The Heights

Updated: September 12, 2016

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New initiative changing the face of online education for all

When the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office needed help creating a centralized program to ensure that more students complete their educational goals by increasing access to and success in high-quality online courses, the agency turned to Silicon Valley’s Foothill-De Anza Community College District.

Now based at Foothill College, the Online Education Initiative (OEI) represents a collaborative program that leverages best practices and technology to increase the opportunity for students all over the state to earn college degrees and career-training certificates, as well as complete general education requirements for transfer to four-year colleges and universities. A five-year, $57 million investment in California’s community colleges, OEI was made possible by the governor and Legislature in 2013.

“Our goal is to provide access for students to high-quality online courses and resources so that they can achieve their educational goals, be they earning a degree or preparing to transfer,” says OEI Executive Director Pat James. “We’ve also developed online student support services that complement instructional offerings, as part of a holistic approach to helping students succeed.”

The OEI is responsible for developing partnerships with technology vendors for tools that can be used by colleges, teachers and students who are focused on student success. The initiative also partners with the Butte-Glenn Community College District to implement major technical needs and with Palomar and Mt. San Jacinto colleges to employ the @ONE project, which provides the professional development needs of the initiative.

“From day one, our guiding principle has been to do what’s best for the student,” James says. “For us, this means creating, piloting and implementing an online learning experience that is easy to use, fits your schedule, features a comprehensive learning experience that includes online tutorials, online tutoring opportunities, online appointments with academic counselors, exciting learning options, and an extensive selection of college-level courses. We’re also working to help increase the number and variety of online classes offered by state’s community colleges while ensuring that instructional standards and resources are consistent.”

Thanks to the pioneering work of the OEI, all of the 113 California Community Colleges–the largest system of higher education in the nation–now have the opportunity to use OEI resources such as course design standards, faculty professional development, online readiness tutorials, tutoring services, basic skills resources and more.

This fall, OEI will launch its course exchange, the next component in its suite of programs and services. The course exchange will provide a seamless pathway for students to register for online courses at participating colleges without requiring students to complete separate application and matriculation processes. Students who cannot get the courses they need for completion at their home colleges will be able to enroll in them at another participating OEI college that has available seats in the equivalent course via a streamlined registration process. A list of high-demand, degree-applicable courses that are part of the pilot course exchange includes introductory classes in criminal justice, cultural anthropology, human geography, statistics, philosophy, American government and politics, psychology, sociology and research methods, as well as child growth and development, intercultural communication, microeconomics, macroeconomics, composition, physical geology and U.S. history.

The OEI has laid the groundwork to improve online education in California by creating a centralized virtual campus that brings together existing distance education services into a single hosting system that offers a 24/7 support center for students. The goal of the OEI project is to improve degree-attainment opportunities for students through improved, streamlined online instruction.

By leveraging the purchasing power of the 113-college system, money is saved and students are able to find the courses they need through a common online course management system. Through its California Virtual Campus (CVC), a web-based catalog of online courses, a student who resides in Palm Springs can enroll in an online marine biology class that is taught by an instructor from Monterey Peninsula College. The CVC provides information on more than 2,500 courses that satisfy associate degree for transfer requirements and 1,400 other academic degree programs offered entirely online. In total, the catalog features information on more than 19,000 online courses in California offered by the community colleges, CSU, UC and private colleges, and is available to students at all of these institutions.

The CVC is just one of the programs offered via the OEI. In addition to expanding the number and variety of online courses, the OEI is developing critical student support services, including counseling, assessment and tutoring, that are tailored to meet the needs of the state’s 2.1 million community college students.

With some 30 percent of all California community college students expected to take an online course this year, the demand for a robust catalog is expected to grow in coming years. Additionally, some 60 percent of California’s community colleges offer certificates and degrees that can be completed without stepping onto a campus for classes.

The state’s community colleges have been offering distance education courses since 1979 and online classes have been offered for more than 20 years. But prior to the formation of the OEI, funding for online classes was determined by each individual college. OEI’s centralized model now gives colleges the opportunity to grow their online enrollments, even during budget cuts.

“Community college leaders know that funding cuts are a fact of life,” James says. “During the most recent recession, funding cuts meant fewer classes at all of our community colleges. We were turning students away. But the state chancellor’s office recognized that if we could strengthen and standardize online courses, we would create a solution that gives students more opportunities, regardless of the state’s economy.

“One of the benefits of increased online instruction is that it allows colleges to grow and serve more students. By maximizing online education, more faculty become more comfortable teaching online, and individual campuses can increase their enrollments much more quickly than it would take for them to build more classrooms,” she says.

Students also benefit from increased access to classes through online options. “It’s expensive to go to college. Many students must also work to support their families and fund their education. Often, online courses are the only way they can move forward to complete their educational goals. For OEI, that means developing access to a wide selection of online courses and a suite of support services that give students access to education in a way that works with their busy life.

When the initiative began, a group of 24 pilot colleges were selected to participate. They represented a diversity of college demographics, geographic location and technology. Faculty from each of the pilot colleges volunteered to participate in the first peer review of online courses. The pilot colleges were also the first to implement OEI’s online learner readiness and online tutoring resources.

“We’re on track to have 90 of the state’s 113 community colleges using OEI course and support services by the end of 2017,” James says. “To date, many community colleges have implemented OEI resources at their schools, and 66 colleges are in the process of implementing Canvas as their course management system .”

To learn more about the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative, visit

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