Thoughts from the Field: Close or Use Online Courses?

Guest Post by Pat James
Manager, Academic Partnerships, American Public University System

Pat James has been a leader in distance education in California since 2000. She has taught multimedia production courses online, was chair of the ASCCC Technology Committee, and won the Chancellor’s Office Technology Innovators’ award in 2008 and the innovative project award in 2011. As Dean of Instructional Technology and DE at Mt. San Jacinto Community College, she co-directed the state @ONE professional development project, served on many system advisory committees, and taught online educators through the @ONE certification program.

In 2012, under her direction, Mt. San Jacinto College was awarded a Gates Foundation grant to build a developmental writing MOOC. She previously served as the Executive Director of the California Community Colleges’ Online Education Initiative. Pat is dedicated to developing quality distance learning opportunities and now works at American Public University System, developing community college partnerships.

In the face of unprecedented closures in the nation and in the California Community College System (CCC), college administrators rally to keep instruction alive by generating hundreds of online class sessions from current on-ground traditional classes. The world as we know it in online education will likely never be the same. What resources are we pulling together, and what will we learn from this experience? It is up to us to collaborate at a previously unimagined level to figure this out.

I attended a conference of about 450 occupational educators in the California Community College system, discussing how to develop online courses at a rate that I would never have thought possible. We aren’t sure how many of the 114 California community colleges have already or will close in the next few days, but we know from anecdotal information that it is more than 20. The state’s Chancellor’s Office does not currently have a list of closures compiled and is running to provide guidance in this unusual and defining moment for the U.S. educational system.

Having been an online educator for 20 years in the system and now working to develop partnerships, I have been working non-stop with the California Virtual Campus Online Education Initiative (CVC-OEI) and the Distance Education Coordinators’ association to come up with ideas for how to get current face-to-face instructors ready for a quick shift of their courses to an online presence. We have developed resources and some considerations, which I share here.

First, consider the goal and be realistic. With the support of the U.S. Department of Education, the Federal Financial Aid Office, and the CCC Chancellor’s Office, the colleges have been given a pass to create temporary online courses that will not be expected to follow distance education regulations to the letter unless the courses continue to be offered online after the crisis has passed.

Next, consider how to get the work done. The CCCs have worked for 7 years through the CVC-OEI to provide guidelines and professional development. They have also created an ecosystem of resources (online tutoring, online counseling, just-in-time resources for underprepared students, and more) and a platform for seamless registration of students across the independently-run colleges online programs.

This is a system that has the tools. These colleges built resources, trained teachers, and hired instructional design support. The success gap between online education and face-to-face instruction has gone from 14% to under 3% since the CVC-OEI began in 2014 and is still closing.

The most important shared resource is Canvas as the learning management system (LMS) for all 114 community colleges. The ability to post announcements in the Canvas dashboard, communicate across the college community, and share online course content is critical to the success of this crisis-related shift, and the colleges are using every bit of their learned expertise.

This open Canvas course has been developed in the past few days through a collaborative effort between online educators across the state and the CVC-OEI and their @ONE professional development project. It is a course shell used as a repository for a collection of resources. As an example, there is a Canvas for Instructional Continuity course developed by Modesto Community College.

Within the free site is a matrix of available online student services, links to the directives from the US Department of Education (ED) and the CCC Chancellor’s Office, practical course development solutions and more resources.

Using the system-wide LMS as a place to host these resources and for colleges to establish communication across the college communities is invaluable. The LMS is fully funded by the California State Legislature for the CCC system through the CVC-OEI yearly grant. As Erik Skinner, who was chancellor at the time the choice was made, characterized it, “Canvas is the plumbing of the system.”

Ideas that surfaced at the conference include:

  • Document all processes for future preplanning efforts.
  • Provide clear and continuous communication to the entire college community including faculty, staff, students, and the surrounding community.
  • Consider data collection strategies now and start processes to track successful and unsuccessful strategies for maintaining continuity of instruction—learn from the experience!
  • Consider that current online teachers often also teach on-ground classes and will be teaching and shifting at the same time. Give them time and support.
  • Keep the shift as simple as possible. There are at least two ways to do this:
    • Provide Zoom as a communication piece for synchronous online class meetings (offered at the same time they were offered in the face-to-face schedule) and use Canvas to provide a base for assignment information, some content, submission of assignments, and testing (online proctoring services are available).
    • Allow faculty trained in teaching online and online course development to build courses that are aligned to the CVC-OEI Course Design Rubric.
  • Support faculty through just-in-time training resources, actual on-campus training, and ongoing instructional design support. (Most colleges now employ instructional design staff.)
  • Provide quick start training for students in the use of Canvas.
  • Develop policies that treat students fairly and hold them harmless from any loss of instructional time. (Policies could be developed through collaboration between academic senates, faculty unions, and college administration.)
  • Share strategies across the state system as there is a wealth of knowledge that has been gained in the last seven years of a system-wide effort to make the CCC online students successful.

Many of these community colleges are considering online courses as the solution to avoid losing the last couple of months of the Spring 2020 term. Failing to complete the term would be catastrophic for students planning graduation, transfer, and the completion of important work-related learning activities on time.

My colleagues and I at APUS have worked with colleges here for the past two years to help them develop disaster plans as part of their distance education and general instructional continuity plans and have provided guidance and support in that effort. We have dedicated our expertise in the persons of Dr. Vernon Smith, Dr. Chris Reynolds, Ms. Barbara Netzer, and I to assisting the CCCs in every way we possibly can and will continue to be there for our partners. You go, California!

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence