A screen shot of a webinar held by California Competes, featuring Calbright College's president, Ajita Talwalker Menon, as a panelist. Calbright is a free online community college focused on working adult students.

California Competes Considers the Future of Online Education with Calbright’s President

There is considerable demand for online college education in California – and at the same time, deep concerns about its quality.

That’s the premise of a new report by California Competes, which notes that close to 3.9 million Californians plan to enroll in online courses over the next two years, and that, “in response, higher education leaders have declared plans to expand their online offerings, and policymakers have set targets for increasing online learning opportunities and provided incentives to use those opportunities.”

At the same time, “tensions are exacerbated by questions about online education’s quality, a dearth of robust data, siloed institutional administrative controls, a lack of understanding of funding models, and a culture that values tradition over change.”

The result is a paradox: at a time when “access to online courses is the top motivator for enrollment in California’s Community Colleges” and the University of California (UC) and the California State University systems “have goals to at least double online education enrollment,” UC has also banned fully online degrees in its system. There is also periodic hesitancy about Calbright College – which is California’s statewide online community college district, specifically designed to help underserved populations access higher education.

The state’s higher education system is simultaneously trying to encourage and discourage online learning. That, California Competes suggests, is a problem that we need to move past. “Why is there such reluctance to engage in and friction about a high-demand avenue that—if systemically integrated with intention—could improve educational access, outcomes, and opportunities, especially for certain underserved populations?” they ask.  

A New Culture of High Quality

California Competes is committed to finding a path forward for online education as per their new report, which was unveiled at an October 17th webinar moderated by former California Community Colleges chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, now President and CEO of College Futures Foundation, with Calbright College’s President and CEO Ajita Talwalker Menon, as a panelist.

Other panelists included:

  • Maria Anguiano, Executive Vice President of the Learning Enterprise at Arizona State University and UC Regent
  • Chioma Ndubuisi, Vice President for Information Technology Services and Chief Information Officer, Cal State LA
  • Katherine Newman, Provost and Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs at the University of California

Some of the concerns around online education, the report suggests, are simply political. “Reluctance to embrace online education is rooted in a struggle for power among stakeholders in California’s public higher education system,” it noted. But beyond that, the report and the panelists put forward a robust roadmap for ways to ensure that online education meets the expectation of both its students and the state of California.

For President Menon, this involves not just putting classes online, but rethinking what the entire education model can be and using online classes as a way to help us get there.

“It’s not one-size-fits-all,” she said. “Online education is a mode, it is not a model. And what we are experiencing is that we have to have new models, new approaches, new fully comprehensive ways of surveying different populations of learners, and that is key.”

Calbright therefore is not just “a free online college,” it’s an online college with a fundamentally different education model designed around the needs of the students it serves. 

“What we understood, based on the deep understanding we were developing with our learners, was that it not only has to be online, it also has to be flexibly paced,” she said. “So when we talk about designing around student learner needs, that’s not our perspective on what those needs are – it’s data that comes from the learners themselves. And it can’t just be flexibly paced, it has to be connected to a priority and a value that they have, which is to be employable. So it has to be a skills based approach. And it had to be statewide and scalable.”

The point, she added, isn’t to replicate what the higher education system already does, but to innovate and improve for the students it has not served. This is just as true on the issue of retaining students and helping them persist on their educational journey as it is getting them into classes in the first place.

“I went to a school at a time when the provost used to tell you to turn to the left and turn to the right, and then say that both of those folks would not be in attendance by the fourth year of your four year degree, and when I look back on moments like that, which was not that long ago, it is always stunning to me to understand that in any other place that would be seen as a big systemic failure, and yet in higher education we found ourselves celebrating exclusion at the expense of accessibility,” she said. “The opportunity for California, for institutions like Calbright, is to really get down into the needs of the community, the needs of the individual.”

That kind of innovation is why Calbright’s persistence rate for students continuing past the first semester is over 90%, significantly higher than what traditional sister campuses within the community colleges system see for adult learners.

Making Education More Equitable and Agile

In addition to issues of quality, the California Competes report has solutions for data collection to assess the online colleges, organizational shifts to encourage collaboration between institutions, and funding models to effectively pay for online classes and colleges.

With this kind of care and innovation, the report says, California can “address the concerns and advance the state’s movement toward a more equitable and agile system of learning.”

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