Online degree a goal

Following a request by California Governor Jerry Brown himself, students at Los Medanos College – or any of the now 114 California Community Colleges – may soon be able to earn a full degree without setting foot on campus.

In a speech given by CCC Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley at an annual Online Teaching Conference in June, he revealed that the Governor sent him a letter asking him to begin work towards such a possibility.

“[He asked me to] seriously consider, or in other words, take whatever steps are necessary,” Chancellor Oakley laughed, “to establish a new community college that exclusively offers fully online degree programs.”

If fully realized, such a charge could have profound effects not only for college students, but for college faculty as well. The move stirred some opposition, or at least anxiety, amongst the various college boards.

“The first reaction is, ‘Well, what’s that gonna mean to my college? … To my enrollment? …To my money?’” he began.

“Folks, that’s the wrong question … the first question should be, ‘How is this gonna help us better serve California?’ The governor of this great state has the confidence in us that we can find a way to serve more students and serve them better through the efforts you all have made,” he continued to thunderous applause.

While Chancellor Oakley did not mention any specific plans for building an online community college, he showed through his remarks that he wholeheartedly supported the idea of an online community college program, built on the framework of existing programs.

“It’s not a point in time when we’re just going to abandon all your work,” he said. “As a matter of fact, we’re going to take all your work and figure out how to best leverage it.”

One such body of work that could be of use to the Chancellor is the preexistent California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative. The program is over 6 years in the making and aims to create a large pool of standardized online classes from California schools and beyond – referred to by staff as ‘the exchange’ – available for any CCC student to take for full credit, no matter which school they are enrolled in.

Currently, the initiative is only accessible at five pilot colleges — Butte College, Coastline Community College, Foothill College, Fresno City College, Lake Tahoe Community College and Ventura College. If fully realized, the initiative would be accessible to every community college in California.

Department Chair of World Languages and Academic Senate Vice President Laurie Huffman of LMC is a Lead Reviewer for the OEI, and she is the final say on whether a course meets the standardizes requirements to be a part of the exchange. She is currently conducting classes – for teachers – on how to create classes worthy of being part of the exchange, and hopes that the OEI program will be integrated into the online community college plans.

The program was born out a push for greater accessibility for students, since some majors might require a capstone class not offered at Campus A, but available online at Campus B.

“This was born out of a need for students to access classes they could not access at their home site due to budget cuts,” said Dr. Huffman, who has worked on the OEI program for a bit over four years. It’s been a very long, slow, tedious process getting it to where it is now, and it’s still not anywhere near its intended status, but it’s worth the wait, in her eyes. “We want to do it right from the beginning… The product of this is a very high quality course.”

It’s not just physical accessibility that motivated the formation of OEI. Beyond making more classes available to more students, Huffman’s work also involves making sure that those classes are of a higher, uniform standard quality-wise and meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

“People are offering online courses haphazardly,” she explains. “They’re not looking at ADA, or how students learn best.”

Simple things like the color of the website and the imagery used on class documents, as well as the different kinds of multimedia they employ, can make a world of difference for students with conditions such as colorblindness, deafness, or a learning disorder. Standards and regulations like the ones OEI employs are “the only way to make things clean,” according to Huffman.

Presumably, the work Huffman and others have done on the OEI could be built upon or combined with other projects to create a fully online degree program. This program would satisfy Governor Brown’s request in addition to or as an extension of the online class exchange, though Chancellor Oakley did not mention the OEI in his speech at the Online Teaching Conference.

A more immediate goal for Huffman, however, is to extend the OEI participant list to include LMC, as well as other colleges in the Contra Costa Community College District.

“It’s the best deal in town to take an online course that has a very high level of design, that has been vetted and peer reviewed,” she remarked.

There are no immediate plans to bring the program here, but Huffman believes that Governor Brown’s letter will expedite the expansion of the OEI, to CCCCD and beyond.

“We could do it, we have the capacity,” she stated. “I think the district is moving in that direction… I think [Governor Brown] wanted this to happen faster.”