The Digitization of Scholastics:  The Mission of the Community College and its Response to Online Classes 

Despite its many incarnations since its inception, the community college mission has always been one focused on opportunity, social mobility, progress, and education. Men like William Rainey Harper, David Starr Jordan, and Alexis F. Lange laid the foundation for community colleges as we know them today, and their legacy continues to be reflected in the growth and advancement of community colleges. Despite the many areas of change that have taken place since then, the core values of the community college remain intact.

Among these many areas of change is the digitization of community colleges, in terms of scholastic endeavors for students, faculty, staff, and administration alike.  As more and more schools lean toward online classes to supplement in-class lectures, community colleges have turned to web resources to combat education issues ranging from student capacity in the wake of an increased demand for higher education, to assisting with distance learning, funding issues, and so forth.

In this time of educational transition, community colleges are far beyond capacity. In 2001, community colleges were forced to turn away more than four hundred thousand perspective graduates, solely based on capacity and budgetary issues (Crawford 76). Further, it is predicted that in the next six years, twenty-two million new workers with postsecondary degrees will be in demand in 2018 or earlier, in a country in which sixty-three percent of all U.S. jobs will require a degree of some sort to be hired (79). With this in mind, it is no wonder that community colleges are increasingly advancing toward online resources to meet this large demand for higher education, increased class offerings, and more effective management of school resources.

In this article, I will explore the role of online classes in a community college setting in conversation with the readings both from class and from other notables in the community college field, in an effort to review the literature in terms of their effects on online classes, and the community college mission as a whole.

Defining “Online”

For far too long, online classes and distance learning were often lumped into the same category. As recently as 2008, the Higher Education Opportunity Act included online classes under the heading of distance learning, but fails to provide any clear definition of what defines a course taught online. Under some headings, an online class encapsulates seventy percent of class time online, while other sections defer to eighty percent, and still other sections mention no distinction at all.

Part of the difficulty in clearly defining what makes a course online (in terms of percentage of instruction online versus in the classroom) is a result of the consortium classes that are taught throughout the country, and are difficult to place or fund (Cejda 9). In other words, the small budgetary allocations schools used for distance learning then had to fund the entirety of the online curriculum, while remaining separate from the schools’ larger budget (10). On top of that, the classes were harder to track, since students from multiple community colleges took advantage of consortium-style coursework.

To this day, the Sloan Consortium Standard for an online course and the ITC standard still vary by ten percent, and show the drastic need for consistency in definitions of online classes, to better aid the programs and legitimize a still growing method of instruction. Further, a more clearly defined definition of or distinction between distance learning and online classes would help alleviate the budgetary strain many schools still face.

Without a clear and legal definition of online classes, online education continues to struggle to find footing in academia, let alone establish successful practices. Budgetary issues aside, this paper looks at three areas that impact online education in the community college realm.

With such a large and growing population of online learnings in community colleges, it is crucial that online education is delivered successfully, to maintain the larger mission of the community college (Amey, Jessup-Anger, & Jessup-Anger, 11-12). By focusing on the issues that affect student success in online courses, faculty transitions from in-class to online, and administrative transitions, we can better understand how to make online classes successfully delivered, taught, and learned.

Success in Online Studies

In many ways, the traits that characterize successful online students are much like those of adult or other non-traditional learners. Adult learners are characterized as being very individualistic, goal-oriented, and self-motivated, while having substantial life experiences that help contribute to the collective learning environment of the larger class as a whole (Knowels, Holten, & Swanson). Much like adult learners, online students must take initiative, and approach the course with more of an intention to actively learn rather than to be passively taught. In this way, we see that a more independent style of learning is integral to successful online courses, and for their ideal audience. This definition fits nicely with that of the average community college student, and makes community colleges as a whole ideal for administering online classes.

This ideal audience seems well attuned to the community college environment especially for their large pool of returning students and adult learners. In The American Community College, this concept is reinforced through the examination of adult learners in online courses when placed in comparison to traditional courses.

In one of many examples, it is found that “for adults, computer-based instruction…produce[s] greater gains than traditional instruction” in a 1998 study by Oxford, Proctor, and Slate (Cohen, Brawer, & Kisker 300). This was due in part to the attitude of the students, and the fostering of self-directed education that was desperately needed at a time when continuing education calls for the same level of initiative required in the workforce.

To that end, the online course environment also helps non-traditional and otherwise academically excluded students foster creativity and collaboration. According to Klemm (1998) computer conferencing “enables creativity, student engagement, and collaboration to a greater extent than lecturing” and creates a more neutral and safe space for discussion (301). As online classes continue to develop, they have transitioned to reflect mostly student-directed learning, with loose structures that allow students to follow their passions while receiving an education.

At a time when student access is constantly in conversation, and justifying “deserving” students become more and more convoluted, it is important that “the institutions that provide the broadest swath of opportunity be incentivized to continue to provide access” (Mullen 10). Online classes do just such a thing. With wi-fi becoming far more commonplace and computer access available more and more readily, online classes serve as an equalizer for students of different backgrounds, while enabling them to harness their differences to add to the class’ overall learning experience.

Success in Online Teaching

Despite the moves many community colleges are making toward offering more online classes, not all community college instructors’ skills are best harnessed in an online environment. Equally problematic is the resistance many traditional instructors feel toward the supposed “fad” of online classes, feeling them to be limiting, full of busywork, or not engaging. The subsequent friction that this conflict creates inevitably hurts faculty and students alike, on top of faculty and administrative relations. As schools attempt to find the right balance between online and in-class courses, it is important to be sensitive to the many motivations of all those involved.

While faculty acceptance of online courses has frequently been cited as integral to online course success, as of 2005, only one third of academic leaders believed their staff “accept[ed] the values and legitimacy of online education” (Johnson & Berge 899). Johnson and Berge continue that even those colleges that assess themselves as “fully engaged” with online studies only report a staff acceptance rate of sixty-two percent (300). Part of this has to do with the external factors affecting the faculty and staff. When first started, online classes are a difficult and time consuming transition to make. Instructors are expected to learn how to operate the online program, troubleshoot for students, create engaging online coursework, and keep up with grading, all while following the set curriculum for the course. With this in mind, it is understandable how the already hard at work faculty of community colleges is resistant to change, no matter how notable its progress.

True, computers have long been part of the community college atmosphere. In the 1970’s, computers were used to digitize records, keep track of billing, and help with student enrollment. Once the 1980’s came around, personal computers were the pride of many community colleges, some of which boasted one personal computer for every 2.6 students by the early 1990’s (Cohen, et. al 195). But only recently have online classes become more popular, and it is possible to see a future in which they far outstrip in-class course work.

Considering the age and digital skills of many older instructors, it is easy to understand why friction is present. According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) “community colleges are in the midst of a transition brought about by the numerous retirements of administrators and faculty members,” that account for this friction (2008 para. 1). Additionally, experienced instructors who have developed an in-class rhythm that works effectively will be hard-pressed to shift modalities to digitized instruction.

On the other hand, studies have shown that all faculty, even those resistant to online instruction, have improved opinions of the digitation process after having taught an online class (Allen & Seaman 2007). Much like the students, the faculty must receive proper support from their administration, and assistance in learning how to navigate online courses, and their differences and similarities from in-class instruction before being expected to proceed with online insruction.

Before online coursework can become an integral part of community college instruction, the instructors must find it, above all, both effective and desirable. As noted by Cohen, Brawer, and Kisker, “[c]hanges in the concept of productivity will be central to moves toward alternative media production and use” (Cohen et. al 453). In other words, staff productivity and time investment are key: without proper motivation, new methods of teaching will fail to flourish.

Unfortunately, despite the continued growth of online studies, few schools have made the move toward sustainable practices that benefit the already overwhelmed instructive staff, and rely instead on instructors to teach themselves while maintaining more classes with the same benefits. Put succinctly, “[i]instruction is stubbornly labor intensive,” and does nothing to motivate educators to move toward online environments (445). With this environment, it is a surprise that so many community colleges are able to employ such impressive online degrees and certification programs.

It is a sad truth that in many community colleges, instructors are already overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. This environment, compounded by the necessary time needed to invest in learning about online courses takes a serious toll on instructor morale, energy, and commitment. In that sense, such a level of investment can hardly help instructors stay at their most productive levels.

At this time in the community college, productivity is defined as “numbers of students taught per instructional dollar” (454). But in terms of community college instruction, the hope is that, in time, online courses will help to alleviate some of the costs of teaching. In turn, integrating other modes of learning makes productivity a less conclusive measure of success for students or teachers. Therefore, as The American Community College suggests, “changes in instructional form and in the measures of success have to take place in conjunction (455 italics added). Only with this alleviation can we expect community colleges to continue to flourish as they have thus far.

Success in Online Administration

According to the Instructional Technology Council in 2012, between Fall of 2006 and Fall of 2010, over two-thirds of community colleges couldn’t offer enough online classes to meet demands (Cohen et. al 193-194). As the demand for higher education continues to rise, the flexibility and versatility of community colleges will be advanced and tested as online classes continue to grow to meet these new waves of online learners. Important in this transition is the presence of strong leadership from the administrative staff, and support for those their changes affect in terms of education.

At the same time, it is important that community colleges use this new resource to harness the funding for community colleges and their expansion that is so desperately needed. Since online classes are still discussed as a subset of “distance learning” for state and national budgetary purposes, it has become increasingly difficult for community colleges to receive the proper funding for online expansion (Green & Ciez-Volz 84). Enrollment increases leads to an increased demand for additional funding for expenses ranging from technological infrastructure to online staff, all under the pressure of satisfying the needs and mission of community colleges. And unfortunately, this increased need in funding cannot be met through distance learning supplements.

In the past six years, community college enrollment has continued to grow steadily, up ten percent, with no sign of slowing down (Johnson & Berge 902). As administrative staff continues to grow and develop, the cost of savings generated through online classes affords for better access for non-traditional students, and advances the mission of the community college while continuing to adapt to the digital age.

At the national level, more than one-third of colleges offer full degrees and certifications online (Cohen et. al 194). Of those seeking online degrees, sixty-two percent of online community college students are women, and half of those are over the age of twenty-six, and course completion rates have escalated from sixty-nine percent in 2010 to seventy-five in the last four years (195). These statistics, in addition to being staggering marks of success, are incentivizing to administration and staff alike to continue forward with online courses. With numbers like these, the mission of the larger community college can continue to bloom while cutting through much of the administrative difficulties of funding and maintaining infrastructural colleges.

But online learning does present some negative issues. Specifically, online learners are notorious for dropping out after learning what they deem to be sufficient, or transferring with their incredibly mobile online credits. Online learning, without a doubt, negatively affects student retention when explored through individual community colleges. But as community colleges move more toward embracing seat sharing and standardizing online courses, the inevitable transfer of students will pale in comparison to the number of enrolling students as certifications and degrees become more integral to professional success. And overall, online courses will do the most be present a more balanced, equal, and available learning environment for students at the national level (Dougherty 6). The mobility that online courses offer should not be construed as a negative impact on community colleges, but as a positive impact on the students, that furthers the mission of the community college.

Certainly, online classes present administrators with many new challenges and opportunities. But with the proper support and orchestration, they can help combat some of the typical problems that affect community colleges on a larger scale. Unfortunately, administrators often must fight these battles from all fronts: faculty, staff, and students. But once a common protocol is put into practice, any issues will be resolved.

Approaching Criticisms of Online Classes

Overall, web-based learning overcomes barriers of distance and time, while promoting more learning-based and less instructionally-based education. It facilitates discussions, collaboration, and growth, while helping to reduce budgetary issues, and shows great promise for future students. But with that in mind, there are several valid criticisms on online classes that have yet to be properly addressed or repaired to move forward.

Put briefly, many critics of online classes state that the classes do more harm than good. The main criticism of online classes in community colleges is that online instruction encourages social isolation, technical problems, countless up-front costs to the school, and is sometimes used as a blanket form of instruction rather than methodically and effectively by a course-by-course basis.

Critics continue that in terms of students, a shift in online education is in part “detrimental to developing the ‘soft skills’ of community college,” namely the aspect of four-year schools that community colleges seek to incorporate into their two-year schools, and the benefits of commuting to and participating in in-class experiences (Cohen et. al 300). These soft skills provide opportunities to network, develop, and grow as members of their community, and are not incorporated into online learning. But a counter argument to this criticism is again answered by the internet: with programs such as LinkedIn, Blackboard, Monster, etc., motivated students have many alternatives to seek the same soft skills otherwise offered by in-class experiences.

In the same way, faculty members are often bogged down by online features and cannot fully dedicate time to instruction of student service. Cook notes that, in a 2006 study of online teaching, “perceived or real communication issues with the instructor and classmates hindered student learning in an environment where many students need extra assistance from educators” (Cook 39). Community colleges, so formatively focused on the community and student body at large, must account and compensate for this gap in relations between students and faculty while adjusting online courses to better suit the needs of the school.

Further, administrators are taxed with the difficulty of overworked staff. While in-class instruction is limited to the number of students in the room, online classes are nearly limitless in terms of attendance, and teachers have been struggling as a result (Crawford & Persaud 76). Only through administrative adjustments can these failings be corrected. This great transition that community colleges are undertaking will be a challenge for new community college leaders, but it presents an opportunity and need “to seek and train new faculty to work in an online format from the very beginning” to promote this transition (Cohen et. al 341). In the near future, online education will be a matter of course.

While it is clear that the initial implication of online classes can create a strain for all those involved, we have seen over the past decade the enormous growth, productivity, and advancement that online classes have given to students, faculty, and schools alike. Continuing on this path, after honing online practices, will predictably yield similar but stronger results, culminating in a stronger community college experience, a stronger education of the population, and a more digitally away populace.

Conclusion

In an increasingly digital age, community colleges have harnessed online resources to help combat issues of capacity in the wake of an ever-growing demand for higher education. Unfortunately, while web-based learning did combat many of these issues, it also created several new areas of needed improvement as a result. By exploring the benefits and areas for growth in online learning in terms of students, faculty, and administrators, and in conversation with current studies and contributions to the modern community college, we can better understand the direction in which community colleges are moving, and how to best adjust online learning to the mission of the community college

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The Digitization of Scholastics:  The Mission of the Community College and its Response to Online Classes 

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