Even the most driven students are stuck if the classes they need aren’t available. At best they have to wait another semester to enroll. At worst they run out of financial aid and drop out of school before they have a chance to take the courses.
To help students get the credits they need, some colleges are pooling resources on an unprecedented scale. California Community Colleges, the nation’s largest system with 113 institutions, just launched a course exchange so students at one campus can take classes online at another if those courses aren’t available on their home turf.
In the past decade’s economic downturn, state budget cuts forced California’s community colleges to turn down roughly 600,000 students. Course offerings fell 21 percent between 2007 and 2012.
To stop shutting students out, California began building its Online Education Initiative in late 2013. The $56.9 million project includes getting the colleges on a common learning management system, building an online course exchange and creating additional services like counseling to support students in online classes.
“We’ve been knitting together this suite of wraparound services for students, because there’s a lot more that goes into helping students be successful than getting them on a common LMS,” says Jory Hadsell, executive director of California Community Colleges’ Online Education Initiative.
Last week, two colleges went live on the exchange. Students at Fresno City College and Lake Tahoe Community College are currently registering for a handful of classes across campuses. By fall 2017, 24 colleges will be on the exchange.
Building the Infrastructure
California community colleges are by no means the first to build a course exchange—34 institutions in the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges share online classes in a similar way. But California’s OEI is the largest formal course exchange to date.
The project is a massive undertaking from both a technical and a practical standpoint. For one, colleges have been using different learning management systems and student identification systems. Nearly all (104 by the latest count) have adopted the Canvas LMS, and students are receiving secondary IDs that work across the entire system. The concept is comparable to a universal health record that lets patients share information with different doctors.
The idea is to make the experience as seamless as possible. “A student from Fresno can log in and see Lake Tahoe courses all in one place,” Hadsell says.
From the administrative side, the system will have a real-time view of what classes students are taking and where, so it can better plan for enrollment and allocate resources accordingly.
Impact Beyond Tech
Laying the groundwork is just the beginning. The courses themselves are getting a makeover to suit the online environment. California Community Colleges offers instructional design support to help faculty build their online courses. Then they submit the classes to be approved by their peers before they can go on the exchange.
The process has ripple effects on the quality of instruction at colleges. “One of the values of community colleges is that they’re very invested in quality teaching. They have to be able to serve diverse populations,” says Jared Stein, vice president of higher education strategy for Instructure, the parent company of Canvas. With the course exchange, faculty across schools are sharing knowledge and practices to build online courses. “If you can open up windows for faculty to get a glimpse of what other faculty are doing, you’re going to see sparks of innovation,” Stein says.
Just offering a course online doesn’t guarantee students with newfound access will succeed. In addition to the academic content, classes on the exchange include online tutoring and counseling to help distance learners stay on track.
The first students to use the exchange recently enrolled in seven online courses across the Lake Tahoe and Fresno City colleges. “We were pretty excited on Friday when those two colleges flipped the switch,” Hadsell says, adding that eight colleges will be up and running this spring. He’s cautiously optimistic about what’s ahead. “It’s an intentionally small launch. We’ve seen others launch and fall on their face. We want to crawl before we walk.”