A Watershed Moment for Online Education in California?

This has been an interesting week. On Monday, I learned about the nudge California Governor Jerry Brown gave  to California higher education in his May budget revise to increase online education efforts in the state. This included a request to the California Community College Chancellor’s Office to open a 114th college — one that is entirely online. On a national level, the proposed U.S. budget was released, including a 13% decrease to education, including steep cuts to professional development and few references to the Office of Educational Technology.

There were also articles sprinkled throughout higher education publications that recognized the need for colleges and universities to change the way we are looking at and valuing online education. Christopher Haynes recognized that it’s time to break through the stigma of online education , which means ending our incessant comparison between online and face-to-face classes. Rufus Glasper, former president of Maricopa Community College District and current president and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College, conveyed the message that online isn’t evil.  In his interview with EdSurge’s Jeff Young, that message was directed at community college leaders, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s a message for all of higher education to chew on. This week, I also released the second episode of my podcast, HumanizED, which examines why online classes matter to students, particularly those from underserved populations and nontraditional age groups.  You can read more about my thoughts about this topic here.

Here’s why the proposal to create a online community college in California is a big deal and a tremendously important opportunity. The power of online education to serve the needs of our students is suffocated when online remains buried in the cracks of our traditional institutions. Online is marginalized in a culture that values face-to-face. When we excavate online from the innards of our institutions, we can see it differently and we can support it differently. Instead of looking at online as a way to make money by increasing class sizes and looking for ways to use technology to replace teachers, we can look at using online education to serve the needs of students. Keeping our eyes set on quality online learning and instructor-student relationships (which are key to serving the needs of diverse students), we can start to imagine leveraging different, more sustainable models, for designing and facilitating online courses.

Ten years ago, in Carefree, Arizona at the very first Sloan-C Emerging Tech for Online Learning Symposium (which has now evolved into OLC Innovate), I heard Linda Thor speak. She spoke about the model used at Rio Salado community college, part of the Maricopa Community College District and a leader in online education, serving more than 40,000 students online each year. Thor referred to Rio Salado as a “lean, mean teaching machine” that was fueled by a small group of full-time faculty and a large group of part-time faculty. That sounds familiar, right? But this model was different. Rio Salado’s model was designed to work this way unlike our traditional system that marginalizes and under values the work of part-time faculty. This model places teaching at the center by leveraging full-time faculty as the subject matter experts who partner closely with a team of instructional designers to develop online courses. The full-time faculty partner closely with part-time faculty who facilitate most of the online classes. And when I say “partner,” it really is a dynamic partnership that places teaching online and serving students at the center.

Now, granted, I’m writing this after 10 years of noodling on the idea — which shows the impression it made on me at the time — but I recall the courses being framed as living ecosystems, not canned objects that live on a shelf (which we see far too frequently in higher education). The part-time faculty teaching the courses are not only encouraged, but expected, to bring their personal presence into the course and add their own human touch. The activities and content in the course are actively discussed and revised based upon the collaborative interests of the faculty groups.  This occurs through weekly video conference sessions, where all faculty convene with instructional designers to discuss a course — what’s going well? what are the issues? what needs modification? Rio Salado also developed automated roll-over for online courses and systems that supported rolling start and end dates for online classes, rather than synching them with traditional semester/end dates.  And, finally, online courses are situated within a full suite of online student services. Some things should be automated but teaching is not one of them. Since that time, Thor moved on to become Chancellor of the Foothill/De Anza district in California and has since retired and is serving on the board of the Maricopa Community College District.

A decade later, the California’s community college system, the largest system of higher education in the nation, is convening to consider its first online college.  While discussing this with a friend and colleague this week, she said, “This feels like a watershed moment.” I agree. And I hope to see more people blogging about their thoughts and ideas, as everyone in California has a seat at this table.

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