Technology integration at California's 114 community colleges is 'a balancing act,' chancellor says

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College and university leaders everywhere are grappling with how best and how quickly to move traditional, in-person academic courses online, but none face the challenge that lies ahead for Eloy Oakley.

Oakley is chancellor of the California Community College System, which encompasses 114 community colleges and educates more than 2.1 million students, or about a quarter of community college students in the U.S. Earlier this year, when Gov. Jerry Brown proposed funding and building out California’s first fully online, competency-based community college, all eyes turned to Oakley as the person to make it happen.

This online community college will be unlike any others that have preceded it. That’s because it’s meant to be a catch-all solution for the 8 million workers in California who lack college credentials but cannot put their lives on hold to earn a degree through a more traditional route.

To accommodate that many potential learners, the online college will have to be “infinitely scalable,” as Arizona State University President Michael Crow put it during a joint panel with Oakley at the ASU+GSV Summit in April. No degree-granting institution has achieved that so far, and doing so would likely require an entire redesign of the higher education model. But, if Oakley and his colleagues can pull it off, they’ll “change the world,” according to Crow, who has pioneered the embrace of technology in higher education during his years at ASU.

EdScoop recently sat down with Oakley to find out how he juggles technology investment and implementation across 114 — soon to be 115 — different colleges.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

EdScoop: How are you setting your investment priorities around technology, both to meet the California Community College System’s mission and to equip faculty members to teach in an increasingly technology-focused world?

Eloy Oakley: The California Community College System is a loose confederacy of colleges, so we’ve created what we call the Online Education Initiative, which is designed to take all the online content being developed at our colleges, provide some curation, some quality assurance as well as training for the faculty.

We adopted one learning management system for the entire system and are basically leveraging that to follow the same road that [Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University] followed, which is inviting faculty to take their traditional, on-campus course and put it into this online platform with these tools and the support structure to help ensure the same quality.

And then, we move that online instruction to what we call our OEI Course Exchange so that a student in California can register for and take courses at any one of our colleges, regardless of their home college. It launched in spring 2017 as a way to help students navigate a program study seamlessly, regardless of which college created the content.

So, we’re still a ways from that course exchange being completely seamless, but we’re well on our way to attracting faculty to this new opportunity.

And in California, we’ve hired all new faculty. A third of our faculty are brand new over the last five years, so that’s given us a great opportunity to allow the new faculty an avenue to teach in an online platform which they’re very comfortable working in and are more interested and willing to dive into.

ES: So, we know that you’ve been tasked with building California’s first fully online community college. I’m wondering where your other 114 community colleges are in the process of moving to offer online and blended programs?

EO: Sure. So, the one college that was built to be completely online — what was then titled “a college without walls” — was Coastline College in Orange County. Coastline College was created to be one of the pioneers in telecourses, and they moved into online education, and they are probably the most fully functioning online college in our system.

The challenge with that model is that it’s within a community college district, so it has to compete for resources with two other traditional colleges, to compete for faculty, for dollars, for growth. So, it’s been constrained.

And then, Foothill College in Silicon Valley is probably the other most fully developed online college, and that’s where our Online Education Initiative is actually housed, at Foothill College.

So those would be the places where online education is most fully realized, but in those two examples, we still haven’t focused any of the micro-credentialing on some of the CompTIA-based education opportunities. It’s very much still traditional online content. 100 graduate courses have been moved onto a robust online platform. But that’s where we have the most activity, in those two colleges.

ES: What are your biggest concerns about having the technology to keep up with the state’s vision of scaling the California Community College System to reach all learners?

EO: Well, our system has a checkered history with technology purchases, everything from ERP systems to not utilizing the scale of our 114 colleges. But what we’re doing now is sort of taking a step back and looking at trying to use the economy of scale that we have, but also trying to find the most adaptable technologies. So, we focus on being device-agnostic, insuring, looking at cloud-based solutions as best as possible so that all of our 114 colleges have a lower cost of entry into the use of new technology.

And what’s important for us is the availability of resources to fully train and support faculty who are using and being asked to use this technology, because that’s where we are transitioning. We don’t have faculty who have just grown up with technology, so we’re putting a lot of dollars behind the actual professional development, the skill acquisition, for our faculty.

And then, we’ve certainly had security issues, because several of our colleges have been victims of ransomware. The challenge that we have over time is we have 72 locally governed [community college] districts and have 72 different technology investment strategies. We’re trying to change that, at least for the broader, larger-scale technology purchases. And we’re trying to create much more robust training and response mechanisms for these cybersecurity threats, and to put more centralized capacity to help the CIOs in our 72 districts respond more quickly and with more support than we had in the past.

It’s a balancing act, because 72 districts want their independence, while we’re recognizing more and more, particularly with some of these cloud-based solutions, that it doesn’t make sense to have local solutions anymore. We’ve got to have scalable solutions.

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