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Report: California Universities Need to Simplify Online Cross-Enrollment

All but one California State University campus offers online courses. (The exception is the Maritime Academy.) By state law, the 23 institutions that make up the CSU system are expected to improve students' access to online coursework and the transparency of available programs. However, according to a new report for the legislature, the system could do a better job of tracking enrollment and outcomes and helping students know what's available online.

In 2009, the state university system set about trying to boost its undergraduate completion rates, which hovered below 50 percent for six-year graduations and below 15 percent for four-year graduations. Among its multiple efforts was promoting the use of online education, which was thought to be more convenient for some students while also minimizing demands on classroom space.

By 2013-2014, however, California lawmakers began showing concern that CSU's online education programs weren't addressing the basics: tracking enrollment or outcomes or helping students understand how they could "cross-enroll" in online courses delivered by other institutions. Those concerns spurred passage of Chapter 363, which had several requirements, such as developing a database of courses across the system, streamlining registration to work across campuses, reporting enrollment and performance, and studying the feasibility of online bachelor's degree completion programs.

The latest analysis reported that during the 2015-2016 academic year, 80,000 undergraduate students (19 percent of the total enrolled) and 6,600 graduate students (12 percent) took at least one fully online course. Those numbers could be much higher, the report suggested, if only students could find the courses they needed. And only a handful of students take advantage of cross-enrollment: "To date very few students have enrolled in online courses at other CSU campuses — an average of just two full-time equivalent students per campus in fall 2015," reported Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor in his write-up.

On top of that, Taylor wrote, the CSU campuses use "various [learning management system] platforms," making schoolwork more complex for students who want to cross-enroll. Even when students do cross-enroll, the Chancellor's Office doesn't track how well the courses were completed or the types of credits that were received.

The report offered several recommendations for the institutions:

  • Revamp the online course database to make it "more student-friendly";
  • Settle on a common learning management system to simplify course participation by cross-enrolled students;
  • Bump up enrollment and performance data collection, so lawmakers can review the outcome of cross-enrollment and track which campuses are doing the most effective jobs; and
  • Deepen their efforts to use the online programs to reach and serve "former students who started college but never earned a bachelor's degree."

If these changes are made, the report noted, student access to online courses would be improved, and the system would gain "cost efficiencies and more transparency" for its online efforts.

The report is openly available on the State of California website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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