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California's Online Education Initiative Pushes Forward on PD, Student Readiness

California Online Education Initiative town hall coverage 2015

The California Community College Online Education Initiative (OEI), the state-sponsored project that aims to dramatically increase the number of students who earn associate degrees and transfer to four-year colleges, has come a long way since it was announced in the fall of 2013, according to the OEI's executive director, Patricia James.

"If you remember, we were in bad economic times back then, turning away students at almost all of our colleges," James told an attendees at the annual CT Forum conference, held in Long Beach, CA this month, "and the governor was looking at MOOCs and other business-ed types of activities that would bring courses to our students. But now we're trying to get them back with the online courses they need to complete their educational goals."

The permanent staff of the OEI joined James for a panel discussion about the initiative's progress during one of two "town hall" meetings co-located with the CT Forum event.

The OEI was the child of desperate times for California higher education. Funding for California Community Colleges was cut by $1.5 billion between the 2007-2008 and 2011-2012 academic years, and course offerings statewide were cut by approximately 25 percent, thanks to five consecutive years of deep budget cuts. Those cuts forced community colleges to ration course offerings, which effectively shut 500,000 students out of the system.

The OEI was launched in 2014 to solve this accessibility problem, but online education is not new to California colleges; they've been offering courses online for about 20 years. OEI is meant to pump up the volume by implementing a common course management system (CCMS), providing faculty professional development in online pedagogy and making more student support tools available.

Currently, 24 colleges are participating in the OEI pilot program, which began in the fall of 2014 and will run through the spring of 2016. More colleges will be added later as the program grows, explained John Makevich, OEI Director of Strategic Planning and Operations.

The 24 pilot colleges are divided into three groups:

  • Full Launch Colleges (Butte College, Coastline Community College, Foothill College, Shasta College, Fresno City College, Lake Tahoe Community College, Mt. San Jacinto College, and Ventura College);
  • A Student Readiness Staging Group (Antelope Valley College, Cabrillo College, College of the Canyons, Monterey Peninsula College, West Los Angeles College, Rio Hondo College, Mira Costa College, and Hartnell College); and
  • A Tutoring Staging Group (Imperial Valley College, Ohlone College, Columbia College, Los Angeles Pierce College, Saddleback College, Barstow Community College, Mt. San Antonio College, and Victor Valley College).

Major Platforms
A big part of Makevich's job is preparing pilot schools to work with the Common Course Management System (CCMS), which the OEI plans to deploy statewide, and to pilot components of the OEI Exchange, a platform that would allow students to take online classes across colleges, still under construction. But he's also working on developing a consortium for the online education initiative.

"Ultimately we are going to want an organization in place that can represent the colleges that are participating in the OEI," he said. "We'll want a way to formalize the decision making process." The pilot schools will form the initial governing body of the consortium, which he said he hopes to pull together sometime later this year.

The OEI Exchange is still in development, James said, but she's looking to launch a pilot in January 2016. She has organized a meeting of the eight Full Launch colleges for late April to "design a way forward" on what will likely prove to be a difficult project. She also emphasized that it will be but one component of the OEI, seeking to assuage concerns that adopting the CCMS will force schools to join the Exchange.

Steve Klein, OEI State Program Director and Common Course Management System Committee Chair, discussed the decision of the OEI to use Instructure's Canvas CCMS. The CCMS committee arrived at the decision after shopping around and following a full day of product demos by Instructure, Moodle provider Remote-Learner and Blackboard. Deploying a statewide CCMS requires planning, he said, and planning takes time. But he said he expects to sign a contract with the vendor around the first of May and get the ball rolling.

Student Readiness Program
Bonnie Peters, OEI Chief Student Services Officer, is charged with providing a range of services to new and continuing online students. Her initial focus, she said, has been on developing a student readiness program. The program will comprise a set of highly interactive modules that allow students to learn the ins and outs of online learning. The program is in the pilot stage at eight schools, but she is looking to make them available statewide by the end of this year at no cost to the colleges.

"We see students taking online classes without really understanding the unique challenges of that environment," she said. "This readiness program allows us to take an assessment and help them to understand where they stand. It will also provide a way for students to give feedback."

Next on her list: development of an online counselors network made up of trained distance education counselors able to work exclusively with online students. "We want to enable students through the technology," she said, "but keep the human factor as part of it." She is also looking to provide an accessible and easy-to-use platform for interacting with these counselors.

Jory Hadsell, OEI Chief Academic Affairs Officer, has been working on a number of projects, including the Exchange. Although he agreed that it's a daunting project, he noted that many of the building blocks are already in place.

"We're actually uniquely suited in the California Community College system for this kind of collaboration, because of all the work that has been done around the common identification of core courses across our curriculum," he said, "as well as the development of the Associate Degree for Transfer Pathway for CSU. We have a group of courses that are pre-articulated across our colleges."

Hadsell's group is already piloting integrated online tutoring and is also developing strategies for making basic skills resources available to students right when they are most needed. "Part of our grant was to address the gap in basic skills using online technologies," he explained. "Rather than trying to offer basic skills courses, we're focused on providing just-in-time, right-in-place, embedded resources for students. The resources are being embedded right in the courses, so that students struggling with, say, Child Development, and you get to the section that requires time management calculations, we've embedded an arithmetic module."

Professional Development, Course Design
OEI Chief Development Officer Michelle Pilati said that her group has been moving forward apace on professional development and course design support. To date they have trained 30 reviewers from 48 different colleges and reviewed 67 courses in pilot colleges (with more than 20 in process now). She emphasized the 48 schools, she said, to underscore the OEI's commitment to provide benefits to all colleges in the state.

But the professional development working group's first accomplishment is likely to be the development of an OEI course-design rubric focused on quality online instruction. That rubric is now being used to review online courses and identify ways to make them better, and Pilati said she expects it to be adopted formally in August.

One way to look at the rubric, she said, is as a first step to becoming a reviewer. But the rubric training is open to anyone, she said, and could serve instructors who simply want to understand how to use it locally. The group is also in process is revamping the Introduction to Online Teaching and Learning course to be aligned to the rubric. The idea is to modularize the training, she said, so that faculty can access training to particularly challenging elements of the rubric.

"Our ultimate goal is to front load support," she said, "to make it so that there's so much support out there —  so much help for faculty creating a high quality, highly accessible courses — that we're basically fostering a culture of excellence for everything we're doing online, and providing the support needed to make it happen."

Editor's note: This article has been modified since its original publication to correct an error. We mistakenly reported that OEI is looking for a vendor for online tutoring support. In fact, OEI has already partnered with LSI for tutoring services. [Last updated April 21, 2015 at 2:45 p.m.] 
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