Will Distance Ed Plans from California’s Legislators Have Broader Impact?

Containing about 12% of the population of the United States, one can’t help but feel that when California sneezes, the rest of us might catch a cold.  That’s one reason we should pay attention when some big distance education strategy initiatives are being considered by the state’s legislators.

Last week, California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office released the report:  “The Master Plan at 50:  Using Distance Education to Increase College Access and Efficiency.” It received some national press, but I’ll be curious to learn more from our California friends when WCET’s Annual Conference travels to La Jolla next week.

In a state where distance education programs have been highly distributed, the report recommends “that it is both appropriate and desirable for the Legislature to provide more guidance on a statewide vision for distance education, including expectations concerning the segments’ use of public resources for the program.”

Beach chair, laptop, and sunglasses

Preparing for the WCET Annual Conference in La Jolla

I provided insight earlier this year to a California legislative analyst on several issues in the report, so I was interested in the outcomes.  I gave them the contacts for the collaboration section of the report and was glad to see that they interviewed those people.  Following are the seven recommendations and my comments on each one.

1) Distance Education Definition: Adopt a standard definition of distance education for segmental reporting purposes.

Within a few weeks this year, I was contacted by California, Kansas, and Minnesota about the definition of distance education.  It’s been a surprisingly big issue this year.  California’s community colleges classify a course as “distance” if more than 50% of the instruction is at a distance.  Having a standard definition for all of California’s higher education sectors would allow the Legislature to measure workload and track enrollment trends.  The report recommends using the 50% definition.  As other states are fishing for definitions, a decision by California can have a larger impact.

2) Report on Enrollment and Outcomes: Require all segments to report periodically on enrollment and performance-related data pertaining to distance education.

The report suggests biennial reports from all education segments (community colleges, CSU, UC) on workload, number of students served broken out by delivery method, course completion rates for those students, program completion rates for fully online degrees.   This seems like a reasonable request, but could be difficult to get comparable numbers across all the institutions in the state.

There also was an announcement yesterday from the University of California that it had: “issued an invitation to faculty to participate in a rigorous pilot project designed to test whether undergraduate online courses can be taught in a way that delivers UC-quality instruction.”  It will be interesting to see how (or if) the UC experience might inform this experience.  It would be great to get a definition of “UC-quality instruction”, too.

3)  Address Transfer:  Require the California Virtual Campus and the CSU to provide status reports on implementation of a planned online transfer pathways project.

Students must now jump through several hoops to determine if a course will transfer from one state institution to another.  It’s even worse when going from a community to four-year college.  The report cites a pilot project in the Bay Area (Go Giants!) that will first provide automated ways to determine transferability and may later grow to common registration procedures. The report suggests reports on transfer issues at this time.  This is a good idea, but won’t be implemented in a large way any time soon.

4) Build Online Repository: Establish competitive grants to develop a repository of online course-work that would be made available to faculty throughout the state.

The report recommends that the Legislature “earmark a small portion of each segment’s existing funding for the development of distance-education courses.”  These resulting course materials would be made available through MERLOT.  The intellectual property would stay with the developer.  This would be more money for curriculum to be listed in MERLOT.  This will expand MERLOT’s offerings, but without more integration into the academic fabric or faculty incentives to use the materials, I predict that this recommendation will have little or no impact.

5) Consider Shared Programs:  Require the review of new programs to consider the possibility of the shared distance education programs instead.

This item really interested me since I recommended several consortia for their review.  The California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC) has review criteria for proposed new programs and it makes recommendations regarding those proposals to the Legislature and the Governor.   CPEC suggests alternatives that could achieve the proposals goals more efficiently or more cost effectively. This strikes me as a very passive way to promote collaboration.  CPEC will need to be more proactive in suggesting programs that are good candidates for collaboration and promoting inter-institutional planning.  It does not just happen.

6) Add Degree-Completion:  Require the Chancellor’s Offices of CSU and the community colleges to study the feasibility of establishing an online degree-completion program for state residents who started college but never obtained a degree.

This is a great idea and more attention is needed to serving returning adults.  The report cites the University of Texas system’s “Bachelors’ Accelerated Completion” program, which will serve students having more than 60 credits toward a degree.  Texas’s program plans to offer online courses taught in 7 to 8 week terms.  The Texas program is new and I suggest they also look at existing models in other states.

7) Consider WGU-California.  Create a task force to pursue development of a Western Governors University “virtual campus” in California.

This is the height of irony as California initially shunned WGU because the state could do it all on their own.  But, that’s ancient history.  The WGU Indiana model has promise and should be explored.  Congratulations to the authors for making this recommendation.  While they are at it, they should explore other possible partnerships.  It’s a big state.  Could working with other non-profit or for-profit institutions help to meet a variety of needs and the meet the scale that will be required?

What do you think of these recommendations??

2 Comments

  1. Posted November 7, 2010 at 7:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Hi Russ,

    Re: #1: Standard Coding Definition.

    WA Community and Technical Colleges came up with the following coding schema that is working well for us:

    http://www.sbctc.edu/college/it/FINALeLearningCodes-ImplementSU2010.doc

  2. Posted November 5, 2010 at 10:11 am | Permalink | Reply

    Russ,
    Thanks for your comments. MERLOT continues to work on improving its services to faculty and institutions. You (and others) may not be aware of the many ways that MERLOT is well-integrated into the academic fabric of higher education within a number of institutions.

    Here’s just a few examples: For the last few years, MERLOT has recognized institutional stewardship in the use of MERLOT to advance innovation and instiutional initiatves – see http://taste.merlot.org/MERLOTAwards/ApplicationofMERLOT.html.

    The California State University system has woven MERLOT into its tapestry of programs and you can see a description at: http://taste.merlot.org/PartnerSupport/CSU_Happening.html . Of particular interest to the WCET community might be the CSU’s Affordable Learning Solutions Initiative: http://als.csuprojects.org where we are leveraging MERLOT’s open educational resources and services to enable faculty to reduce the cost of content for their students while using more engaging multimedia instructional materials.

    Thanks again for bringing this report to the attention to the WCET community

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