If you could start completely from scratch, how would you design an institution of higher education?

photo of a blueprint, ruler, and pencil

The California Community College System plans to open its 115th institution in October. And it is an interesting answer to that question. Based upon their published materials and a presentation to Online Teaching Conference in June, Calbright College, which opens tomorrow, will be different in several ways:

  • They will focus on adults. From their website: “Calbright College is designed to focus on careers, not credentials. Unlike other community colleges, rather than working toward an associate’s degree, our adult learners work toward a job.”
  • Courses are (almost) completely online. They will include apprenticeships, but presumably those will be conducted mostly face-to-face.
  • The curriculum will be competency-based. Given the workforce perspective of their curriculum, fulfilling workplace competencies makes sense. It will be interesting to watch how they will keep these up-to-date, as employers needs change over time. They also mentioned in their presentation that they will use adaptive learning in their courses.
  • “Instructional design principles” Will be used. Included in these principles are 30-minute lessons, real-world content, and formative and summative assessments.
  • They are focused on equity. They talked about the notion of providing students with Equity Advisors, who would “identify with a specific social group like working mothers or formerly incarcerated men.” The Advisors “lead feedback sessions with other people like them on our behalf.” Has anyone else tried this on a program basis? How about on a broader department, college, or institution-wide implementation?
  • Courses will be designed with a mobile-first philosophy. This begins with an equity sensibility, as their target audience tends to have access to mobile phones over other types of digital devices. It also addresses the needs of their target students who are in the workforce and need to have access to courses on the go. Undoubtedly, this will cause some design challenges given the limited screen real estate and speed issues for some mobile providers.
  • They seek to overcome barriers to internet access. On equity, they are trying to solve problems about equitable access to high-speed Internet. One proposed solution was to partner with public places that provide such access.
  • Employers will help pay tuition. They plan to partner with employers and unions to pay the price for students to enroll. I assume that they will also want to reach those who are unemployed or underemployed. I’m not sure how they will expand their reach if the student has no employer to pay for the tuition or if the current employer has no interest in paying.

outline of state of california in colorful dots

Beginning with programs being planned in Medical Coding, IT Support, and Cybersecurity Support, they are on an extremely ambitious schedule. At the June meeting of the leaders of online learning of the state’s community colleges, an announcement was made that Calbiright would offer an associate’s degree.

This was met with considerable grumbling form the online leaders in the audience since College officials had previously stated they would not offer degrees.

We are watching the progress of Calbright College with interest, and we’re all sure to hear much more about them.

Meanwhile, What About California’s Other Community Colleges?

As you could imagine, the announcement of a significant investment in a new online community college sparked worry among the existing institutions about a new competitor.

To support and expand the considerable distance education activities already available at the existing colleges, the Governor and state assembly appropriated $35 million of one-time funds to accelerate online learning opportunities. Managed by the California Virtual College/Online Education Initiative (CVC/OERI), the grants funded 70 applications for the expansion and creation of a variety of programs.

You should also be interested in the many other services provided by the California Virtual College-Online Education Initiative to the state’s community colleges.

Graphic showing the 3 focuses for California Virtual Campus – Online Education Initiative's programs: 1. Tech resources that maximize economies of scale, 2. System wide resources for online students, 3. system wide resources for developing high quality online courses.
Copyright © 2019 by California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office CC by 4.0

They have made great advances in providing shared services that can be used throughout the state, such as:

  • The community colleges have partnered on OER development and were recently featured in Inside Higher Ed for their work to create zero textbook cost degree programs.
  • A single Learning Management System for all 114 colleges, hosted in Canvas.
  • Students can easily enroll in online courses from other institutions in the system.
  • An OEI Course Design Rubric.
  • Online learner readiness tutorials.
  • Workshops for faculty offered through their @ONE (Online Network of Educators) professional development service.
  • A “Consortium” subset of the colleges has been “working together to address online achievement gaps and increase student access to fully-resourced online courses that propel them toward completion.”

This summer the California Community Colleges demonstrated their success in improving student outcomes. They have been closely tracking student success rates in courses since the 2007-2008 academic year. Over an eleven-year period, they have lessened the gap between face-to-face and distance courses in success rates from 11% to 4%. Any additional gaps remain only because the success rates for face-to-face courses improved over that same time period. Over that time period, the percentage of students taking at least one distance education course increased from 17% to 29% of the total student enrollment.

Would you like to learn how the CVC/OEI leaders accomplished these successes? Would you like to learn from and share with others leading multi-institution consortia or system initiatives? Come join us for the “Consortia and Systems Workshop” on November 5 at the WCET Annual Meeting. Learn how “together, we can accomplish more.”

In Conclusion…

Overall, the work of CVC/OEI has been an underappreciated success in higher education circles.

Calbiright College enters the scene with new models and great ambitions. Kudos to them. Years ago, I worked on the first plans Western Governors University and the Kentucky Virtual Campus. It is difficult to bring a new idea into the conservative universe of higher education. And quite often those new ideas don’t work on the first try. So, let’s give them some room to develop and grow.

I wish great luck to Calbright College. Let’s hope that they can accomplish as much as the California Community Colleges have achieved in the last few years.


Russ headshot
Russell Poulin
Executive Director, WCET – the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies
Vice President of Technology-Enhanced Education, WICHE – the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education

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