates and Credentials

Despite confusion about intentions expressed in different venues and documents, in his testimony before the Senate Committee on Budget and Fiscal Review, Chancellor Oakley asserted that the focus of the online community college would be on micro-credentialing, including badging and industry-supported certification, but not on associate degrees. However, trailer bill language does state that the online college “shall leverage existing and/or develop new articulation agreements or develop new ones with other California Community Colleges, the California State University, University of California and other accredited public and independent institutions to facilitate stackability into credit-bearing courses.”[6]

“Unbundling” Traditional Faculty Roles

As explained to the FLOW workgroup and expressed in proposed trailer bill language, the role of faculty with the online community college will be different than is the current standard. Faculty will be “segmented by the distinct skills need of the college”[7] to fill roles such as designing courses and developing course materials, mentoring students as they proceed through each course, and evaluating student assessments.  All of these roles within each of the courses are currently handled by a single faculty member for most courses taught at California community colleges.

Proposed Governance Structure

The proposed online community college would be established as a new district under the governance of the Board of Governors for California Community Colleges, the same group responsible for setting regulations for the entire system. Responsibilities of the governing board would transition in the future to an independent board comprised of representatives appointed by the Governor.

What Does This All Mean?

Much of what is captured within the proposal for the online community college is very different than what exists at our colleges today. There may be some aspects of the elements described here that are currently in use, such as local and regional Strong Work Force efforts to prepare more Californians for employment, the flexibility of open-entry/open-exit courses, and the competency-based structure of noncredit. Yet, not enough is being done. It is time for local and statewide conversations to occur in areas including innovation in online education, further partnership with industry, more flexible scheduling formats for online and in person sections, expansion of competency-based education in face-to-face and online courses, and expanded use of stackable certificates, badging, and other micro-credentials. Some of the constraints to updating instructional methods and deliveries may be regulatory, including attendance accounting disincentives to shorten online courses, or areas related to accreditation, including concerns about regular substantive contact between instructors and students in instructional formats such as those used at Western Governors University. It is critical that faculty leaders be aware of the innovations proposed and engage in dialog to promote change; to not consider changes in the way students interact with education is to allow our colleges to stagnate and students to suffer. Even if faculty are opposed to the idea of a fully online college, it is important to consider potential implementation of some of the practices proposed that may work towards increasing student success.

[1] FLOW Workgroup, http://doingwhatmatters.cccco.edu/ForCollegeLeadership/FlexLearningOpti…

[2] Trailer Bill Language, Education: California Online Community College, http://www.dof.ca.gov/Budget/Trailer_Bill_Language/documents/California…

[3] Governor’s Budget Summary – 2018-19, page 44, http://www.ebudget.ca.gov/2018-19/pdf/BudgetSummary/HigherEducation.pdf

[5] Senate Committee on Budget and Fiscal Review Overview of the Governor’s Proposal to Create an Online Community College, February 8, 2018, http://sbud.senate.ca.gov/sites/sbud.senate.ca.gov/files/FullC/02082018…

[6] Trailer Bill Language, Education: California Online Community College, http://www.dof.ca.gov/Budget/Trailer_Bill_Language/documents/California…

[7] Ibid