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COVID-19 Shutdown Forces Colleges to Ramp up Online Learning

photo - Student Learning Online from Home

California colleges are moving classes online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which means most students at most colleges will take classes remotely. For example, the entire University of California and California State University systems have moved almost all undergraduate education to online settings. Such a dramatic change is necessary for public health, but may interfere with student access and success.

California’s community colleges can offer others a lesson in effective practices for distance education. These schools have been at the forefront of remote learning for more than four decades, from correspondence courses in the early days to instructional television and video cassettes in the 1980s. In the early 2000s, community colleges began to offer internet-based online courses.

The availability and popularity of distance courses have exploded with the internet, as have course success rates. The share of enrolled students completing and passing a course has skyrocketed, narrowing the gap in success between online and in-person courses substantially.

figure - Enrollment in Online Course Has Surged at California Community Colleges

figure - Success Rates for Online Courses Have Increased

Policies around closing the success gap were intentional, with the Community College Chancellor’s Office leading efforts to improve online courses through the Online Education Initiative and the California Virtual Campus. Resources available to administrators and faculty include modules on effective course design, remote tutoring, student services, and even proctoring of exams.

Effective practices involve more than moving a face-to-face course online. Success means providing faculty support and training, setting appropriate student expectations, and promoting interaction among faculty, students, and course materials.

Better software has also cleared paths to and shifted the debate around online pedagogy. Instead of discussing how to replicate face-to-face learning, educators are examining the advantages of online learning over the traditional model. By identifying student needs, personalizing learning, and giving instant feedback, teachers may have more avenues to eliminate the online performance gap.

Still, problems remain. Students with limited technology, such as those without access to broadband, may not be able to access online courses. In community colleges, Latinos are less likely to enroll in online courses than other groups, which may reflect the digital divide. And while course success rates have improved across the board, equity gaps remain large.

figure - Equity Gaps in Student Success Are Larger in Online Courses

The COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented, and California’s colleges deserve credit for quickly moving courses and student supports to online platforms. Clear and effective communication with students remains key. More than ever colleges must also identify and reach out to vulnerable students—low income, food insecure, and homeless—who face challenges transitioning online and need extra support.

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