With demand increasing for online college education options, the Foothill-De Anza Community College District is preparing to take on a major project aimed at making the state's community college system a leader in web-based higher learning.
Funded by a $16.9 million grant from the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges, Foothill-DeAnza will partner with a Chico-area community college district to build a statewide "course exchange," which should eventually allow any California resident to take classes from any junior college in the state.
"What we have, really for the first time, is comprehensive statewide coordination of not only online courses but the services that support students and faculty in the online environment," said Linda Thor, chancellor of Foothill-De Anza. "That means that we're going to ensure that a student is going to be able to complete an associate degree for transfer entirely online."
Joe Moreau, Foothill-DeAnza's vice chancellor of technology and lead administrator on the grant, said the district is ready to "hit the ground running," when the money becomes available on Dec. 1.
The project will build upon the "California Virtual Campus," according to Paul Feist, vice chancellor for communication at the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office. Feist said that the goal of the grant is to "create a common portal through which students throughout the state's community college system can access community college courses."
The district will work with the Butte-Glenn Community College District on the project. According to Moreau, officials at Butte-Glenn will handle the technical side of the operation -- including maintaining the servers and infrastructure of the site -- while Moreau and his team will work to put together maps for what effective online lesson plans should look like, as well as improving online access to tutoring and counseling.
Though Feist did not explain exactly why Foothill-DeAnza was chosen to receive the grant, he did say that the district has a reputation for being tech savvy. "Certainly they have a lot of experience in online education," Feist said.
According to Moreau, it's more than just a matter of perception. Foothill-DeAnza was the first community college in the state to offer classes online. And, in the run-up to the grant being awarded, Moreau said he and his colleagues were working closely with partners in Mountain View and the surrounding areas, brainstorming how they would pursue the project.
"We don't intend to reinvent the wheel," Thor said, explaining that the district has many friends in high tech with experience that will help them build an effective site.
The grant guarantees the district, in partnership with Butte-Glenn, will have $16.9 million to spend in the first seven months of the project -- through June of 2014. After that, the district will be eligible for an additional $10 million every year for the next four years, for a potential total of $56.9 million over 55 months, Thor said.
And that money comes at a crucial time, Thor said. According to a press release from the district, "in 2011-12, some 27 percent of all California community college students were enrolled in distance education courses, a 14.5 percent increase over the previous six years. In 2011-12, more than 50 percent of California community colleges offered at least one degree or certificate through distance education."
"It is the fastest growing segment of higher education nationally," Thor said.
People want to be able to take college courses online, she continued. The average college-age student is very comfortable with learning online and older folks with families, or veterans, appreciate being able to fit earning a degree into their free time.
It's also widely accepted in education communities that an online class can be just as effective as learning in a classroom, Thor said. That is, if it is done right.
Thor emphasized that partners will not be building a massively open online course -- or MOOC. They will simply be building the infrastructure to allow students to find the classes they need by tapping into the 112-campus California community college system.
By giving students more options, Feist said, the system will be able to free up what he referred to as "bottleneck courses" -- classes required for popular majors, which get overloaded and prevent students from graduating on time.
At first, as Foothilll-DeAnza works on building out the California Virtual Campus, the priority will be focused on eliminating bottlenecks, Feist said.
Thor agreed: "A student should be able to get whatever courses they need when they need them."
Eventually, as the system becomes more comprehensive, and more courses are offered, Thor and Moreau said they envision it serving a second function: doing away with the limits of a student's geographical location. As long as they are enrolled in the state's community college system, they will be able to take any online offering that interests them.
"As educators, we'll be able to do things a lot more creatively," Moreau said. "(Students) really enjoy learning that way."