If anyone out there has been following the recent statewide dialogue in California about identifying strategies to improve the success of California community college students, you may be interested in reading the “Draft Recommendations Report” which was recently made public on the Chancellor’s website.

I’ve just begun trudging through it and have been a bit stunned to see that due to “time restraints,” the task force did not directly address “distance education” in the report (p. 11).  I feel compelled to take a step back right now and point out that the continual lumping of online courses in with our face-to-face courses continues to hurt California community college students.  Online classes are unique and the strategies necessary for increasing the success of students in online programs as well as those who enroll in both online and face-to-face coursework needs to be addressed directly. 

General communications from the Chancellor’s office shared in articles throughout the year with the public typically report important data, like enrollment, in lump figures and the data for distance learning is traditionally reported in a separate report every two years.  This reporting process, in my opinion, makes the realities of the impact that online learning is having on the landscape of the CCC system murky, at best.  And, as a result, the significant role that online learning plays throughout California’s 112 community colleges — which support 2.6 million students, more than any other system of higher education in the nation — is not positioned as a statewide priority and the unique needs that online learning brings to the system are often not realized. 

The 2011 distance education report can be found here and in it you will see some information that may surprise you.  It surprised me and I consider myself pretty well informed about online learning in California.  The graph below illustrates the past four years of enrollment changes — distance education is represented in blue and traditional, face-to-face, classes are represented in red. 

As the data illustrated above makes clear, the future of California community colleges is a blended future.  Between academic years 2006-2010, traditional enrollments remained relatively stagnant year over year or declined, while online enrollments have soared, even in the face of severe budget cuts. 

Lower Success Rates for Online CCC Students
The report also provides evidence that online course success rates trail traditional success rates by 10-12% over the four year period measured in the report (course success defined as the % of enrolled students who end the term with an A, B, or C).  This isn’t groundbreaking news but is certainly a significant point to consider.  These success rates can be improved significantly with the proper strategies but will not be improved if online classes are not understood and valued as unique.   Online students who learn in solitude with little to no human connection are at a greater risk of failing — especially when they’re academically challenged and/or their courses are designed with cold, text-based information and void of a sense of relatedness to one’s instructor and peers.  One of the most important elements of supporting student success online is professional development and faculty training. 

An intriguing recent study at Cabrillo College has revealed that online success is even lower for Latino students.  The online success gap for Latino students is 44% greater than white students, according to the study.  This may be due to the strong role of human-to-human contact and relationships in the latino culture that are undercut by flat online course design.  Raymond Kaupp, director of workforce development at Cabrillo argues that the low success rates for online Latino students is likely rooted in Latino attitudes toward education. “Relationships are important to Latino student learning.”  Community colleges need to foster online community, just as they foster face-to-face community — within a class, within a department, across a program, and an entire campus.  In our mobile, interconnected world driven by video technologies that are now free to low cost, it’s a failure to create cold, isolating online learning experiences.

Online classes can be vibrant, dynamic and highly personalized if they’re designed effective and integrate pedagogies that support active and constructivist learning through the application of emerging technologies, and faculty are supported to ensure content is accessible to all students.  One model that has been proven effective at increasing online student success is the Human Presence Learning Environment used at Santa Barbara Community College.   

Warm, High-Touch, Community-Oriented Online Learning
In the teaching I’ve done over the years for @One’s Online Teaching Certification Program, I’ve seen hundreds of faculty be inspired and amazed at what they can do for their students to create more social, community-oriented learning experiences for their students with a higher sense of social presence — through the use of technology that would otherwise be absent from their teaching approaches.  When the framework embraced for evaluating student success does not view online as a unique entity, these essential pillars of online student success are rendered absent (and they aren’t, by any means, the only pillars). 

I look forward to watching the lively discussion about the report evolve and am hopeful there will be more advocacy from faculty, staff, students, and the community about the importance of stressing the uniqueness of online learning, the central role it will continue to play in the future of California community colleges and our students.

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