Pass / Fail | So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

Battle brewing over online community college classes and local control

The main quad at Saddleback College in south Orange County.
The main quad at Saddleback College in south Orange County.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

Listen to

Download this 1MB

A proposal to make it easier for students to take online community college classes offered by any California campus is running into opposition from local faculty.

As students seek classes to accommodate busy schedules and campuses look to expand without constructing new buildings, virtual courses have been multiplying in the state’s massive community college system. 

The latest idea from Sacramento would create one portal for community college online classes and establish phone and online support for students, regardless of which campus offers the courses.

“The goal is to create one online education ecosystem that is used for the entire state, fully supported, faculty-run and driven,” said California Community College Vice Chancellor Patrick Perry.

Dean Murakami, president of the community college faculty association, doesn’t think it’s a good idea.

“We think that online courses that serve the community are better for our students, especially for their success, because those students have access ... to our counselors, our support services, our tutors,” he said.

No one disagrees that the demand for online classes has been growing. At Saddleback College in Mission Viejo alone, the number of students taking online classes more than doubled in the last eight years.

Budget reductions have led to cuts in campus classes and courses in highest demand are often overcrowded. Couple that with more students with tight schedules enrolling in community colleges, and the attraction of virtual courses becomes clear.

“By having online classes, this is a great way to expand your course offerings and your ability to serve students and not have to build those expensive buildings,” said Patty Flanigan, dean of online learning and resources at Saddleback College.

The community college, like the 111 others in the state, maintains local control over its online classes. Flanigan pushes hard to make sure students taking virtual classes get face-to-face support.

“That’s why you’re seeing us begin to expand out into online tutoring. We have the support for our students both face-to-face and online because we want to have quality education and we want to maintain it,” she said.

The need for one-to-one support is among the lessons drawn from a study that revealed more than 50 percent of San Jose State students enrolled in a pilot program offering massive open online classes, or MOOCs, failed the courses. The classes didn’t engage students.

As a result, a bill by state Sen. Darrell Steinberg last year proposing to let outside developers of MOOCs enroll students in public colleges died.

Saddleback is growing online courses by capping each class at 45 students, with campus support, student interaction and engagement built in.

Second-year nursing student Christine Briones says the online classes are better than face-to-face courses.

“I have two full-time jobs and barely have any time to study. So I take online classes and it gives me a flexible schedule,” she said while studying at Saddleback’s library.

“Online class, you talk more to people because they actually give you insights on your work, versus when you’re in class — you just listen to the instructor and say, ‘hi’ and ‘bye,’” she said.

Online classes at California’s community colleges aren’t perfect. Even in these smaller classes, the failure rate — 7 percent — is still higher than traditional classes.

At Saddleback’s center for research and development for online classes, psychology professor Kathryn Damm reviews proposals by faculty who want to teach online courses.

“I’m going through, detail by detail, making sure to catch any potential issues that may fly — just because we’ve had some experience with online teaching so we can help out with some of that past knowledge,” Damm said.

What doesn’t work, she says, are long, video-taped lectures and mandatory live online chats. Online education works when students can do it on their own time, Damm said.

Most of this college’s online classes are in English, history, economics and psychology. One math professor has volunteered to teach online.

For some students, like civil engineering major Mark Doss, online classes aren't appealing, even when tweaked for maximum engagement.

“I prefer more hands on and listening to an instructor teach in front of me rather than sitting at home and trying to do it on my own,” he said.

Such students will always prefer local classes and real-life instruction.