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Report Examines California's Approaches -- and Problems -- to Online Courses

A new report is encouraging California's institutions of higher education to reconsider how they structure online courses for optimal impact. The paper, commissioned by The 20 Million Minds Foundation and written by MindWires Consulting, advocates for setting up a new framework by which institutions can contribute online courses to a state-level clearinghouse through which students can take the courses and receive credit more seamlessly from the University of California System, the California State University System, and the California Community Colleges. This covers the same ground covered by a new bill — Senate Bill 520 — currently being considered in the state's senate.

Should that bill pass, it's possible that 20 Million Minds, a non-profit organization, would play some role in development of that framework.

According to the report, the problem being addressed by Senate Bill 520 is acute: Students are often unable to get into the required courses they need in order to obtain a degree. Online classes could go far in alleviating the problem. The authors acknowledged that there is no data on how extensive over-subscribed traditional classes are. However, they point to the results of surveys such as one issued in 2010 to community college students in the state, where 20 percent reported "difficulty in gaining access to required courses." Another survey in 2012 reported that 80 percent of community colleges had wait lists for some classes.

The report assesses the current approaches to online offerings, all of which present some kinds of limitations. For example, a much-heralded California Virtual Campus, established in 1999, offers a portal that services as a repository of information about distance education programs and courses provided by state institutions; but it doesn't provide any mechanism to allow students to register for a specific course or transfer credits earned easily between colleges.

The text also pointed out that not everybody is suited to succeed with online education, which "typically requires more self-discipline, better reading skills, and better awareness of when to seek help than traditional classes do." Students will need help in evaluating the likelihood of success and those for whom online courses aren't suitable, the report stated, "should be given priority access to the traditional on-campus or blended courses."

The authors provided 13 recommendations to remedy the bottleneck course problem, among them:

  • Developing measurable goals to understand the size of the problem and the impact of potential remedies;
  • Making sure students have access to support services and academic mentoring, akin to what many institutions already offer within their own classrooms, but extended outside the parameters of the campus, when their students, for example, sign up for third-party offerings;
  • Encouraging faculty to experiment with the integration of technology into their instructional practices;
  • Building an organization by which all three college systems can share best practices; and
  • Reviewing the missions of the existing online programs currently being run by all three systems with an eye toward restructuring their models.

"Online education — when properly designed and supported — can be an important component in the state's ability to deliver on its promises," the report concluded. "The recommendations in this paper are meant to help pave a path forward with changes that can impact students in the next few years."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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