After COVID, Community Colleges Need to Focus on Improving Online Courses

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In the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced community colleges in California to transition to fully online instruction to serve the system’s 2.1 million students in times of crisis. Not all students today are eager to return to traditional face-to-face instruction, and prospective students cited access to online courses as the most important factor motivating enrollment. Ensuring colleges, faculty, and students have the resources they need to succeed in online courses, including access to technology, will be essential to help meet growing student demand for more flexibility and to improve access, completion and equity in our higher education. systems.

The demand for online courses is not entirely new. Before the pandemic, community college enrollment in online courses was already on the rise. Between 2001, when internet courses were first offered, and 2019, enrollment has increased dramatically. In fall 2019, the share of online course enrollment reached nearly 20% of total course enrollment. And to meet student demand, community colleges were increasing the number of online programs.

In the second year of the pandemic, community colleges began encouraging students and faculty to resume in-person classes, but online enrollment remained high, with more than three times as many class enrollments in online than in face-to-face classes in spring 2021. In spring 2022, there were still about 50% more enrollments in online education than in face-to-face education. In contrast, before the pandemic, there was only about one-fifth the number of online registrations compared to face-to-face registrations.

figure - Enrollment in community college online courses remains higher than face-to-face courses

With online learning and hybrid formats quickly becoming part of the new normal, it is essential that these forms of teaching are as effective as in-person learning. High-quality online courses tend to follow standards related to course design, student interaction and collaboration, assessment, learner support, and accessibility. However, creating high-quality online courses isn’t necessarily cheap or easy, and current data on the academic outcomes of online college courses is mixed. Given the high volume of community college courses – over 118,000 credit courses in spring 2022 alone – even if a small fraction were to remain online or hybrid, investing in quality online instruction that produces results similar to courses in face to face would require enormous effort and resources.

The California Community College Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO) has provided funding to help colleges implement high-quality online teaching and learning through several initiatives. The online education initiative helps teachers use rigorous standards and rubrics for online courses. The CCCCO also supports the Online Network of Educators, which provides training on digital tools and platforms. Other initiatives provide colleges with access to the Internet and high-speed technology. Additionally, individual colleges sometimes provide training. For example, Skyline College provides faculty support for using online learning management systems and improving online pedagogy.

However, these initiatives often depend on the motivation and interest of individual professors and departments, and professors are not always compensated for engaging in these activities. A sustained and systematic approach that supports the development and delivery of online courses and promotes best practices in online education is needed to accelerate the adoption of high quality standards for online courses. Likewise, it will be critical to ensure that all faculty and students have access to resources such as high-speed internet and computing devices, and that students have access to counseling and tutoring services.

Given that student demand for online education is expected to remain high in coming years, provide appropriate incentives for faculty and colleges to improve online education – and expand student access to services and resources online – will help ensure that online courses are delivered efficiently and fairly.

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