Community Colleges Can Realize the Potential of Distance Education

Community colleges have long embraced distance learning to increase access to their programs. Now is the time to fully invest in students’ successes online.

The ongoing pandemic has made every community college student across the country a distance learner, as campuses shuttered their doors and faculty scrambled to transition to online classes. This unprecedented reality poses many unique challenges to students striving to earn their credentials. It has also cast other endemic issues in the way distance learning is designed and delivered into the spotlight.

To meet these challenges head on will take coordination between policymakers, community college leaders, and students. For policymakers, it is time to address the dire public policy imperative to secure universal internet access for all communities. For community colleges, deep investments among staff, faculty, and leadership is needed to provide high quality online student supports and ensure full accessibility compliance of online offerings. Together, we can realize the potential of distance education to move our nation’s attainment agenda forward.

First, a look at access.

Robust distance learning programs at the community college level predate the ongoing pandemic. Decades of investment in online certificates and programs serve as a testament to the open-access mission of community colleges, which serve the majority of the nation’s first-generation, minority, low-income, and adult learners who are otherwise underrepresented in higher education. The infrastructure for distance learning is there, but access is unevenly distributed.

There has long been a digital divide in the United States, but the current pandemic has thrust the status quo unflinchingly into the spotlight. Households across the country lack access to affordable and quality internet at home, a fact that is acutely felt in low-income and rural communities. For the hundreds of thousands of students without a stable internet connection, continuing their education today is nearly impossible. Community college enrollment data shared by the National Student Clearinghouse demonstrate the dramatic impact that the pandemic has had on students’ abilities to commit to (and afford) college courses. Compared to last year, community college enrollment has fallen by 9.4 percent. The steepest declines are found in the communities most adversely effected by the simultaneous pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism in American society – Native American, Latinx, and Black students. Community colleges and policymakers alike should center the success of these students in all efforts to mitigate the long-term impacts of the pandemic on student persistence and participation in postsecondary education.

Distance learners require additional supports to be successful online.

For students who can connect to their colleges’ learning management systems, various factors contribute to their abilities to succeed online. To move the national community college attainment agenda forward, faculty must receive regular training to teach online, each course offered online must meet accessibility standards, and student supports must be transformed for an online-learning environment.

Focusing on student success for distance learners is crucial, as they historically have “lower retention, persistence and completion rates,” according to the Instructional Technology Council (ITC). The ITC’s 2020 distance-learning survey results found that 17% of the community colleges surveyed require no training for faculty to teach online, and only 39% require any additional, recurring training. Just as all students have become distance learners, faculty have become distance educators, and they require additional supports to be successful in this different format.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine found that “online course digital literacy” played an important role in adult learners’ performance and retention in online classes. Students in the study were provided “a voluntary quiz to gage students’ readiness to take an online course and a manual with resources.” To ensure that students are set up to succeed online, community colleges need to provide a robust online student orientation that goes beyond sharing of text-heavy materials. Beyond orientation, “many campuses report student dissatisfaction with the quality and availability of virtual student services” (ITC 2020 Distance Learning Survey Report). While almost all community colleges have online library services and resources available to their students (94%), just over half offer online counseling and advising (56%), and 46% do not currently have accessibility-checking software. These student-support functions are essential to student success online, and community colleges require additional resources to bring them to students.

Accessibility compliance is a major challenge for community colleges.

In 2020, “addressing accessibility and universal design are the #1 challenge for administrators” (ITC 2020 Distance Learning Survey Report). This is in part due to the “critical short supply of staff support [for course compliance]…at the community college level” (ITC 2020 Distance Learning Survey Report). Only 6% of respondents in the ITC survey confirmed that all their online classes are in compliance, a number that should shock all student advocates. At most campuses, there is “no dedicated funding to address noncompliance” nor “an established set of policies” to address compliance issues. This is a resource issue and will require both investment and a re-prioritization of accessibility in the online environment.

The road ahead

Distance learning is here to stay — even after campuses reopen safely. As a major educational delivery model, and as a promising practice to increase access to educational attainment, community colleges and higher education policymakers need to invest in 21st century online student supports, staff and faculty training, and center accessibility in course design and implementation. Together, these investments can deliver the promise of “equivalent” and quality education online.

Michelle Foley is a higher education consultant.

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