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Community colleges face challenges of bolstering online classes

REGION — With incentives for online course offerings from the state, local community colleges are expanding their online education offerings and working with the challenges of teacher trainings and student retention that come with it. 

As part of the 2013-14 state budget, Gov. Jerry Brown maintained incentives for community colleges to improve access to online classes through the California Community College Online Initiative. The initiative creates a system-wide program designed to improve students’ access to online courses while reducing the costs of those courses for the students and colleges.

Today, 27 percent of community college students in California take at least one online course each year, according to data from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

Nearly 17 percent of all courses offered at community colleges in the state are offered online.

Local North County community colleges, MiraCosta College and Palomar College, have been bolstering their online course offerings to align with the state initiative and accommodate for the increasing demand for these classes.

Palomar College’s online course offerings have remained steady over the past few years due restraints on class offerings from reduced state funding, said the school’s Director of Communications, Marketing, and Public Affairs Laura Gropen.

Last year, about 11 percent of Palomar’s 4,749 classes were online courses, similar to previous years, she said. But with increased state funding this year, she anticipates the number of online courses offered to increase, along with the total number of courses offered.

“I anticipate revving up all of our classes including our online classes,” said Gropen.

MiraCosta College, which is about a third of the size of Palomar, offered about 200 course sections taught only online as well as 100 hybrid classes that were taught both online and on campus last year, numbers which will be increasing next fall for the 2013-14 school year.

Over the past three years, the number of full-time MiraCosta students enrolled in an online course has increased nearly 40 percent, according to the school’s data.

When registration opens, online classes normally fill up before on campus courses, according to MiraCosta College President Dr. Francisco Rodriguez.

Only a few courses cannot be offered online at the colleges, including laboratory and oral communication classes.

Online community college courses offer a number of advantages for students as well as the schools.

With online classes, students can complete class instruction and coursework on their own schedule and save the time and expense of travelling back and forth to campus.

“For students who are accustomed to technology, this is a natural way of learning,” explained Rodriguez.

By offering courses online, community colleges course capacities are not limited by the amount of available classroom space.

However, class sizes for online courses do not differ from their on campus counterparts so that professors’ workloads remains the same.

The cost of providing an online course versus an on campus course is fairly similar because the cost of faculty is identical and classroom facility costs are replaced with the technology costs needed to deliver the online course to students. Consequently, the cost for students of online and on campus courses are the same at both colleges.

Whether offered online or in a classroom, course content is comparable, and in some cases the same, according to MiraCosta and Palomar college administrators. Furthermore, a course offered online earns equal credit as the same course offered on campus.

For professors, teaching an online course presents a new set of challenges.

“For new faculty, the first challenge we face is making the class ‘alive’ through the online presence of the instructor and the students,” said Lisa Lane, who has been teaching history courses online at MiraCosta for over 20 years. “We want to take the ‘distance’ out of distance education by providing a learning environment even though people at first feel disconnected.”

“Some of the technical challenges include providing students with clear navigation and instruction, creating ways for students to interact and learn together, and providing meaningful content as a foundation for the course,” she added.

Both MiraCosta and Palomar offer extensive training and development opportunities for professors who wish to teach online classes.

These trainings teach professors not only how to utilize the technology needed to teach a class online, but also how to engage students without seeing them face-to-face.

Yet since online courses were first offered at the two community colleges, the student retention rate for online classes has been lower than that of on campus classes.

One issue that community colleges face is that community college students drop out of courses for a variety of reasons, and those reasons can be much more difficult to determine when students are not present on campus.

“The reality is that across the board…community college students leave a course for a whole host of reasons,” said Gropen.

“Contacting a student who is failing but still attending an on-campus class is easy, but reaching a student who is failing an online class but doesn’t use email much can be difficult, making intervention more of a challenge,” said Lane.

Both colleges have increased their development sessions for professors. They are working on finding ways to better prepare students for online courses and dispel the myth that online courses are easier than on campus courses.

MiraCosta College is in the process of building an orientation to online courses for students.

With the colleges’ efforts, the retention rate gap between online courses and on campus courses is narrowing significantly.

“Access to higher education has been enhanced with the advent of online education,” said Rodriguez. “This delivery mode is here to stay.”